PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Being on the Dallas Cowboys doesn't guarantee you anything. Heck, being in the NFL doesn't guarantee you anything. The best teams are built with players who are constantly working to get better, fighting for everything they have, constantly aware of the concept that standing still is the same thing as moving backward.
This is what Cowboys coach Jason Garrett believes, at least. And on Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings, when he was talking about the players his team has brought in via free agency this offseason, Garrett made it clear that they have a common thread. They're guys who have been underestimated, undervalued. Guys who have had to work for the careers they've made. Guys who have clearly been about making the most of the opportunities they've received, even if they haven't received many.
"I think you can make a compelling argument that America is about the meritocracy, so if you do things the right way, you're going to succeed in this country," Garrett said. "And I think you can make an argument that the best teams do things that way. You try not to entitle people. Hopefully they earn their job, earn their position because of what they do."
This is a refreshing concept, and it's one that may be well suited to Garrett's particular job. There has, at least from the outside, always seemed to be a culture of assumption about the Cowboys. We assume they'll be contenders. We assume they'll have a great defense because of the big names it comprises. It's entirely possible that there's been a culture of entitlement within the locker room -- a case of players maybe believing their own headlines a little bit too much.
If that's the case, Garrett wants to change it. And that's why he was talking about his new free agents Wednesday in admiring terms -- specifically expressing admiration for the ways in which they've built their careers.
On new cornerback Brandon Carr: "He's a Grand Valley State guy who was a fifth-round pick. The only thing he did was show up in Kansas City and start every game he's played in his career. You don't typically expect that from fifth-round picks from small schools. So he's a guy who, you appreciate what he's done. You like his ability, you like who he is as a person and you like the approach he's taken in the NFL to take advantage of the opportunities that he's gotten. Those are real positive things on top of the fact that he's a young corner, he's a big corner, he's got long arms and he can cover man-to-man. We just feel like he's the right kind of guy."
On new guard Nate Livings: "The same way. College free agent. Earned his way. The Cincinnati Bengals were not going to say, 'We drafted him in X-round and he's going to be on our football team.' Nate Livings had to earn that spot, and we think that's a good thing."
Garrett called new guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, "A young guy from a small school who we feel has the physical traits to be a really good player in this league."
You get the idea. Garrett likes guys who are hungry, who have had to earn everything they've got. He believes players who know what it is to be hungry will remain so, and will continue to push themselves to achieve. He believes that having those kinds of guys on the team will have a positive effect on other players who might not be so inclined.
Which isn't to say that Garrett wants a team made up of overlooked, undrafted big-school rejects, mind you.
"We don't consciously go get guys who were free agents, but sometimes you like the path those guys have taken because they've earned it," Garrett said. "We have a number of guys on our football team who had done that as well, and they happen to be a number of our really good players."
The reason Cowboys fans should enjoy hearing this stuff is because Garrett's talking about establishing a hungry culture -- an atmosphere in which no one assumes their spot on the team is safe and everyone is constantly competing to make themselves and the team better. The fact that he's targeting such players in free agency -- and that the team is spending money to sign those players -- indicates that this isn't just talk. Garrett has a clear coaching philosophy and believes strongly that, if executed with what he calls "the right kinds of guys," it will help the Cowboys win games.
"One thing I know about the NFL is that there's going to be adversity," Garrett said. "And if you have the right kinds of guys on your team, you're going to be able to withstand that inevitable adversity that happens. And guys who come from those backgrounds, who have earned their way, have typically faced adversity. They've been rejected. They weren't the No. 1 recruit, so they went to this school instead of that school that maybe they wanted to go to. Or they weren't the starter right away and they kind of worked their way up the depth chart. You like guys who have had a little bit of a history dealing with some adversity, and hopefully that will reflect throughout your team during the adversities that you have over the course of the season."
It's a thought. Overcoming adversity certainly wasn't something at which the Cowboys excelled in 2011, and it looks as though the coach wants to get better at it. Whether he succeeds or not, at least Garrett isn't kidding himself about the stuff of which the Cowboys need more.