Frisco, Texas – Dak Prescott started shaking his head before the question was completed.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback knew where this was going. And he wasn’t buying it.
Mike McCarthy, was he training for his job in Monday night’s wild card game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
“It’s pretty comical,” Prescott said Friday afternoon. “Straight 12 wins (seasons) in all of you guys tell me for how long, and we’re talking about a man-at-risk job? It just shows you, when you play for this organization, what comes with it.
“That’s why it’s important to create these walls around us. Create this safe place in our locker room. What matters are the guys who get out there and get in between the lines and put in the work throughout the week so we can go out and win.”
Monday in Tampa, the Cowboys will attempt feats that have eluded the franchise. Dallas hasn’t won a road playoff game in 30 years, and hasn’t advanced to a conference championship game (let alone the Super Bowl) in 27. Against quarterback Tom Brady, Cowboys history continues to look a lot: Brady has faced the Cowboys seven times in history. his career. He won all seven.
McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, was hired by Dallas three years ago to turn that around.
However, he sought to downplay outside distractions this week, reminding the Cowboys that they play the entire Buccaneers and are responsible for what they do in their tenure — not for the franchise’s ghosts of decades past.
To further underscore just how far-fetched the Cowboys are from the absurdities they’re being asked to answer, McCarthy polled his team this week. How many players were alive on January 17, 1993 when the Cowboys beat the San Francisco 49ers for their last postseason road win? Eleven players were active. Ten children’s photos submitted for McCarthy’s presentation.
McCarthy said, “We had pictures of 10 players and the dates they were born and they admitted it. The fact of the matter is we don’t take any responsibility for what happened here in the past, even the San Francisco game.”
“It’s about our chance. It’s about what’s ahead of us.”
Several Cowboys players confessed this week: Playoff rounds like this one will define their legacy. “This is where legends are made,” said All-Pro player Micah Parsons. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb echoed that “stars are born in the playoffs,” which is the players’ true benchmark for how they fare in the knockout rounds.
Players indicated a new rush of energy around the meetings and locker rooms, and anticipation was high for a game in which they are a 2.5-point favorite but also up against a seven-time Super Bowl champ known for coming back and rising in the playoffs.
“You have to love playing in those moments,” Prescott said. “If you don’t, this league, this sport, this isn’t the place for you. For me, it’s about embracing the moment. Staying in myself. It’s not time to do anything new, or create anything new.”
“Trust my teammates, trust the way I’ve set up all along, just go out there and stick to the moment.”
We expect Prescott to tend to his confidence in using his legs to extend plays, while Lamb’s playoff spells include staying level even if the Bucs revert to their oft-used strategy of double covering the No. 1 receiver. Lamb will remind himself: The more defenders the Falcons , the number of my teammates who will face off has increased.
The inside defensive linemen will aim to snag Jeb Brady before his quick 2.45-second release time, while the secondary members will strive to overreach, wary of Brady seeking to confuse their play diagnosis.
Each player will work to avoid the fate they suffered last year: a wild card upset and an early exit from the house. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said the feelings are fresh, the disappointment of being removed for 12 months is “what built our team this year.”
“You have to use that as energy and juice going into these playoffs,” said Lawrence. “I’m not getting any younger. This is the time.
But as the Cowboys contemplate their postseason goals and opportunities to shape their legacy, the players insist they’re not focused on the implications of this game for McCarthy.
He has led the Cowboys to the most successful two-year regular season team since the 1994-1995 seasons. Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones insists McCarthy has more than just playoff success by which to judge his third-year coach.
The outside conversation will take place. If the Cowboys lose in alarming fashion to the Buccaneers, Jones’ feelings will likely add to the speculation. But the Cowboys players wouldn’t get along. They believe it is their responsibility to win.
“As players, we love Mike,” said Lamb. “We love playing with him and everything he’s done for us to put us in the best winning position. You can see it in the way we play, like I said, 12-5 years in a row.
“I feel like the only way we can really pay him back is to keep winning all season. And let the rest take care of itself.”
Follow Jory Epstein of Yahoo Sports on Twitter @employee