Jason Garrett looks back for motivation

ARLINGTON, Texas -- In a best-case scenario, the backlit sign that frames the entrance of the home locker room at Cowboys Stadium will need significant revisions after each season.

It's basically a poster-sized page out of the team's media guide. Under the words "A CHAMPIONSHIP TRADITION," it lists the NFL franchises that rank among the leaders in such categories as Super Bowl championships and postseason appearances. The common theme of the eight lists: The Cowboys rank first or second in each one.

It's part of the emphasis head coach Jason Garrett is putting on the history of America's Team. There are more reminders all over the walls at Valley Ranch, where many pictures of Cowboys greats have been added since last season.

What difference does Garrett think interior decorating can make for a football team?

"When you're in a franchise like the Dallas Cowboys, I think it's particularly important to understand the history, because the history has been so good," said Garrett, who is the son of a longtime Cowboys scout and earned a pair of Super Bowl rings as a backup quarterback. "We do not want to live in the past. We have absolutely no interest in living in the past. We want to live in today and going forward.

"But when you're part of the Dallas Cowboys right now and you look back at what this franchise has done in the past -- the team, the coaches and the players -- there's a great standard that exists and is meaningful."

That's what made last season so sickening. Pumped up as preseason Super Bowl contenders, the Cowboys responded with the most embarrassing season in franchise history. Instead of enriching the team's tradition, the Cowboys became a league laughingstock, at least until Garrett got the interim head coach title.

The culture change was sudden and striking, and the Cowboys responded with five wins in the final eight games to finish a still unacceptable 6-10. This is a continuation of the culture change, as Garrett attempts to create an atmosphere at Valley Ranch similar to the one he experienced in the '90s.

(At the facility, at least. A nearby "White House" to host, um, social activities isn't part of the plan.)

Garrett, who referred to the "Cowboy Way" during the news conference to introduce him as head coach, occasionally sprinkles in references to the franchise's Super Bowl teams as examples for his players. He has invited Cowboys alumni to Friday's scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers and made it clear former players are welcome around the team.

Even Rob Ryan, son of infamous Cowboys hater Buddy, has embraced the emphasis on tradition. He paid tribute to legendary coach Tom Landry by having the Cowboys line up in the Flex defense for the first snap of the preseason.

"It just brings pride," second-year linebacker Sean Lee said. "When you go out on the field and you know what's happened in the past and the way the guys have played in the past, you want to play like that. That's a standard that's set for you that you want to reach. ... That's something that motivates you."

Added DeMarcus Ware, who already ranks among the elite defensive players in franchise history: "When you start talking about tradition, the tradition usually comes back and helps the guys that are here right now."

That isn't always the way it works. Remember the epic failure of the Texas Stadium finale? A dark cloud hung over the hole in the roof during a postgame ceremony honoring dozens of former Cowboys after the Baltimore Ravens slammed the door on the iconic stadium by breaking back-to-back long touchdown runs.

Not to dwell on those miserable memories. Garrett doesn't want to live in the past. And, if he did, there are many more motivational moments from a franchise he plans to build back to being worthy of the America's Team moniker.

The Cowboys have rarely earned respect, much less lived up to the franchise's lofty standards, since the '90s dynasty died. Garrett hopes some history lessons will help change that.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.