OXNARD, Calif. – As he begins his fifth full season as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, this much is as clear as the calm southern California sky:
Jason Garrett has put his imprint on this team's personality.
Want proof? Sure, there's the 12-4 record that busted the three-year 8-8 glass ceiling; the new five-year contract in January; the players' public support of the Process.
But it's not what the players say about their coach.
It's what the coach says through the players.
Let me explain.
A boss's best trait in any line of work, aside from treating people fairly, is whether his or her department listens to their message, responds to them, performs for them. Could be an office building. Could be a construction site. Could be a grass football field in sunny Oxnard.
The difference between sports and any other profession is there's a clear record of the boss's message being followed or ignored.
For the Dallas Cowboys, all you have to do is sample a few players' quotes throughout the offseason and here in Cali about their approach to 2015:
Quarterback Tony Romo:* "We don't think about last year. Now it's a whole new team. We've got to build. There's a lot of things you've got to do, but you've got to start over. You don't build off anything."*
Cornerback Brandon Carr: "We've got to wipe the slate clean. Last year is done. That team is over. We've got to have the same hunger, the same chip on our shoulder this year to go after it again."
Safety Barry Church: "We had a good season (in 2014), but it wasn't a great season in our eyes. We have to tear it down and come in with our new pieces that we have."
Safety J.J. Wilcox: "Coach (Rod) Marinelli tells the defense all the time, we're starting a garden. Right now we have weeds everywhere, we've got no trees growing, we've got a desert right now. The main thing we have to understand is we start at Day One."
Tight end Jason Witten: "I think for all of us the pace has been set – expectations and really putting last year behind us and moving forward."
And, finally, guard Zack Martin, moments after stepping off the plane Tuesday at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu: "Nothing's taken for granted. We know we have a fresh team."
Hmmm, wonder where this collective doctrine came from.
Jason Garrett, of course. He's been hammering this home since January.
The coach repeated his message again at Wednesday's state-of-the-union press conference:
"We really don't believe that you build on something from the previous year," he said. "This year's team is different than last year's team and we all have to understand that.
"We have to go back to work. We have to lay the foundation for this football team, this 2015 Dallas Cowboys football team. That's what the focus is. I think our players understand that. That's how they worked in the offseason. That's their mindset. That's their mentality."
Now, for us beat writers, this ain't exactly above-the-fold gold. But there's a compelling message within the players' platitudes:
This is, without a doubt, Garrett's football team.
The evidence lies within his players' comments.
They listen to him. And they repeat what he says, sometimes word for word.
Garrett's message, of course, is rooted in any possible assumption that the Cowboys will reach Super Bowl greatness simply because they achieved their first winning season in his tenure with poise and grit, and perhaps were a Dez Bryant 'football move' away from beating the Packers and reaching the NFC Championship game.
In a speech to his players after the season ended, Garrett tried to ward off any sense of entitlement in the coming months.
"We sat in that room," executive vice president Stephen Jones recalled, "and (Garrett) said, 'This team was this team. We're proud of what you did, but you can't just pick up where you left off. We'll have to start from scratch, everybody will have to be accountable, it'll have a different set of faces out there – there will be new faces. Everybody will have to work harder. Obviously what we did last year was good but it didn't get the job done.'"
Remember, Garrett was an assistant coach on the 2007 and 2009 Cowboys teams who won the NFC East title . . . and then missed the playoffs entirely the following year as popular preseason title favorites.
He has seen firsthand, as a player and a coach, the unique hype the Dallas Cowboys get when they're good to great. He knows that hype must be harnessed, because it's human nature to relax just a little when people say nice things about you over and over and over.
The Cowboys should be proud of the step forward they took last year. Ironically, Garrett sort of wants them to forget it ever happened.
'Be great today,' right? Not yesterday.
All for the sake of Progress in the Process.