OXNARD, Calif. — In the good old days, the Dallas Cowboys could find leaders just by shaking the trees.Shake a tree, and a Charlie Waters or a Troy Aikman or a Darren Woodson would fall out. Head coach Jason Garrett, who was Aikman’s understudy for a few of those seasons, surely remembers that.But it’s tough to find captains when the ship keeps running aground in 8-8 waters. Tight end Jason Witten is a natural. Linebacker Sean Lee, though entering only his fourth NFL season, is following the same leadership path. And cornerback Brandon Carr, a free agent signee in 2012, has shown why he’s such a respected veteran. But who else? In the aftermath of the Jerry Brown/Josh Brent tragedy, the Cowboys’ locker room needs another strong and solid voice.Lee has proven to be such a natural leader, Garrett was asked Sunday if the Cowboys might be taking his authority skills for granted.“We don’t take him for granted,” Garrett protested. “In fact, we try to do the other thing. We try to empower those guys.”Volumes and biographies have been written about what defines a leader. The football definition shouldn’t be much different. On the Tom Landry era Cowboys, safeties Waters and Cliff Harris were like an extra pair of coaches on the field. Later, during the Aikman years, accountability was mandated. Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, for all of his issues off the field, led with a fiery intensity once the pads were on.Winning, however, has a way of improving a team’s hearing. Leaders are easier to listen to when their messages are buttressed by a Sunday victory.And therein lies Garrett’s problem. He told a story Sunday about trying to get Witten to take a day, or even a play off. In a page that’s in every NFL playbook, the Cowboys designed their version of the Wham play, in which the fullback or tight end would try to surprise the defense by going into motion and “whamming” the nose tackle.The coaches figured that backup tight end Martellus Bennett would be perfect for the play.“A big, strong, physical guy,” Garrett explained. “We thought he’d be a great whammer.”They even named the wham play “Aggie 21,” because it featured Bennett, an ex-Aggie. “I have a great relationship with Witten,” Garrett said. “But when we put this thing in, he literally didn’t talk to me for a week. It was like, ‘I can’t wham the nose? I can’t wham?’ “My image was of a 300-pound nose tackle, and the guy who caught 100 balls for us last year was going to come off the field with a separated shoulder. That’s not good coaching.”As history, now legend, reminds us, Witten refused to let even a lacerated spleen keep him out of the season opener last year.Witten, Lee and Carr set the kind of example that Garrett wants his team to follow. But who else?“As coaches you try to promote those guys in some way, shape or form, so that everybody sees that this is the right way to do it,” Garrett said. “Sean Lee, Jason Witten, Miles Austin — they do it the right way, and we’re going to try to give them every opportunity to lead this team.”Garrett defined the opportunities as “giving them a chance to be in front of the group and talk to the team, and highlight them in a lot of different ways, whether it’s on tape, in a meeting room or on the field. Make sure they have a voice and that we’re not an obstacle to that voice.“Again, the best teams I’ve been on — those guys grasp it. It’s their time. It’s their football team.”The quarterback is often seen as the team’s most influential leader. Yes, Tony Romo is one of the Cowboys’ leaders, Garrett said Sunday.But Romo is no Peyton Manning, is he? And while the team scrounged for salary cap space during the off-season, Romo didn’t exactly leap up and offer the Cowboys a hometown discount. To borrow Garrett’s phrase, leaders “grasp it.” It’s their time, their football team.Somebody is going to have to join Witten and Lee in leading the Cowboys out of the 8-8 rut.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton