August 9, 2012

Cowboys being reconditioned to win late in season, games

Jason Garrett has a plan to erase the historic collapses of 2011.

OXNARD, Calif. -- A three-hour Dallas Cowboys practice had ended and it was time for the conditioning drills to begin.

They included a series of 30-yard sprints, as well as shorter ones in which each player has to bend down and touch the line.

A receiver -- one of 90 players -- cut his short. It did not go unnoticed.

Coach Jason Garrett has all of his coaches standing at each yard marker making sure they touch the line.

This time he barked at receivers coach Jimmy Robinson: "Jimmy, make 'em touch the line. Jimmy, make 'em touch the line."

For a Cowboys team that has a recent history of playing their worst late in games and late in seasons, no detail is too small.

And for one that is coming off a season in which they lost five games after taking leads into the fourth quarter, including an NFL record three of 10 points or more, nothing can be taken for granted.

Garrett has made it a point of emphasis in training camp.

There is no room for compromise -- which is why he had the whole group rerun a sprint when a few players didn't go as hard as he wanted.

It's a lot to ask after a three-hour practice but the players understand. They didn't finish games last year because they didn't finish strong. If they hope to have a different result in 2012 then this is where it begins.

"You saw yesterday when he called us back," tight end Jason Witten said after a recent practice. "We saw it firsthand last year. We didn't finish enough games where we had a chance to win. We let them slip. This is just one area. These are long practices and a lot of running, but you have to be able to gut it out. That is what the fourth quarter is going to be like. A lot of that is physical but it is also mental. Hopefully it will pay off for us come the fourth quarter."

The Cowboys certainly had their share of mental breakdowns in some of the fourth-quarter losses of a year ago -- whether it was a crucial turnover, a busted coverage, a missed assignment or a penalty.

All played a role in Cowboys collapses last season. They need to make sure they don't repeat those mistakes.

The best time to train for that, Garrett said, is after a long, hot practice when all you're thinking about is getting to the room and getting some rest. That's when he wants his players to focus.

"When it's really hot at practice, when it's really cold at practice, when the guy over you just knocked you on your ass or when you've had some success against him, you gotta come back the next play and be your best," Garrett said. "The guys and the teams that are mentally tough are able to do that."

All the Cowboys have to remember is the 37-34 loss to the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium on Dec. 11, when they blew a 12-point lead in the final five minutes.

It was the turning point in the season for both teams. The Giants went on to win the division and the Super Bowl while the Cowboys missed the playoffs for a second straight year.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said everything the Cowboys are doing is focused on being better and winning the fourth quarter.

"My father [legendary coach Buddy Ryan] had two rules: touch the line and buckle your chin straps," Ryan said. "You can do whatever but follow those rules. It is the same way. It might not have anything to do with winning. But it also might have everything to do with winning. Just do it the right way every time."

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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