The Cowboys need a leader.
That's the biggest issue on a franchise that boasts a roster that is the envy of the league. While everyone points to the Cowboys' porous secondary or their leaky offensive line for why the team underachieved a season ago, the lack of commitment, accountability and trust is really what's holding Dallas back.
Those traits were on full display under Tom Landry and remained pillars during the title runs under Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer in the 1990s. After shedding his interim label, new coach Jason Garrett is trying to restore those values and has taken a blast-from-the-past approach to get things righted.
Upon Garrett's promotion from offensive coordinator midway last season, he immediately reinstalled the hard-nosed, physical practices that he took part in as a player under Johnson. Garrett increased the emphasis on fundamentals in practice and stressed attention to detail in team meetings. His more disciplined approach extended beyond the field, as he enacted stringent dress code policies for games to ensure the team reflected professionalism.
This was part of the "Cowboy way" that Garrett frequently referenced following his appointment to the top spot, and the team responded to his heavy-handed methods by finishing 5-3. Dallas scored 26 or more points seven times in the second half of the season. The running game took a more prominent role in the game plan, with the team rushing for at least 100 yards in all eight games and posting 30 or more attempts six times.
Although the defense continued to struggle, the Cowboys lost three games under Garrett by a total of seven points. When considering the lows of the first half that led to Wade Phillips getting fired, the team showed remarkable improvement under Garrett.
Still, any improvement will be short-lived without veterans eventually taking over the leadership responsibilities in Dallas.
The Cowboys certainly have great players in Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, and Terence Newman, but each has a lead-by-example disposition. Their quiet demeanors allow young players like Dez Bryant to act up without accountability. Granted, the locker room is full of grown men who are fully aware of the standard and expectations of the job, but the best teams have leaders who hold everyone accountable.
To their credit, the Cowboys have shown more initiative in terms of leadership. Romo, in particular, organized team workouts during the lockout and put the onus on positional leaders to hold their guys responsible for attending each of the sessions. As a result, the team reported nearly 100-percent attendance for its informal workouts, suggesting chemistry has improved.
If the Cowboys re-emerge as title contenders, it will not be the result of the splashy free-agent addition that has been indicative of recent teams or the sudden development of a young player. Rather, it will be the byproduct of a veteran group of leaders taking their cue from a hard-nosed coach intent on restoring the tradition of "America's Team."
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.