FRISCO, Texas – This is always one of the strangest days of the NFL calendar. Add in the wrinkle of concluding the NFL's first pandemic season, and it's somehow even stranger.
"It was the most unique challenge I've been through in the National Football League, just the combination of challenges," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.
Months of singular dedication build toward this moment – from offseason workouts, to training camp, to the grind of each and every game week. The ultimate goal of every NFL team is to still be playing in early January.
This year, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the 18 teams that won't be doing that. The car that has previously been moving 80 miles per hour has come to a complete stop, and all that's left is to examine what went wrong and learn from it.
On this first, strange day of the offseason, McCarthy conducted exit interviews with the veterans on his roster. From there, he'll meet on Tuesday with his younger players. It goes without saying that McCarthy's next Cowboys team won't be the same as this one, but he said this step can begin the process of starting over for another go.
"The positive energy and vibe that these men have towards what we are and how we are doing it," McCarthy said. "To a man, they are looking forward to the next challenge. But we need to go back and start on page one. That is the way I have always done it. When you take things for granted you are really setting yourself up for failure."
When it finally gets to that point, the obvious hope is that 2021 will come together under far more amenable circumstances. It would be difficult to put into words all the different adversities the Cowboys pushed through to reach the conclusion of this season. And while McCarthy didn't shy away from their failures – a losing record, no playoff appearance – he had high praise for the way his outfit managed to handle the circumstances.
"I don't like the word 'overwhelming,' because it puts you in a mode where you didn't think you could handle it. I think we did more than handled it," he said. "I do admire and respect, particularly our players, but really our staff for everything that they've done to make this season get to this point."
Saying goodbye to a roster that has been built over the course of 10 months is part of the reason for Monday's strange sensation. The other part is that the Cowboys now find themselves in a holding pattern.
The news cycle demands the next story. There will be speculation about coaching staff changes. There will be guesses as to who the Cowboys might sign in the offseason, or what they might do with their No. 10 overall draft pick. Obviously, Dak Prescott's contract situation looms large over all of it.
McCarthy didn't elaborate much about those things. After all, he's not even done with his exit interviews, let alone evaluating his team and his coaching staff. There will be time for that in the coming days and weeks.
For now, it's enough to start turning the page on a 2020 season that was unforgettable, but not in manner anyone would prefer. McCarthy was firm in his commitment to righting the ship and steering the Cowboys back to the postseason – albeit hopefully in much more agreeable circumstances.
"I clearly understand the responsibility that I have to this organization and to the fans. I can just assure you that we're doing everything the right way. We're being diligent in our process to be a championship team," he said. "And I get the disappointment. This is clearly not the way any of us anticipated the outcome of this season. But I think we have to recognize – and it's just the facts: This was … a 'uniquely challenging' season like hopefully we never experience again."