Before the 2011 NFL season finally escaped the clutches of the lockout, one of the favorite topics around here was the Cowboy Way, Jason Garrett's term for how he wanted to run the Dallas Cowboys. Personally, I was extremely excited by the whole idea. I have a theory that the way a team is led, and the entire culture it has, can be just as important as the talent of its players. In some cases, a bad culture with inept or inappropriate leadership can even negate the talent and skills of the team. Jason Garrett was literally speaking to my heart when he started talking about these things. I got what he intended, and I was fully on board and hoping for good things.
As the season unfolded, we got drawn more and more into the frustration of a team that had difficulties winning. Questions arose about just how good a coach JG really was, with things like "icing your own kicker" and "can't hold onto a lead". The Cowboy Way faded from our minds a bit.
I don't think it has faded one bit from Jason Garrett's mind. I think it is still one of the major keys to the future success of the Cowboys. And based on an article by Dan Graziano on ESPN Dallas/Ft. Worth, it is alive and well.
Yeah, I'm mixing Kool Aid again. Follow me after the jump, and I think you may want a glass.
I am going to grab some quotes from Graziano's piece, but if you are not in the habit of following the links to read the articles, I would suggest you make an exception here. It is nicely done, and has more meat in it than a lot of the articles out there. And you might follow my reasoning here a bit better.
The topic that seemed to lead to this piece was the free agents that Dallas has signed this year. In particular, the new guards, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, have been met with a lot of head scratching, including around here. Many questioned just what the team saw in these guys to want to bring them on board.
JG explained it.
. . . when he was talking about the players his team has brought in via free agency this offseason, Garrett made it clear that they have a common thread. They're guys who have been underestimated, undervalued. Guys who have had to work for the careers they've made. Guys who have clearly been about making the most of the opportunities they've received, even if they haven't received many.
As the title said, hungry players. A new kind of Cowboy, or maybe, an old one brought back.
This is an approach that fits in with a bit of a pet theory of mine that I laid out in an article last year. It is that there are only a few outstanding players on each team from the perspective of talent, perhaps 10% to 15% of the overall roster if you are lucky. The rest of the team is going to be made up of players that are average (in terms of being NFL players, not us ordinary schlubs). No team is going to put together 22 All Pro players.
So what is the difference between winning teams and losing teams? I think it goes back to that leadership and culture thing. If you are going to have about 80% of your team made up of players with sort of average talent, you win by having players with more drive. More determination.
I think this was clearly something that was not in evidence with the Cowboys up through the middle of the 2010 season. Or, to go back to the Graziano article again:
There has, at least from the outside, always seemed to be a culture of assumption about the Cowboys. We assume they'll be contenders. We assume they'll have a great defense because of the big names it comprises. It's entirely possible that there's been a culture of entitlement within the locker room -- a case of players maybe believing their own headlines a little bit too much.
If that's the case, Garrett wants to change it. And that's why he was talking about his new free agents Wednesday in admiring terms -- specifically expressing admiration for the ways in which they've built their careers.
And that's not just a view from outside the organization, either. Last year while answering questions from a group of reporters, Terence Newman was asked about the 2010 meltdown, and he pointed to a certain lack of fortitude on the team.
Q: Jason Witten and Bradie James told me that they were both "humbled" by what happened last season. Same sentiment for you?
For sure. A lot of guys have never been through [a situation like 2010]. Bradie went to LSU, he's never been through anything like that. Witten went to Tennessee, I went to Kansas State. A lot of us are not used to those types of situations because we've been to programs that have never witnessed the true downs.
Last year was one of the true downs. That was the worst thing I have ever been through. And it hurt.
Going to a new culture is not an easy thing, however. It became obvious in 2011 that the team had not made the transition. As big leads slipped away in the fourth quarter and the team was not able to rise to the challenge of getting into the playoffs, despite having repeated opportunities to do so late in the year, many began to despair that it was the same old Dallas team. Nothing had really changed. After all, Jerry Jones is still the owner and GM, right?
Well, maybe we are just too conditioned to instant gratification. If part of the problem is the attitude of a large number of the players on the roster, you can't just fix that overnight. First off, there is a limit to how many players you can replace in a given amount of time. And second, sometimes you have to put a new challenge out there and see who rises to it. With the difficulty that exists in figuring out how successful a potential draft pick may be in the NFL, you have to make sure that you are keeping the right players, and letting the wrong ones walk.
General theory is all well and good, but what evidence is there that the team is getting that right?
Well, there is one Martellus Bennett. He would seem to be pretty much the perfect illustration for all the wrong attitudes JG5000 seems to want to purge from the team. And it is pretty clear that he was quietly shown the door.
And while we are considering things that might indicate that the frequently cited Process is taking hold, consider the free agent signings this year (and the couple the team had last season) and how different they are from the days of Terrell Owens and Adam Jones. There are no TOs or Pacmans anymore. Just what seem to be solid, hard-nosed players. Some, like Brandon Carr, Dan Connor and Lawrence Vickers have shown what they can do for a team. Others, like Bernadeau, Livings, and Brodney Pool, look to have been brought in for the perceived upside that, in Garrett's eyes, was frustrated by circumstance but not by desire or effort.
Garrett likes guys who are hungry, who have had to earn everything they've got. He believes players who know what it is to be hungry will remain so, and will continue to push themselves to achieve. He believes that having those kinds of guys on the team will have a positive effect on other players who might not be so inclined.
This speaks to the way JG want to improve the team through free agency. I also think it shows the relationship he wants between free agency and the draft. The draft is where the team can go for the talent upgrades, especially in the early rounds. Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, DeMarco Murray and Tyron Smith are all clear examples of how that can work out. So far, they also seem to fit in with the Cowboy Way, all being hard-working players that are never complacent and that bring great attitudes to practice and games. But that is a difficult thing to judge with college players. The teams spend a lot of time and effort trying to evaluate those intangibles, but you can never be certain. An NCAA player with a great record may flop or go a little nuts when they hit the pressure of the NFL and have cashed a few of those big paychecks. And a player who had some issues off the field in college may turn out to be a total right kind of guy in the pros. You have limited information to work with, and some universities actively seek to keep it limited.
But with free agents, you have a track record. You have people you can go talk to. Contacts in your coaching tree, and in JG5000's case, from his playing days, that can be questioned. Your own staff may have some experience with players you look at (like all the players Rob Ryan coached elsewhere who keep showing up). People you can consult who have a pretty good idea what you are looking for because they face the same issues. It looks like JG and the Dallas staff knew exactly what they were looking for in free agency, and then went out and got it.
You can see all of this in play with the Dallas Cowboys this year. Thanks to that wonderful experience known as the lockout (which I think I once heard someone say sucked), Jason Garrett was limited in putting his stamp on the team and getting his culture established. I think that showed clearly last season. This year, he is making up for lost time. He is molding the team into the kind of organization he wants. And he looks to have everyone on board, including some well-to-do people named Jones.
I think this team is heading in the right direction. I think it going to make the playoffs in 2012 (I like it blue, over lots of ice, thank you.) I am certain that the team is improving.
I'll let Graziano have the last word.
Overcoming adversity certainly wasn't something at which the Cowboys excelled in 2011, and it looks as though the coach wants to get better at it. Whether he succeeds or not, at least Garrett isn't kidding himself about the stuff of which the Cowboys need more.