Jason Garrett wants mental edge

OXNARD, Calif. -- At the end of each practice at training camp, Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett puts his players through a series of sprints.

The players, split into groups, must run the appropriate distance, lean down and touch the ground under the watchful eyes of the coaching staff. Those who stop short of the required distance are chastised. The same goes for those who don't actually touch the ground.

"We're going to play 16 fourth quarters this season," Garrett said. "They're going to be tough and we're going to be tired, but that's when you have to focus. That's when you have to have poise and mental toughness and continue to do things the right way."

Garrett refuses to compromise on this drill. It must be done correctly. Each time. Every day.

It can only help, because the Cowboys weren't good enough in the fourth quarter last season.

All you have to do is look at some of the critical plays that doomed the Cowboys to an 8-8 season as they missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

In the opener against the New York Jets, quarterback Tony Romo lost a fumble and threw an interception in the fourth quarter. He threw three second-half interceptions against Detroit as the Cowboys blew a 27-3 lead.

New England drove 80 yards for a game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds left after a three-and-out possession by the Cowboys. Against Arizona, Dan Bailey missed a 49-yard field goal as time expired and the Cardinals scored on their first possession of overtime.

Jason Pierre-Paul blocked a potential game-tying field goal on the game's final play in a loss to the Giants.

Is there any doubt the Cowboys must be mentally tougher at winning time?

Not one.

Garrett is hardly alone. This time of year, every coach preaches mental toughness, since statistics show two-thirds of NFL games are within eight points in the fourth quarter.

Dallas played in 11 such games last season, winning five, which is why Garrett must instill a tougher mindset in his team.

"When it's really hot at practice, when it's really cold at practice, when the guy over you just knocked you on your ass or when you've had some success against him, you gotta come back the next play and be your best," Garrett said. "The guys and the teams that are mentally tough are able to do that.

"You have to be able to persevere. You have to handle the adversity, and you have to handle the success and continue to be your best because you're not going to have success every time out."

In the 24 games Garrett has coached the Cowboys, his teams are 7-7 in games decided by four points or fewer. Last season, the Cowboys won four games in which they trailed during the fourth quarter but lost five in which they led.

"We had way too many games that came down to a possession," Romo said. "We need to make it so we don't have as many. We need to be better leading up to that point. We let too many teams get back in it for a number of reasons."

The biggest reasons revolve around the Cowboys' inability to consistently run the ball and play pass defense.

If they can get better in those areas -- and the Cowboys took measures to do just that -- they should be much improved.

The Cowboys signed free agent guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau to help undersized center Phil Costa, who struggled against physically superior nose guards last season.

Add running back DeMarco Murray, who had three games with more than 130 yards rushing, and perhaps the Cowboys can effectively burn the clock at the end of games. At worst, Murray should help the Cowboys be more effective inside their opponents' 20.

The Cowboys scored five rushing touchdowns last season. Only Cleveland had fewer.

How embarrassing.

Then there's the pass defense that yielded an 88.4 passer rating with 24 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions. The Cowboys signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal and moved up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne, college football's best cornerback last season.

If each plays to his pedigree, along with Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys' secondary will be considerably better.

Teams that can run the ball effectively in the fourth quarter and play good pass defense don't lose too often in the fourth quarter.

Especially if they're mentally tough.