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A wild-card date vs. the 49ers isn’t the expectation for Mike McCarthy, Cowboys. It’s just the start

A wild card game against San Francisco in mid-January isn’t the final destination. Expectations are this is the start.

Fundamental questions about existence, reason and football aren’t foreign to Mike McCarthy.

Admittedly, he deals in the third category more than the first two, which explains why the Cowboys head coach is more comfortable talking about the schematic challenges San Francisco presents than the philosophical underpinnings of his approach. Still, there’s a significance to this upcoming game that can’t be ignored.

A postseason drought of three years and four days will end with Sunday afternoon’s 3:30 kickoff at AT&T Stadium. A coach who suffered through a COVID and injury-riddled stutter-step in his first season is back on course.

Let’s be clear. Jerry Jones didn’t hire McCarthy to secure a first-round matchup against the 49ers.

The Cowboys owner put McCarthy in place to lead this franchise past the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. He was desperate to tap into the expertise and experience of a man who won a Super Bowl and took his team to the NFC Championship Game on three other occasions during his tenure in Green Bay. A wild-card game against San Francisco in mid-January isn’t the final destination.

Expectations are this is the start.

“You’re talking about building a program,’’ McCarthy said. “At the end of the day, it’s about winning.

“Philosophically, this is definitely another block in the building blocks of what we want to accomplish.’’

This franchise knows a thing or two — or five — about winning a Super Bowl. But the last title came with Super Bowl XXX back in January 1996.

Quarterback Dak Prescott was 21/2 years old. He was in high school when McCarthy presided over the Packers’ Super Bowl title.

That carries a little more weight with this generation of players.

“I know I don’t have a Super Bowl,’’ receiver Amari Cooper said. “I don’t know how many people on this team has a Super Bowl. We’ve got a couple of coaches who have been to a Super Bowl and as you just alluded to, Coach McCarthy has won. He has that experience with him and can impart that wisdom on us, telling us, ‘Hey, these are the teams that are successful and these are the characteristics of the teams that are successful and so forth and so on.’

“We just have to listen to him.’’

The Cowboys finished with a 12-5 record, an NFC East division title and the No. 3 seed in the conference. That was the level of success Jones envisioned in McCarthy’s first season with the club in 2020.

He instead got a pandemic, a catastrophic injury to his starting quarterback in Week 5 and a 6-10 record.

“I didn’t see us taking the dip that we took last year,’’ Jones conceded. “I didn’t see that with our personnel.

“As it turns out, I see why we took the dip now.’’

Excuses were plentiful coming out of last season. McCarthy didn’t offer any. He wasn’t defensive in his conversations with the Jones family about how to proceed.

That quality made an impression on Jones. He had been high on McCarthy since the day he hired him in January 2020. What he didn’t know was that he would get the best of the coach during adversity.

McCarthy had a clear vision of what needed to be done without being inflexible. He wasn’t threatened to add Dan Quinn — a former head coach who had led a team to the Super Bowl since McCarthy — to preside over a defensive renaissance as coordinator.

“He was open to building based on what we had happen to us as opposed to making excuses,’’ Jones said.

“He has the ability to look in the mirror and change without in any way losing any of his conviction. He’s got the experience and practices changes that are needed.’’

McCarthy refers to his first season with the club as a unique challenge. He prayed for a normal offseason.

But he didn’t rely just on prayer. McCarthy believes self-reflection is critical to growth. He has filters in place to evaluate his personal and professional life.

McCarthy did what he calls a 360-degree review. He looked at how he interacted with his players and how he coached. Everything he did was with his players in mind.

What was best for them?

“I’ve had a lot of coaches tell me they will take what the player does and adapt that to what they want done with coaching,’’ Jones said. “He has shown me he practices that as much as anybody I’ve ever seen, adapting what they ask the player to do with his skill and aptitude.

“That’s really showing up.’’

McCarthy continued to stress the importance of turnover differential while finding different ways to incorporate this concept into his culture. It’s about emphasis and implementation. It’s about repetition and teaching the proper techniques in a way that resonates with players.

It’s a daily focus.

He wasn’t satisfied with the virtual meeting sessions that took place during the pandemic and set up a presentation by two University of North Texas professors to his staff in the spring to improve their approach. He tweaked aspects of his program here and there with the goal of establishing a stronger chemistry and culture.

“I think it’s his steady hand,’’ Jones said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. Very calming.

“He took every aspect we came up short last year, the boxes that I had would like to improve upon, he’s taken all of those boxes, every box and addressed it or created answers, created solutions.’’

Success at this stage of the season is based on a team’s confidence and its health. McCarthy has added a bit of time back into practice heading into Sunday’s game to work on fundamentals. But his daily practices in December were roughly 90 minutes shorter than what he had his players do in September.

“A big part of what he preaches is just making sure he’s not wearing us down, how he’s watching our reps, how he’s watching our load management,’’ running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “He’s making sure that we’re fresh and ready to go play.’’

McCarthy understands and respects what went on with this franchise before him. He taps into that tradition while making it clear that the daily expectations and standards in place now are for this team.

“It’s all part of what you’re trying to establish,’’ McCarthy said. “But at the end of the day these are the games, these are the most important games. We all recognize what we need to do Sunday to get to the next round.

“Philosophically, it’s definitely part of the climb.’’

Catch David Moore and Robert Wilonsky as they co-host Intentional Grounding on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM) every Wednesday night from 7-8 p.m. through the Super Bowl.

CORRECTION, 5 p.m. Jan. 16, 2022: An earlier version of this story had the year the Cowboys hired coach Mike McCarthy incorrect. McCarthy was hired in January 2020.

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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