Cowboys sport mature confidence

CANTON, Ohio -- The Dallas Cowboys' tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, especially the Super Bowl exhibits, served as inspiration. Their reunion with the stars of the 2008 "Hard Knocks" reality series should serve as a reminder.

High expectations can set a team up for a hard fall. That's what happened a couple of seasons ago to a dysfunctional, drama-ridden Dallas squad that entered the season as a Super Bowl favorite and ended it as a spectacle.

"We just failed. Failed miserably," linebacker Bradie James said. "I think we took a lot of things for granted. We overlooked some things. We didn't respect the process. That's really what it was."

The circus opened the second the Cowboys arrived in California for training camp, with the team's famous cheerleaders prancing out of the plane before the players in a made-for-TV moment. HBO's cameras kept rolling throughout training camp, much to the chagrin of several veterans who just wanted to focus on football.

The cameras might as well have been magnets for other players, whose priority seemed to be showing off their oversized personalities for the premium cable audience. The biggest stars of the show -- Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones -- didn't return to Valley Ranch the next season, and have since reunited with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Not to pin all the blame on the bad boys who have become Bengals. A sense of entitlement seeped throughout the organization after it went 13-3 in 2007, a season that ended with a narrow home playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

"I think we bit the cheese a lot then," cornerback Terence Newman said, borrowing a Bill Parcells term that refers to buying into the hype.

The survivors of that embarrassing season swear they learned valuable lessons from the experience. Even the most talented teams can't win when egos inflate. Preseason favorites don't get free passes to the playoffs.

While they understand that talk is cheap, the Cowboys' veterans promise that this team is different. More disciplined. More mentally tough. More focused on the moment.

"You don't do the things that hurt your football team," quarterback Tony Romo said. "You keep digging. That's how you win games on the road when you're down 10 in Minnesota. That's how you're able to overcome those situations. You have to be able to [deal with] them in September and August and July. It will pay dividends down the road."

Of course, the Cowboys' diet doesn't consist solely of humble pie. That will never be the case as long as Jerry Jones -- who has turned training camp into a multicity marketing tour -- is in charge.

Heck, Romo got wrapped up in the excitement while addressing the crowd during a pre-camp concert, a Jerry staple. Romo told the masses at the Alamodome that he hoped they'd come to the Super Bowl in Arlington. It was a comment that could be construed as a guarantee, and certainly came across as confident.

These Cowboys have a sensible swagger.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you we don't have a great football team, because we have the potential to have definitely a great football team," Newman said. "But right now, it remains to be seen what we have.

"As far as what we can do, I'd be hard-pressed to find another team that has as much talent as we have. But as far as us playing together and using it, that's something that's completely different."

The Cowboys have overhauled the roster over the past couple of years, adding solid veterans such as linebacker Keith Brooking, safety Gerald Sensabaugh and defensive end Igor Olshansky. A handful of high-profile and/or high-priced veterans are gone, highlighted by the Bengals bunch (which also includes safety Roy Williams), longtime left tackle Flozell Adams and safety Ken Hamlin.

But the Cowboys' core of veterans remains mostly intact. James declared that it's their job to make sure this season doesn't match the 2008 disappointment.

"We take pride in that," James said. "We've failed, so we've learned. Now the proof is in the pudding."

These Cowboys are about the pudding, not the popcorn.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.