Even coming off a 6-10 season, the Dallas Cowboys remain the NFL's most watched and marketable franchise, which speaks to the power of the brand of "America's Team."
That the team had six Pro Bowlers last year, one for every win, shows the residual impact of past glory isn't limited to the group as a whole, but also filters down to individuals wearing the fabled star.
Being real about all this, expectations haven't been lower for a Cowboys team entering a season since the early years of Bill Parcells' rebuilding effort in the mid-2000s. Some of the talent that served as the foundation of the 13- and 11-win teams under Wade Phillips in 2007 and 2009, respectively, has aged and declined. More grew fat and happy in a permissive environment. And players falling in those two groups have been jettisoned.
What's left? A team that could struggle to keep up in the playoff race, and a roster that makes -- at this point, at least -- the Super Bowl seem to be more of a delusion than a destination.
For now, that's OK, even in this place where success is measured in Super Bowl titles. The Cowboys are not resigned to going 5-11 or 7-9. They are, however, understanding of where the previous mix of characters proved combustible, and why a deconstruction of that environment was necessary.
Players are responding. As one player said, "The accountability we need is back."
For varying reasons, the Cowboys have whacked a number of prominent veterans. Running back Marion Barber, receiver Roy Williams, guard Leonard Davis, center Andre Gurode, and tackle Marc Colombo are gone. Cornerback Terence Newman almost certainly would've joined that group, had Jerry Jones' run at Nnamdi Asomugha been successful.
Price, attitude, age and productivity played into those decisions, and most of them had a combination of those factors, rather than just one. In each case, the players above will be replaced by young players you've either never heard of or hardly seen play in a real NFL game.
Asked if this constitutes a rebuilding effort, one high-ranking Cowboys source preferred to call it "renovating," and added, "We are cleaning up the cap, which means you essentially have to get younger." But some of this -- in the case of players like Barber, Williams and Davis, in particular -- also encompasses an element of housecleaning that goes well beyond dollars and cents.
"Winning games will tell if it's working," the Cowboys official said. "Things are more crisp and detail-oriented, because that's just how we approach and do things now."
The temptation here is to say that Garrett has simply reinstituted the principles that Parcells emphasized in his organizational overhaul. To a degree, there's truth to that. And remember, Garrett is as much a protégé of Nick Saban, whom he cut his NFL coaching teeth under in Miami, as anyone. Saban can be tracked, through Bill Belichick, back to the Parcells coaching tree.
But Garrett's methods are different and, for now, the players are responding to them favorably, where some of the same guys chafed under the Tuna's heavy-hand at Valley Ranch. Rather than ruling from a lectern, Garrett is giving players ownership, and leaning on his leaders to push the message.
"He really puts a lot on the leaders to set the bar," said one Cowboys veteran. "But we don't have to police everyone, because everyone knows the structure and expectations. He's calling us all out to do our jobs and lead."
And that's all great, but the resurfacing has left a roster that, until this year was considered among the NFL's best, with holes that haven't been there in a long time. The offensive line will start two rookies and a second-year undrafted free agent; the defensive line has depth questions; and if Newman can't stay healthy (he's out now with a groin injury), the corner position will be paper-thin.
The Cowboys are also relying on new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to resuscitate the careers of Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins, rising stars of 2009 who regressed badly last season. Dez Bryant also needs to grow up in a hurry, something he's shown signs of doing this summer. The hope is, by shaking up the culture, they created a better environment to make that happen.
Look at all the issues above, and analyze them, and see that this team has more questions than it has in a long time. There's still front-line talent -- Tony Romo, Doug Free, Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware and Bryant all remain solid building blocks -- but there are also holes. As one opposing scout said, "I don't know how good a team they're going to be," but added that sometimes "the best players don't make the best team."
That, in this particular case, illustrates the price of Garrett reworking the makeup of the Cowboys' roster. And if you ask a lot of folks at Valley Ranch, they'd tell you it's about time.