That’s what perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, who has all of one playoff win to show for his outstanding 11-year career, said when the Dallas Cowboys arrived for training camp a couple of years ago. Or was it last year?
“We’ve just got to go show it,” Witten said. “We know what it takes. We’ve just got to have that breakthrough. The only way to do that is to work hard every day.”
What more can Witten say as the frustration mounts?
As always, Witten arrived at camp with a sense of optimism and a stronger sense of urgency. He’s confident that the Cowboys can play well enough to put themselves in position again to extend their season. He’s determined to find a way to perform better in those kinds of situations, well aware that he might not have that many opportunities left in his potential Hall of Fame career.
And there’s still that sickening feeling in his stomach, hunger pangs from a lack of playoff success.
“There’s no question there’s a lot of sleepless nights there, but really, nobody cares,” Witten said, referring to a lack of sympathy for the Cowboys. “Ultimately, you find ways to get to those games, you’ve got to find ways to play better. We got outplayed. Nobody is going to give you anything. You’ve got to earn it. This is a tough league. Nobody cares about last year. You move on, so we’ve got to be better.
“I think each of us has to look ourselves in the mirror. If you want to have that breakthrough, I think it takes a commitment. Hopefully those experiences, we’ll learn from it and be better because of it. I think we’ve got the right guys who will go do it, but it’s a long ways away. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
This isn’t a matter of want. Not for Witten, and not for any of his teammates, as he sees it.
The Cowboys wanted a winning season each of the past four years, but they got the longest playoff drought of Jerry Jones’ ownership tenure. The Cowboys worked hard, but that hasn’t been enough to punch their playoff tickets.
It’s about working their way into playing big games again and then finding a way to win the games that matter most.
“Never been a question of fight,” Witten said. “I think the mindset is just that those experiences, you understand that you have to play better. And that’s us as players. We’ve got to do that collectively. I have to do it and 52 other guys have to do the same thing.
“I don’t think the mindset’s any different from the approach [of recent years]. We’ve always done that. We’re a smart team. We’re tough. We fight. That’s the league we live in. It comes down to one, two possessions every game. We’ve got to work to find ways to win those games.”
The fine balance between proper tempo and going too fast, especially in a walk-through.
"Coach's rules and so if he says slow it down, we need to slow it down," rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said.
Garrett's plan started with no conditioning test and will continue the first two days when the only time the offense and defense will go against each other in the walk-through. League rules prevent teams from wearing pads the first two days of practice, so Saturday will feature the first live drills between the two sides of the ball.
"I think it gives us a chance to kind of get our feet under us, get our communication right, know our key and assignments before we actually go against the offense," linebacker Bruce Carter said. "I think it'll be a good deal for us.
The afternoon practices the first day will include a quick walk-through between the offense and defense but then break down into individual and group settings.
Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford expects the intensity to be the same as it was during the organized team activities and minicamp.
"I don't expect it to be dialed down," he said.
Making it through the first day will be progress for Crawford. He suffered a season-ending Achilles' tear last summer on the opening session in non-contact drills.
"Last year I think it was just a fluke injury," Crawford said. "I can't explain it. No one really can. It just happened. I didn't feel anything before so it's kinda crazy to think about how things can happen like that. But for me these practices, yeah, I feel like it will help get our feel for the grass and back into football since we've had a month off."
Carr was in London last week to help promote the NFL’s three games this season at Wembley Stadium. Garrett was not sure when Carr would arrive in Oxnard for practice. Last year safety J.J. Wilcox missed roughly two weeks of training camp after the death of his mother.
Linebacker Rolando McClain returned to Decatur, Alabama, on Wednesday night because he has a court case on Friday. A judge denied McClain’s appeal to delay a trial stemming from an arrest in 2013. Garrett said the hope is McClain would return Friday and be on the field on Saturday.
The Cowboys placed defensive end Anthony Spencer and guard Ronald Leary on the physically unable to perform list on Thursday, but the expectations for their returns to the field couldn’t be more different. Garrett said the Cowboys do not expect Spencer to practice soon, while the hope is Leary, who suffered a hamstring strain during the player-run conditioning test, can start practicing on Tuesday.
Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye was placed on the non-football illness list and will be evaluated by his doctors in two weeks.
It remains likely that Spencer will not be ready for the regular-season opener on Sept. 7 against the San Francisco 49ers.
“He’s made a lot of progress since he’s signed back with us,” Garrett said. “He’s been such a good player. He’s a really good athlete, so I’m optimistic enough that he’s going to heal quickly. I know how hard he’s working at it and we’ll just evaluate it day by day, week by week and try to integrate him back in there as quick as we can.”
Jones was asked if using that money on players like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith or DeMarco Murray was a priority.
“It’s all fungible,” Jones said. “It will go to that and other things. A dollar that you’re not paying to a player or under one contract does not have a single place to go or a single goal. We know how that works. Certainly, to the extent that we can do some things with some key players, such as Dez Bryant, we can do some things with Tyron, we will do that. But it also keeps your powder dry to do something if you get an opportunity as you go into the season. I wouldn’t preclude that at all. We’re in the business of using those resources and can.”
Bryant and Murray are entering the final year of their contracts. The Cowboys picked up the fifth-year option on Smith’s deal in the spring, guaranteeing him a spot through 2015 but they would like to sign him to a long-term deal as soon as possible.
The Cowboys have had talks with the agents for Bryant and Smith but things have been quiet with Murray, who is coming off his first 1,000-yard season.
By waiting until July to release Orton, however, the Cowboys passed on a chance to either keep DeMarcus Ware or Jason Hatcher or another player when free agency began. For all of the talk of salary-cap hell, the Cowboys could have operated under what had been their normal operating procedures and restructured Ware’s deal and offered a ballooned deal to Hatcher.
The Cowboys were bargain shoppers in adding guys like Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Brandon Weeden. While they would not have offered Ware the deal he got from the Denver Broncos, they could have made him a Terrell Suggs-like offer in Baltimore ($16 million guaranteed). The Cowboys never made an offer to Ware before cutting him and he quickly signed with Denver, getting $20 million guaranteed.
It’s clear the Cowboys believe Ware is a descending player, but given the additions they made, would you bet he has more sacks than any of them in 2014?
“I know on paper -- on paper -- we’re a better team with our defense than we were, on paper, that was lined up against Philadelphia in our last game of the year,” Jones said. “We’re better, we’ve got better players. Now, DeMarcus wasn’t on the field when we lined up – not the DeMarcus you and I know was not on the field. We’ve got guys that are in this training camp that can run this defense and make us a better defense that alone than the one that lined up against Philadelphia. Now, last year at this time when I was talking to you and we had those guys lined up across there – DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Hatcher, we had yet to see Hatcher have that big year like he had, and Spencer. Boy, that looked good on paper. So I think we’re a better team there and can play better defense apart from the fact that the way our staff is planning to manage it.”
- I’m not obsessing over the conditioning test the players took by themselves after coach Jason Garrett called it off, but it still doesn’t make sense. Garrett said Wednesday that he told the players at the end of their last minicamp that their attendance and performance had been so good that he decided to cancel the conditioning best. Besides, Garrett said he wasn’t sure it served a useful purpose anymore and it put the players at more risk because the conditioning test doesn’t require many football movements, per se. All of that is fine. But if that’s the case, then he should’ve been fuming that Jason Witten apparently encouraged the players to do it themselves. That’s not a knock on Witten, but if the coach is adamant about not doing something then the players shouldn't ignore his request and do it anyway.
- You have to wonder if the Cowboys’ offensive coaching staff is set up to succeed with all of the changes. Obviously, owner Jerry Jones and Garrett think it’ll work fine, but neither of them was demoted. Garrett was sending the plays into Tony Romo at the end of last season instead of Bill Callahan. Now, Callahan is out of the mix entirely having been replaced by Scott Linehan. Then you have assistant offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who did a nice job last year. Now, he’ll probably have less responsibility because Callahan has more time to work with the line since he’s not putting the game plan together. A lot of people must subjugate their egos to make this staff work. It’ll be interesting to see if they can do it.
- Anthony Spencer still isn’t ready to practice, so he’s been put on the physically unable to perform list. He’s been limited all offseason as he recovers from micro fracture surgery. It’s OK to wonder if he’ll ever play again.
Garrett can use any stat or rationalization he wants, but that’s not a winning number. Only one team ranked among the bottom 10 in percent of rushing attempts made the playoffs -- and that was New Orleans.
Nine playoff teams ranked among the top 16 in percentage of rushing attempts. This is a passing league and you have to make big plays in the passing game to score points, but the best teams can still run it when they need to run and when they want to run.
Player to Watch: Brandon Weeden
It’s not normal to pay that much attention to the backup quarterback, especially when a team has a quality starter. But Tony Romo has had two back surgeries in the past year and backup Brandon Weeden is here because he was a first-round bust in Cleveland
He has talent and with a better supporting cast, he could be a solid backup. The key, as usual for a quarterback, will be limiting his mistakes. He had nine games with multiple interceptions with Cleveland and the Browns were 1-8. He had nine games with no interceptions and the Browns were 4-5.
Of course, those first-round picks were all used years ago and arrived at Valley Ranch with some warts.
There are reasons that the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft, eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft and 22nd overall pick in the 2012 draft were willing to sign deals with the Cowboys that featured six-figure salaries and little or no guaranteed money. The careers of defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, linebacker Rolando McClain and quarterback Brandon Weeden have not progressed as projected when they were coming out of college.
"These are low-risk decisions that we’ve made," coach Jason Garrett said. "They have talent. We evaluated them coming out of school. We liked them. We evaluated them in the NFL. We liked them. We wanted to give them a chance. As long as the price is right, these are good decisions to make as an organization to give guys a chance.
"Are they talented guys? Yes. Are they the right kind of people? We think they are from the reports that we have. So you give them a chance. You try to put them in a structure where they can thrive and see how they can do. If it doesn’t work out for them for whatever reason, you really haven’t lost that much."
The Cowboys see each of the former first-round picks as potential bargain signings, pouncing on the chance to add players who had the prized “blue” grade on their draft board at a low price.
“It’s just that those guys that were drafted in the first round,” owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. “If you evaluate where they are at this particular time, you see opportunity in a player that has played at a Pro Bowl level, if he’s done it, or if he’s had an evaluation that would merit that kind of substance and I would call a first-round draft pick substance. You know there can be many reasons why they are in some cases not only on a team but one of the real impact players on the team. And if you took those reasons or the reasons that another team may have used and you make that decision for you, then you eliminate possibility given difference circumstances another time, a few more years down the road, a little more appreciation.
“You stand on the outside of the NFL and look in and let a little time goes by, you might appreciate the opportunity even more. That’s not uncommon.”
Spencer is coming back from microfracture surgery after he played in just one game last season. Spencer’s rehab has progressed slowly and he started some on-field running in June.
In the offseason he acknowledged he could need more time to get back to the field full-time. The Cowboys signed him to a one-year deal worth as much as $3.5 million if he plays in every game and meets certain playing-time and sack incentives.
He has a $1.25 million base salary, however, if he misses time in the regular season he will be paid less. Spencer played in only one game last season before needing the microfracture surgery.
Leary suffered a hamstring strain in the conditioning test the players ran on Monday at Valley Ranch before flying to California on Tuesday. The injury is not considered serious but he would need to pass a physical in order to begin practicing.
Okoye is recovering from a personal medical issue that kept him out of football last season and is looking for clearance from his doctors. Okoye signed with the Cowboys on May 16 but was unable to take part in any drills. The hope was that he would be cleared by the time training camp began but he will be examined in two weeks.
Okoye played two seasons under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with the Chicago Bears and recorded five sacks.
For Garrett, one such inspiration was a telephone conversation this offseason with tennis great Billie Jean King.
"It was an amazing conversation," Garrett said. "I can remember being a kid seeing her play and obviously being at the top of her field. She was No. 1 in the world for a number of years. I think she won 32 grand slams, 14 singles, 18 doubles. It was one of the most unique conversations I've ever had in my life. She's one of these really brilliant people who says, 'You know I really don't know anything about it. I love watching football. I follow your team. I don't know anything about it.' Then, she'd say 10 things that were remarkably dead on and insightful. She's got this great way about her. She has an infectious personality, great energy. She loves football. She loves competition. She loves excellence and the pursuit of excellence. So we really had a great back and forth and I'm indebted to her for the time that we spent on the phone. I believe we'll continue that relationship. She really was a very inspirational person. I learned a lot from her."
Garrett has spent time with coaches from other sports, including Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, in the past.
While he wasn't sure he would bring up his conversation with King directly to the players, the message he received will come through at some point.
"We all can get better," Garrett said. "I would put that into that category. I thought a lot about what she said about dealing with individual players, about the team concept, and it'll come up directly, it'll come up indirectly, it'll come up consciously, it'll come up sub-consciously. It really was a great visit."
First, as owner/general manager Jerry Jones frankly said, the Cowboys had a major need at middle linebacker after Sean Lee's season-ending knee injury suffered on the first day of organized team activities in May.
Finally, McClain is a phenomenal talent, a former eighth overall pick who just turned 25 years old.
Head coach Jason Garrett distinctly recalls a visit to the Alabama campus when McClain was a sophomore. Alabama coach Nick Saban gushed to Garrett that McClain “might be one of the best players I ever coached.”
“When a guy like that says that, who’s been around for as long as he has and has so many good players, it kind of gets your attention,” Garrett said. “So I can remember watching him in college and certainly we evaluated him very closely coming out. He was a top-10 pick by the Raiders when he came out of school and someone who has an immense amount of ability and, more than that, production. He was a really, really good college player and I think people have a lot of hopes for him as a pro player.
“Certainly he’s had some issues since he’s been in the NFL -- played a couple of years, retired, unretired -- and the research that we did, the due diligence we did, both with Coach Saban and other people who have been around him, we felt like with his ability with the kind of person he’s demonstrated himself to be in the past, maybe we can help him through some of these issues he has and get this guy back playing at the level we all thought he was capable of playing.”
In case the Cowboys needed any reminder of the red flags regarding McClain’s character, he will miss Friday’s practice to return to Alabama to attend his trial on April 2013 charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Garrett said the Cowboys expect McClain to return to camp over the weekend.
McClain came out of retirement to join the Cowboys, who signed him to a one-year deal with no guaranteed money. At the time, agent Pat Dye said the big-hitting linebacker “sounds as excited about football as I’ve ever heard him.”
Jones hinted that McClain’s financial situation could serve as strong motivation for fulfilling his football potential. The Cowboys clearly hope that the third time is the charm for McClain’s NFL career.
“I have a known a lot of people, a lot of successful people, that quit and then got it together and turned it around and came back and really made something of what they quit actually, in many cases,” Jones said. “I've seen it happen several times in sports. Certainly I have seen it happen in short periods of time with frustration.
“I have a little empathy. He’s got a very plausible experience as to what has impacted him off the field. We all say that you’ve got to be a pro and work through that stuff. I, too, have first-hand seen people that have worked through things better than others. If you get behind them, they can go on to very productive. So based upon his background, his story, based upon the nature of why he’s here -- his health, which is good—all those things, in my mind, he’s a great opportunity for our team.”
This is the ninth year the Cowboys have called Oxnard their home for camp.
“It’s better than where it was when we started, and we certainly have the ability to consider it and are considering it and are looking forward not only to this camp, but hopefully we’ll be preparing many Cowboys teams here,” Jones said. “Again we’re in discussions to do that but nothing that we’ve experienced here at Oxnard has been anything but positive and deserves a consideration of continued practicing here.”
The Cowboys and city have a three-year option on the table that could be exercised after this summer.
Cowboys players and coaches like practicing in Oxnard because of the cool temperatures and grass fields. Jones likes coming to California because of the team’s tradition (this is their 35th year training in Southern California) and the attention the team receives nationally.
The Cowboys are scheduled to move into their new practice facility in Frisco, Texas, in 2016 and will hold at least a part of training camp at the indoor football stadium being built to escape the hot temperatures.
“Now the answer to that is to spend some time in both places,” Jones said.
OXNARD, Calif. -- This is not what you wanted to hear from owner and general manager Jerry Jones a day before the Dallas Cowboys have their first training camp practice.
You want the Cowboys to end their wretched four-year streak without making the playoffs. Or you want Jason Garrett fired.
Three consecutive 8-8 seasons have left you emotionally spent -- and you want change.
"This is not a make-or-break year in terms of the record," Jones said Wednesday afternoon.
"It's not necessarily the record. It's the factors that make the record that are important."
It's time for you to accept that Jason Garrett is going to be the Cowboys' coach for the foreseeable future.
"This is not make-or-break situation for Jason or members of this staff. It really is not about next year," Jones said. "I think we have the fundamentals to compete and compete right now.
"I'm particularly encouraged by the guy sitting right next to me," Jones said of Garrett, who was sitting to Jones' right. "I know where he is and how he has evolved. I'm excited about their approach to how to take these players and coach them up and coach them within what they can do the best as young players and make us a competitive team."
This doesn't sound like the Jerry we've listened to over the years. That guy talked about playoffs and Super Bowls.
This guy is talking about being competitive. Not once did he even utter the words playoffs or postseason.
He talked about how the Cowboys could improve, but it's clear expectations have been tempered -- and that's OK.
It's about time Jerry stopped lying to himself and creating a hype machine that established standards that were nearly impossible for his team to reach.
When Orton told the Cowboys he would report to training camp, the Cowboys decided to cut the veteran the week before they flew to California.
“Both parties agreed that it wasn’t the best situation for him to be back with our football team,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We had good visits, good deep conversations with him throughout the process. We both agreed it was best for us to move on without him. Wish him nothing but the best. Did a fantastic job for us in the role that he was in the last couple of years. Really played very hard and very well in that Week 17 game against Philadelphia when Tony [Romo] was hurt and I have a great deal of respect for him. We make a lot of decisions about players on our football team. The guiding principle always is do what’s best for the Dallas Cowboys. And we made that decision.”
The Cowboys gained roughly $2.7 million in cap space by cutting Orton, but will lose out on Orton re-paying any of the signing bonus money because they chose to cut him, and he could choose to play elsewhere. A source said Orton has operated with the idea of retirement all offseason.
The Cowboys weighed the possibility of having a quarterback not invested in the program and not in shape after skipping the offseason. They did not want to run the risk of Orton getting hurt, which would have cost them not only cash but cap space. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said the strong showing of Brandon Weeden in the spring played a part in the club’s decision.
“That was pretty good stuff,” Jones said. “Does he have a lot to do to be where let’s say Kyle Orton might have been starting against San Francisco? Yes, he’s got a lot of work to do and we know that. On the other hand, he does a lot of good things as well. So combination of someone else having an opportunity, taking advantage of it. It’s kind of a mantra for what’s going to go on out here during training camp. You need to be out there, you need to be on the field, you need to be doing your best every play or somebody else can step up there. That was all alive and well in this decision.”
Garrett canceled the normal conditioning test the players typically run the day before practices began, calling it a “recipe for disaster,” but the bulk of the players ran the test on Monday before flying to California on Tuesday. Nearly a dozen players who were not in attendance at Valley Ranch ran it on Wednesday.
It is not the only change Garrett will make. The Cowboys will not do 11-on-11 drills in the first two days of training camp with Garrett preferring to wait until Saturday, when the players can wear pads for the first time. The only time the offense will line up against the defense will be during the morning walkthroughs.
“In college football often times they force you to start slowly with different kinds of rules they’ve had through the years and with different teams I’ve been on, Day 1 has had different levels of intensity,” Garrett said. “The thing I made perfectly clear to our players is it’s going to be intense practice. They’re going to be stressed. There is going to be pressure on them. We’re simply not going to be going against each other and as much as anything else to get their football legs and their football feet underneath them and to get ready to play football in a competitive environment.”
Garrett cut short a rookie minicamp practice after several players got hurt, and he limited some of the work during the organized team activities and minicamp, though it did not prevent Sean Lee from suffering a season-ending knee injury.
The Cowboys have also incorporated a new pre-practice stretching routine and have added numerous apparatuses, including ballet bars, to help players get loose.
“The conditioning test is an age-old issue in the NFL,” Garrett said. “I think I’ve been involved on 25 or 26 different teams in the NFL as a player or as a coach, and I’ve done conditioning tests my whole life and been a part of teams that have done them, whether it’s a 12-minute run or mile run or 16 110s or some version of 40s or 50s or 60s like we’ve done around here in recent years.
"And the way they’re typically set up is you might be on a plane, you might have a long drive, and you come to training camp on Day 1 and you do this conditioning test. That’s what the rules mandate, that’s what everybody does, and the next day you’re on a practice field getting yourself involved in football movements, very different than what that conditioning test was. We’ve always been very mindful of trying to make the conditioning test as close to playing football as possible, but having said that, it’s still different.”
The Cowboys will consider giving Brent that opportunity.
"We have stood with Josh Brent from the very beginning and continue to," said Jones, who gave Brent a job operating a forklift in the team's apparel warehouse last year. "Josh Brent deserves an opportunity. He has made a terrible mistake. He knows it. I know firsthand he has contrition. I know that. And so, yes, I will consider giving him an opportunity."
Brent spent five months in jail for the December 2012 wreck that killed Cowboys practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown, the defensive tackle's former Illinois teammate and close friend. A judge ordered Brent, who also served jail time in college due to a drunken-driving arrest, to complete a stint of at least in a substance abuse rehabilitation facility as part of his 10-year probation sentence. Brent remains in the rehabilitation facility as the Cowboys open training camp.
Brent, 26, announced his retirement at the beginning of last year's training camp. He can apply for reinstatement through the NFL office if he chooses.
If Brent decides to return to football, commissioner Roger Goodell would have to decide whether to discipline him under the league's personal conduct policy. Goodell could also determine that Brent's retirement essentially served as a one-year suspension.
According to a source close to Brent, a decision has not been made on his future and will be based only on what the health care providers is best for him.
From a pure football standpoint, the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Brent could help a Dallas team that needs as much depth and talent on the defensive line as it can get. He might be the best run-stopping defensive tackle on the roster if the Cowboys re-signed him.
But does a man who has served two jail stints have the kind of character the Cowboys want?
"I think we go to ask the other side of the question," Jones said. "Do you get a chance to start over? Do we believe in paying your dues and getting a chance to start over? That's the other side of that.
"Principally in this country, we believe in giving an opportunity to pay your dues and pay your penalty and move forward. I don't know the detail of where he is or on what basis we even have to consider him rejoining the team, but it will be certainly be something I consider."