The Elements Of A Champion: Cowboys Teams Past And Present

[Author's Note: Hey, everyone. It's great to be back. BTB was where it all started for me when Dave first signed me up a few years back. Since then, I've launched Defending Big D, managed the hockey sites for SB Nation, was the hockey editor for SBNation.com and launched Pro Hockey Talk for NBC Sports. As things have a way of doing, I've now come full circle and find myself back at Blogging The Boys.

Those that remember me know that I approach writing about the Dallas Cowboys from the heart. O.C.C. is great with stats, Raf does an incredible job breaking the game down and I think I offer a good compliment to their superb analysis of the Cowboys. I look forward to once again writing about the Cowboys for what we all hope to be a truly special season in Dallas.]

Expectations are high in Dallas, perhaps at the highest point they've been since the Super Bowl days of the early 1990's. The stars are aligning for what is shaping up to be an extraordinary season for the Cowboys; the Super Bowl is being held in Dallas, the team is coming off it's most successful season in 13 years and the Cowboys have perhaps the most talented team since Troy, Emmitt and Michael were running the show. We're all expecting big things this year, the player's included, but wanting it and expecting it don't bring home championships -- results do.

The excitement around this team is palpable and it all starts with the players. Two years ago when the Cowboys were coming off a 13-3 season we witnessed an overly-confident team talk about playoffs and the Super Bowl during training camp, just months before disastrously falling apart during the most important part of the season. This year the players are exuding a similar confidence but you feel that unlike that 2008 team, these players have earned that confidence this time around.

This is essentially the exact same team from a year ago, a team that found its stride in the middle of the season and truly came together as one cohesive group -- offense, defense and special teams all working together to accomplish one shared goal. That cohesiveness has carried over to this year and now the players have set their sights on the biggest goal of them all; they've tasted victory in the postseason, they know what it takes to win and they're hungry for more.

Much like I do every summer, I've spent the past month or so building up for this season by going through all of last season's games. One new wrinkly I've thrown into my schedule is that I've watched most of the games from the 1991 and 1992 seasons as well. The 2009 and 2010 Dallas Cowboys have some very eerie similarities to the paths of both of those teams and it's a comparison that's been made several times already this summer. What I wanted to see was what was the defining characteristic that sent a very good team in 1991 to become a truly great team in 1992. The talent was the same, the players mostly the same -- was it just experience? Confidence?

Follow the jump for what I found and how it applies to these Dallas Cowboys of today.

It's important to recognize right away that as fresh in our minds those great teams of 1990's may be, this is an entirely different era of football we are in today. The players are built differently, they approach the game differently, some of the rules are different. We've also seen the NFL transition from a power running league to one that is dominated by the pass, one where a team can't win unless it has two capable backs to share the load.

Making direct comparisons between the 2010 Dallas Cowboys and the 1992 Super Bowl Champions is a dangerous game to play, yet there are very important lessons to be gained by analyzing the small things that made that team so great. It's also important to know that as the 1992 season began there were still doubts surrounding that team; we didn't know we had three future Hall of Fame players on the team or that we were about to witness the birth of a dynasty. Then, the Cowboys were just a talented and young team that was driven towards one singular goal.

Tenacity

This started in 1991 and was built upon in 1992 and beyond. Jimmy Johnson and his assistant coaches built a team that was relentless in every phase of the game. In 1991, when they were still a young and inexperienced team, the Cowboys displayed the template for what would be built upon in the coming years.

That team never went out of bounds on their own volition. They weren't "run out of bounds", their angle cut off so the players would step out out; those players fought for every yard that was available to them. If Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin or even Kelvin Martin were running along the sideline and faced a wall of defenders, they lowered their shoulder and punished that opposing player for even daring to try to herd them out. Each time this earned the Cowboys an additional 1-2 yards, while sending a message that this wasn't a team that was easily taken down.

On defense, the players were fast to the ball and tenacious in their pursuit. Rarely did I witness an egregiously missed tackle and I always saw a defense and special teams that was punishing in their physicality.

This tenacity was the foundation for the determination that made that team great. The 1992 Cowboys knew what they wanted and no team was going to hold them back from achieving that goal. Whether it was a 'measly' one or two yards along the sideline or a swarming gang tackle, the Cowboys were sending a message that this team would never quit.

Execution

Everyone knows that Jimmy Johnson demanded perfection from his teams. He held his players accountable and didn't allow for anything resembling laziness or dumb mistakes. This resulted in a team on the field that was clinically meticulous in every phase of the game, and the simple execution by every player and every assignment was the basis for an offense built on timing and precision and one that was nearly impossible to stop.

18 years ago when I first witnessed those teams playing, I wasn't anywhere close to being as familiar with the game of football as I am now. Going back and watching the Cowboys of 1992 play, a number of things instantly struck me: those teams were far from perfect, they still made mistakes but they rarely beat themselves with dumb penalties or missed assignments.

That offense was like a well-oiled machine as it marched up and down the field. They didn't score much but they did hold onto the ball for far longer than the opposition. Combined with an incredibly stingy defense that swarmed the ball and a secondary that rarely allowed the long pass and it's instantly easy to see why they won as many games as they did.

It all started with the clinical execution of the basics of each player's duty.

Confidence

There is a very thin line between cockiness and confidence. The 2008 Dallas Cowboys were cocky. They talked about how great they were and mentioned how they wished they could just skip the regular season and get straight to the Super Bowl. Norm Hitzges on KTCK 1310 The Ticket put it perfectly yesterday when he said that team thought they were good; the 2010 Cowboys know they're good, now they just have to prove it.

The 1992 Dallas Cowboys shared that same trait and they proved it from the moment they stepped foot on the field in the season opener against the Washington Redskins. Starting with that '91 season the Cowboys built upon their confidence throughout the year that culminated with a playoff victory, before ending with a devastating loss the following round. The Cowboys used what they learned that season, made some slight adjustments in personnel and proceeded to march straight to the Super Bowl with almost the exact same team as the year before.

That team entered the season confident, they knew they were good but they also knew they had to earn each and every win. That confidence allowed them to approach every game with their heads held high but without a sense of entitlement. They knew they were good and they knew they would win yet those Cowboys approached every single play as if they had something to prove.

That's the difference between thinking you're good and knowing you're good.

Comparisons to 2010

As I stated from the start we can't just flat-out compare that 1992 team and this current iteration of the Dallas Cowboys. That team, we now know, was truly special and was built upon the backs of three of the best players to ever play the game of football. That team also used completely different schemes on offense and defense and were incredibly effective in different ways than these Cowboys are. Yet the Dallas Cowboys of 2010 can use these three basic elements that made that 1992 team so great and apply them now.

Going back through the games from last season, and especially starting around midseason, I noted that these elements are already present in this team but not at the levels I witnessed back in 1992.

The Cowboys don't have an Emmitt Smith on their team but they do have three running backs that aren't afraid of contact and aren't afraid at punishing defenders. We've witnessed Felix Jones at full speed as ran down the sideline launch himself at a defender that was attempting to cut him off. Marian Barber, while not like he used to be, is one of the toughest backs to take down. Roy Williams is also one of the more physical receivers in the NFL and last season we witnessed just how hard it is to tackle Miles Austin.

The defense, rebuilt and retooled under Wade Phillips, has blossomed into one of the best in the NFL. They are tenacious to a fault, filled with players that will stop at nothing to take down the runner, the quarterback or the receiver. The embarrassing missed tackles at the biggest moments in 2008 are now gone, replaced by a team that showed some of the best tackling in a preseason game I've seen in a very long time.

Their confidence is what drives them yet the lessons learned from 2008 makes this team wary of getting too far ahead of themselves. While the execution is still lacking at times, that we nitpick so many little elements of this team speaks to how far they've come.

At the core, as always, is Tony Romo. The Cowboys quarterback embodies all of these elements and more. His tenacity is never more apparent that his unwillingness to go down, his ability to keep a play alive and his willingness to put his body on the line game after game. Last season I saw a quarterback dive headfirst in the middle of the field trying to get a first down after a long run. I saw a quarterback focus on his execution to the point that he put together perhaps the best regular season by any Dallas Cowboys quarterback in the history of the franchise.

His confidence in himself tells him he's good and tells him he can make the plays. His example in all of the basic elements of the game carries over to every player on the team and is what will propel this team forward. Troy Aikman shared this same ability, and while I doubt any player will ever achieve the level of leadership Troy had, Romo is as close as one can get.

These are the elements of a champion; now it's up to the Cowboys to use them.

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