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Jason Garrett’s leadership, Cowboys depth to be tested by drama-filled training camp

Injuries, suspensions, holdouts and contract concerns have upended a strong offseason for the Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It was only a few weeks ago when the Cowboys departed for Oxnard, California for the team’s 2019 training camp. Things looked bright and orderly at the time. Dallas had completed a solid offseason, adding quality players to an already stocked roster. The biggest camp battles were expected to be for the fifth and sixth wide receiver spots, backup quarterback and defensive line depth. Pretty much all the starters were already determined. Optimism was so high many predicted anything short of an NFC Championship game appearance would result in long-time head coach Jason Garrett’s ouster.

Three weeks and a single preseason game later things look very different and not in a positive way. Normally, when seasons get derailed in training camp it’s because of injuries. Luckily, the Cowboys have not been beset by season-ending ACL tears and such. Instead, much of the uncertainty surrounding the team stems from off-the-field actions. The list of concerning events is a mind-numbing reminder that even the best laid plans can quickly go awry.

Since July 25th the following things have happened:

  1. Free agent defensive end Robert Quinn was suspended for the first two games of the season. He joins fellow defensive end Randy Gregory on the NFL’s suspension list. (Side note: The Cowboys have had, by my count, six different defensive lineman miss the start of the season due to suspension over the last five years.)
  2. All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott refused to report to camp and remains out.
  3. Neither Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones or Maliek Collins has signed a new contract. Each is entering the final year of his deal and most assumed that two or three would have been re-upped by now.
  4. A Twitter war broke out Monday with reports that Prescott demanded $40M per year on his deal. This was swiftly met with insistent denials that such a demand had not been made.
  5. The Cowboys’ front office was then accused of having leaked the false demand in hopes of making their franchise quarterback appear greedy and hopefully turning fans against him. This proved only moderately successful, as many fans did express their anger at Prescott, but many also faulted the front office for such tawdry tactics.

That, in itself, would be enough to create a challenge for Garrett and his coaching staff. No one knows what goes on in the locker room and on the field but it’s safe to say that the razor-sharp, team-oriented focus needed for a high quality training camp is being challenged.

Add to these difficulties the fact that injuries are piling up and seriously testing the team’s depth. The following players are not playing now due to injuries:

  • Amari Cooper
  • Byron Jones
  • Demarcus Lawrence
  • Robert Quinn
  • Zack Martin

Add those names to missing/suspended players (Elliott, Gregory) and, arguably, seven of the team’s 12 best players are not currently playing.

What’s it all mean?

Either one of these situations - injuries and off-field drama - in isolation would not be a huge concern. But combine them and the head coach is suddenly asked to keep a number of juggling balls in the air. What appeared to be smooth seas heading into camp have morphed into stormy waters.

The consistent element in all of this is uncertainty:

  • Will Jones and Lawrence be ready to play week one?
  • Will Randy Gregory see the field - at all - this year?
  • Will Elliott report at any point?
  • Is Cooper’s injury - originally reported as a bruise heel but now reportedly a “ligament thing” - a day-to-day issue or a long-term problem?
  • Is Zack Martin’s back issue going to be an ongoing problem similar to those that have plagued Tyron Smith the last few years?
  • You can add uncertainty about Travis Frederick’s return from Guillain-Barré syndrome to the list.

That’s a lot of questions and it seems highly unlikely they all get positively resolved by the time September 8th arrives. That means some players who weren’t likely to see playing time a few weeks ago could be asked to play significant roles. Alfred Morris, Dorance Armstrong, Xavier Su’a-Filo and others could very well see themselves taking starter’s reps against the Giants. That wasn’t expected three weeks ago.

The biggest obstacle facing Jason Garrett, however, is keeping his team focused. That’s because the uncertainty and emerging bitterness over unresolved contracts is creating real distractions for the players. I’m sure there are those who will insist players can and should let their agents worry about contracts, but that ignores that these are humans and have the same human concerns that you and I have.

Imagine you’re a player and you’re seeing the team’s best players still waiting on new contracts. Then imagine you see reports of the front office distributing disinformation about the team’s quarterback (doesn’t matter if the report is true - it’s still a topic to players and their agents). Imagine, also, if you’re an agent on the receiving end of Monday’s breathless reports of outrageous contractual demands - what are you telling your client about the negotiating practices of the Cowboys?

It’s naive to think that all of this doesn’t create distractions - and potentially distrust - among the players themselves. These are young men playing a violent, unforgiving game where, if you’re lucky, you get one chance at a life-altering contract. You certainly don’t want those young men having concerns about the front office’s honesty in such situations.

Which brings us back to Jason Garrett. He is entering his ninth full season and doesn’t have a lot of big-game skins on the wall. He has, however, developed a culture of accountability and focus. One need only look at the 2015 season for evidence.

The Cowboys entered the season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations which were quickly extinguished when fragile quarterback Tony Romo went down in the season’s second week. The backup options proved inadequate and a promising season quickly went down the drain as the team lost seven consecutive games and 12 of their last 14.

That kind of outcome - a team grossly under-performing versus expectations - often creates a toxic atmosphere of finger-pointing. That did not happen in Dallas. Instead, the team played hard every game. Perhaps most impressively, the locker room never splintered despite the presence of the disruptive Greg Hardy. Despite the mounting losses and the pain of a generally ugly season the players continued to believe in Garrett and respond to his message.

That’s no small feat; many coaches have failed miserably in similar situations.

Well, Garrett is now facing a similar challenge. The test for him (as well as the rest of the coaching staff) will be to keep the players focused on the task at hand and not lose sight of the goal. Luckily, Garrett is an authentic person - he is exactly what he appears to be. The players know, understand and respect this about the coach. This gives the team the foundation to withstand these choppy waters and chart a winning path moving forward.

This is the life of a Dallas Cowboys fan - it’s never easy and never boring. Let’s hope for the best.

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