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Five Things To Look For From The Cowboys Players Sunday

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On Sunday, the ways the men wearing the star conduct themselves will be more important than the final score.
On Sunday, the ways the men wearing the star conduct themselves will be more important than the final score.

In part one of this essay, I detailed five things I will be looking for from Jason Garrett on Sunday. In the post, I claimed that I will be watching Garrett more closely than I will the players. This is not to say that I won't be watching the players; I will. However, I believe that Garrett is more likely to show us hard coaching change in the first week of his administration than the players are to show performance change, which is likely to take several weeks. It will take longer--perhaps until next season--for this bunch to unlearn all of the bad habits that were allowed to take root under the Phillips regime.

Does that mean that we won't see a changed product on the field? No, I expect we will; its just that those changes aren't likely to involve physical mismatches. I don't expect the offensive line suddenly to open gaping holes for Felix Jones to scurry through, nor do I envision the Cowboys secondary solving the heretofore unsolvable riddle that has been the Giants wideout corps, nor do I foresee Jon Kitna doing his best Tom Brady impersonation. As a result, the changes we see might not effect much of a difference on the scoreboard. At least not this week.

But these changes are more likely to help the Cowboys win games in December, once the lessons have had time to settle in (and to my mind, this couldn't come at a better time than the month featuring two tilts against the much-despised Eagles!). What will I be looking for? I'll tell you after the jump:

Be a technician: In the week before he was fired, Wade Phillips proclaimed that his team needed to go back to the drawing board. One of the many factors leading to the Cowboys precipitous decline was apparently that they had forgotten (or never learned) the most basic technical lessons: proper spacing; hand use; lane integrity. Instead, the Cowboys seemed to be relying on pure athleticism to win matchups--and were failing. My guess is that Garrett and crew have continued this focus on the basics. Will we see them in action? On offense, I'll be watching how the o-linemen use their hands and move their feet; when the Cowboys D is on the field, I'll focus on the secondary: Will the corners use body positioning? The safeties proper spacing? On Special Teams, will players maintain their lanes? Will the return teams be in position to make blocks?

Play to the whistle: The Mike Jenkins whiff was the most obvious embarrassment form the Green Bay blowout. As Dave noted in a recent post Jenkins' no-thank-you served as a painful metaphor for what ails the team generally. I couldn't agree more. But Jenkins' gaffe was only the most egregious example of something the Cowboys have suffered from all season: a "let the other guy make the tackle" mentality. How often have we seen seven guys swarm to the ball? One reason opposing offensive coordinators have been challenging our secondary guys to tackle (by calling lots of swing passes and wide receiver screens) is that, on film, help is unusually slow to arrive. I want to see Ahmad Bradshaw take a swing pass--even if he gets a decent gain--only to be engulfed by six Cowboys defenders. I'd like to see Doug Free battle his man until just after the whistle--and have Andre Gurode join in for a couple of parting shots. Let other teams know that you may be eleven guys but will function as one living--and very grumpy--organism.

Defense: believe and compete: Since almost the moment Romo went down, the Cowboys have failed to compete. Perhaps the most curious factor in this is that its the defense that has fallen off most precipitously. Largely, this seems to be a matter of belief and trust: Wade and his players apparently didn't believe that the offense could succeed without Romo and so, in terms of playcalling, they pressed (Wade dialed up more six-man blitzes than ever before) while at the same time playing with poor technique. Most discouraging of all is that, when the opposition managed a score or two, they appeared to throw in the towel--perhaps thinking back to 2008, when the Brad Johnson-led offense was so impotent that two opposing scores essentially guaranteed defeat. I don't think they can beat the Giants in New York--at least not this week. But, a greater sense of belief the other units on the team will help them to stay in the game longer and build confidence for the future.

Clarity of purpose: This week, Justin Tuck was noted as saying that the biggest difference he sees in the Dallas offensive line is not what we have all been complaining about--an alarming dropoff in skill--but an increased level of confusion. Time and again this year, we have seem members of the Cowboys' secondary jawing and pointing to one another after the enemy O has completed a big gainer. The level of confusion evident after Green Bay touchdown passes seems to have permeated the entire squad. A confused team cannot play with confidence; an un-confident team plays slow; a slow team gets beat. I'll be eager to see whether and to what degree the players manage to pull themselves out of this negative spiral. Can they get their heads right?

Show some depth: As of this week, Marcus Spears and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah are on IR and out for the season. Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore won't see the field. In the past, the Cowboys (who have been one of the NFLs healthiest teams in recent years) have had a very difficult time overcoming the injuries that do happen. Why? Either their backups have been atrocious or the given injury has given the team an excuse to give up. Neither answer offers much comfort. This week, we will see what super-backup Stephen Bowen can do as a starter, and the likes of Jimmy Saddler-McQueen and Bryan McCann are sure to get more playing time. The big question is: can these guys step up? And, perhaps more importantly: can the other players TRUST them to step up, so that they can just go about their jobs instead of overcompensating for a perceived dropoff and getting out of position? Another meta-narrative--a game within the game--that I'll be interested in watching come Sunday...

As I've reiterated, I don't expect the Cowboys to win this weekend--so the scoreboard will concern me only incidentally. Instead, I'll be watching for all the little things that might manifest themselves in cultural change at Valley Ranch. I don't expect to see an overnight cultural revolution. But if Garrett is going to succeed, we'll need to see a little somethin'.

I'll be back early next week to evaluate what I believe I've seen.