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- American football coach
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least where Mike McCarthy’s winning percentage as a head coach is concerned. But that doesn’t mean he’s kicking into Scrooge mode to keep the wins coming. In fact, just the opposite.
The Cowboys have turned the tables after a rough November swoon and rattled off three straight wins since the calendar turned to December. Dallas can officially lock up the NFC East title this Sunday night by getting one more, to cap off a perfect month.
“This is what it’s all about,” McCarthy told reporters earlier this week. “You always want to be playing for something. I think that you learn over the years what it takes from a commitment, and it takes a lot out of you. And that’s the joy of it all, to be competing in December. I like the way this thing lays up; we’re fighting for a division title Sunday night. What else can you ask for?”
Well, Cowboys fans can always find more to ask for. And right now, a return to the scoreboard-short-circuiting fireworks of Weeks 3 through 6 might just top the Christmas wish list. Dak Prescott and the offense averaged 39 points and 473 yards per game over that four-win span. Over the past three victories: 25 points and 342 yards per game.
It’s gotten the job done, of course. And this late in the season, that’s all that counts. Just win. It doesn’t matter by how much; not really. No points for style. Do just enough to get the W, and make sure you’re ready to turn around and do it again.
And that’s a big reason why business around The Star this time of year looks a lot different that it did back in August. It may seem counterintuitive, but as the season enters the true home stretch- when every game has far-reaching implications in terms of playoff seedings and home-field advantage- McCarthy’s Cowboys are actually putting in less work during the week.
“If you took our schedule from Week 1 to this week, it would be 90 minutes shorter,” the coach explained. “Frankly, you have to practice what you preach: physical, mental, emotional stress is additive. So being in tune with that, and just stress that the players go through later in the year is higher. You’ve got to recognize the holiday season and handling success. I mean, we’re having success as a football team. We have individuals that are having success, probably higher than they may have in the past. So you have to handle those things and it just– it’s not just a PowerPoint presentation. The ability to make it flow as part of your work day, I think it’s real important.”
COVID concerns have prompted the team to move to more- but often shorter- virtual meetings. But that’s just as much a product of the calendar, McCarthy admits. A full five months after training camp, the players simply shouldn’t need as much classroom time or as many practice-field snaps to internalize the concepts they’ll use come kickoff.
The fact that it’s Christmas week only makes the decision easier.
“We can get our work done Wednesday and Thursday [and then] Friday, still be done by 1:00 o’clock, 1:15,” McCarthy said. “Christmas Eve is a big night, too. I think it’s important for guys to be get out of here relatively early. We’re not going to do the STAA [soft-tissue activation and acceleration] program because of the social distancing. So they’ll be gone probably an hour earlier than they normally are. And then on Christmas, I think it’s important for everybody to be home in the morning. So we’re just going to come in late afternoon, have a practice. And the fact that we play on Sunday night, we moved all our meetings to Sunday morning. So everybody will be home for Christmas. They’ll come here 3:00 o’clock and they’ll be home by 5:00. Everybody will be home for dinner. I think that’s a great Christmas Day schedule.”
If it sounds like slacking off, remember that McCarthy knows a thing or two about winning December football.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is 41-18 in December games. His .695 winning percentage is the fourth-highest in the month of December in NFL history (min. 30 games), trailing only Bill Walsh (.735), Andy Reid (.711) and Joe Gibbs (.705)
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 21, 2021
Yes, his impressive late-season winning percentage has plenty to do with a 13-year run of hosting home games in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Coming to the frozen tundra in December and beating the home team in weather that’s frequently more than frightful is tough sledding, no matter who the Packers coach is.
But McCarthy actually learned many of his routines and philosophies years earlier, in Kansas City.
“Fortunate to be part of Marty Schottenheimer’s staff,” the 58-year-old coach shared. “It was an established program before I even arrived there. It was a perennial playoff team, and a lot of those thoughts and regimens did come from him. A lot of what we do structurally and the process component of preparing for a game, I still use from my time with Marty. But the ’90s was a different era… You didn’t play as many division games that late, but the importance of when the fundamental part of your football team has to be heightened, and execution is everything. We talk about that a lot- more than ever- just because you should be in a very good routine and a process through your game planning, the things that you’re running weekly. The ability to beat the guy across from you consistently this time of year has to be heightened, because you’re not going to get to where you want to go if it doesn’t flow through your whole football team. But yeah, it was definitely established in that time.”
It took McCarthy a while- and some trial and error- to find a balance that works. He relayed a story about his 2006 Packers team not being able to get through the second quarter of a preseason game because he had overworked them leading up to the contest.
With a regular season that now extends well into January, McCarthy and the Cowboys can’t afford to make that same mistake in 2021. He points to the turnaround his squad engineered late last season- scoring points, forcing turnovers, and winning three straight December games- as evidence that the plan can pay off.
“I think we [the ’06 Packers] were 1-4, then 4-4 [Ed. note: actually 3-5], and then 4-8. So, we were really struggling there. Then we won the last four,” the coach said.
“I felt the same way last year,” he continued, recalling his 2020 Dallas group.
“I felt that at the end, particularly [with] something as simple as taking care of the ball and taking it away. I felt that’s such an important part of success. We all work on it. It’s important for every football team that’s ever played the game; I get it. But I’m a big believer in ROI [return on investment]: you get what you emphasize. And I felt that that last stretch, we were playing some good football.”
McCarthy’s ’21 Cowboys are playing some good football at the moment. What’s most exciting is that seemingly everyone- both inside the organization and out- feels they are still quite capable of playing extraordinary football.
The unstoppable machine that the Cowboys could very well be is just waiting to be unwrapped and plugged in. Maybe a little extra down time for Christmas will help them find the right box under the tree.
And then maybe it really will be the most wonderful time of this football year.
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