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Monday, August 29, 2011
Performance takes center stage

By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- The word "competition" can no longer be considered empty coachspeak around Valley Ranch.

Jason Garrett consistently emphasizes the importance of creating competition and evaluating players based on performance, not their pedigree. He means what he says.

Phil Costa
Jason Garrett and his evaluators determined that Phil Costa's performance in camp was at least as good as Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode's.
Just ask Andre Gurode.

The post-lockout releases of veteran starters Marion Barber, Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis and Roy Williams could also be considered evidence, but Jerry Jones made off-season cost-cutting decisions when Wade Phillips was the head coach, at least in title. And, with the exception of Davis, all those players had prized young first-round picks ready to fill their roles.

This is a dramatic change in the depth chart less than two weeks before the season opener. Gurode is gone because he got beat out by an undrafted guy who most Cowboys diehards probably couldn't pick out of a photo lineup.

Sure, salary could have something to do with Gurode getting shown the door. He was due $5.5 million, while new starter Phil Costa will make the minimum. But the dollars didn't drive this decision. The coaches determined that a second-year undrafted center who kept popping out on film throughout training camp was at least as good as a five-time Pro Bowler who reported overweight several weeks after undergoing knee surgery.

"It doesn't really matter where you came from or what you've done in the past," Garrett said. "We're going to try our best as coaches and evaluators to see what you're doing right now and see what you can do for us going forward. We try to do that individually, we try to do that collectively.

"We're not in the business of trying to send a message to the rest of the team. We're trying to make the best decision for our team."

Garrett doesn't have to try to send this message. It's coming through loud and clear. It might as well be featured on the 60-yard HDTVs at JerryWorld.

Established Cowboys have accountability. Unproven players have opportunity. Nobody has excuses.

You could call it a breath of fresh air after the warm, cuddly, coddling Wade era. It's more like a fresh blast from an air conditioner.

"It doesn't matter whether you've been to 10 Pro Bowls or been here 10 minutes," perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten said. "They're going to evaluate every player, regardless of what the name or number on the back of the jersey is. There's a mentality that you've got to come to work and get better.

"Collectively, that's going to make our football team better."

If Costa can take Gurode's job, why can't Victor Butler or even undrafted rookie Alex Albright push an underachieving first-round pick such as Anthony Spencer?

If Terence Newman isn't one of the team's top two cornerbacks, he'll stand on the sideline when the base package is on the field and search for employment elsewhere next season. An $8 million salary isn't an automatic ticket to the starting lineup.

If Sean Lee is better than Keith Brooking and/or Bradie James, that will be reflected by the snap totals. Captains don't get a pass.

"When you can create that environment and that message is sent throughout your team -- and it's not just a message, there are examples that run through the team -- I think that's a really good thing for everyone," Brooking said. "That's what pushes you, that's what makes you better.

"We're all human. Regardless of your mentality, your mindset, your approach, if you know something's been given to you, obviously your approach could be a little different as opposed to going out there and earning it every day and taking nothing for granted, ever, in everything that you do."

Don't expect to hear Garrett call out players publicly, a la Bill Parcells. That's not his style.

Garrett simply explains the expectations in detail and holds his players to them behind closed doors. That applies to policies such as his travel dress code, which Barber learned the hard way when he paid a $25,000 fine for refusing to wear a coat, tie and slacks during Garrett's first flight as a head coach. It also applies to performance, as the five dismissed offensive starters discovered.

Players don't have to hear their coach rip them via the media to know he's holding them to high standards and judging them harshly. All it takes is a glance at the previous season's team picture to see all the faces that are gone now.

Under Garrett, players can either get ready to compete or prepare to pack up and head out on Cowboys Parkway.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.