Primes For Breakout? Peers Believe Time IS Now Right For Hatcher

IRVING, Texas -Jason Garrett references the rule as being one from Tom Landry. Bill Parcells also lived by the rule and also credited Landry as one of the creators, although it's likely that Landry got it from one of his mentors as well.

Simply put, football coaches from any era are firm believers that players tend to take a few years to develop. But by their third pro season, you should see what you're going to see.

Obviously there are exceptions to every rule. Jason Hatcher is counting on being one of those exceptions here in 2012.

For Hatcher, who was in the last draft class Parcells had here in Dallas back in 2006, he now enters his seventh year and is still waiting for that breakthrough season.

"I'm not calling out anyone who was here," Hatcher said of his previous coaches. "But in this league, sometimes you just have to wait on your opportunity. It took five or six years for me, and my opportunity is here now. I just have to make the best of it, however long I play and be the best I can be."

For most of his career, Hatcher has been a backup player to the likes of Marcus Spears, Chris Canty and Igor Olshansky. Injuries have also popped up at the worst time, just when it would appear Hatcher was ready to make his move.

But if you ask his coaches and teammates, even Marcus Spears who lost his starting spot to Hatcher last season, they agree this 2012 season could finally be the year Hatcher turns that corner.

"Hatch is ready to blow up," Spears said last week as the minicamp and offseason concludes. "You can just tell by the way he's working and the way he's playing. He's bigger, stronger. I think it's going to be a big year for him."

Defensive line coach Brian Baker agrees, although the veteran coach doesn't want to be fooled by what he's seeing in the summer, which suggests a breakout. Then again, it's early.

"Oh, I see a big year for him - the way he carries himself. The way he's working. He right now, is a different guy," Baker said of Hatcher. "Now here's the deal, it's easy to be different right now. You get a guy who has been in that backup role for seven years and now all of a sudden he's going against that N-Y-G on the helmet and we're on Wednesday night and the whole world is watching . . . are you that guy you've been practicing to be or are you that guy you were. Which guy are you? I don't know until the answer comes. I think I know which guy I'm going to see, but I've been in this league too long. I'm going to see which guy I see."

But this isn't the first time Baker has refused to make assumptions about Hatcher, who was actually a free agent last summer when the Cowboys hired their new defensive line coach. And for a while, it appeared Hatcher would not rejoin the Cowboys, who had signed Kenyon Coleman and Spears in the abbreviated free-agent signing period.

But Hatcher decided to come back, but only under one condition.

"Before I signed ... he promised if I outplayed the guy then I would get the chance to start," Hatcher recalled. "It wasn't a promise to start. It wasn't given to me. I just went out there and competed and did my job. I've been through a lot of adversity since I've been here – not able to help my team. My role expanded, thank God, and I have to just keep taking advantage of it."

And Hatcher made sure he played well enough last year for Baker and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to grant him that wish. Hatcher's preseason helped him elevate past Spears into the starting lineup before the season opener against the Jets.

"I said that's the easiest promise I've had to make in my life," Baker said. "If you play to the level of a starter, you're going to play a lot. If you outplay the starter, you will start. He wanted that guarantee. He didn't ask me to promise him to start. But only if he was the best. And he was."

And Hatcher continued to play well, especially early in the season. He had his first career multiple-sack game when he had two against San Francisco. But a calf strain in Week Three kept him out for nearly a month. Hatcher didn't regain his starting post until the ninth game, but he remained one of the more active defensive players on the team all season long.

Hatcher enters this season as the starting defensive end on the right side and isn't expected to get much competition for it, although backups Sean Lissemore and Clifton Geathers have flashed some promise. Rookie Tyrone Crawford will get in the mix and of course, you've got Coleman and Spears on the other side.

"We've got a lot of good players in this rotation," Hatcher said. "I think we all push each other and make each other better."

In the offseason, Hatcher got some attention when he told a local radio station he thought the team needed more vocal leaders and some "Ray Lewis types." While some of his teammates have openly disagreed with the statement, Hatcher hasn't really backed off from the stance. In fact, Hatcher has actually showed a little more leadership himself this summer.

Whether it's consoling a struggling rookie in one practice, or making sure his younger teammates get praise for making plays, or even being the one to stand up to offensive players when a drill gets overly competitive, such as the case last week when he got into a shoving match with DeMarco Murray – Hatcher has shown more leadership skills.

But the leadership part is really secondary in terms of Hatcher's goals. He's waited a long time for this opportunity to play. And so far, he's not planning on wasting this chance.

"I feel as great as I've ever been. I'm the greatest shape of my life," Hatcher said. "You never know. You have to take it one day at a time. I'm not the guy to predict what kind of year I'm going to have. I can promise you this, I'm going to go out there and be my best every Sunday that I strap it on."

Or even a Wednesday, when the Cowboys take on the defending-champion Giants on Sept. 5. No matter the day of the week, or even the number of years it's taken to get here, Hatcher seems more than ready to take his game to that next level.

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