Opportunity knocks for hyped Cowboys

Cowboys players, including Marion Barber (24) have renewed confidence after ending a 13-season playoff win drought. "If we continue to have the mindset that ... you've got to earn everything you get in this game, we'll be fine," Keith Brooking said. Matthew Emmons/US Presswire

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones wouldn't even say the words "Super Bowl" last offseason.

He was stunned by the epic failure of his Cowboys to live up to contender billing in 2008, when they fell apart during a drama-filled December and didn't even qualify for the playoffs. Jones didn't want to add any pressure by pumping up expectations again.

Well, that's no longer a worry for Jerry. Not with the Cowboys coming off their first playoff win in 13 seasons and the Super Bowl coming to his $1.2 billion house.

"He lets us know where it is every time he talks to us," All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Every single time."

The hype has returned to Valley Ranch. The expectations are high again, internally and externally.

Can these Cowboys handle it?

"If we continue to have the mindset that nothing's going to be given and you've got to earn everything you get in this game, we'll be fine," said inside linebacker Keith Brooking, a much-needed locker room voice of reason who arrived before last season.

The Cowboys' core matured during the wild roller coaster ride of the last few seasons. Tony Romo has grown comfortable in the leadership role that goes with the title of franchise quarterback, a development aided by the release last year of a certain controversial receiver.

We can still debate how much blame should be assigned to Terrell Owens for the crumbling of the Cowboys two seasons ago. Several prominent Cowboys still consider T.O. a great teammate, but he was a polarizing figure whose presence eventually fractured the locker room.

That's no longer a problem, and neither was replacing T.O.'s production. Mild-mannered Miles Austin gives Romo a friendly, controversy-free go-to guy with gamebreaking ability.

But there's still a receiver at Valley Ranch who generates headlines with his harsh words. However, Patrick Crayton's problems are with the front office, not any teammates. He doesn't have a T.O.-like influence anyway.

If one of the biggest concerns is a bitter fourth receiver whose roster spot is in jeopardy, that's probably a sign the team is in pretty good shape from a chemistry standpoint.

Unlike the recent past, it doesn't seem as if a sense of entitlement has crept into the Cowboys. There is a sense of confidence that comes after slaying the December demons and ending the playoff win drought. But the terrible trip to Minnesota, where the Cowboys' season ended with a 34-3 loss, serves as a reminder that there is much work to be done.

"I think we grew as a team going up there," Brooking said. "We were humbled. We played horrible, our worst game of the year probably. I think we can learn from that.

"We got one playoff win. Wow, what does that mean? It doesn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but I think we took a step in the right direction. I think we can build on that this year."

The owner is banking on it.

The 67-year-old Jones' eyes light up like a little kid's at an amusement park when discussing the possibility of the Cowboys becoming the first team to have home-field advantage for a Super Bowl.

He said he hopes the players use that possibility as motivation. He wants the Cowboys to envision being the best and follow up on it, a message five-time Super Bowl champion Charles Haley delivered to the Cowboys after a recent workout.

"I can really come in here and imagine and make believe and picture this thing and how it's going to be full with all the excitement of a Super Bowl," Jones said during Saturday's minicamp practice at Cowboys Stadium. "You could dream that something could happen that's never happened before. That's worth dreaming on."

The Cowboys acted like fools a couple of seasons ago. Opportunity knocks again, and it's hard to believe they won't have a much better answer this time around.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.