Spagnola: Grinding Away Trying To Break A Nasty Rollercoaster Trend

OXNARD, Calif. – The word is "grinding."

         Not mine, Jimmy's, one of his favorites.

         Jimmy Johnson, and during the 1993 training camp and all through the season, the former Cowboys head coach knew one thing:

         He had to grind the defending Super Bowl champs harder than he had ever worked a team previously if the Dallas Cowboys were going to have even a remote chance of repeating as champions. Grind so complacency wouldn't seep in, a common result of success. Grind, so his players didn't grow fat and happy with themselves.

         He knew, he knew just because you went a franchise-high (at the time) 13-3, then tacked on three consecutive playoff victories, including one over the heavily-favored San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game at Candlestick Park and then beat heavily-favored Buffalo, that they don't grandfather you back into the playoffs the next year.

         You have to earn it.

         Jason Garrett remembers, all right. He was right in the middle of it, having beaten out Hugh Millen for the backup quarterback job. He remembers Jimmy, the ultimate grinder, pulling out the sledgehammer that season. Especially after the Cowboys got off to a 0-2 start, missing holdout Emmitt Smith to start the season. Pushed a team about as hard as humanly possible, and at that, the Cowboys still had to defeat the New York Giants at Giants Stadium in overtime of the final game of the season just to win the NFC East with a 12-4 record, finishing up on a five-game winning streak.

         In fact, Jimmy told his guys at 7-4 that they would have to "run the table" to win the East.

         So it's no wonder Garrett has already thrown down the gauntlet this 2015 season, now just two days into training camp practices, setting the tone to make sure no one around him has become satisfied with last year's 12-4 record, having won the NFC East title for the first time in five seasons and capturing just the second playoff victory in the past 18 years.

         Red might be the new blue, as in the face, since he has preached this mantra so many times since the team reconvened in April.

         The 2014 season is dead and gone, buried at the 3-yard line in Green Bay. They don't allow you to pick up where you left off the previous season, with 12 victories. You are not grandfathered into the playoffs. You have to start from scratch, earn it all over again.

         "This year is different than last year's team, and we all have to understand that, and that started way back in April when we got together in our offseason program the first day," Garrett said at the start of camp earlier this week. "They heard that. Those were probably the first words out of my mouth in our first team meeting. 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.

         "We have to earn it all over again."

         And not to be a party-pooper since there seems to be so much excitement and optimism engulfing the Cowboys at the start of training camp, but I'm guessing Garrett is well aware of this stat:

         The Cowboys have failed to produce consecutive seasons of at least 10 victories since the 1995 and 1996 seasons when the club went 12-4 on the way to winning Super Bowl XXX in 1995 and then 10-6 in 1996, stringing together six consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins. They've had five chances since then, only to fail miserably.

Check this out:

After that 10-6 season in 1996, the Cowboys fell to 6-10 in 1997.

The Cowboys went 10-6 in 1998, only to finish 8-8 in 1999.

They went 10-6 in 2003, only to finish 6-10 in 2004.

They went 13-3 in 2007, only to finish 9-7 in 2008.

They went 11-5 in 2009, only to finish 6-10 in 2010.

Nothing thrilling about this rollercoaster ride.

Three of those failures cost head coaches their jobs, Barry Switzer fired after the 1997 season, Chan Gailey after the 1999 season and Wade Phillips at the halfway point (1-7) of the 2010 season.[embeddedad0]

Think about it: No consecutive double-digit victory seasons in the last 18 years.

That will give you serious pause.

"You have to engrain it in them," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones says, "that last year is last year. You've got to start over."

Here is the other thing that must happen: Do not let your team grow stale. To me, that is what happened for sure in 2010. The Cowboys did little to improve a team growing old.

There were extenuating circumstances in 2008. The 4-2 Cowboys would go only 1-2 in Tony Romo's absence with a broken finger, Brad Johnson failing miserably as a backup in three consecutive starts, fortunate to win even the one, beating Tampa Bay despite scoring just 13 points (13-9).

Same in 2004 when the Cowboys cut their starting quarterback Quincy Carter less than two weeks into training camp right here at the River Ridge Sports Complex, forcing them to start 40-year-old presumed backup Vinny Testaverde. Not the plan.

And in 1999, the Cowboys lost the services of Michael Irvin for good in the fourth game of the season after a 3-0 start, the heart and soul of the Cowboys' run in the '90s. Never were the same the rest of the way.

"We attacked the offseason," Jones said of the Cowboys trying this time around to add some freshness to the team. They signed Greg Hardy, signed La'el Collins, drafted really two first-round talents, Byron Jones in the first and Randy Gregory in the second, and added some experienced depth at linebacker. And, of course, they re-signed to a long-term deal Dez Bryant, this team's perpetual five-hour energy drink.

"Losing to Green Bay, we needed to be better," Jones insisted.

We soon find out if they did, but in the meantime Garrett has begun grinding his team.

Funny thing, ask Garrett and Nate Newton about Jimmy's grind in 1993, and both, independently, remember the same story, with nearly identical details. Garrett remembers the club having pretty sloppy camp practices in Austin before leaving for a preseason game against Detroit in London. The practices in London were nothing to write home about, either.

But Garrett says Jimmy had vowed that they would have a good time in London, go do what you want to do, "but when we get back …," Garrett remembers Jimmy's vow.

And then the game itself was nothing to write home about as well, a 13-13 tie, leaving them 0-1-1 in preseason play, and Jimmy at his lip-smacking hottest.

"Oh, Jimmy was mad," Newton says, remembering Johnson mentioning, "'When we leave London, I'm going to put it on you bad.' He killed us when we got back to Austin."

Same memory Garrett had, adding, "But that was Jimmy. He'd grind us all the time."

Someone challenged Garrett's philosophy maintaining one season does not beget the next, that you do have to start over, insisting those teams in the '90s built off one season after another, just kept getting better from 1990 to 1991 to 1992 to 1993 to 1994 and 1995.

Garrett disagrees with the notion those teams just picked up where they left off.

"I think that's one of the best things they did do. I would argue the teams that I was on that won those Super Bowls, every day was a new day. There was never a feeling of entitlement," Garrett said. "If you ever went to one of those ball practices back then, it was competitive every minute of every day, and that's what it was all about. It wasn't about, 'Hey, what I did yesterday.' Nobody on that team, nobody in that locker room, nobody in that culture would allow that mentality to sink in.

"And that's what the great achievers in this world do. The great players, the great teams, the great organizations in all walks of life, that's how they live. They don't live on what they've done in the past, good, bad or indifferent. They focus on the task at hand right now. That's what those teams were all about, and that's what we're trying to instill in our football team."

And that's a really, really good thing.

History tells us as much.

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