The author of “America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,” Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
There we were, one of the most accomplished defensive coordinators in the history of the NFL, Monte Kiffin, and myself in a meeting room at the team's headquarters in Oxnard, Calif. The first week of last summer's training camp. Kiffin was explaining how his famed "Tampa 2" scheme worked. In the midst of our conversation,
Well, let's be honest here. I brought him up. There has been no bigger fan of Carter since the Cowboys drafted him in the second round back in 2011. And this scheme seemed perfect for him. Why? Derrick Brooks played weakside linebacker under Kiffin in Tampa Bay and was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, and in my mind, Carter was a similar athlete. Brooks was a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year. So I made the comparison to Kiffin.
At first he just stared at me. In retrospect, maybe he was confused. Then he spoke, his raspy voice somewhat flummoxed, "No, I couldn’t go there. We haven’t played a game. Bruce is going to be a real good athlete. We just haven’t really played anything. You're talking about one of the best linebackers to ever play the game in Derrick."
A whole bunch went wrong for the Cowboys defense last season. Like, whatever the worse case scenario was back at camp would've been an overwhelming success by season's end. Week-after-week players were being signed literally off their couches, the injuries were mindboggling, the secondary was a train wreck and there was little pass rush to speak of. So by no means was the defensive meltdown the fault of one.
Still, Carter's performance last season was a ginormous disappointment. His numbers were decent enough, 96 tackles and 2.0 sacks in 15 games, but statistics for linebackers especially can be wildly misleading. Linebackers are going to make tackles.
For the record, though, and this is important, Carter's play wasn't as bad as the media and fans claimed. There were some tough games, San Diego and New Orleans immediately come to mind, and he was benched on multiple occasions, so the coaching staff obviously wasn't pleased either, but Carter was solid in pass coverage. Heck, ProFootballFocus.com rated him first on the team in that category. And not just among linebackers. That’s for all players, with
So what went wrong? And is it fixable? Is Carter the potential Pro Bowler that I thought he was entering last season? There's no questioning his athleticism and ability.
Found myself thinking about these queries and more during OTAs and decided to reach out and see if Carter was willing to talk. After interviewing him one-on-one several times his first two seasons, Carter declined multiple requests to chat in 2013. This time around that wasn't the case, and we talked for about 15 minutes, the majority of which will be used for a feature in an upcoming issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine.
Carter couldn't have been more honest. This wasn't one of those interviews when the world was roses and jellybeans. This wasn't revisionist history at work. He talked openly at how frustrating last season was, his transition to the scheme, his being benched for the first time in his career and the criticism.
"Everyone says they don't hear the criticism, but they obviously do listen to it," Carter said. "It's hard to take criticism. You obviously want to be the best player you can be. You want to go out and do your best so people will talk good about you.
"I didn't think my play was as bad as many made it out to be. Everybody has bad plays, but for it go on and blow up, and me getting benched and stuff like that, I guess it's just part of the NFL. I just have to take that as a man and look at myself. If I'm not doing something right, I have to correct it."
From more or less the moment last season ended, Carter has been preparing himself for this year. Studying film, the playbook, he wants to know this scheme every which way imaginable. He wants to know what all 10 of his teammates are doing on each play. And with DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher having left in the offseason and
"With those guys gone and Sean being out, people are going to look to someone," Carter said. "I want to be that guy. I'm in a great place and that's the mindset I have to keep. And I'm going to keep. I'm going to have a great year. I guarantee you that. We're going to be good."
The time is now for Carter. This is the last season of his four-year rookie contract, and no one is still quite sure what the Cowboys have in him. Does he possess the Pro Bowl talent that some, myself included, saw in 2012? Or is he just another guy, one likely to play eight or nine seasons in the NFL and have his moments, but never take the leap to the game's elite.
Only time will tell. If forced to choose, I'm still taking the Pro Bowl talent, but there are no more mulligans. Carter needs to prove himself in 2014. And that's exactly what he plans to do.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.