IRVING, Texas – To say Jason Hatcher has been frustrated throughout his career in Dallas is like saying the Cowboys have had issues running the ball in recent years.
On the surface, Hatcher can seem like a quiet, humble player who doesn't beat his own chest or make many waves in the locker room. But at the same time, he doesn't always bite his tongue.
He made the statement before last year about the lack of leadership in the locker room. He's said it before that he should be starting and not backing up players such as Chris Canty or Marcus Spears or anyone else who prevented him from being on the first string.
In fact, Hatcher said his frustrations nearly got the best of him until Rob Ryan was able to restore his confidence last year.
"Coach Rob was the first one to actually come in and believe in me," Hatcher said of Ryan, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator from 2011-12 who is now in New Orleans. "This league, people around this organization or around the league, they don't know how to tap into you and make you a better player. Sometimes you have to deal with politics. I've been through the ringer. All of that has prepared me for this day. I hate to look back on the past, but I thank God for everything I've been through."
And the Cowboys are rather thankful that Hatcher is still around, too. The eighth-year pro is off to a fast start in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme, playing a different position as a defensive tackle, although you'd never know he's only two games into his new spot.
"I really like it. This scheme gives me opportunities to be an athlete again," Hatcher said. "I'm enjoying it. I'm really happy where I'm at. I've got to keep getting better. I'm not where I want to be. I've got to continue to work."
Hatcher is arguably coming off the best game of his career last week in Kansas City, where he recorded six tackles, one for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and two quarterback pressures. And he did all of that from the defensive tackle spot that usually sees its share of traffic and occasional double-teams. The week before against the Giants, Hatcher had a key fourth-quarter sack on Eli Manning on third down. [embedded_ad]
Head coach Jason Garrett always stresses getting better and that there's room for improvement. He's never satisfied with anyone's play, and you'll rarely get him to compare anything, whether it's two players, two teams or even how a player is doing this year vs. last year. But even Garrett can make bold statements on Hatcher's first two games.
"I think he's playing as well as he's ever played and I think it's been a process of him going about it the right way throughout his career," Garrett said. "This is a different defensive scheme. The previous year, those guys were maybe two-gapping it a little bit more. Now we're playing a little more to his strengths with the ability to get up the field and win on edge against the opposing offensive lineman. But, he's gotten better and better every year we've been around. There's a maturity aspect to that, but there's also just refining your skills, and he's certainly going about it the right way."
Hatcher is right there with Garrett in terms of never being satisfied. He says he's harder on himself than any coach, fan or media critic could ever be. And that comes with the wins and especially the losses like Sunday's 17-16 setback against the Chiefs.
"It's never enough for me. If you guys know, if I have a good game, I feel like I've had a crappy game. I get so hard on myself," Hatcher said. "That play I messed up on just eats away at me. I think it's a good thing because you won't get complacent."
When asked where that mentality comes from, such as an older teammate that might have showed him the ropes, Hatcher said he was forced to develop that kind of attitude on his own – long before he got to the Cowboys in 2006 or even at Grambling State four years earlier.
"No, I think it's my upbringing," he said. "Just losing my mom at 16 years old. Nowhere to go, having a baby … young and back against the wall. What are you going to do? If you can't get character out of that, you won't have it at all. It's just my upbringing. I think your past catapults you and gets you ready for this day. Everything that happened … not starting and wanting to start and getting mad and keep working, it got me ready for this day. I'm prepared for it."
Kiffin says Hatcher is doing things that are rather rare for a player listed at 6-6 and playing in the middle.
"There aren't many players that tall that play that 3-technique," Kiffin said. "But Hatcher is one of those kinds of guys. I think he's special. He's done a real nice job in there. Without a doubt, they know where 97 is."
This is the final year of a three-year, $6 million contract Hatcher signed before the 2011 season. Whether or not the light bulb has finally come on, he's found a scheme that fits, the motivation of a "contract year" is a factor, or the combination of it all, Hatcher is indeed making a difference here after two games.
"I'm not saying I'm the best," Hatcher said. "But I want to be the best."