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Offseason work is voluntary but Cowboys believe games 'are won right now'

FRISCO, Texas -- Darren Hambrick's lasting impact as a Dallas Cowboys linebacker from 1998 to 2001 is a quote of his that is often repeated at this time of year: “What do voluntary mean?”

The only part of an offseason program that is mandatory is a three-day minicamp in mid-June. The rest is voluntary, which Hambrick was more than willing to point out after he skipped what was back in 2001 called a “quarterback school.”

Nowadays, the offseason workouts are still voluntary but they are called organized team activities and some stars in the NFC East are living by Hambrick’s creed.

In New York, the Giants have not seen Odell Beckham Jr. or Olivier Vernon at their organized team activities. Jason Pierre-Paul has missed some work, too.

In Philadelphia, stalwart left tackle Jason Peters hasn’t been at the Eagles’ sessions. Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Darren Sproles and newcomer Tim Jernigan are among a group that has missed some work.

In Washington, Redskins left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Jordan Reed have stayed away from the voluntary OTAs.

Meanwhile, with the Cowboys, Hambrick’s old team, attendance has been close to perfect.

During the two sessions open to the media so far, every player has been accounted for. From Dak Prescott to Dez Bryant to Ezekiel Elliott to Sean Lee to Orlando Scandrick to Tyrone Crawford, they have been there.

“We’ve been very fortunate -- we have near 100 percent attendance of everything we do in the offseason program and we have a lot of guys who live here and a lot of guys who don’t live here, get here,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They’re the right kind of guys. We have guys who care about football, care about this football team and care about getting better -- and that’s a manifestation of that.”

Coaches will always preach team-before-self messages, but more than 20 Cowboys have de-escalators in their contracts that could end up costing them parts of their base salaries if they miss too many workouts. If Scandrick does not participate in 90 percent of the workouts, he would lose out on $1 million of his $3 million base salary. Bryant has a $500,000 de-escalator. Witten, Lee, Tyron Smith and

Travis Frederick have de-escalators in their deals, too.

The work actually started before the official start of the offseason program with informal captains’ workouts, in which players can not have contact with coaches. A large number of players attended those as well.

A year ago, a big theme of the 13-3 season was the camaraderie built in the offseason through the workouts that led to a stronger chemistry and improved on-field results. It should also be pointed out that the Cowboys had near-perfect attendance at the 2015 offseason program as well and finished 4-12 that season.

The biggest absence that year was Bryant, who was in a contract dispute. He showed up to a few workouts but was a spectator. As the season went on, Bryant came to realize how much he missed when he wasn’t with the team.

When players work out with players, they push each other sometimes without words. Nobody wants to look bad in the weight room or running sprints.

But it’s not just that kind of work where the benefits are seen. Last Tuesday, Bryant walked by the film room and saw Prescott in there alone. He joined his quarterback and soon Elliott walked in too. They were able to study what happened in that practice, see some mistakes and attempt to improve the next day.

“All of that plays a factor into moving forward this year,” Bryant said. “Nobody told us to do that, you know, we just want to be better as a whole. It shows up.”

The Cowboys believe it will show up starting with the Sept. 10 season opener against the New York Giants and carry them through the Dec. 31 season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.

“At the end of the day everybody’s here, everybody’s getting in, getting extra work,” Prescott said. “People will be here hours after this practice is done, getting their body right, working out, watching film, hanging with each other a bunch. It’s everything you want to see in a team just growing together. We’re in this critical time right now. Games are won right now so we’re headed in the right direction in doing that.”