IRVING, Texas -"Be great today" is Jason's Garrett's moniker as Dallas Cowboys head coach, his adage splashed on t-shirts and signs at Valley Ranch as a reminder to his players.
Translation: "Be consistent in everything you do, because there's always someone ready to take your job."
That's the hard truth behind Garrett's message. Pro football has great demand but a limited supply. The competition is fierce and players have precious little time to show their worth, particularly in this salary cap era.
The late, great Tom Landry proclaimed the third season was critical in a player's career. Bill Parcells, the sixth head coach in Cowboys history after Landry's inaugural 28-year tenure, had the same philosophy. Gotta see something by Year 3, he'd say.
"There are a number of players who are real established players on our football team who have gone through similar processes to become the player that they are," Garrett said after the Cowboys' final minicamp practice in mid-June. "You see flashes of them being really good, and then the next play or the next day or the next game, 'Boy, that really wasn't you. What happened to the guy that was playing the other day?'
"I can cite all the players on our team that have been to Pro Bowls, they've gone through that process in their career. We have a number of young players on our team who are going through that right now. You see them do a lot of really good things but you've got to do it on a play-in, play-out, game-in, game-out basis. They're learning how to do that and it's our job as coaches to help them do that."
Multi-year Pro Bowlers like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten have established that standard of consistency. Few on the Cowboys' roster have their natural talent, but the right approach goes a long way in this league. Just ask Jay Ratliff, a seventh-round draft choice seven years ago who has since scratched and clawed his way to four straight all-star games.
Here are a handful of third-year veterans to watch as the Cowboys' most significant offseason evaluations (training camp and preseason) loom in the coming weeks.
Some are rising stars. Others are fighting for jobs. All are trying to validate themselves on some level by Year 3.
WR Dez Bryant and ILB Sean Lee.The top two selections in the 2010 draft have Pro Bowl potential. Both flashed talent and fought through injuries in their first two seasons, and their development might be the biggest keys to the Cowboys' offense and defense, respectively. Lee is a defensive captain in the making, and Bryant might be the most fascinating player on the roster. There's really no limit to his game if he can stay healthy and become a complete receiver. The Cowboys need both. This offseason Bryant has gotten his weight down and worked harder on his conditioning.
TE John Phillips. Technically he's a fourth-year player, but Phillips is entering his third full season after blowing out his knee in the 2010 preseason opener. For what it's worth, Phillips was arguably the most impressive skill player in training camp that year. Players seem most confident and productive when they're two full years removed from ACL injuries, and Phillips has a new opportunity with No. 2 tight end Martellus Bennett no longer around.
SS Barry Church. At worst, Church will remain a core special-teamer while contributing at safety and linebacker in certain packages. He also could sneak in and grab a starting safety job next to Gerald Sensabaugh. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's a smart, physical player.
C Phil Costa. Undrafted in 2010 like Church, Costa rose to starting status in his second season. He doesn't have ideal size for the position, but the Cowboys still believe he can be a consistently functional starter in the league. And right now, there doesn't appear to be any serious competition at center. The club hopes signing two sturdier guards, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, will compensate for his lack of size.
DL Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent. This pair of 2010 seventh-round picks (Brent went in the supplemental draft) are competing for snaps in the defensive line rotation. Lissemore was a part-time force at defensive end and nose tackle, including a several-week period Brent missed with a dislocated kneecap. Brent is a bigger, more powerful lineman, while Lissemore is more in the Ratliff mold, relying more on quickness. Clifton Geathers, signed late in the 2010 season, is another third-year guy trying to break through.