The Dallas Cowboys start their 2010 training camp this weekend, beginning today with Jerry Jones' annual kickoff celebration. It's a lavish, self-indulgent celebration, but it's one that fans just love to eat up. The players will be introduced like rock stars and I'm certain that Jerry Jones will announce to the crowd at some point just how great this team is. I hope the "S.B." phrase isn't mentioned, but I'm sure it will be.
We've seen this celebration every summer for the past few years. This time it just feels a bit different.
In the midst of a great summer by the Texas Rangers, training camp for the Cowboys has sneaked up on us a bit. In talking with several of my colleagues as well as some fellow sports fans, most of us were certainly caught a bit off-guard that camp is starting this weekend. True, camp starts a bit early this year for the Cowboys but it almost seems that after the middle of June the Cowboys just dropped off the sports landscape for a month or so.
That's a good thing. In fact, I would say that's a great thing.
Two years ago, the Dallas Cowboys entered training camp as Super Bowl favorites. Coming off a 13-win season, the Cowboys were bigger than they had been in over a decade. The city was crazed to see what the team could do after such a promising season the year before, the media was in love with what seemed to be a great team and Jerry Jones and his cast of characters pulled no punches while basking in the spotlight.
Terrell Owens, Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and even a young Martellus Bennett were perfect examples that summer of what would go wrong with the Cowboys during the 2008 season. With HBO's Hard Knocks cameras documenting every move during training camp, we watched a seemingly talented team go through the motions oozing confidence and cockiness.
That was a team that was talented and they knew it. They were pumped and ready for the Super Bowl, they just had to get that pesky regular season out of the way.
Sixteen regular-season games later, the Cowboys are watching the playoffs from home while wondering what happened to such a promising season. Sure, we could point to Romo's injury that hurt the team in the middle of the season, but there's no doubt that all along there just wasn't something right with that team. The Cowboys acted like the rich, spoiled kid who gets everything he wants without working for it; the Cowboys wanted glory without having to earn it first.
In football, success doesn't come from talent alone. It's taken Jerry Jones over 15 years to remember that after Jimmy Johnson's departure, and the way that 2008 season ended served as a wake-up call. He realized that while the Cowboys were certainly talented, this team also needed to have the right attitude -- the right brand of cohesiveness -- in order to take the next step.
Goodbye T.O. Goodbye Pacman. Goodbye Greg Ellis. Goodbye Tank.
The Cowboys didn't make any splashes in free agency last summer, but Jerry focused on adding players and coaches that knew that a team-first approach was the first key to success in football. Keith Brooking has been an inspiring revelation for the entire team, while Gerald Sensabaugh has shown what great play at safety can do for a defense. Jon Kitna has embraced his backup quarterback role while providing a much better relief option should Romo stumble, certainly an improvement over Brad Johnson.
Joe DeCamillis was the final piece of the puzzle. A coach that commands respect and inspires the entire team, not just his special teams squad. His presence on the sideline last season had a resounding effect on every single player on the Dallas Cowboys, an inspiring coach who knows how to get the most out of every single one of his players.
Jerry knew that he had to change the overall attitude of his team for the Cowboys to be successful, and it paid off last season with the first playoff win for Dallas since 1996.
The Cowboys have proven this offseason that the lessons they learned last year have stuck, and that they are intent on maintaining that perfect attitude that every successful team has. No doubt that this is a supremely confident team, but also one filled with players who understand what happens when you aren't ready to fight and to earn on the field the right to make it out of the regular season.
Following such a successful season, with the immediate future so bright, this offseason has been one of the quietest for the Cowboys I can remember. The biggest fuss about the team this summer was over the decision to part ways with Ken Hamlin and Flozell Adams, two overpaid and underachieving veterans -- if that's all we have, then this team is in the right place moving forward.
Of course there was the Dez Bryant drama immediately after the draft, with Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd acting out a bit after their egos were bruised. I'm sure that the national media was just foaming at the mouth, ready to pounce on any hint of controversy at Valley Ranch and for a week it seemed we were back in old times again. Yet I would venture to say that drama proved what is so great about this team; instead of dragging things out, Crayton and Hurd came to their senses and were there for all of the minicamps.
After yesterday's news that Dez Bryant was the first first-round draft pick to sign with his team, ensuring he would be there for the start of training camp this weekend, there was no more doubt in my mind that this Cowboys team has done everything imaginable to avoid the disappointment of the 2008 season.
Before he even took a snap in the NFL many were painting Bryant as the next T.O.; a talented but immature player who's off field issues overshadows his accomplishments on the field. Yet by making sure he's there from day one -- and likely being a bit underpaid in the process -- Bryant has shown that he's focused on the team and football, not the big paycheck.
This is essentially the exact same team from last season, and it could be argued that overall the Cowboys are even more talented. The Dallas Cowboys are heavy favorites to head to the Super Bowl and many are even saying that Romo has a good chance at MVP this season. Ordinarily, all of this praise would have me running for the hills in panic.
Yet the attitude is different. This is a focused team and it all starts with Romo. He was the guy who called Miles Austin and told him to get to Valley Ranch for workouts and to stop the nonsense in Los Angeles. He was the facilitator who brought Crayton and Hurd back to the team. He's now the unquestioned leader of the Dallas Cowboys, and he's as talented and as focused as he's ever been.
The Dallas Cowboys fans may be weary of all of the praise heaped upon this team, yet this season the Cowboys are prepared. This isn't a team that is just waiting for the Super Bowl, this is a team that is hungry for Week 1 and the Washington Redskins, and is focused on nothing else.
That's the perfect attitude to have.