Jason Garrett cuts dead weight

IRVING, Texas -- We can discuss how Jason Garrett has changed the Dallas Cowboys' demeanor, which is how he describes it. And we can talk about his quest to make this a mentally tougher and physically stronger football team.

But Garrett's biggest impact has been to the Cowboys' roster. During the 22 months he's been the coach, Garrett's taken a machete to it.

Only seven of 24 starters remain from Wade Phillips' last game as head coach, an embarrassing 45-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers. That's not counting Tony Romo, who missed the last seven games with a broken collarbone.

Just 22 of the 53 players (42 percent) remain from Phillips' last team. Of the 17 starters now gone, nine are no longer in the league.

Linebacker Bradie James starts in Houston, defensive end Stephen Bowen starts in Washington and injuries forced Cincinnati to start cornerback Terence Newman. Three others are backups with other clubs, while Mike Jenkins and Marcus Spears remain with Dallas as reserves.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised the Cowboys rejected every opportunity to yield to adversity in their win over the New York Giants last week, whether it was on offense or defense.

This is not just a different team, it has a different vibe. The victory over the Giants provided Garrett's team with tangible, irrefutable evidence that his process works.

It doesn't mean the Cowboys will win the NFC East. Or go to the Super Bowl. Or even the NFC Championship game. What means is that if the Cowboys play to their ability and maximize their potential, they're capable of beating the league's best teams.

Each day, Garrett drives home the same points -- the same sermon 52 ways, a preacher once told him -- to the Cowboys.

He preaches accountability and attention to detail while imploring his players to trust each other.

"As a staff we try to lay out the expectations and hold everyone accountable to them. At the end of the day, if that's demanding, well I guess we're demanding," Garrett said. "That's me and that's our entire staff and hopefully that's our players to each other.

"We have standards about how we want to do things. We try to establish them early on, make them abundantly clear to everybody and hold them accountable to them."

If you're a Cowboys fan, now would be a good time to give Garrett a standing ovation.

Thus far, he's kept his word. The best players make the team regardless of draft status or money, and the best players play regardless of draft status or money.

The list of coaches who say that is lengthy; the list of coaches who adhere to it is not nearly as long.

All the players on this roster have to do is see a guy such as Cole Beasley make the team to know Garrett will give any productive player an opportunity.

Garrett also made a strong statement at the end of the preseason, when he opted to keep veteran defensive linemen Spears and Kenyon Coleman instead of younger, cheaper options with more potential.

When players know they can get an opportunity regardless of pedigree, it makes everyone more competitive whether we're talking about meetings, drills or practice.

All of that makes the team better.

"I wasn't sure I believed him when he said it last year because there's so much politics involved in the NFL, whether it's money or keeping draft picks," defensive end Jason Hatcher said of Garrett, "He definitely kept the best players."

See, most coaches get too attached to their players. So they keep them a year too long. Maybe two.

Instead of seeing a player's decline and getting rid of him, which is what the best franchises do, too many times the Cowboys have kept players past their prime. Whether you blame the coach or owner Jerry Jones is irrelevant.

Bottom line: Too often, the Cowboys have had rosters filled with substandard talent.

During Garrett's tenure, among the players the Cowboys have released are Newman, James, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier, who played a combined 47 seasons and 683 games and went to nine Pro Bowls.

"That's the name of the game in the NFL," Spears said. "Anytime there's a change in coaches, the new coach wants to get guys who fit what he likes to do -- on the field and off the field. A lot of guys get cut or released, but it doesn't mean they can't play.

"The thing about Jason is he has a real good approach about moving on to the next play and the next game or the next practice. We're always in the moment. We go about our business hourly or minute-by-minute. When you do that, it's not hard to move on from something whether it's good or bad."

Garrett's process is working. The seeds have been sown. The harvest is coming.