I have wanted to address this issue for some time from the perspective of the athlete. In order to do so, I understood that I would have to explain how elite athletes are not solely a product of physical superiority, but rather elite athletes achieve athletic success through a complex interaction of mental and physical prowess.
For further explanation go here: http://www.bloggingtheboys.com/2012/7/7/3143882/certain-athletes-can-be-clutch-part-1
Permit me to apply these principles to the recent editions of the Dallas Cowboys. Sometime in January of 2007, Jerry Jones chose to hire Wade Phillips to succeed Bill Parcells as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and utilize Jason Garrett as the offensive coordinator. That season, Dallas tied a franchise best 13-3 regular season record. Unlike the previous 13-3 Cowboys team, however, the Cowboys lost their first playoff game and were eliminated from playoff contention.
To my recollection, that was the first time the team was labeled mentally weak and underachieving. I believe the media pundits added that the Cowboys lacked strong leadership during the 2008 campaign.
Many times, what is true in life is mirrored in sports, and vice versa. Working hard is important to succeed in ones profession, but working hard without consideration to working smart leads to wasted time and effort. In sports, an athlete can work hard in the weight room, work hard in practice, and work hard watching film, but still fail to work smart.
Take the case of Anthony Spencer, a player that has drawn the ire of many a Cowboys fan. During the 2010 offseason, Spencer let slip that he noticed that he was not practicing with the intensity necessary to succeed. To his credit, he realized that he was cutting corners and just going through the motions. He determined that his practice habits had deteriorated and that while he may have been working hard, he was not working smart.
For most of us, if we were to not work hard or fail to work smart we would soon be discussing our poor performance with our boss. Depending upon the nature of the job, some of us may even have to defend our sub standard results with peers that were forced to work harder as a direct result of our inadequacy.
The Dallas Cowboys had no such infrastructure under Wade and Jerry. The lack of leadership from the head coach led to a gradual desiccation of effort over time secondary to a lack of feedback outlining the necessary level of effort needed to encounter success. Spencer noticed this, and attempted to make the appropriate changes to improve.
In sports there is an axiom that states, "Practice does not make perfect, but rather perfect practice makes perfect." Perfect practice simulates the countless variations that will be encountered during the course of competition. The Cowboys of the 90's frequently practiced at game speed to simulate the speed of the game to be played on Sunday (or Monday / Thursday). This is but one variable that was mimicked for those championship teams.
Jason Garrett has elected to approximate game conditions by increasing competition across the roster. This adjustment serves to motivate those players that would otherwise regress to much less than perfect practice.
Every Cowboys fan can name a few players that do not need this external motivation: Ware, Ratliff, Witten and Romo come to mind (and there are others). But the majority of the players on the 53 man roster are not capable of working hard and smart independently, and need an external stimulus to achieve their potential.
Despite the great athleticism displayed by every player on the Cowboys roster (besides Dan Bailey: sorry dude), at this level of competition what separates the great player from the average or good player is the ability of the player to learn and adapt. The difference between Miles Austin and Dez Bryant is not physical prowess, but rather mental competency.
According to most reports, Dez is by far the superior physical specimen between the two, but Miles has the mental proficiency to adapt in-game and work in conjunction with Tony Romo, when both are healthy. I suspect that Garrett understood this when he hired a new wide receivers coach last off season that had a reputation for being more of a disciplinarian.
Instead of hiring a new tight ends coach (Jason firing his brother would have made for some awkward holiday reunions), the Cowboys moved on from the underachieving Martellus Bennett. Nowhere is the relative importance of working smart to develop the intellectual side of the sport more apparent than when comparing Witten and Bennett: where Jason Witten succeeds, Bennett fails. I suspect that Bennett will fulfill his NFL destiny in New York much in the same way that Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Jason Williams did after leaving the Cowboys.
If an athlete has the physical tools to succeed, but they do not have the mental discipline to hone those attributes to function within the context of competition, they will fail 100% of the time. For all of the impressive combine numbers that bloggers, fans, and the late Al Davis used to quantify the athleticism of each football player entering the NFL Draft, the most important variable is, and always will be mental acuity.
Such were the Cowboys under Wade Phillips. Bryant, Spencer, Owusu-Ansah, Bennett, and Williams were all drafted under the pseudo-leadership of Wade. All have demonstrated mental dullness to this point in their respective careers. Spencer's time is running out, while Dez may have one more season to prove that he can coordinate his physical gifts with the mental acuteness necessary to succeed at this level.
Considering the significance the mental aspect of the game has on the sport, it is quite comforting to have a head coach that has the nickname: Red-Headed Genius. Maybe the Cowboys will finally live up to their lofty expectations.