Midway through the Season 3 premiere of "All or Nothing," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett stands in front of his players during a team meeting and unveils a pair of gifts from Mauricio Sulaimán, the president of the World Boxing Council (WBC).
One is a box of blue boxing gloves adorned with the Cowboys' iconic blue star. The other is an authentic championship belt, which Garrett explains will become the temporary possession of the player who delivers the most outstanding effort in each Cowboys win. It's a fun twist on an old football coach cliché -- the physical reward for the men who "fought" the hardest for victory.
It was a fitting bit of team motivation, seeing as how the Cowboys' 2017 season could be summed up by a famous quote from one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Once said Mike Tyson: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
The Cowboys most definitely had a plan as they prepared for the 2017 season. They were coming off a 13-win campaign that, even as it ended in disappointment in January, was viewed as a smashing success, thanks to the breakout rookie seasons of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas' plan was to enjoy more of the same with the fantastic young core. Led by Zeke, Dak, Dez, a dominant offensive line and a good-enough defense, the Cowboys would again grind down opponents, stack up Ws and, hopefully, reach the Super Bowl for the first time in over two decades.
But as we'd learn, repeating the glories of the previous autumn would prove to be an impossible task. Elliott's looming suspension -- which eventually cost him six crucial games in the season's back half -- hung over the running back like an anvil. Dez Bryant's declining productivity quickly became a thorny internal talking point. All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee was sidelined by injury once again, and once again, his absence quickly exposed the shortcomings of the defense. The Cowboys finished 9-7, and Jerrah World was dark in January.
In the first two episodes of this season of "All or Nothing" (all eight episodes dropped last week), we see just how much of a distraction Elliott's off-the-field drama really was. Elliott is not the same player, physically or mentally, and it's fascinating to watch the Cowboys attempt to figure out how to get their boy superstar out of his existential funk.
This dilemma is clear following a humbling blowout loss to the Broncos in Week 2, in which Elliott's poor effort after a Dallas turnover became a national story. (NFL Network's LaDainian Tomlinson pulled no punches after the game, telling a national television audience that Elliott had quit on his team.) Internally, Dallas decision-makers saw Elliott's loafing as a direct product of his off-the-field issues.
"He's one of the best natural competitors I've ever been around," a confounded Garrett says in a meeting with coaches and front-office personnel, including the ever-present Jerry Jones. "This is the one time it was like, 'Who the hell are you?' "
Jones protected his young star.
"We don't want to give him any excuses in our own minds -- we don't want to," the team's owner and general manager began. "But, goddamn, I've never seen anybody that's had more s---, trying to do everything he's trying to do. And I thought it was just a dream that he could continue to just block out and just come out and be the competitor he is, both in practice and otherwise. But we're seeing an impact of just the burden of what's happening with him."
Later in the episode, we see Garrett pull Elliott aside in the middle of practice to ask for improved effort. Not long after that, Elliott oversleeps and shows up late for a meeting. Again, his superiors -- this time, running backs coach Gary Brown -- choose to be gently supportive rather than outwardly critical of the 22-year-old.
And that's not the only ego-massaging going on at The Star. During a positional meeting, Dez Bryant takes issue with then-wide receivers coach Derek Dooley being too complimentary of the opponent's defense.
"Coach, I'm just saying, man, like, you always praise these motherf------ here. ... Why not we just can't go out there and beat the f--- out of them? Why can't we get words of f------ encouragement? I ain't trying to come at you wrong, but that's all I been hearing. I'm just saying."
Dooley's telling response had the power to send Tom Landry spinning in his grave.
"I appreciate your honesty and I'll be careful with my words."
Was this an example of the untamed competitive desire that helped make Bryant a star or an illustration of how the wideout was quickly becoming more trouble than he was worth? It would turn into a season-long subplot that culminated in Bryant's release the following April.
Extra points ...
» For those scoring at home, Jerry Jones was bailed out twice in the last five years after making a poor internal evaluation on a quarterback prospect. In 2014, he was talked out of reaching for Johnny Manziel. And as we saw in the premiere, John Elway saved Jerry Corp. from Paxton Lynch. A reminder of how much dumb luck factors into the draft process.
» In Episode 2, plenty of time is allotted to the national anthem controversy that hit the NFL like a tsunami after Donald Trump's stunning Sept. 22 anti-protest rant (if you need a refresher, please seek it out elsewhere). Cowboys players are taken aback by the president's message, and we get a behind-the-curtain look at the planning ahead of the team's decision to take one knee at midfield -- Jerry Jones included -- prior to a Monday night game against the Cardinals. Garrett appears particularly uncomfortable with the entire situation, viewing it as another obstacle standing in the way of success. We imagine he wasn't the only coach in the league who felt that way.
» "All or Nothing" narrator Jon Hamm on Dez: "It's unclear whether he's in permanent decline or simply in a mid-career lull." Has Bryant's chilly free-agent market told us what the league thinks?
» As someone who has covered both "Hard Knocks" and "All or Nothing" extensively for this site, I've become numb to all the foul language that professional football men use. Well, unless it comes from the mouth of Jason Garrett. I wasn't remotely prepared for that s---.
» I'm convinced then-special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia ran a hippie commune in a past life. He ends meetings with a bro-out session in which players physically connect with each other while a feel-good song plays on the loud speaker. He plays Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop The Feeling!" in one meeting; Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" in another. Montell garners a much bigger reaction.