FRISCO, Texas – Mike McCarthy was trying to say this week is not emotional.
The Dallas Cowboys head coach tried to say his return to Green Bay is “just like anything,” four years after ending his 13-season stint as Packers head coach.
McCarthy insisted that “You have to get ready to win” and “I’m going there to win.”
But slowly, over the course of his nearly 22-minute media conference, he allowed his tough appearance to erode. Reality and the accompanying sentimentality may have set in. And McCarthy showed a glimpse of just how much the city in which he built a Super Bowl-winning legacy and a family really means to him—for better or for worse.
“These are bulls***,” McCarthy said:, during a question about what he misses most about the birthplace of his wife and daughters. “You’re trying to make me cry.”
Eyes welling up and catching the voice, McCarthy soon did.
“What do I miss the most?” he asked. “The people. Just the people.”
The Cowboys travel to Lambeau Field this weekend with a view to improving to 7-2. They face a Packers squad that looked thoroughly sloppy on Sunday in a 15-9 loss to the Detroit Lions, a loss in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw three interceptions. Rodgers threw two into the end zone, his first career appearance in 215 begins to hold that unreserved accolade.
McCarthy still praised the quarterback whose first 13 career years and the first 11 starting years he coached and played during. With McCarthy and Rodgers at the helm, the Packers qualified for eight consecutive postseasons, progressing to the NFC Championship game three times. Their Super Bowl win followed the 2010 season. Rodgers earned seven Pro Bowl berths in that stretch, including two MVP honors.
McCarthy downplayed the bitterness that reportedly ruined their last piece together.
“We’ve had great communication,” McCarthy said. “I have nothing but love and gratitude for him. I think like everything in life, I think personal relationships are private and you have to remember: I was born in the 60’s. I can express myself better in public. Just a lot of appreciation, not just for him but for all the players, the team we had there. We’ve had good times.”
McCarthy reminisced about his personal conversations with Rodgers, especially during the quarterback’s early years as a pro.
“It always ended with a hug and ‘I love you,'” said McCarthy. “When I think about our relationship, I think he made me a much better coach. You’re talking about a man who is one of the best professional athletes of his generation.
“I look forward to seeing him.”
McCarthy’s trip down memory lane didn’t just bring a smile. He acknowledged on Monday the pain of his dismissal in December 2018 and the shame he bore while living in Green Bay during his 2019 season without coaching.
“The exit left a dent in our family, to be honest,” McCarthy said. “But it’s been four years. We’re so much better for it. We’ve had time to process it all and it’s kind of unique. I mean, I don’t recommend anyone going through it to stay in the city there while you go through it. But I think back to my year off, I had some knee surgeries, and my rehab was right there at Titletown Orthopedics, right next to Lambeau Field. Don’t recommend that either. Four days a week.
“But it’s all part of it, and it’s clear that our family has strong ties there. And always will.”
McCarthy acknowledged his Green Bay history at Monday’s team meeting after parting ways with the Cowboys, believing that “I don’t think I would have done my job if I hadn’t tackled it.” But his message was not about his own glory or pain, nor about his immersion in the past. Instead, he illustrated to players how his past and each of their past influences their present.
McCarthy’s experience recalling plays and navigating relationships shaped the coach under whom the Cowboys have improved from a win rate of .375 in Year 1 to .706 in Year 2 and now .750 in Year 3. The success of the play- offs remains elusive, but McCarthy likes the way the arrow is trending — and credits the lessons learned in Green Bay the foundation established.
“Often in your journey, many places bring you back to show you how much you’ve grown,” safety veteran Malik Hooker recalls McCarthy’s motif. “Obviously we all feel like this is a must-win at this point of the season we’re in. It probably means a little more to him because at some point it’s a place where his heart was.”
Rookie left tackle Tyler Smith said he believed the return to Lambeau “definitely carries a lot of emotions” for McCarthy.
“I always want to win, period,” said Smith. “But certainly with the history he has there, the great things he did there, it means a lot. I know that this win would mean a lot to him, among other things. The whole team, the whole vibe here is that this is going to be one that we have to hit hard for, break them down, to get the dub.
“It’s a big game as an organization.”
The Cowboys opened as favorites from 5.5 points on the road after the Packers fell to 3-6, four games behind the Vikings in the NFC North. Dallas holds the third-best conference record, even as undefeated Philadelphia maintains its grip on the NFC East.
So come down Sunday at 4:25 PM ET, McCarthy will set aside thoughts of friends and family and trophies and past colleagues. He wants to take advantage of his intricate knowledge of Rodgers and several other former players to lead the Cowboys to victory in what could be a special defensive season.
Will McCarthy take a look at the road opposite the stadium and adjacent to the Packers training ground – the road that was renamed from Potts Avenue to “Mike McCarthy Way” in 2014?
“I just drive by every now and then,” McCarthy chuckled, “to make sure the sign is still there.”
Follow Jori Epstein of Yahoo Sports on Twitter @JoriEpstein