NEW ORLEANS — Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy knew watching Thursday night’s game from a hotel in Frisco, Texas, would be difficult. He just didn’t know how difficult.
The good news is McCarthy’s Cowboys beat the New Orleans Saints 27-17 to end a two-game losing streak and open up more room over the Washington Football Team in the NFC East with five games to play.
“It was rough, I’m not going to lie,” McCarthy told ESPN via phone after the game. “I’m proud of the guys and how it all turned out, but I don’t ever want to do this again.”
McCarthy was placed in COVID-19 protocols over the weekend after testing positive, and Dan Quinn took over the head-coaching role Thursday. Five other coaches, including offensive line coach Joe Philbin and assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko, and two players (Terence Steele and Nahshon Wright) missed the game.
“Adversity win, ugly win, however, you want to define it, you have to have these wins, especially when you get to later in the year when you’re playing teams that are trying to get in the playoffs or make a run,” McCarthy said. “This is a great experience for us. Let’s face it, this is today’s NFL. You’ve got to be able to win with change.”
The Cowboys had plenty of change.
Quinn is normally in the coaches’ booth for the game, calling defenses, but he was on the sideline Thursday. Tight ends coach Lunda Wells took over the offensive line responsibilities. Offensive assistant Chase Haslett worked with the tight ends. Vice president of player personnel Will McClay was on the sideline, as was consultant Ben McAdoo. Assistant head coach Rob Davis was on a headset for the first time with McCarthy out.
“One thing you’ve heard me say before is I love doing hard things with a group of people, and this was one of those moments,” said Quinn, who was the Atlanta Falcons‘ head coach for parts of six seasons and had a 2-3 record inside the Superdome. “We got great people to get the job done. We wanted to make sure Mike and all the guys who missed, let them know we got their backs. So honestly, that was the only thing I was nervous about. I didn’t want to let him down. He’s done a great job leading us, to how it’s going to go down, the play style that we wanted. But it was just a cool win.”
Quinn’s defense contributed four takeaways, all interceptions, including a pick-six by defensive tackle Carlos Watkins. Running back Tony Pollard made it a two-score game in the third quarter with a 58-yard touchdown run, the longest run of his career and the longest scoring run since Ezekiel Elliott had a 60-yarder as a rookie in 2016.
It was the culmination of a week that forced the Cowboys to adjust on the fly. McCarthy ran the meetings all week virtually, and he held his normal pregame meeting via the internet on Thursday. Players and coaches met virtually before and after practices leading into the game and had to grab their meals at The Star to go. With the three strength coaches in COVID protocols, the players did not have access to the weight room all week and had to work out on their own.
“This is one of those weeks where no job is not your job right now,” Quinn said.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones had a funny line ready for Quinn after the game.
“I just told him with a win he’s right there with Tom Landry,” Jones said, referencing the Hall of Fame coach and Cowboys’ all-time win leader. “He can now say he’s head coached the Cowboys.”
But Quinn will be glad to be back in the coaches’ booth for next week’s game against Washington.
“I’m hopeful that you guys won’t see me again and I’ll be back on the top here hopefully by the next game and Mike will make all the progress that we need to have him back on the field and a lot of other guys too,” Quinn said. “We missed a number of guys today from the staff and a couple players as well, so hopefully this is hitting us with some time to see if we can get back and get back to our normalcy.”
McCarthy said he is feeling much better and hopes to be back in the office early next week once he either posts two negative tests separated by 24 hours or reaches the 10-day quarantine.
He just knows he does not want to have to watch his team play from afar again.