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Rebuilding In The Offseason Is Not Just About Team Structure For Dallas Cowboys

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While the team is undergoing a lot of changes to improve this season, the players in many cases are working hard to be individually better as well.

Ronald Martinez

For pro football fans, the offseason is like a barren desert, desolate and parched, with only the hope of the coming season to draw us onward.

OK. Maybe that metaphor is just a tad overwrought, but you know what I mean. As fans, we miss football, and are counting the days until things get back into full swing, even with the knowledge that most teams will not be successful. After all, we are all convinced that the other teams will have a bad year, but not out own.

But for the players, football is really a year round job. Even though the CBA has put some serious limits on contact between the coaching staff and the players in the offseason, the players, or at least the smart and motivated ones, are still out there working hard to be better in the coming year, some by overcoming injuries, and others just seeking how to be better, stronger, and faster than they were.

One player the Cowboys really need to see come back improved is Matt Johnson, who missed his entire rookie season. He is the presumptive starter at free safety right now and the team hopes he can nail the job down, rather than go with free agent signee Will Allen. Johnson started behind the power curve with the Cowboys due to league rules that kept him out of OTAs in 2012 because of the schedule at his college, where he was still in classes. Then he hurt his hamstring (part of the 4,368 hamstring injures suffered by the Cowboys last season, or so it felt like) not once but twice. Now, he has made some changes to his conditioning program and is coming in a little lighter as well.

"We've done more hamstring work instead of putting on 400 pounds and squatting," Johnson said Tuesday after the Cowboys' first organized team activity practice. "When I was in college, I did that some. When you get to the pros, and playing at safety, I don't need to squat 500 pounds. We did more position specific and more dynamic work. You don't need to be a bodybuilder to play football. I was big enough."

Johnson said he's lost three or four pounds and weighs about 212 now.

"I feel better at that weight. This league is all about running," Johnson said. "Obviously you have to be big, too, but on the back end, you have to run a lot."

We still have to see if all this pays off, but there is a lot of hope, and things are off to a good start. Johnson is already getting some nice reviews, including from cornerback Morris Claiborne, who is quoted at the end of that article. And Claiborne is another Cowboy who has done some personal adjusting and tuning.

Claiborne worked all offseason on getting stronger, going from 187 pounds last season to 193 pounds at the start of this year's Organized Team Activities. Now he's learning how to move around and keep his speed with the added weight.

Claiborne was another 2012 rookie who was limited in his preseason work, in his case by wrist surgery after college and an MCL problem in camp. Jerome Henderson flatly stated that there were certain techniques that Claiborne could not execute due to a lack of strength. The model the Cowboys are using for their defensive backs are the Seattle Seahawks, who have a lot of physicality in the secondary (and the defensive line is studying what Rod Marinelli was doing with the Chicago Bears). Now Claiborne has put on some muscle and is ready to build on what was generally a successful first year.

The second year players aren't the only ones coming in with a different approach to things. Dez Bryant had by far the best year of his young career in 2012, but as further evidence of his growth and maturity, he is not going to rely on the status quo.

"Just being able to run all day," Bryant said. "I hear coach talk about it all the time, and that's one of my goals."

That coach he refers to? That would be Jason Garrett, and what he was talking about was how Michael Irvin would stay after everyone else had left practice to keep working. This ability to outlast all the rest strongly impressed Garrett, who was often there with Irvin so he had someone to throw him passes.

Bryant has obviously absorbed that lesson, and is molding himself to be more like one of the all time greats. That will not only pay dividends on the field, but it is certainly going to catch that coach's eye.

In a larger sense, this is one of the key elements of the RKG concept. Garrett is looking for the players that go a step further, that seek to be better players on their own, and that put in the work to make it happen. He operates on the principle that if he puts a team composed of those kinds of people together, they will be winners. And while there is the zombie-like meme of no leadership on the Cowboys, seeing players like Bryant take this kind of approach should be more than enough evidence that there is very strong and influential leadership present at Valley Ranch. It may not be exhibited in histrionics on the field, but it is likely more effective. These three players are examples of how it works.

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