OXNARD, Calif. – How's this for a novel concept – Bruce Carter is trying to make football fun again.
It seems easy enough. It's doubtful any of the Cowboys' 90 current players would have made it to this point without enjoying it. The NFL wouldn't be the entertainment powerhouse it has become if it wasn't fun to watch.
It wasn't so fun for Carter, a second-round pick who struggled through the most frustrating year of his career last year. The stats will tell you he was productive, finishing third on the team with 96 total tackles. Carter himself will tell you that wasn't quite the case, though, as he struggled to adapt to the Cowboys' 4-3 scheme in a down year for the defense.
"In the NFL, you go through your highs and your lows, and I think that's just growth," Carter said. "Every player is going to have to go through it and experience that, but you've got to learn from it."
The response to that disappointment was to work harder. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and linebackers coach Matt Eberflus have both praised the work Carter put in during the offseason. But moreso than that, Carter reiterated it's about enjoying the job.
"I think when I had my bad games I kind of let that get in my head a little bit. It kind of frustrated me and just took me out of how I was and the fun out of football," he said. "I got that back – I had to get that back. I'm out here having fun with all the young guys and I've just got to go out here and play fun and let everything else handle itself."
If he can do that, Carter has proven himself plenty adept at his job. The performance that garnered him so many expectations in the first place was his stellar play in place of an injured Sean Lee in 2012. He tallied 28 tackles in the month of November alone before an injury ended his season.
"He's been a good player for us at different times over the last couple of years, and it's time for him to step up and take advantage of this opportunity and do it on a consistent basis," Garrett said.
Confidence is the key to that consistency, to hear it from the head coach. The transition from a 3-4 defense to the 4-3 scheme wasn't as smooth as many had hoped for last year, and Garrett said it slowed Carter's play.
"Bruce is a guy – I think when he plays with confidence and knows what he's doing, he plays fast. He plays decisively and makes a lot of plays," Garrett said. "When he has any uncertainty in him, just like anyone else, he plays a lot slower. He doesn't play with that natural ability that he has."
Asked about that by reporters, Carter took it back to fun. If he was lacking anything, it wasn't so much confidence as perhaps an ability to get out of his own head – to put aside the frustration and disappointment.
"I don't think I lost any confidence, I just kind of lost the fun of playing with me having a frustrating year," he said. "I just had to get that fun feeling back of me just going and making plays and being excited and talking junk and all that stuff. I've got it back and I'm ready to go." [embedded_ad]
The Cowboys need desperately for Carter to be right about that. Lee is out again – this time for the entire season – as is well known. The club has Justin Durant and Rolando McClain to compete for Lee's vacated middle linebacker spot, but the Cowboys need both production and leadership from Carter on the weak side.
Henry Melton's presence on the defensive line should help. The gameplan is to line Melton and Carter up together, so the disruptive pass rusher can free Carter from blocks and allow him to make plays.
"He's going to get down there and disrupt the offensive line and their scheme for me, and I'm just going to be able to fly around and be free to the hit. I'm excited about that," Carter said.
"For me personally and the defense, we've got a bad taste in our mouth and we want to get that out," Carter said. "We're going to come out here and work, and that whole experience for us just put a huge chip on our shoulder."
Originally drafted in 2011, Carter is also in the final year of his rookie deal – so his performance this season could determine his future, as well as wins and losses. In that regard, he's got a lot in common with another highly-touted draft pick, Morris Claiborne.
"Me and Mo were kind of, you could say, in that same kind of little slump. I would talk to him all the time about, you know, me and him have got to go out there and do the thing," he said. "We can't make no excuses for ourselves, being young or whatever the case may be. We've got to go out there and get the job done and nobody wants to hear excuses."
Therein lies the challenge of football. How much fun Carter and his teammates have in 2014 is probably going to hinge on how much better they execute as a defense. But it's a challenge he said he's ready for.