Without distractions, right leaders rise

Forget the winning scores, the first-place record, and instead scrutinize the behavior of the Dallas Cowboys players responsible for them.

There is Marion Barber -- the running back numerous people within the Cowboys' organization felt they were losing to the negative influence of Terrell Owens -- stalking the sidelines, vowing to his defensive teammates that they were finished for the night in Philadelphia, that he personally intended to run until there was not another second on the fourth-quarter clock. And then he did exactly that.

Even before that, there is Jay Ratliff in the locker room at halftime, trying to accept responsibility for breaking down on two running plays, refusing to let Wade Phillips take the blame and make excuses.

On Wednesday at Valley Ranch, Ratliff downplayed his reaction to Phillips' efforts to placate him. "I know my responsibilities, and I got out of line on two plays, and it didn't hurt us, hurt us, but it was way more than we as a defense want to give up," he said. "It was my fault, so what was I supposed to do? Turn around and say, 'Oh, we need another call.' I'll never do that. If I do wrong, I'm going to stand up and say I did wrong."

If Ratliff and Barber truly represent the Cowboys of the post-Terrell Owens era, if they really will be defined by their determination to win together and play for each other, then maybe that will conclude all the underachievement of the recent past. Maybe the Cowboys can perform to the level of the talent on the roster and make themselves proud.

Owner Jerry Jones contends locker room chemistry is overrated, although it can be argued he took a $9 million cap hit on T.O. in an attempt to disprove his own philosophy. Most NFL general managers believe that if you have strong locker room chemistry, you will win. Jones believes just the opposite: if you win, you will have good locker room chemistry.

Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones, the driving force behind the decision to jettison T.O. in the effort to create a leadership opportunity for Tony Romo, believes the team has made significant progress in that regard.

"I see a good chemistry, and it crosses the line," he said. "It's not just the defense having good chemistry with the defense. It's the defense having chemistry with the offense. I think the players are holding each other accountable, there's leadership developing and not just leading by example but emotional leadership as well. It's not perfect yet, but we have it."

"You don't have to worry about anybody talking about you behind your back," linebacker Bradie James said. "If everybody stands up and is a stand-up guy, it doesn't really matter. We're more a band of brothers. The ownership and accountability leads to production, and guys know you're playing not only for yourself but for each other."

Personally, I still have doubts about Phillips, and it seems the halftime interaction between the head coach and perhaps the best defensive player in Dallas underscores his inability to recognize the importance of player accountability, since he initially declined to accept it from Ratliff.

One of the first things Phillips did upon replacing Bill Parcells -- other than genuflecting to T.O. by calling him by his name and making note of that fact -- was that he took the team and gave it over to the players. It wasn't his team; it was theirs.

That kind of empowerment is a fine concept when the trust is placed in the right people. T.O., Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones weren't the right people.

Phillips regrettably also told the Cowboys to play hard and that any mistakes they made belonged to him. So Phillips spent all of last season denying the existence of problems and excusing bad performances.

That's exactly what Ratliff was rejecting just the other night.

"I'm not a finger-pointer or anything like that," he said. "If it's my bad, it's my bad.

"We're not looking at other teams or comparing ourselves to the team last year. We're talking guys we have now, and everyone is accountable."

Ratliff became uncomfortable when somebody inquired about whether he is an emerging leader on the Cowboys.

"You all throw that word around so loosely. The only thing I do is just go out and play hard and contribute to the team and win games," he said. "Just doing my job. We have great leaders in Keith Brooking, Bradie James and Romo. Those guys provide great leadership, and I'll follow those guys and respect them."

When I asked Romo before last season whether the Cowboys had too many bad-character players who were untrustworthy off the field to the point it could undermine the team's positive locker room leadership, the quarterback answered prophetically, although he probably could not have imagined what would ensue.

"You have to have leadership starting off," he said. "If you don't have a few guys who can control the locker room or at least get people to stay in line then, yeah, you're going to have trouble. But as long as I can remember, they weren't exactly church-going folks in the early '90s, but they won. And that's the thing people remember sometimes is just winning and losing. You can say it any way you want and you can talk about all these things destroying the team, but if you've got good players and they want to play together and win and they work toward a goal, you'll win. Eventually, you'll win. And if you have guys who are about money or just doing things on the side, you'll lose."

The Cowboys went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. T.O. went to Buffalo, Tank went to Cincinnati and Pacman went home to Deion Sanders.

What's happening right now is more than Barber and Ratliff. Those are just two examples. There are others, such as special teams coach Joe DeCamillis working almost without missing a day and putting himself in jeopardy on the sideline with serious neck and back injuries from the collapse in May of the indoor practice facility. That's an important tone to set because the special teams coach works with players from both sides of the ball.

DeMarcus Ware persevered through a fractured foot without a sack for weeks. Romo harshly criticized himself for the disastrous mistakes that resulted in the early season loss to the New York Giants. Roy Williams has been careful in voicing his frustration and has accepted the emergence of Miles Austin as the No. 1 receiver in a way that T.O. never would have. Patrick Crayton responded to his unfair benching with some of the best performances of his career, bellyaching only about the fact that Phillips' coaching staff did not inform him properly of the decision.

Last year, linebacker Zach Thomas described the Cowboys' locker room as the worst he had experienced in his entire NFL career. Today, his replacement, Brooking, describes it as the best he's ever seen. It is worth noting that when Brooking found himself being too often portrayed as one of the Cowboys' emotional leaders, he limited his availability in the open locker room period, perhaps to allow James to be the spokesman.

I asked Stephen Jones how much the removal of Owens from the locker room has contributed to the positive influences evident there now.

"I'm not worried about the guys who are not here anymore," he said. "I'm worried about the guys who are here."

To which, I say, maybe now there's less reason to worry about the guys who are here.

Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.