Witten, Cowboys seek repeat playoff run after past failures
OXNARD, Calif. (AP) Jason Witten doesn't deny that the Cowboys had a more complicated locker room with Terrell Owens in it and a different message coming from the top when Wade Phillips was the coach.
The star tight end also says those factors were far from the most important when Dallas missed the playoffs the last two times it reported to training camp as NFC East champion.
''There was a different culture, different coaches, different players, maybe some different motives at times,'' Witten said. ''Ultimately, we just didn't make plays. For us, your ability to kind of dumb it down and say in these plays, in these games, we didn't play well.''
The Cowboys are back in that position for the first time since 2010, when they started 1-4 before Tony Romo's broken collarbone ruined a season that bottom out at 1-7, prompting the firing of Phillips and promotion of Jason Garrett.
Garrett has been big on ''ground zero'' talk in the week since the Cowboys traveled to California coming off his first division title and playoff victory as coach. Dallas went 12-4 in the regular season and beat Detroit in a wild-card game before a divisional round loss to Green Bay that turned on receiver Dez Bryant's much-debated catch that wasn't.
But don't talk to him about how ''close'' the Cowboys were a year ago. Or that the Super Bowl-winning Dallas teams he was on in the 1990s built on the success of previous seasons.
''There was never a feeling of entitlement,'' Garrett said. ''If you ever went to one of those ball practices back then, it was competitive every minute of every day. It wasn't about, `Hey, what I did yesterday.' Nobody on that team, nobody in that locker room, nobody in that culture would allow that mentality to sink in.''
Witten and Romo had their best regular season in 2007, going 13-3 to win their first NFC East title together. But after getting a first-round bye, the Cowboys lost to the New York Giants, who upset undefeated New England in the Super Bowl.
A year later, Dallas was 8-4 before losing three of its last four and missing the playoffs. The season ended with hints of a divided locker room, and the offseason release of Owens in what owner and general manager Jerry Jones called a ''Romo-friendly'' move.
The Cowboys won their first playoff game in 13 years after taking the division title in 2009 before the next season started with a rash of puzzling losses, punctuated by Romo's season-ending injury.
''In some ways, we're a little bit of a different team, our style,'' Romo said. ''In 2010 we didn't have the personnel we had. When I saw that some guys got older, some guys were gone, some had injuries, so there is a lot of things that play into it.''
Dallas has to replace NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray after letting him go to division rival Philadelphia in free agency. But Romo is coming off his most efficient season, Bryant has a new contract after leading the NFL in touchdown catches and a young offensive line is considered one of the best in the league.
The Cowboys tried to shore up an improving defense by signing former Carolina pass rusher Greg Hardy in free agency and drafting a defensive end in the second round for the second straight year (Randy Gregory after DeMarcus Lawrence in 2014). They also re-signed Rolando McClain, who should get to play alongside Sean Lee after coming in as his emergency replacement last year.
Hardy (domestic violence case) and McClain (violation of substance-abuse policy) are both suspended for the first four games of the regular season.
''Last year when I stood at these press conferences early on, we were probably considered a bottom five or a bottom 10 team in the National Football League,'' Garrett said. ''The best thing our team did last year is they didn't listen to all that.
''They focused on what they needed to do each and every day to define themselves as a football team, establish their identity and show people who we were. That's the same message to our team this year.''
Romo and Witten are by far the strongest voices carrying that message, unlike five years ago when they were important but still surrounded by veterans with more tenure. Now going into their 13th NFL season together, they are two of just three on the team with double-digit tenures. The other is long snapper Louis-Philippe Ladouceur (11).
''Last year was good run,'' Witten said. ''Ultimately, it wasn't what we wanted. You put it behind you. You go back and re-evaluate it and set the goals high. There was a culture last year that everybody was on edge. We have to keep that.''
And keep making plays, as Witten might say.
NOTES: The Cowboys cut TE Ray Hamilton and replaced him with Brandon Barden on Tuesday, a day after placing LB Justin Anderson (ankle) and G Reshod Fortenberry (knee) on injury waivers and signing LBs Jonathan Brown and Ka'Lial Glaud.
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