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‘I know how to win’: Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy defends his Super Bowl credentials

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FRISCO, Texas — Mike McCarthy took the podium at Cowboys headquarters Wednesday and agreed.

“No doubt,” the second-year Cowboys coach said, “we did not reach our goal.”

The Cowboys hired the longtime Packers leader in 2020 with the expectation he could take a contending roster deep into the postseason. Instead, McCarthy’s Cowboys finished 6-10 in an inaugural season marred by injuries and then succeeded a 12-5 2021 campaign with the NFL’s lone home playoff loss of the wild-card weekend.

The Cowboys never even held a lead in a 23-17 loss to San Francisco 49ers.

But McCarthy defended his credentials to guide the Cowboys toward a championship.

“I know how to win,” he said. “I know how to win in this league. I know how to win playoff games. I know how to win a championship. I have great confidence in that.

“What we’ve built here in two seasons, I feel very good about.”

McCarthy and the Cowboys feel less good about their wild-card performance. Much was made about the final 14 seconds of the game, when Dak Prescott ran a quarterback draw that netted 17 yards but ultimately robbed his team of their final play. Confusion ensued when Prescott and an umpire collided. The Cowboys thought they had sufficient time on the clock when they snapped the ball for the final play, trailing by six. Instead, the contest and their season had ended. But long before that, Dallas had mounted an attack less physical, less disciplined and less cohesive than their NFC West opponent.

“First down was a huge issue for us offensively,” McCarthy said of a game in which his team sustained 14 penalties. “I thought we were nervous to start the game. Felt it in the locker room with the team prayer. But I thought we fought through that OK. We held them to field goals and I think once our guys settled in, I thought it balanced out in the competitiveness there.”

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McCarthy was asked why his Cowboys roster, who had a health bill granting unusually favorable availability and a talent pool deep on both offense and defense, would be nervous.

“Let me take the word ‘nervous’ back,” he qualified. “It was a little angst. I think just like anything, they’re excited, they had a great week of practice. I thought the pregame was good. just think it was the first time we were doing this (postseason experience) as a whole. Maybe this was two guys.

“[The 49ers] were a little cleaner than we were at the beginning of the game. That’s just the facts."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said postgame the early playoff exit was a “letdown” that left him “disappointed,” “sick” and “surprised.” He declined to discuss the Cowboys coaching future though he emphasized his belief that Dallas’ personnel was sufficient to win. Monday, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said “absolutely” he was confident McCarthy would lead the team in 2022.

Dak Prescott walks off the field following the Cowboys' wild-card playoff loss to the 49ers.
Dak Prescott walks off the field following the Cowboys' wild-card playoff loss to the 49ers.

Cowboys coordinators Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn have each cycled through interviews for head coaching vacancies with teams including the Jaguars, Broncos and Vikings. Broncos representatives flew to Dallas to interview both coaches on Tuesday. Externally, questions have risen about whether the Cowboys would be better served retaining Quinn than McCarthy. But McCarthy, who has three years left on his five-year deal, is not focused on that.

“I don’t see it that way,” he said of job-security concerns. “I’m focused on the exit interview process.

“I’ve had a chance to talk to Jerry after the game. Also saw him again Monday. We had very positive conversations and focused on the evaluation process.”

That evaluation process will undoubtedly factor in postseason disappointment. Sure, Dallas led the league in points scored, offensive yards and takeaways. But blowouts in a 6-0 slate against poor NFC East teams skewed measurements of their readiness to challenge the league’s top teams. Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who won the Cowboys’ last three Super Bowls in the 1990s, said Wednesday on Dallas radio that he’d grade McCarthy a ‘C’ for the season on account of playoff failure. Aikman, who has worked with teams around the league as Fox’s lead NFL color analyst, believes the Cowboys have an impressive collection of talent. But he questioned the team’s league-leading penalty track record and lack of identity.

“Expectations are certainly high for this team and they should be,” Aikman told Dallas radio station 96.7 KTCK The Ticket. “Jerry at his core is a salesman. He’s an optimist. So he’s always talking about Super Bowls. … So if you get into the postseason and you don’t win a game, for this organization—and this is a good thing—it doesn’t really matter what you do in the regular season.

“If you don’t do anything in the postseason, then you’re really at the end of the day no different than the Jacksonville Jaguars or the New York Jets that didn’t get in.”

McCarthy acknowledged the expectation to advance further next year. Does he feel the pressure?

“Sustaining success is clearly…the biggest challenge in this league,” he said. “It’s part of the privilege of pressure of improvement in this league.

“We’re not here to go backward.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy on criticism: ‘I know how to win’