ARLINGTON (AP) – Jason Garrett is constantly encouraging the Dallas Cowboys to stack good days together and offering the tools to help.
The work day starts earlier than it did under predecessor Wade Phillips. Everyone must hustle from drill to drill on the practice field. Rules are clearly defined, as are the punishments. They’re enforced, too.
All sorts of sayings are used repeatedly to build a certain mindset, including a line about adversity coming in every game, so be ready to do something about it.
Garrett admits the concepts aren’t new. But they are new to this team this season, and so are the results.
The same guys who went 1-7 under Phillips are 2-0 for Garrett and finally playing like the Super Bowl contenders they were billed to be, just in time to face the reigning Super Bowl champion Saints on Thursday.
“I’m sure in their mind, they’re preaching that they’re 2-0 right now,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. “They’re not talking about the 1-7. ‘We’re undefeated.’ That gives you a lot of confidence as you move forward.”
The confidence comes from Garrett.
He’s upbeat, in control and has won everyone over with immediate results. The turnaround seems to trace more to the new approach and attitude than to tweaks in schemes, play-calling and substitution patterns.
“It starts with him, he lays it out — how we’re going to practice, how we’re going to do walkthroughs, how we’re going to play the game,” tight end Jason Witten said. “He’s given us a winning way, so to speak, of what we’re going to try to do. Guys have really taken that to the field. It hasn’t always been perfect. I mean, there’s been adversity that’s hit. Fortunately, we’ve been able to overcome it, when in the past it’s kind of snowballed on us the other way.”
Witten offered up a single play to emphasize the then-and-now difference for this club: a screen pass to Felix Jones.
Under Phillips, one or two of the 11 guys on the field messed something up every time that play was run, limiting Jones’ longest reception to 25 yards with no receiving touchdowns. In Garrett’s debut — against the Giants, who had the NFL’s top-rated defense at the time — everyone held their blocks, no one drew a penalty and Jones went 71 yards for a touchdown.
Coincidence? Or a byproduct of better attention to detail, of good days stacked together?
“That’s really what it’s about, us making plays,” linebacker Bradie James said. “Things got stale, you can see that. Garrett has done a great job of coming in and finding a way to push guys, motivate guys.”
The poster child for making plays is Bryan McCann, the guy who returned an interception 101 yards for a pivotal touchdown in Garrett’s debut victory, then alertly picked up a batted punt and returned it 97 yards for a go-ahead touchdown against Detroit this past Sunday.
But it’s not just him. Rookie linebacker Sean Lee is playing more and he forced a key fumble against the Lions. It was recovered by Jason Hatcher, who is filling in for an injured starter and fighting back from his own injury. And then there’s 38-year-old quarterback Jon Kitna, who is filling in for injured starter Tony Romo.
Garrett can only hope his Thanksgiving coaching debut turns out as well as his only start on the holiday.
In 1994, Troy Aikman was hurt and so was backup Rodney Peete, forcing the Cowboys to rely on Garrett, the weak-armed third-stringer. He threw for a career-best 311 yards and two touchdowns to lead Dallas past Brett Favre, Reggie White and the Packers.
Talk about handling adversity: the Cowboys were trailing 17-3 before Garrett led them to 36 points after halftime, a franchise record at the time.
“That day was a good example for me of the importance of everyone staying together and just continuing to play and maybe good things will start to happen,” Garrett said.
The Saints (7-3) are thriving despite a lengthy medical report. They could have running back Reggie Bush and safety Darren Sharper back Thursday, but have done just fine without them with a 4-1 stretch that includes every win by at least 10 points.
New Orleans was 13-0 last season when Dallas went to the Superdome on a Saturday night and won 24-17, jumpstarting a run to the division title.
The Saints would’ve loved to get payback by knocking off a Cowboys team that was playing more meaningful games, but can settle for trying to rub some of the shine off their new interim coach.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton was once Garrett’s position coach on the New York Giants. Payton has become a mentor and close friend to Garrett.
“Aside from this game, I wish him all the luck in the world,” Payton said.
Payton also used to be an assistant coach for the Cowboys, which leads to yet another subplot, one involving a bottle of Jerry Jones’ favorite wine, Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon.
Payton and Saints staffers were at an Indianapolis steakhouse during the scouting combine in February when the coach ordered that particular wine. Told the last bottle was being saved for Jones, Payton talked his way into getting it. Once drained, Payton signed the label of the bottle along with the accompanying message, “WHO DAT! World Champions XLIV” with orders for it to be delivered to Jones when his party arrived the next night.
Hmm. Wonder if that goes well with turkey.
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