“Bruce!” some Dallas Cowboys fans yelled to Bruce Carter after practice. He acknowledged them with a wave.
It was better than boos.
The weakside linebacker embodied the third-worst defense in NFL history a year ago.
“At times it was [frustrating],” Carter said. “I admit that. That’s just human nature. I’ve just got to keep playing. I’ve learned from it. I’m putting one step forward.”
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For Carter, the best thing about this year is it isn’t last year.
“Bruce is a guy who’s going to get an opportunity, an opportunity to show he deserves to be one of the starting three linebackers for us,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s going to play that [weakside] linebacker spot as a starting point, and we’ll see what he can do.
“He’s been a good player for us at different times over the last couple of years, and it’s time for him to step up and take advantage of this opportunity, and do it on a consistent basis. He worked very hard in the off-season.
“He’s in good shape, and I think his mindset is right to have a real good year. It’s a day-by-day, play-by-play thing for him, as it is for everybody on our team.”
Carter, 26, earned a benching last season for a lack of effort in the San Diego game. He ended up starting 13 games, finishing with 96 tackles.
The Tampa 2 scheme is designed for the weakside linebacker — the position Derrick Brooks played for the Buccaneers — to lead the team in tackles. Carter was only third behind safety Barry Church and middle linebacker Sean Lee.
“I think it’s just standards,” new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “This is what we want, and you’ve just got to bring it to a man’s attention, and he’s responded very well. Day in and day out, we’ve got to do it.”
Carter didn’t need Marinelli to tell him he wasn’t good enough a year ago. He saw it on film. He knew it in his heart.
The fourth-year veteran, who by all accounts had a good off-season, plans to put his best foot forward this season.
“In the NFL, man, you go through your highs and your lows,” Carter said. “I think that’s just growth. Every player is going to have to go through it and experience that. But you’ve got to learn from it. I’m going to keep pushing. I’m a fighter. I’m going to just keep going.”
Marinelli aims to make life easier for Carter this season by implementing “travel rules” within the scheme. Simply, it means Carter will line up behind 3-technique tackle Henry Melton on every play, even if it’s on the strong side. Melton will serve as Carter’s “protector,” allowing Carter to get to the football by keeping linemen occupied.
“I think that’s a good adjustment, obviously from just positioning and a simplicity factor,” linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said. “A lot of those things — the keys, the reads, the drops — will all be a little bit cleaner for him.”
Carter has a goal of 120 tackles this season. In the final year of his contract, Carter needs to give the Cowboys a reason to keep him in Dallas beyond this season.
The Cowboys have talked about extending the contracts of Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant. No one has mentioned Carter’s name. He hopes, though, to change that.
“It’d be great,” Carter said. “I love playing for the Cowboys. It’s an awesome city, and we’ve got a great fan base. It would be a great thing if God blessed me with that.”