Jason Garrett

IRVING — The Super Bowl isn’t coming to Cowboys Stadium, and nobody is talking about the main tenant playing in February.

It’s hard to tell what to expect from the Dallas Cowboys this season.

Surely they can’t be as bad as their 1-7 start last season. And they probably won’t be as good as the division champs who went 11-5 the year before.

Here’s the really confusing part: The roster hasn’t changed much. Some veterans have left, but there haven’t been any of the splashy arrivals you’d expect from team owner Jerry Jones. The most notable changes are the guys in charge, coach Jason Garrett and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Garrett became interim coach in the middle of last season and immediately shook up things. Practices went faster and were more physical. Digital clocks were installed throughout team headquarters to eliminate excuses for being late. The team went 5-3 the rest of the way, despite backup Jon Kitna and third-stringer Stephen McGee taking all the snaps.

Jones liked what he saw enough to keep Garrett, and the Princeton grad was smart enough to make sure everything would be done his way.

His culture change has continued in ways big and small, from grumpy veterans who’ve been dumped to the “Carpe Diem” sign players now see on their way to and from the practice field. That certainly wasn’t left by coach Wade Phillips.

“We always talked about the importance of being great each and every day,” Garrett said. “We talk about the importance of letting last year’s team go, and that it’s a new team. You can have the exact same collection of coaches and players and the team from year to year changes and you have to redevelop that chemistry and all that goes with putting a team together. If we had won the Super Bowl last year we’d be preaching the same thing.

“We were 6-10, and I’d be lying to you if I said that doesn’t kind of sit in everybody’s craw as extra motivation. We’re focused on today, we’re putting last year behind us, and hopefully we’ll stack some good days together and give ourselves a chance to be a good football team.”

Pretty vanilla stuff, right? That’s where Ryan comes in.

The son of bombastic Buddy (architect of the 46 defense run by the 1985 Chicago Bears and the guy who once took a swing at a fellow coordinator during a game) and twin of audacious Rex (the coach who’s guided the Jets to the AFC title game in each of his first two seasons and also made headlines for his outsized personality), Rob could be described as the anti-Garrett.

Just look at his protruding belly and long silvery hair. Or listen to what he said about the Eagles after they became the popular pick to win it all this season: “I don’t know if we win the all-hype team. That might have gone to someone else, but we’re going to kick their (rear) when we play them.”

Pass-rush specialist DeMarcus Ware wasn’t sure if Ryan was a coach “or a Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider.” But like the rest of the defensive players, he’s quickly fallen in love with Ryan’s style and his playbook, which is full of unpredictable ways of getting to the quarterback. That’s a huge selling point to the players because predictability is often cited as the reason Dallas went from giving up the second-fewest points in the NFL in 2009 to allowing the most points in franchise history in 2010.

“I’ve had a lot of coaches that are fun and personable, real characters, but they weren’t very good football coaches,” veteran inside linebacker Keith Brooking said. “He’s a heck of a football coach, too. That makes it even more exciting to play for him.”

Ryan won two Super Bowls as linebackers coach in New England, and he’s been defensive coordinator in Oakland and Cleveland. Ware is a great talent to build around, having led the NFL in sacks two of the last three seasons, and Jay Ratliff gives him another dynamic player up front. The problem is in the secondary, which was woeful last season, especially at safety. Abram Elam followed Ryan from the Browns to the Cowboys, and his knowledge of the system should help.

Most predictions have the Cowboys finishing around 8-8. As far as transition years go, that might not be so bad.

“There are times when you have your highs and you have your lows; I think we’ve had that,” Ware said. “So, right now, we’re right in the middle, and we’re climbing.” 

Printed on Wednesday, August 24, 2011 as: Cowboys hope to rebound from disappointing 6-10 campaign.

Dallas CowboysÂ’ Dez Bryant talks to reporters during NFL football training camp Monday in San Antonio.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — A week into Dallas Cowboys training camp, Dez Bryant is everywhere.

Catching deep passes. Returning punts. Taking passes and punts into the end zone with his arms up, drawing loud ovations from thousands of adoring fans, many wearing his No. 88.

Now he’s talking to Miles Austin, getting pointers on technique. He’s giving Austin pointers on strutting in the end zone. He surprises himself by helping rookies understand what to do on certain routes.

When practice ends, Bryant remains the center of attention, either in a cluster of reporters or working his way along the side of the field signing autographs and posing for pictures.

After a bizarre year on and off the field — make that, several such years — Bryant couldn’t be more comfortable. The injury that cut short his rookie season has healed, the Cowboys have carved a spot for him in the starting lineup and, best of all, he’s controversy-free.

He’s also working hard to keep it that way.

In recent days, he’s talked about his fondness for shoes without saying how many he has or how much they cost. Asked whether kids in East Texas, where he grew up, should be allowed to wear sagging pants in public, he opted to stay out of that debate. And, even though he’s now classified as a veteran, he won’t even consider taking part in hazing rookies; he won’t expect anyone to carry his pads.

“All I know is I’m here in San Antonio, focused on football,” Bryant said. “It’s all about that star.”

Bryant is a phenomenal talent who’s been mostly a tease because something always gets in the way, often of his own doing.

He’s made headlines for his mother’s former line of employment, for not carrying an older teammate’s shoulder pads, for picking up a dinner tab that cost more than many Americans make in a year, for wearing sagging pants at an upscale mall and for failing to pay the bills on excessive jewelry purchases. And that’s just the last 15 months. His football sins have included being routinely late to meetings and, admittedly, not knowing his playbook as well as he should.

Bryant is trying to bring the focus back to what he can do once a football gets into his hands. Teammates, coaches and fans are certainly rooting for him.

“I’ve got to make sure everything is right on point,” Bryant said. “I’ve got Miles Austin and some of the other older guys helping me because I know they’re counting on me. ... I don’t want to let nobody down. Not coach Garrett, not anybody in the whole organization. I want to make sure by the time preseason comes, I know what to do.”

In 12 games last season, Bryant caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six touchdowns. He scored twice more on punt returns, in only 12 attempts, and averaged a team-best 24.4 yards per kickoff return.

It’s even more impressive considering he hardly played his last year of college because of an NCAA suspension (for lying about a dinner with Deion Sanders) and because an injury wiped out his entire preseason. His season ended in early December when he broke an ankle on a kickoff return.

He continued his recovery during the lockout, and continued building his troubled reputation. During the one-day reprieve from the labor woes, when players were allowed at team headquarters, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was looking forward to chatting with Bryant, but he didn’t show up.

Bryant eventually sat down with team leaders, which may have been a turning point. By all accounts, he’s cleaning up the issues in his personnel life and he’s embracing his role as a key member of the offense. He became an unquestioned starter last week, when Dallas released Roy Williams.

“I feel like I matured as a man,” Bryant said. “Everything is behind me. If it’s not taken care of, it’s going to get taken care of. I’m here, I’m focused on football ... being on time and being accountable and making sure that your coaches and teammates can trust in you. That’s the challenge I’m putting on myself.”
Bryant’s knowledge of the offense can be hit-or-miss.

During team drills Sunday, he took off up the field when Tony Romo expected him to recognize a blitz and break off his route short and toward the sideline. A wayward, sideways pass made Bryant’s mistake obvious.

On Monday, however, Romo signaled a route change and Bryant picked it up, leading to a long touchdown. Bryant took care of his quarterback by chasing down linebacker DeMarcus Ware after an interception and popping the ball free.

“He’s a guy who we believe could continue to grow and grow as a player,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He plays with great passion, emotion and enthusiasm. Anybody who watches him play can see that. We as coaches love that. We believe that teammates love that. That’s what we want in our football players. So when you go about it the way he has and you are as talented as he is, now he gets more of an opportunity, there is no reason for us to think he can’t continue to get better.”

Garrett acknowledges that Bryant “has a long way to go in terms of understanding our system and a long way technically,” but is quick to add that everyone can improve in those areas.

“Hopefully,” Garrett said, “the results will speak for themselves.”