After round one of the 2008 draft, I was very pleased. The Cowboys, coming off a stellar 2007 season in which they went 13-3 and secured home field advantage in the NFC playoffs, had two first-round selections and needs at running back (Julius Jones' contract had expired) and corner (where they had managed to get by with the likes of Anthony Henry and Jacques Reeves getting significant snaps.) Dallas started the day with the 22nd and 28th choices--the former from Cleveland, as a result of the Brady Quinn swaperoo the previous year--and, after trading down to the 25th pick, came away with two dynamic players at positions of need: Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins.
In subsequent years, Jones and Jenkins ran hot and cold. When hot, they were scalding: recall the first month of Jones' rookie campaign, Jenkins superb play in 2009's stretch run, and both of their stellar performances in the back-to-back shellackings of the Eagles that concluded that run. When cold, they weren't so much awful as they were uninspired; Jones often failed to run hard, and Jenkins' matador tackles became the stuff of legend. In 2010, neither lived up to his draft status, nor to 2009's promise.
Last season, however, this shifted a bit. Although he missed four games and had to contend with a poor offensive line, Felix Jones ran harder than at any time in his NFL career; for the first time, we saw him get tough yards between the tackles. Rather than trying to juke guys to make the big play, Jones seemed to understand the importance of setting up the next play, relying on power and grit to grind out an extra yard or two after contact. Jenkins also had an injury-riddled 2011 campaign; he missed four games but, more importantly, was in and out of many others with a staggering assortment of ailments. Yet, he kept coming back in, clearly in pain, grittily manning his right corner spot although he couldn't lift his left arm above his shoulder.
Make the jump...
In replaying their careers in my mind, it struck me that both Jones and Jenkins were different players in 2011 than they had been in 2008-10. What changed? Clearly their attitudes: each appeared both physically and mentally tougher than he had been in previous seasons. But I contend that this shift was a reaction to a more important change, one that will affect all of Valley Ranch--a shift in expectations. 2011 was the team's first full season under Jason Garrett. Although he can seem, in his press conferences, to be a nerdy Ivy-league type, Garrett is an old-school football guy, with a value system more akin to Bear Bryant's than we might imagine. The Junction Boys would definitely be RKGs.
This time of year, much is made of the draft, and of various teams' ability to land good draft classes. What is given short shrift, however, is that good draft classes are forged on the practice field, where talented collegians are taught by great coaches, to become professionals, supplementing raw athleticism with intense preparation and year-round physical training. One of the reasons the top drafting teams churn out successful draft classes is because those teams have a culture conducive to players maximizing their potential. To put it bluntly, they do a better job coaching up their youngsters. One aspect of this is the toughness, both mental and physical, that we saw from Jones and Jenkins in 2011.
We saw precious little mental toughness from the Cowboys during the Wade Phillips administration. By extension, the rookie classes brought in between 2007-10 struggled not only because they weren't good players (that is certainly a contributing factor) but because they weren't raised in a winning culture, by a coaching staff that demanded and developed the qualities that define an RKG: toughness, discipline, accountability. Those are precisely Garrett's watchwords, and in Jones' and Jenkins' development, I believe we witnessed an early manifestation of the cultural shift that Garrett is striving to implement.
This shift was hastened by last offseason's housecleaning, during which veterans disinclined to buy into the new culture were summarily dismissed. As I noted at the time, this was a move akin to Jimmy Johnson cutting ties with salty vets Danny and Randy White, even though each still had a bit of tread on his tires: neither was going to buy in to the new era, so he had to go. Three years later, Johnson and his superb coaching staff (including strength coach Mike Woicik) had forged a new team, one that was not only a young and talented, but also mentally tough: confident, willful, and absolutely dominant in the fourth quarter.
I'm not for a moment saying this team will become the 90s Cowboys. I do believe, however, that Jones and Jenkins transformations are a welcome harbinger of a cultural shift that will start to pay real dividends once draft classes--starting with the 2012 group--can be raised and reared, by a demanding, focused group of coaches, in an established culture solely focused on creating tough, disciplined, successful NFL football players.