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Jason Garrett must stand his ground

SAN ANTONIO -- Wade Phillips allowed Marion Barber to become a ceremonial starter last season for whatever silly reason.

It's among the reasons Phillips is now the Houston Texans' defensive coordinator instead of the Dallas Cowboys' coach.

Jason Garrett, promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in November, continued to start Barber, even though he often headed to the bench after the game's first play.

Last week, the Cowboys cut Barber. Let's hope that signals the end of a forgettable era.

For Garrett to succeed as the Cowboys' coach, he must consistently hold players accountable for their behavior off the field and their performance on it.

It's not optional. Or debatable.

The best coaches set clear standards for their players and demand they adhere to them. Consequences must exist for those who don't.

These Cowboys, the epitome of underachievers the past five seasons, haven't had that type of discipline and accountability since Bill Parcells left after the 2006 season.

They need it. Some players, such as Bradie James and Jason Witten, crave it.

It's up to Garrett to provide it.

After all, we're talking about a franchise that hasn't posted consecutive 10-win seasons since 1995 and 1996. The Cowboys haven't won back-to-back NFC East titles since then either.

A generation of kids has grown up in North Texas believing the Cowboys are synonymous with mediocrity.

As a head coach, Garrett has been firm. And demanding. And consistent. He commands respect because of his organizational skills and attention to detail.

Every drill has a purpose that's explained to the players. Wasted time doesn't exist in meetings or on the practice field.

Garrett has removed all ambiguity from the club's Valley Ranch training complex.

You're either on time. Or you're late. You either carried out your assignment properly. Or you didn't.

That said, no coach changes a team's culture in a few months. It takes time, which is why Garrett is forever talking about having the right kinds of guys on his team.

It's why he yearns to upgrade the roster, so he can create quality competition at every position.

"If they're not doing it the right way or they're not performing to the right level, then we have an opportunity to put someone else in," Garrett said. "It's important for us as coaches to do that and make sure everyone understands that."

He communicates easily with individual players, whether it's through a brief conversation or a text message. When addressing the team, he makes points without much cursing, though he occasionally drops a four-letter word for emphasis.

"We outline what the expectations are and what the rules and regulations are at the outset so we're abundantly clear with everyone on every issue," Garrett said "We use the fine system to make sure that behavior is the right behavior.

"We have to maintain our poise because we're the leaders on this team, but you have to get after guys when necessary and you have to pat guys on the back when it's necessary to get your points across."

Slowly, Garrett is changing the Cowboys' environment. The free passes Phillips handed out like Halloween candy have ended.

Garrett reigns over his emotions. He's pragmatic about tough decisions.

He loved Marc Colombo's intangibles: the hustle, the toughness, the leadership.

But every time he watched the videotape, he saw the effect of Colombo's age and injuries on his overall performance. The Cowboys are a better team without Colombo, so the club released him.

Garrett doesn't just hold his players accountable. He demands the players be accountable for each other.

"If someone is late, then Jason might get on me or Witten or DeMarcus [Ware] for not making sure the guy was on time," James said. "Then he'll bring attention to it at the meeting and let everyone know what happened.

"He's not just giving guys some dap and saying it's OK when they mess up. This is what we need."

Sometime this season, a player will challenge Garrett's authority or someone's performance will demand he's benched.

It's inevitable.

Phillips failed those tests because he couldn't or wouldn't make the toughest decisions.

Garrett will make them. Or he won't be here any longer than Phillips.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.