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Sense of entitlement changes which players Cowboys pursue

Disgruntled cornerback Mike Jenkins' recent passive-aggressive push for a trade did more than create a predicament for the Dallas Cowboys.

It encapsulated the tricky and unique waters the franchise navigates and the challenges its players face. In a certain way, the problem goes a long way in defining who the Cowboys are.

Jenkins has had just one great end-to-end year, is coming off shoulder surgery and is playing for a team that has newfound depth at his position. His leverage is non-existent. He's risking losing a chance to compete for game reps and damaging his image in the eyes of potential suitors in 2013, when he's scheduled to become a free agent.

So what in the world emboldened this strike by the player?

Playing in Dallas, on what Bill Parcells called the NFL's "main stage," players can be microwaved into stars and, if they're not careful, inherit an accompanying sense of entitlement. It plagued the 2008 Cowboys. It hit the 2010 Cowboys, too. And it's no coincidence that the former was coming off the club's best season since the days of the Triplets, and the latter was stocked with players who'd won the club's first playoff game in 13 years.

To be clear, this isn't about Jenkins. He's just an example of the challenge that the Cowboys face in looking for the types of players who can handle a spotlight that's complex in its trappings.

"It's up to us to get the right kind of guys, good character players that are driven to win championships, and not just to say 'I've got a Pro Bowl and I play for the Cowboys, I'm satisfied,'" Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said. "That's on us, to avoid those types of players. We've got to find good players, but we've gotta find good players now more than ever that want to win championships. At the end of the day, you can have a great career in Dallas, but if you don't have those Super Bowl rings, you're not gonna be thought of nearly as high as the previous Cowboys who have those rings on their fingers."

Jones' contention is that for the past five years, the Cowboys have been largely free of the guys he says the team is actively trying to avoid. And he's right. The Parcells years left a core of players equipped to handle Dallas. Another high-ranking Cowboys official called Jason Witten "the poster boy for that," and Miles Austin, DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff fit into that category as well.

Linebacker Sean Lee is one post-Parcells player who belongs in that group, and early indications are big-ticket corner Brandon Carr is another. Tony Romo had his infatuation with the fame that comes with quarterbacking the Cowboys, which takes the dynamic to a different level, but seems to have figured it out, too.

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But there's also little question that exceptions to that mold have cost the Cowboys, with Terrell Owens being the primary example of a player who's the wrong type to land on football's Broadway.

"That star on your helmet allows you to choose the wrong path a little easier," the club official said. "The wrong kind of guy to play here is the 'me' guy, because the 'me' guy will buy into having his own radio show, and say, 'Well, I'm on the Cowboys, so I can do what I want.' The right kind of guy for us is the self-starter, the guy who finds more value in how he's playing than what he's wearing."

That's not to say the Cowboys want to return all that came with Tex Schramm's branding of America's Team in the 1970s. To the contrary, there's plenty of good that comes from it.

"There are very few times when we're trying to get an unrestricted free agent that we have a problem," Jones said. "People want to play in Dallas. It's the brand. If you talk to (agents), they say, 'Dallas is on national TV more than anyone, and we want our clients playing on national TV.' If they play well, they're going to the Pro Bowl and getting All-Pro, they're getting recognized. Now, is there pressure? Absolutely. Like I said, that's on us to find the guys who thrive under pressure."

And it's also on the Cowboys to find guys who not only reap those benefits, but handle them properly. Again, Witten (seven Pro Bowls, five-time All-Pro) and Ware (six Pro Bowls, four-time All-Pro) are examples of ones who have.

"We need to get those types of players," Jones continued. "The guys that want a free ride, that wanna ride that tradition, are guys we don't want around here. And I don't think we have any around here that are like that. The guys we have predominantly today, and I'd say we've had it this way for five years, are guys who wanna do what it takes to win. We just gotta get over the top. But our good players and our leaders, I promise you, it eats at them that they haven't won a championship."

Most recently, much of the talk in Dallas has concerned the team's window, and whether it's closing on the core. Romo is 32. Witten is 30. Ratliff is 30. Ware is 29.

They're not close to finished, but now is about maximizing their prime. That's why the team spent big to get Carr. It's why the Cowboys sold out to move up in the draft and get Morris Claiborne.

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The question now becomes whether or not a franchise that has the talent can put together the team to get past the New York Giants in the NFC East and to where they got last February. If there's a lesson in recent past failures for Dallas in pursuit of that goal, it's that having the right people matters.

"Anyone who's got red blood and plays football knows what the Dallas Cowboys are, and knows what it means to play for them," Jones says. "They know it. ... We tell them what a big stage it is. At one time, we had 18 players and coaches with radio shows. People can't get enough of the Cowboys. And it can be something that can be with you for the rest of your life if you go win a championship, because there's nothing like it when it's rolling."

With finality, Jones looks back at the 1990s Cowboys, who had their share of problems but won through so many of them, and says, "The lesson is 'Go win.' You gotta go win a championship. That's the lesson I take. And then, I'll worry about what happens after that."

Could be a lesson to Jenkins now. Could be a lesson to everyone who passes through Valley Ranch as well.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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