The Dallas Cowboys are regularly called one of the most talented teams in the NFL. And rightfully so. You can say what you want about Jerry Jones, but very few organizations in the NFL have more resources to build a talented team and even fewer are willing to use those resources like Jerry does to build a team deep in talent.
And all that talent has not been entirely without effect. There are only three teams in the NFL that have had a winning record in each of the last four years. The Colts, the Patriots and, surprise, surprise, the Cowboys. Unfortunately, the Cowboys’ postseason record does not match their regular season success.
Are the 2010 Cowboys the team that - unlike Cowboys teams of years past - is ready to change that? After the break, we look at what it will take to make this year the Cowboys' year. Despite, or perhaps because of, the Redskins game.
I recently ran across a quote by then Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy from 2004 in which he talked about talent in the NBA. I thought it applies perfectly to talent in the NFL, so I'll lead off with his long quote.
"I crack up. (Media) always say it. Players always say it. Players, when they're losing, say, 'I don't understand why we're losing. We got a lot of talent.' Obviously if you're one of the top 400 in your profession in the whole world, you have a lot of talent. Obviously. Unfortunately, so does the competition.
"So what separates teams is not talent, it's habits. Whatever habits you have will come out. What you're constantly trying to do as a coach is create habits that are winning habits. What I'm trying to get our team to understand is not to be one of those teams that has to be the famous, 'I don't understand why we're losing, we have a lot of talent.' I'd rather not lose. I'd rather try to explain, you can't win until you understand what loses, in any sport.
"What loses are turnovers, bad shots, poor containment of the ball, (not) helping on defense, not rebounding, lack of poise under pressure. There's a lot. Not one of them is decided in this league ... on talent. 'We got out-talented tonight. We don't have enough talent.' What does that mean? We didn't have enough production. This is a production-oriented business, as are most."
"I don't understand this obsession with talent."
Of course, you can’t win without talent, that’s obviously a given. Talent drives teams to victory. But is talent enough? Jeff Van Gundy doesn’t think so, and neither do you.
Skill vs Talent
Every single NFL team has talent. No team goes to the draft looking specifically for players without talent. The problem is that talent is often confused with skill. Skill is the ability to perform a given task. Talent is the ability to apply your skills resourcefully. Confused? Let me illustrate the point with a simple but fun challenge. And boy, are we ever in need of some fun diversion today. Try to figure out the word puzzle below:
The specific skill you'll need to figure out this and similar word puzzles is to look at the first word, how it relates positionally to the second word, and how that positional relationship can be turned into a meaningful phrase or sentence. Look at it again. By now you've probably figured out that this little word puzzle. The word 'Man' is over 'Board', hence: ‘Man over Board’. Simple enough, right? So here's the next one:
With the word puzzle skills you've acquired, this one was a piece of cake: 'Mind over matter'. Ok. Since you're on a roll, let's try a third one:
Your skills, which have been honed to an extremely sharp edge by the training provided above, probably left you struggling slightly with this one. Stand over I? Doesn't make much sense. "I understand" is the correct answer. Perhaps you were thrown off balance by something that was just a little outside the scope of you training and your acquired skill set? Let's try some more:
And here's where it gets trickier. Your skill at figuring out the positional relationships in word puzzles may have enabled you to get the first two or three right (life after death, once in a blue moon, that is beside the point). The other three? Probably not. This is the point where talent trumps skills and/or experience every time. Your skills allowed you to solve a set of narrowly defined word games, but when you're confronted with a puzzle that doesn't match your training or skills, you're stumped. However, if you have a talent for word games you probably were able to solve the three other ones as well ('reading between the lines', 'backwards glance', 'think big', more examples here and here).
In the NFL, there is no way to train for every single variable on every single play. Talent allows you to constantly adapt to the chaos of 22 men going at each other on every single play. Talent allows a player to make plays on the field even though things are not happening as expected.
Think of Tony Romo extending plays even though the line is breaking down in front of him. That is talent. Talent that even Mike Shanahan recognizes:
"He's got a great feel for the game, a great sense of timing," Shanahan said. "He can escape the rush. He can make plays when there's nothing there. ... He's got great hand-eye (coordination). You can tell by the way he plays golf. He shoots in the 60s and doesn't practice much. It gives you an idea what a great natural athlete he is. Great throwing mechanics, love his personality, leadership. I think the world of him."
Think of a wide receiver adjusting his route when he sees Romo's protection breaking down and then snatching a ball that isn't thrown perfectly. Talent.
Talent and skill are not the same thing. This is one of the reasons we regularly see highly ‘skilled’ players being drafted in the early rounds only to end up as busts, while some random UDFA has a Hall Of Fame career. Over the last five years, the Cowboys have been at the very top of the league in terms of draft success. They've also had unrivaled success with UDFAs.
The Cowboys are definitely talented. But talent alone does not win games. In the NFL, it takes much more than that.
Playing in the NFL is not always about talent. There are many people talented enough to play in the league who are currently stocking shelves in a local Hy-Vee grocery store for $5.50 an hour. They may have just gotten a couple of bad breaks, but more likely than not, they never made it because they lacked the discipline, focus, work ethic and dedication needed to succeed.
As the saying goes, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard". I usually don't give a lot of thought to bumper-sticker clichés like this, especially when a guy like Tim Tebow adopts such a simplistic mantra as his own, but we've got to look at that aspect of the Cowboys preparation as well.
In terms of hard, physical work, the Cowboys this year certainly put in the hours. The Cowboys had the longest and arguably one of the toughest training camps of all teams this offseason. Gerry Fraley from the DMN hunted down the training camp schedules of all NFL teams and found that the Cowboys have one of the highest number of two-a-day practice schedules:
Coach Wade Phillips has set a camp schedule that calls for 12 days with two practices. Under current schedules, only Atlanta has more, with 14. Baltimore is the only other team in double figures for twice-daily practices, with 10.
New England could crack the list. The Patriots have set the schedule only for the first week of camp and will practice twice each day.
Back to the underlying thought of Jeff Van Gundy' quote. You can’t win anything until you truly understand what will make you lose. This is also hard work. Hard, mental work. This is about understanding what didn't work last season and correcting it. Eliminating the red zone scourge. Getting the penalty affliction under control. Curing the third down conversion plague. Early signs this year indicate that the mental part is still a work in progress. Get well soon, my dear Cowboys.
Few sports can match the NFL for the amount of heart - the mental and physical toughness - it takes to win. Steve Sabol, President of NFL Films, allegedly once said:
"There are so many definitions of toughness. There's the toughness of getting the snot knocked out of you, and the can't-be-intimidated, never-quit kind of tough. And then there's the injured tough, which is no-regard-for-your-body-and-play-with-broken-bones tough. Then there's mental toughness, when you're tough under pressure and not losing your poise. Then there's the toughness a person has, an aura, that he can intimidate other people by his play or his toughness."
In football, you need to be more than just lucky to survive the mental and physical grind of every single game it takes to make it to the Super Bowl. Of course you need talent, even skill, hard work and perhaps a few lucky bounces here and there, but most of all, you have to be tough.
Rightly or wrongly, the Cowboys have been labeled 'not tough enough'. 13 seasons without a postseason win will do that to you - and one swallow does not make summer. Tony Romo is one of the most heavily blitzed QBs in the league, partly because there seems to be a belief that the Cowboys offense is liable to wilt under pressure. The consensus seems to be that the Cowboys will crack both mentally and physically if you just hit them hard enough and long enough.
Talented? Perhaps. Tough? Perhaps not enough. If you need evidence, look no further than every single season ending game since the 2006 season. In the NFL, they have a word for this:
The Cowboys are perceived as soft, because the Cowboys have often been a team of glitz and glamor, with style trumping substance more often than not. Lots of drama on and off the field. Exciting to watch but prone to give it up like it's spring break when it really counts.
On paper, the 2010 Cowboys seem to have it all. The talent, the coaching, the experience. Unlike Cowboys teams of years past, this group looks ready to make it. Will this year be the Cowboys' year?
It will be. If they are tough enough.