The great Yogi Berra once said "Ninety percent of this game is half mental". He was talking about baseball, of course, but the quote stands for any sport.
The Dallas Cowboys are headed to New Jersey to play the New York Giants, the team that finally knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs. Given that the victory by the Giants led to them hoisting another Lombardi Trophy (one day it will not hurt to say that - one day), that end to the season left a horribly bitter taste in the mouths of the Cowboys organization.
Last season, the Cowboys were a team that wore down repeatedly in the fourth quarter. While part of this may be attributed to conditioning, and addressed through more physical practices as Jason Garrett has tried to do, it can also be an issue with mental toughness. There is little question that Dallas at the least appeared to be soft last year. There were times when it seemed you could feel the games slipping away from them. A writer in New York even put up an article about the Giants owning the Cowboys.
"A little bit," Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz said when asked if the Giants own Dallas. "If we can just extend our play from last year the way we played against them - we got a pretty good beat on what they like to do. We just want to continue to play well, play the same way we've been playing and take it from there."
That may make you mad, if you are a Cowboys fan like most of the readers here. But can you really dispute it? Dallas has, quite frankly, sucked against the NFC East in recent years, particularly the Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles.
While the main focus in looking at teams is talent, I think the way teams are thinking, their attitude and their belief, or lack of belief, in themselves can mean the difference. You can't make any objective, quantifiable measurement of this. It all has to be indirectly observed and read. What are the indications right now about the mental readiness of the Cowboys to face the Giants, and the rest of the season?
My take after the jump.
Jason Garrett has never been an issue in this area, at least from my vantage point. But defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was in 2011. He came in with a lot of bluster, but then failed to live up to the talk. He does seem to have learned. He has been much more subdued this year, all as part of an overriding theme of "do it on the field" that has run all through the offseason and pre-season. What he has said has also followed the party line coming out of Valley Ranch.
"Hell, it knocked us out of the playoffs," he said. "Obviously I took offense to it. I had a lot to do with it and I don't want that to happen again. Did it ruin my off-season? No. They were the best team in the league. They won the Super Bowl. Do I plan to do something about it? Yeah. We plan on getting a hell of a lot better."
That is a message that I think can get a team headed in the right direction. No big claims. Just a focus on doing better.
What about the players? Well, the same kind of talk has been coming from the team. You can find a lot of examples, but some of the latest have come off Twitter.
Barry Church says he is ready to build on preseason success and prove doubters wrong dating back to going undrafted out of Toledo— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) September 4, 2012
Cowboys CB Brandon Carr on Wednesday night's game: "I’m ready to show the other 30 teams what’s been brewing within this locker room."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 3, 2012
Kyle Wilber said he could get a pin taken out of his wrist as soon as tomorrow. Would be able to practice with a "Sean Lee club"— Rowan Kavner (@KavnerDC) September 3, 2012
Asked #Cowboys TE Jason Witten why didn't he have his spleen removed. You don't really need it: "Nah, that's 10-12 week recovery." He knew!— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 3, 2012
Players are ready to go prove themselves. They are fighting to contribute. And Jason Witten just continues to show everyone else how it is done.
One thing is for sure, no matter how many injuries or issues the Cowboys have, there is no sense of a cowed or self-doubting team. We of course have to see what happens when they take the field on Wednesday, but it is looking like this is going to be one heck of a fight. Dallas may lose as many games as it did in 2011. But I don't think that it is going to be because they were not mentally tough enough.
That's just me trying to get into their head, of course. I may be misreading it, but that is the way I think it is. We'll find out soon enough.