"Being completely honest here, I had no idea how we were going to play," McCarthy said. "That's a feeling you never have as a coach."
Two days before kickoff, strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul suffered what the team called a medical emergency at The Star, and practice was canceled. Less than 24 hours before kickoff, on Nov. 25, the Cowboys announced Paul's death.
The Cowboys (3-8) lost 41-16, their second-worst defeat of the season, but McCarthy's disappointment in the result was mixed with how he felt about his players.
"I do want to say I'm very proud of the team for the way they went out and battled," McCarthy said. "Frankly, it was emotionally exhausting, I think, for everybody."
It's been a week since Paul was rushed to the hospital from his weight room office. In some respects, playing Washington could have masked some of the grief and served as a momentary distraction.
The moving of Thursday's game against the Baltimore Ravens to Tuesday (8:05 p.m. ET, Fox) has given the Cowboys' players, coaches and staff more time to process what happened. They had the weekend to spend with family to get away and will not be allowed back at The Star until Wednesday, per a league memo regarding a change in COVID-19 protocols following the holiday.
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said having the time off has been "critical" to healing the mind and the body.
"At the end of the day, it's football and we've been playing for our whole lives," he said. "You've got to find a way, and it's going to take everyone's effort. In the midst of all this, we've got to come together."
But the pain does not disappear overnight. There will be constant reminders because Paul's responsibilities touched every part of the building. Running back Ezekiel Elliott said he could not help but think about Paul during pregame warm-ups because it was Paul who led the team in stretching.
The weight room is used by everybody, although COVID-19 protocols have altered how many players can be in there at one time. Most assistant coaches have limited interactions with the other side of the ball. Paul interacted with everybody, serving as mentor and taskmaster to the players on the active roster, practice squad or injured reserve.
"This is life. This is the hard part of life. We will deal with it, and we'll use whatever resources we need to," McCarthy said. "Personal health is always the priority of everybody in our organization, especially football operations from my leadership position. That's just the way we approach it."
In 2012, the Cowboys dealt with the passing of linebacker Jerry Brown, who was killed in a car accident in which teammate Josh Brent was driving. Brown died in the early morning hours before the team left for Cincinnati. The next day, the Cowboys earned an emotional 20-19 win.
Two days later, they were attending Brown's funeral at a Dallas church.
The grieving did not end that day, but that team had to deal with the death of Brown and the legal uncertainty that awaited Brent, who now works in the team's scouting department.
In 2005, McCarthy was the San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator. After a game, offensive lineman Thomas Herrion collapsed in the locker room and died. Mike Nolan, who was the 49ers' head coach then and is the Cowboys' defensive coordinator now, said McCarthy was an "arm's length" away from Herrion when the player collapsed.
"It's a very complicated thing, a very difficult thing to handle," Nolan said. "I do believe, as I even told Mike, he handled it extremely well and he'll continue to do that. It's just his makeup. Mike is a family-first guy. It's very difficult for someone in that position to even choose the words that you're going to say to the group, because there are so many different things going on in different players' minds."
Like the 49ers did then, the Cowboys have offered counseling to their players. They lean heavily on the player development program, which is run by Bryan Wansley. Dr. Yolanda Brooks is the team's mental health consultant.
At his first team meeting, McCarthy discussed the importance of Wansley's group, and he had reminded them about it a few times before Paul's death. He even shared with the team a personal story of getting help.
"I went through a divorce in 1995, and how it was taboo to go talk to somebody, and I was talking to an individual at that time," McCarthy said. "Anytime the individual came into the office, I want to crawl under my desk. That was just kind of the stigma back then. That doesn't exist [now]. And I know it doesn't in our organization. I think when people are open, talk about it, I think it definitely helps, probably helps save a lot of others because it's part of our football operation."