IRVING, Texas (AP) Jason Garrett loves the story of Pudge Huffelfinger, by all accounts the first American pro football player.
Here's why: The basics of winning football in 1892 were no different than they are today, which means the message doesn't have to change.
And the message never changes with the Dallas coach. Not during three straight 8-8 seasons that raised persistent questions about his job security. And not during a breakthrough this season that has the Cowboys (12-4) set for Sunday's wild-card game against Detroit (11-5), their first in the postseason since 2009.
''He's been giving the same speech since the first day he got the job,'' cornerback Orlando Scandrick said.
Circumstances have changed.
Garrett took over when owner Jerry Jones fired Wade Phillips with the Cowboys at 1-7 in 2010. Garrett was the offensive coordinator, and Jones believed quarterback Troy Aikman's backup from the Super Bowl days of the 1990s could match the success of one of his coaches, Jimmy Johnson.
When the Cowboys finished 6-10, there was little reason to doubt the move. But then came the .500 rut, questionable game management by Garrett, and three straight season-ending losses that kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs. Not to mention several significant changes in the coaching staff.
Garrett came into this final season of his contract with Jones steadfastly maintaining an extension wasn't imminent. But now the question has essentially been answered, replaced by talk of Garrett as a Coach of the Year contender.
''I think Jason is going to be a better coach five years from now than he is today, and I think he's a much better coach today than he was five years ago,'' Jones said earlier this season. ''He's a growing, smart, hard-working coach that is really getting some great experience.''
Garrett's unflinching message is simple. Show up every day and do your job. Be the best version of yourself, regardless of circumstances. Be ready to play, whether it's ''home, road, parking lot or the moon,'' as he likes to say.
''I think you coach them emotional on how to be their best,'' Garrett said. ''That's ultimately what you're asking them to do: be your best, not try your best.''
The message was never lost on the two players he's been around the longest , quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten, even through the monotony of season-ending disappointments. Romo recently said one of the best moves Jones made was keeping Garrett even though the Cowboys got within a year of the longest playoff drought in franchise history.
''He's done a great job motivating,'' said Romo, who set a franchise record with an NFL-leading 113.2 rating this season. ''I think he's just a great leader and someone that everyone looks up to. He's done a great job this year.''
Case in point, according to Witten: Garrett's upbeat outlook after a season-opening loss to San Francisco that included three first-half interceptions by Romo in his first game since back surgery at the end of the 2013 season.
''I think great coaches are always a step or two ahead of the rest of us,'' Witten said. ''He just kind of pointed out a lot of things we did well and talked about, `Guys, if we continue to do these things, we're going to be a real good team.'''
The son of former NFL coach and scout Jim Garrett, Jason grew up in the game with brothers John, who was on the Dallas staff until a shuffling two years ago, and Judd, a former practice squad player and now director of pro scouting for the Cowboys.
John Garrett agrees that his younger brother succeeds through his consistent message. He says it helped that the Cowboys drafted offensive linemen in the first round three of the past four years. Now they have NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray to take some of the load off Romo.
Jones also took some of the load off Garrett by pulling play-calling duties last year, although it took another season for him to get more comfortable with the hiring of Scott Linehan before this season.
''I always knew that Jerry and Stephen (Jones) and the entire organization had the utmost respect for him and they really believed in him as a leader, as a good football coach, and as the leader of the team,'' John Garrett said. ''With all those traits and all those beliefs, what has to come with it is success on the field. If they had not had a successful year, you wouldn't have been surprised if they didn't stick with him.''
Now that Jones has, it might be worth noting that his coach hasn't had a losing record and is 41-31 in four-plus seasons. And that there are only two coaches with more wins in Dallas: Tom Landry and Johnson.
''We were always to the point there were a few things that happened that could have went a different way,'' Scandrick said. ''It wasn't like we were just horrible and this coach is terrible. No. And it wasn't his fault that we weren't getting over the hump.''
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