Century Link Field is widely regarded as the most difficult territory in the league. The Seattle Seahawks pride themselves on their home field advantage. No one gave the 2014 Cowboys a second thought. Once Bobby Wagner cut Tony Romo in half and the ensuing punt was blocked and returned for a touchdown, the writing was on the wall, or at least on the twitter accounts of sportscasters everywhere. No one comes back from that against Seattle, and certainly not the mentally weak Dallas Cowboys and their suspect quarterback.
We all know how that turned out, and a palpable shock ran through the league when the Cowboys undid meme after meme in quick succession. Tony Romo converted a clutch 3rd and 20 on a spectacular play. Dallas then ran the ball down Seattle's throat until DeMarco Murray walked into the end zone for the lead. Tyrone Crawford (who?) pressured Russell Wilson into a back foot throw that Rolando McClain (that quitter?) pulled down in spectacular fashion to seal the victory. The team had arrived.
In fairness to the Dallas media, many had been noting signs of this for a couple of years, but it mystifies me to this day that so many continue to be so obtuse about the secret. They laugh and joke and complain about Jason Garrett's robotic fixation on process and Tony Romo and Dez Bryant's stacking good days on good days. The media continue to treat these as brainless aphorisms in an attempt to avoid direct answers, and so overlook the painfully obvious.
The whole secret to the Garrett led Cowboys is that they really believe what they are saying.
What's past is past. We can't change it, only learn from it. All that matters is what we do now. How can I improve, right here, right now? What's the right thing to do in this moment?
This philosophy is summarized in a story Garrett told at Princeton this off season as he accepted an award for being a distinguished alumnus. It was a variation on a Buddhist parable, which generally runs like this: a man is chased by a tiger to the edge of a cliff. Below him, another tiger awaits. He sees a branch half way down and climbs to it. But two mice begin to gnaw away at it. In the midst of all this, the man sees a strawberry. He eats it and finds it to be amazingly sweet.
The story is not hard to interpret. There are many things beyond our control: the past (the tiger behind us), the future (the tiger in front of us), the inexorable movement of time towards our mortality (the mice), All that matters is what we can control. The strawberries are there. Only in the present can we act and change things for the better, however small those changes may be.
While Buddhism is known for pacifism, this philosophy is also deeply resonant with one of the most famous groups of warriors in history: the Samurai. A famous Samurai named Myamoto Mushashi wrote down what he felt was the essence of sword fighting in A Book of Five Rings. In this work, he wrote one "ring" for each element, but the ultimate "way" he called the "way of the void" in the fifth ring. The way of the void is the absence of worry, fear, want, or dependence on plans, but rather merely seeing the true reality and acting in accord with it. It's all very deep and mystical sounding in a "become one with the universe" sort of thing.
But the practical aspects of it are the same thing found in the parable above, in Garrett's preaching, and in the modern fictional descendants of the Samurai, the Jedi Knights. George Lucas based his mythical laser swordsmen on the real Japanese ones of Mushashi's time. And their thoughts could easily be found running around Cowboys training camp, I'd wager. "Do. Or do not. There is no 'try'." Certainly you could hear Marinelli saying that to a linebacker minutes before telling the media that he doesn't "do confidence."
But the insistence on the present, letting go of the past and the future and concentrating on the task at hand is what Garrett really preaches, and it is the essence of the Jedi as well. Luke Skywalker has all the ability in the world, but he is held back by his constant worrying. "All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was... what he was doing." In the Empire Strikes Back, his constant worrying kept him from developing into someone who could help his friends, and instead he very nearly ended all of their lives by falling into his (spoiler alert) father's trap.
What does all this have to do with football? Well, I would ask, what makes a team mentally weak? The situation gets too big. The pressure and the score and the down and distance and the crowd and the injuries all pile up. But right now, says Garrett, all that matters is this moment... this yard line...This man across from you who has your strawberries. Are you going to take them back, or not?