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Blowing up the meme: Cowboys’ leadership on full display Monday night

Sensationalist reporters like to criticize the culture in Dallas. Maybe they should take another look.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s put this right up front: This is not an article about the politics of kneeling during the national anthem. It’s not meant to prolong the debate about protesting societal racism versus honoring the flag and veterans. Please put all that aside for a bit.

This is about leadership and culture. Specifically, it is about those things and the Dallas Cowboys. And how the popular view held by so many about the lack of one and the negative nature of the other is, like so many things everyone “knows” about America’s Team, absolutely wrong. The proof happened last Monday night.

Without going into the details you can find in so many other places, like here, or here, or here, let’s just acknowledge that the whole anthem protest issue has become a big thing for the NFL, leading to anger, conflict, and even calls to boycott the league. In the week 3 games, the teams all felt pressure to respond in some way. It was in many aspects a no-win situation for them, since so many observers have taken very hard stances about the controversy, and are often not even willing to consider opposing points of view. The Cowboys, like all the rest of the franchises, had to come up with a response (and even trying to ignore things would have been a response in itself). Dallas did have the advantage of watching everyone else go first. But even given that, they came up with a remarkable response, where everyone, including the Jones family, joined arms, knelt in a moment of prayer and recognition of then original protest, then stood as one for the national anthem. While not everyone was satisfied (which was pretty much impossible), most were impressed with the gesture. So much so, it is now being looked at as a model by other teams.

That is leadership. The whole Cowboys response was due to leadership. Reports before the Monday night game indicated that everyone was involved. Jerry Jones and his family, the coaching staff, the team’s leadership council, and all the players communicated with one another. Really communicated, so that the concerns of all were heard and addressed. While you may disagree, I felt it was the best approach to this anyone has yet come up with.

The key here is that oft-maligned culture in Dallas and the leaders involved. They all played a big role.

It all starts with the owner, Jerry Jones. Community member and BTB staff alumnus Jim Scott wrote a Fanpost about his role in all this which is worth a read. Here is one excerpt.

Into this charged atmosphere stepped Jerry Jones. We need not speculate on who belonged to the camps he addressed or how many belonged to each side, because Jones solved the issue with a diplomacy worthy of the world stage. He got one side to say "we'll stand with you out of respect if you'll kneel with us out of understanding" and the other side to agree. And so the Cowboys sent their message: whatever our differences, we are one team. We stand together out of respect for the ideals of this country, but one of the most fundamental of those ideals is that we are all entitled to our own ideas.

While that may put more credit solely on Jones’ shoulders than is provable, since we don’t know who first came up with the idea, it does acknowledge that this could not have happened without his full support. And it is very significant that he became the first owner to take a knee at all. That was a remarkable show of solidarity with the players.

What so many fail to understand is that it is perfectly in character for Jones. He is the only owner who serves as his own general manager. That means that he has far more interaction with his players and coaches than any of the other suits in suites who collectively make billions off the games. Simply put, he comes closer to understanding the men on his roster than any other owner can hope. It doesn’t hurt that he played the game at a high level as well, being part of a national champion team at the University of Arkansas (where he also played alongside a certain Jimmy Johnson). Jones has a true respect for his players, and that respect is largely reciprocated by the men who wear the Star on the field. It enabled the process of coming up with the Dallas response. Indeed, it was crucial.

As for the idea of unity, we must look to another often criticized figure. Head coach Jason Garrett has preached that as part of his philosophy from the first moment he was named to the position. One of his leading mantras is “The team, the team, the team”, and in that response, the Dallas Cowboys showed that it is not just a hollow slogan. It is the way they do business, day in and day out. Presenting one message to the world was one of the main objectives. They certainly accomplished that. You can be sure that Garrett was pushing for that all along.

For the players, it is interesting to consider who the senior leaders are for the team. On offense, the two most respected players may well be Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. The defense appears to look to Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick. That is an interesting quartet. Evenly split by race, all four are seen as dedicated to their craft, extremely hard working (all are frequently seen putting in more work than most), repeatedly willing to play through injury to help their team, and, in their own ways, extremely passionate about the game and their own values. You can be sure that theirs were four of the most listened-to voices by all sides. They were surely instrumental in making sure everyone was aboard.

One other point about leadership needs to be mentioned. Many mistakenly think that leadership means telling people what to do or else, and having them jump to it. If you’ve spent any time in an organization of any size, you have experienced that model. And you probably saw how poorly it can work. True leadership involves getting people to buy into the goals and objectives of the organization. Coercion, like the threat of being fired for noncompliance, only works to a degree, and usually gets the minimum effort to avoid sanction. The Cowboys are built on the foundation of selling the goals to the entire team and getting a voluntary commitment to them. That’s why you never see the staff call out players publicly. It is also why the team supports its players, even when it comes at a cost in the public eye.

This is where the culture of the Cowboys comes in. What happened Monday was not something that could grow out of a group of out-of-control, selfish players. It came from a team that was not just making a show of unity. It was because the unity is real. The members of the Cowboys truly believe in each other, the coaching staff, and the ownership. As we saw from some of the other responses and some other things in the games of week 3, that is not something all other NFL teams have achieved.

Public and media perception of the Cowboys has been quite different for some time now. For the moment, that has been severely challenged by what the team accomplished Monday night. Of course, as soon as something negative happens, as it does at some time with every team in the league, the meme will be quickly resurrected.

But for a few moments, the world saw the truth about Dallas. The leadership is real. The culture is strong and mostly positive. Nothing is perfect. But for the Cowboys, things are good. In some ways, they are arguably the best in the NFL.

Ed. note: We’ll leave the comments open on this one to start, but reserve the right to close them. We ask that this not turn into a heated political or cultural debate. Most people have firmly decided where they stand on this issue, so really this is more about how the Cowboys handled a difficult situation in a very good way. They may not have pleased everyone, but they sure listened to all sides and tried their best to compromise and represent all views. — Dave Halprin

Ed. note part two: The comments immediately went into politics, societal issues and personal agendas. So I’m going to go ahead and close the comments on this. We will probably veer away from this story as much as possible and stick to football, there are plenty of other sites around for conversation and debate about this. I’d just rather keep this site focused on football as much as possible. Thanks everyone! —- Dave Halprin

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