Garrett's star on the rise, but what's in store for 2011?

James D. Smith / Associated Press
Jason Garrett might not be best friends with his players, but he seemingly has their respect.

The bar's always been higher in Dallas, and Jerry Jones and Co. know it.

That's why this season has been more than just disappointing for the Cowboys. It's been downright embarrassing for everyone involved.

And that's how the players used the bottoming-out in Green Bay on Nov. 7, and the house-cleaning the next day, to pull themselves from the ashes of a lost season. They'll never get back what they lost in a 1-7 start, which was the much ballyhooed chance to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium, and give their boss' $1.2 billion palace the grandest of introductions to those still unfamiliar with Cowboys Stadium.

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But this 4-2 run has afforded them the chance to regain something else, and that's their pride as players and a team. That mark has been achieved despite a coaching staff shakeup that prompted a philosophical change on defense, and an injury that cost the offense its triggerman.

So if there's anything you can say now, it's that these Cowboys are no longer the soulless bunch that staggered through the early parts of the year aimlessly and without purpose. That much should be on display in Arizona on Christmas night, and it has been for six weeks running.

"The low point was when Wade got fired," said captain and inside linebacker Bradie James, a ninth-year Cowboy. "It wasn't just the Green Bay game. There were several events leading up to the day he got fired. We were at the midpoint of the season, and we'd been working since March. And Wade was a two-headed monster -- he was the head coach and defensive coordinator.

"You had to question the direction of our team. It was one of the lowest days I've had in sports."

All of this most certainly has to do with Garrett. Players and coaches who'd been around the Phillips-era Cowboys will tell you that, despite the fact that their ex-colleague was a good football man, the environment he fostered was permissive for a talented group that was prone to take advantage of that.

Phillips showed his chops in his first year, going 13-3 with a team that still had the disciplinary grounding of Bill Parcells' program. But as Parcells' lessons faded in the memory, so did guts of the team he built. Phillips was able to restore it to some degree by bringing in "program" guys like Keith Brooking, Igor Olshansky and Gerald Sensabaugh in 2009, yet he never had the force to steady the ship through rocky waters.

That was evidenced by the collapse of the 2008 team, and then this year's club's disintegration.

Maybe that's where Garrett has made the biggest difference. Guys are being held accountable for their mistakes, and there's no one making excuses for poor performance.

It was rocky at first, but riding out the culture shakeup that Garrett instituted -- fully padded practices, strict dress code on trips to and from road games -- seems to have better equipped players to deal with the ups and downs of the season.

Word out of Dallas was, when Garrett got the job, he wasn't the most popular person in the locker room, and the offense's uneven start to the season wouldn't help him win folks over. He's found a way, though, to get the team's respect.

"I just think it's been a combination of things -- the structure and everyone's on the same page now, as far as being organized, as far as discipline, and as far as the way we play the game," James said. "It hasn't been easy. But defensively, we didn't know much about Jason, since he'd been coaching the offense. To have input, and have him talking to us, we hadn't done that. We hadn't had much interaction with him from an expectations standpoint, period.

"He came in very organized, very black and white in what we needed to do and how it was going get accomplished. And it changed. Everything changed."

It sure did. On top of the four wins in six games since, the Cowboys have risen from 10th to seventh in total offense, despite having Jon Kitna and not Tony Romo running the show. The defense hasn't experienced the same ascension (dropping to 25th from 17th), but is playing better situationally and with more passion.

But the difference in discipline really shows up best in the club's turnover margin. Dallas was tied for 30th in the NFL in that category on the day Phillips got his walking papers, with a minus-seven ratio. The Cowboys have since pulled that number to zero.

So even if Garrett wasn't making friends, he was making a difference.

"I had no idea about anyone like or not liking Garrett," said James. "He's a coach, and my job is to go out and perform and do what's asked of me. As far as who likes who, this isn't a popularity contest. It's about winning, and things had gotten so out of whack that we absolutely had to do what we had to do. We had to buy into it. If not, we were going to lose every game."

In a nutshell, the Cowboys prevented a bad situation from getting worse, and Garrett's done plenty to earn himself a shot at the job full-time.

Whether or not he'll get that assignment in a couple weeks remains open for question, particularly with Jones favorites like John Fox and Jeff Fisher potentially hitting the market. But he's clearly done what was asked, and dispelled Jones' long-held notion that interim coaches are doomed to fail.

Is he the right man going forward?

"It's very difficult to answer that, because first of all, I'm not in a position to say," James said. "But right now, you gotta roll with what you have."

And Garrett's proven that the Cowboys still have plenty to get by with, even if didn't look like it for the first two months of the season.

Going deep

Almost every team has its injury problems. Part of winning in the NFL, in fact, is how you deal with those. The Packers, safe to say, have done better than most, and it's not just in the way their offense responded with a backfield full of backups last Sunday night in Foxboro.

It's also how the defense has dealt with those kinds of issues all season long. Four of the 11 players that started on opening day for Dom Capers are now on injured reserve, and the defense has had injuries in spots that have compounded the problem on a week-to-week basis.

Yet, the Packers are tied with the Steelers atop the NFL in scoring defense, and they rank seventh in total defense despite all the upheaval. And there's plenty in that for Capers to be proud of.

"You gotta have flexibility in your system," said Capers, as he prepared for the Giants on Thursday night. "So if you lose key guys, you can make adjustments, and not just ask new guys to do the things you'd ask the vets to do. A guy like Nick Barnett, we'd do stuff where we'd feature him, like we do with Clay Matthews, and now we've had to adjust.

"We played the first Minnesota game with three linemen, because Cullen Jenkins pulled a muscle after we turned the inactive list in and Ryan Pickett got hurt in the game. So we had to have an outside linebacker playing some snaps at defensive end. But you don't ask those guys to do the same things. You look at who's available and you build around those guys."

The second component to dealing with injuries, Capers said, is simpler.

"The attitude of the players is, 'We don't make a big deal out of injuries,'" said Capers. "If you're in that room, you're expected to perform, and if you don't, you're letting everyone down. It's easy to play the victim. We aren't doing that."

I know the truth ...

As good as the Baltimore Ravens are, at 10-4, they could be that much better. And no less of an authority than offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's mother has pointed it out.

"She said that same thing. And my dad and my daughter and my son, too. It really is that simple," said Cameron. "And the good news is that last week, there were times when we were dominant, and we were still very close to scoring two more touchdowns, an inch or two away from one and a mistake away on another. That can work to our advantage, keeping guys motivated, and what better time to (put it all together) than now?"

If you examine the Ravens' four losses, you see three defeats to elite teams that Baltimore, at one point or another, appeared to have beaten. They held a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in New England, they staged a dramatic comeback in Atlanta, and they were a strip-sack away from sweeping the Steelers.

"It wouldn't matter how well we're perceived, we always want to be better," said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. "We're critical of ourselves, and as a Raven organization, we have a high bar set for our defense and our team. We have to compare ourselves to the best, we prepare to be the best, and I'd agree that there are times where we've felt like we're one, two, three plays away from being able to say, 'Boy, that was a dominant effort.

"We haven't reached the point where we're as good as we want to be. But we've been very, very close at times."

Now, there are a few reasons why the Ravens are a team to believe in going forward, and I believe they have as good a chance as anyone to get to Jerry's Big House in Arlington in January. It starts with the fact that this club is still ascending and hasn't hit its ceiling.

But then, there's also the fact this particular group of players has more skins on the wall than it is given credit for. Would you believe the Ravens have more playoff wins the last two years than New England and Indianapolis combined? That's even harder to believe when you consider all three of those postseason victories were achieved away from M&T Bank Stadium.

I don't know a thing ...

About when a new CBA will be reached. And anyone, at this point, who tells you they do is lying.

The harsh reality is that, with the clock ticking toward the March 3 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement, both sides are gearing up for an awfully lengthy battle.

A week and a half ago, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith held a conference call with about 30 select and high-profile agents, primarily because the union wants those guys involved and many had been trying to get answers from Smith.

They got answers, alright.

"He basically said it's not going good," said one agent on the call. "And he said the most important thing is that we encourage our clients to save their last few checks."

That, of course, is what we've been hearing from Smith for some time. There was also some new material.

Smith was asked directly about the optimism from some owners on the prospect of a deal before the Super Bowl, and responded succinctly. He told the agents he didn't "have a clue where that's coming from," and that there wasn't much to feel good about on the labor front at this point.

The other piece of news, which was totally expected, was Smith's announcement to those listening that he now "has the authority" to put a decertification into motion, which is one method the union could use to leverage the league and expedite the process.

Smith also briefed the agents on the big issues at hand. First, said Smith, is the owners' desire to increase the money exempt from revenue calculations, used to figure the players' take, from $1 billion to $2 billion. In that vein, to figure the revenue numbers and see where the owners are, Smith added that he's still trying to get them to open their books.

Finally, there are the well-documented disagreements over the rookie wage scale and the 18-game season. Smith explained that the union couldn't concede the rookie salary issue without getting something in return, while also making sure that the money saved was properly distributed, and emphasized the tough sell that the 18-game season has been to players, with NFLPA studies showing it would add 250,000 additional head hits to a season.

So hunker down for this one, folks. There's no end in sight.

First ...

With Urban Meyer out at Florida, this time seemingly for certain, and two national titles in the rear-view mirror, the coach's legacy figures to live on in the NFL. And this year's rookie class looks like one heck of a group to be carrying the torch.

All nine of the players the Gators had drafted last April have serious roles. Maurkice Pouncey might be the best rookie center to come out in a decade, and cornerback Joe Haden (five interceptions) would be a Defensive Rookie of the Year contender if this wasn't the first season of Ndamukong Suh. Meawhile, Bengals second-round pick Carlos Dunlap has seven sacks in just 10 games, and Patriots fourth-rounder Aaron Hernandez, a highly regarded tight end who tumbled because of character concerns, has been a revelation with 45 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes (before his PED suspension) also carved out starting roles for 12-2 New England, and Major Wright and Riley Cooper have roles for division-leading teams in Chicago and Philadelphia. It's interesting that it's taken longest for the most famous member of the group, Tim Tebow, to get a lot of run, but he flashed that athleticism on Sunday.

And then, you have two undrafted guys, in Brandon James (a return man for Indy) and David Nelson (31 catches, touchdowns the last three weeks), and it's pretty easy for me to see why Meyer, when I sat in his office in April, called this group "special."

"It's the perfect storm of good situations those guys landed in," an AFC scout said. "They're getting coached in a way they respond to, they're getting on the field early, and they're playing and putting up numbers. But it's really that those guys are talented. Hugely talented."

That said, our scout stopped short of saying this is like the Miami classes of 2001-'04. This group falls a bit short of that one in top-end talent, but is incredibly deep with quality.

... and 10

1. The Colts made the right decision by Austin Collie on Wednesday, placing the second-year slot receiver on injured reserve after he suffered his third concussion of the season. Brain injuries aren't to be fought through, and Indianapolis deserves credit for not holding out hope that Collie might return at some point during the playoffs. Underscoring their approach in decision-making is, most certainly, the important role that Collie plays on that team. With Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez already done for the year, the number of receivers that Peyton Manning can really count on in that rhythm-based offense has dwindled, and there's an increased opportunity for everyone else to key on Reggie Wayne. And you could see the repercussions as soon as Collie went out on Sunday. Manning's passer rating prior to Collie going out dropped precipitously after his departure (114.1 to 86.5), as did his yards per attempt (6.15 to 5.25). Wayne had two catches for 10 yards after Collie went out. It'd be silly to count Manning out at this point, but getting Collie back -- remember, he can replicate some of the things Clark did -- was one reason to think Indianapolis could catch fire, and now that one's gone.

2. After spending some time in Minnesota over the last few weeks, it was interesting to see how one roadblock the Vikings face in getting financing for a new stadium is a lack of support from a public sector that's been NFL-crazy for a long time. Probably says more about the times than anything else, but with the Metrodome having lost its "baggy" and eight games (10, including preseason) remaining on the local football club's lease, there's at least some reason for concern in the Twin Cities. First thing to remember is that the NFL considers Minneapolis one of its stronger markets, because of a) the outsized number of corporate headquarters located there for a moderately-sized metro area and b) the fact that cold-weather cities are normally strongholds and Minneapolis always has been. The second thing to look at is whether or not this could become the next Cleveland. In the early 1990s, the Browns sat on the sideline and watched as the Indians and Cavaliers planned, built and moved into new facilities. An extenuating circumstance -- a broke owner -- pushed that one over the edge. Likewise, the Vikings watched old co-tenants from the Twins and University of Minnesota plan, build and move into new places. The broke stadium, like the broke owner was for Cleveland, could be the final straw.

3. The Cincinnati Enquirer re-printed a series of open letters from 2002 to Bengals owner Mike Brown penned by ex-players like Bob Trumpy, Dave Lapham and Solomon Wilcots. And when it came to turning the franchise's fortunes around, a consensus was reached, one most folks who follow the team would agree with -- hiring a general manager. Technically, the team has one, and that's Brown himself. How's that working out? Well, the Bengals have had three winning seasons in the 20 under Brown's lead, and have put together a 114-204 (.358 winning percentage) record in that time. Change is coming again. Marvin Lewis, Brown's fourth head-coaching hire, has two games left on his contract and very well could be at the end of the line. If this is it for Lewis, he'll be replaced perhaps by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer or Raiders offensive coordinator (and ex-Bengal assistant) Hue Jackson. But the bigger question would be whether or not the hires go beyond that, and it'll be interesting to see if it's tough for Brown to get his man without changing those conditions.

4. A few weeks back, after posting consecutive wins to climb to 2-8, Bills safety Donte Whitner told me his team's goal was to become the first team to make it to 8-8 after starting 0-8. That ship has, of course, sailed, but the team has won four of six, and is one bad Steve Johnson drop from sitting at a respectable 5-9 right now. That's progress for the new regime, headed by GM Buddy Nix, rising young assistant GM Doug Whaley and coach Chan Gailey. Their plan is centered on the draft and player development, and the number of guys having career years (Whitner, Johnson, Kyle Williams, etc.) shows that it's starting to work. Despite some nice signs of competitiveness, though, expect Nix and Whaley to continue to take the long view from a philosophical standpoint. Remember, Nix helped build the Charger roster in running the 2004 and '05 drafts that produced Philip Rivers, Olshansky, Nate Kaeding, Shaun Phillips, Michael Turner, Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo, Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles. And Whaley cut his teeth in a Pittsburgh organization that builds almost exclusively on home-grown talent. It's easy to see now that a nice framework is taking shape, and now they need to nail it in April. That's the hard part.

5. Ted Thompson's regime in Green Bay is, in many ways, an extension of the Ron Wolf leadership that brought a championship to Titletown in the 1990s, and that makes the case of Matt Flynn now an increasingly intriguing one going forward. It had always been Wolf's philosophy to draft for volume at the quarterback position, knowing the value a good backup could bring the team, with gurus like Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden and Steve Mariucci working with them to build depth and, down the line, some sort of draft-pick return. Though Brett Favre was never coming off the field in any meaningful situation, the Packers were able to turn the trick in creating a market and getting picks back for Mark Brunell, Ty Detmer, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks. Thompson employed the same philosophy in taking Brian Brohm in the second round and Flynn in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. Brohm bombed, but Flynn stuck, and has served as a backup for three years. And now, after he threw for 251 yards, three touchdowns, and a 100.2 rating on 24-of-37 passing in New England, Thompson could stick the "For Sale" sign on him in the offseason. So in that case, the Packers would be getting three years service, and a pick back, which seems to validate the practice nicely, even if it did take a bad miss in a second round to get there.

6. Speaking of developing young guys behind stars, Vikings rookie Toby Gerhart is a player to watch in the last two weeks of this lost Minnesota season. Most there expect stud lead horse Adrian Peterson to be looking for a contract this offseason, which makes a lot of sense considering the position he plays, and that could contribute to the team and player's approach in his availability and deployment against Philadelphia and Detroit. Peterson's been carrying a heavy load for four years, and if he wants to mitigate risk, and the team wants to protect the investment it will likely have to make in him, it makes sense to pull back the reins. Interim coach Leslie Frazier went so far as to say this week, "We won't put (Peterson) at risk." Gerhart put up a respectable 218 yards on 53 rushes (4.12 average) over the last month, and the team would do well to see more of what it has in its second-round pick from last April.

7. Quirky stat unearthed by Chargers beat writer Kevin Acee at the San Diego Union-Tribune: Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews have had the exact same number of carries in each of the last two weeks. Sixteen against Kansas City, 17 against San Francisco. Tolbert's totaled 112 yards with his chances, and Mathews has churned out 121 with his. And that shows how a running game that's averaging 113.0 yards per outing is improving. The Chargers are 14th in the NFL in rushing, markedly better than the last couple years (seems like the LT divorce worked out for both parties), and that modicum of balance should make a difference if San Diego can find a way to sneak into the tournament. In both of their last two playoff ousters, a lack of a running game cost the Chargers. Another thing to keep in mind: Mathews is fresh. He has only 120 carries thus far, and while it's due mostly to injury (which also wears a player down), he says he's feeling better now, and the 49ers game showed flashes of what a healthy Mathews could bring.

8. One more running back note, on the newly-much-wealthier Jamaal Charles, who is third in the NFL going into the final two weeks with 1,303 rushing yards. Charles' 6.4-yard average is eye-popping, but there are 15 backs with as many or more carries than his 203. The NFL average for carries in a game is 16.9, a far cry from Michael Turner's league-leading 21.4. So why isn't Charles getting the ball more? Well, there is the matter of diminishing returns, and Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, back when he was in New England, masterfully carved out a role for the wonderfully versatile Kevin Faulk in something of a similar manner as he's going about it now, though Charles is carrying a heavier load. Back then, Weis relied on Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon to take the tackle-to-tackle beatdown, and the model is to have Thomas Jones do the same in Kansas City. Charles, obviously, has become one heck of a player. But his success, too, has something to do with coaches who understand his talents and utilize them correctly.

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9. In a few months time, the football world -- provided he declares for the NFL draft -- will be fawning over the talents of Andrew Luck. And word is, Luck might try and take some level of control over where he lands, with his father Oliver riding shotgun like Archie Manning did with Eli in 2004. It's hard to blame him, if you really look at it. Much as everyone looks at quarterback as the game's most important position, and it is, a young player's ability to perform at that spot is dependent on the other 10 offensive players on the field. The NFL graveyard is littered with quarterbacks thrown into poor situations (David Carr, Alex Smith, etc.). And on the flip side, you have Matt Ryan, who was managed perfectly by Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. Ryan, a five-year college player to begin with, walked into a situation where the GM made it a priority to have his left tackle (Sam Baker) and workhorse tailback (Turner) in place to take the pressure off. Dimitroff even signed kicker Jason Elam, to buoy Ryan's confidence with more drives, even short ones, ending in points. So is it any surprise that, with a victory Monday night, Ryan will tie Dan Marino for the most wins by a quarterback in his first three years? It shouldn't be. Ryan's good. And lucky to have come into a great situation.

10. The Cardinals get the national spotlight on Christmas night (on NFL Network), and it's safe to say that when the schedule-makers inputted this one they didn't expect a 4-10 team to be playing a 5-9 club. The latter team, the Cowboys, could be 5-900, and they'd still draw eyeballs. The Cardinals are a different story, a franchise that went through a revival the last four years, and is now struggling to sustain it. The first reason is obvious: The Cardinals had Kurt Warner then, and don't know. But his absence isn't the only void left from previous years. The team has also gotten subpar years, seemingly all at once, from young members of its core, guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie. So Job 1 in the offseason for coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rob Graves isn't as much about adding talent as it is mining the talent it already has.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.



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