FRISCO, Texas — Mike McCarthy tried to say this week isn’t emotional.
The Dallas Cowboys head coach tried to say his return to Green Bay is “just like anything,” four years after concluding his 13-season tenure as Packers head coach.
McCarthy insisted that “you have to get ready to go win” and “I’m going in there to win.”
But slowly, over the course of his nearly 22-minute media conference, he let his tough exterior erode. Reality and its accompanying sentimentality, perhaps, set in. And McCarthy allowed a glimpse into how much the city in which he built a Super Bowl-winning legacy and a family truly means to him — for better and for worse.
“This is bulls***,” McCarthy said, during one question about what he misses most about his wife and daughters’ birthplace. “You guys are trying to make me cry.”
Eyes welling and voice catching, McCarthy soon did.
“What do I miss most?” he asked. “The people. Just the people.”
The Cowboys travel to Lambeau Field this weekend with an eye on improving to 7-2. They face a Packers squad that looked thoroughly disheveled Sunday in a 15-9 loss to the Detroit Lions, a loss in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw three interceptions. Rodgers threw two in the end zone, his first career performance in 215 starts to hold that unceremonious distinction.
McCarthy still praised the quarterback whose first 13 career years, and first 11 starting years, he coached and called plays during. With McCarthy and Rodgers at the helm, the Packers qualified for eight straight postseasons, advancing three times to the NFC Championship game. Their Super Bowl victory followed the 2010 season. Rodgers earned seven Pro Bowl berths, including two MVP honors, in that stretch.
McCarthy downplayed the acrimony that reportedly mired their final stretch together.
“We’ve had great communication,” McCarthy said. “I have nothing but love and gratitude for him. I think like anything in life, I think personal relationships are private and you got to remember: I was born in the ‘60s. I'm being better at expressing myself publicly. Just a whole lot of appreciation, not only for him but for all the players, the team that we had there. We had some great times.”
McCarthy reminisced on his one-on-one conversations with Rodgers, especially during the quarterback’s early years as a pro.
“It always ended with a hug and, ‘I love ya,’” McCarthy said. “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 premier professional athletes of his generation.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: "I think of all the 1-on-1 conversations we used to have, especially in the younger days. It always ended with a hug and 'I love ya.'
"When I think about our relationship, I think he made me a much better coach."
Full 👇🏽 pic.twitter.com/a25zTP2Adc
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 7, 2022
McCarthy’s trip down memory lane didn’t prompt only smiles. He acknowledged Monday the pain of his December 2018 dismissal and the shame he bore when living in Green Bay during his 2019 season away from coaching.
“The exit, it left a dent, just to be honest, with our family,” McCarthy said. “But it’s been four years. We’re so much better because of it. We’ve had time to process it all and it’s a little unique. I mean I don’t recommend anybody that goes through it to stay in the town there while you go through it. But I think back, as my year off, I had a number of knee surgeries, and my rehab was 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 obviously our family has strong ties back there. And always will.”
McCarthy acknowledged his Green Bay history in Monday’s team meeting coming off the Cowboys’ bye, believing that “I don’t think I’d have been doing my job if I didn’t address it.” But his message wasn’t about his own glory or pain, nor his immersion in the past. Rather, he illustrated to players how his and each of their pasts influence their present.
McCarthy’s experience calling plays and navigating relationships shaped the coach under whom the Cowboys have improved from a .375 win percentage in Year 1 to .706 in Year 2 and now .750 in Year 3. Playoff success remains elusive, but McCarthy likes how the arrow is trending — and credits lessons learned in Green Bay establishing the foundation.
“A lot of times throughout your journey, a lot of places bring you back to show you how much you’ve grown,” veteran safety Malik Hooker recalled McCarthy’s motif. “Obviously we all feel like this is a must-win at this point of the season we’re in. Probably means a little more to him because it’s, at a point, a place where his heart was.”
Rookie left tackle Tyler Smith said he believed returning to Lambeau holds “definitely a lot of emotions tied up in it” for McCarthy.
“I always want to win, period,” Smith said. “But definitely just with the history he has there, the great things he did there, this means a lot. I know this win would mean a lot for him amongst others. The whole team, whole vibe here is this is going to be one we’re going to have to pound hard, break them down, to get the dub.
“It’s a big game as an organization.”
The Cowboys opened as 5.5-point favorites 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 retains its clutch on the NFC East.
So come kickoff at 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, McCarthy will set aside thoughts of friends and family and trophies and past colleagues. He’ll aim to capitalize on his intricate knowledge of Rodgers and several other former players to guide the Cowboys to a win in what could be a special defensive season.
Will McCarthy venture a glance at the road across from the stadium and adjacent to the Packers’ practice field — the road renamed in 2014 from Potts Avenue to “Mike McCarthy Way”?
“I just drive by once in a while,” McCarthy chuckled, “to make sure the sign is still up.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein