This story originally appeared in *Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, *please click here*.*
This isn't one of those spit, polish and shine jobs. No revisionist history, no misdirection.
Bruce Carter appeared on the brink of stardom same time, same place a calendar year ago. There were games in 2012, just his second in the league, when he was the clearly the most athletic player on the field, making tackles here, there and everywhere in between. There was one time when he was running across the middle at full speed in pass coverage – and Carter runs fast, like safety fast – and the ball was thrown behind him. Yet, somehow he stopped and turned his body, much like a contortionist, and deflected the ball. One of those, "He didn't just do that, right? Oh wait, it's Bruce, maybe he did," kind of plays.
In his final four games of 2012, before a dislocated elbow on Thanksgiving ended his season, Carter tallied 34 tackles, 28 solo. There are few guarantees in the NFL, but Carter certainly appeared headed toward becoming one of the league's elite linebackers.
Legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was brought in. He was the mastermind of the vaunted Tampa 2 scheme that more or less changed the league when Carter was growing up in Havelock, N.C., and well, this couldn't have been a better situation. Carter was slated to play weak-side linebacker, the WILL. The same position first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks manned for Kiffin through so many years with the Buccaneers. This was one of those slam dunks with a Nerf ball on a 6-foot basket.
Carter would vie for Pro Bowl honors, he'd challenge Sean Lee as the team's top tackler. He'd make plays, intercept passes, force fumbles and have safeties around the league blushing with his pass coverage.
None of that happened.
In a season filled with defense disappointments, many sighted Carter front and center. He was benched for the first time in his career. We're talking Pop Warner, high school, college, eighth-grade flag football in gym class. And while he wasn't as bad in pass coverage as everyone thought, the San Diego game in Week 3 was such a mess – Danny Woodhead? – that, well, the images of that afternoon just sort of lingered throughout the entire year.
This wasn't the first instance of adversity that Carter had faced in his football career. There was the torn ACL during his senior season at North Carolina, one that likely kept him from being a first-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Cowboys tabbing him in the second round with the 40th overall pick. However, still recovering from the injury, Carter wasn't ready to start the 2011 season and played catch-up throughout, appearing mostly on special teams.
That was different, though. That was just one of those tough breaks. It's football and there are injuries.
This was being told for the first time in his athletic life that, even when healthy, he wasn't the best option for the football team. This was humbling, infuriating and in the end, depressing. Football was no longer enjoyable. Carter held his tongue with the press, but it was obvious in his body language around Valley Ranch that he wasn't enjoying himself.
"I didn't want to be that guy to come to you all with excuses and this and that," Carter said. "It was entirely up to the coaches and the decisions they made. I just have to keep working hard, keep playing and get back out there. "
Some of the criticism was excessive and ridiculously unfair ("It wasn't that bad, but it certainly wasn't good either," Carter said). More was expected of him, much more, and he's the first one to say so. But blaming him for the defensive failures of the 2013 Dallas Cowboys is like blaming Max Headroom for New Coke. There were bigger issues. Also, Carter finished with 96 tackles and 2.0 sacks in 15 games – not exactly abysmal, although linebackers make tackles.
Know how athletes, coaches and everyone else involved in professional sports claim they never read newspapers, blogs, Twitter, whatnot? Never listen to talk radio, television, nothing? Are oblivious to any and all criticism or praise? Approximately 95 percent of the time, possibly even more so, that is false. And to his credit, Carter admits so.
"Everyone says they don't, but they obviously do listen to it," Carter said. "It's hard to take criticism. You obviously want to be the best player you can be. You want to go out and do your best, so people will talk good about you. Everybody has bad plays, but for it to go on and blow up, and me getting benched and stuff like that, I guess it's just part of the NFL. I just have to take that as a man and look at myself, and if I'm not doing something right, I have to correct it.
"Obviously, when talking with my family during the season I was very frustrated. Not trying to talk down on anybody, or my teammates, but I've always played and started and been a part of good defenses and been that guy to go out and make plays. Being on the sideline and healthy and ready to play felt weird.
"That wasn't who I was. It's not in my DNA to go out there and watch. I want to be on the field and competing with my teammates. When that was taken away from me, it was obviously frustrating and I didn't know how to handle it at the time. It was the first time ever in my life. That was definitely tough."
Now, there were some injuries Carter played through, but that goes for just about everyone who puts on a pair of pads. There was also the new scheme, the transition from Rob Ryan's 3-4 to the 4-3 and the Tampa 2, one to which he didn't immediately take. So, there were certainly some built-in excuses for Carter.
"It was a long season, so everyone has bumps and bruises and nicks and knacks, but you don't want to make an excuse for how you're playing," Carter said. "Coaches just want you to go out and get the job done, and that's really what it's all about. That's what really matters. I just have to stay healthy and take care of my body, be a pro about it and just go about it the right way."
Honestly, the issues for Carter last season were as much mental as physical. He admitted this spring that his confidence was shaken last season, especially when replaced in favor of Ernie Sims, a hard worker and respected teammate, but not in the ZIP code of Carter, talent-wise. When defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was asked about Carter's confidence, he didn't hesitant or hold back.
"I don't do confidence stuff," Marinelli said. "Get down and play. Get down and play. Here's your assignment key. We want you to play fast, and we want you to take the ball away.
"Go play. It's a man's game, man. Play it the right way. That's what I want. We're going to coach it. We'll coach you hard. Be where you're supposed to be. This is what we expect, and then go.
"I just coach football. And I think there's a lot of toughness in football coached the right way."
For his part, Carter, who turned 26 in February, is admitting what went wrong in 2013. He's admitting he was upset being benched, and that he more or less pouted. Sure, he could have better dealt with the disappointment of being taken off the field, but we all react differently to adversity.
Once the season ended, though, Carter threw himself into learning the scheme inside and out, understanding not only his responsibilities within the defense, but also knowing what each of his teammates will be doing on a certain play. He knows that playbook as well as his own name at this point.
"It was a comfort level," Carter said. "Being that guy in charge of the entire defense and having that responsibility to put on yourself that pressure. You have to get these guys lined up. You have to be that guy to lead the defense when everyone is looking to you. From this past year, I don't want to make any excuses. Obviously I have to play better, but just getting comfortable with the scheme, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 is a big difference. It's now about me just being comfortable and taking responsibility that I have to play better.
"Last year, I was just going out there trying to learn my role and get comfortable in it. You can only do so much within the scheme. If a play is designed for someone else to make a play, that's just the way it is. With this new mindset, I've been trying to learn all the positions on the field. I want to know everything, where the defensive line is, where the blitz is coming from, who has got to drop here to cover this. Once you have that all in your mind, you start seeing a bigger picture.
"You know what the offense is going to do. You can really read their tendencies going into the game plan. It's really about details and trying to get a tip on this and that, and once you get that you'll be able to play that much faster."
Play that much faster. That's the goal for Carter this season. And head coach Jason Garrett and Marinelli have gone to extensive lengths to make sure Carter has every opportunity to succeed. The scheme has been tweaked and then some. This isn't your older brother's Tampa 2, and with Sean Lee out for the season, Carter is going to be looked to as a primary tackler and a defensive leader.
The plan is for Carter to line up behind defensive tackle Henry Melton. Not here and there, either. On every single snap, so Carter is going to play weak-side and strong-side, the WILL and SAM. In this scheme, which is eerily like Tom Landry's famed Flex, Carter should be free and clean to make plays. Melton is going to somewhat give himself up, but then the responsibility falls to Carter to do his job.
"I think that's a good adjustment, obviously from just positioning and a simplicity factor," linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said at camp. "A lot of those things – the keys, the reads, the drops – will all be a little bit cleaner for him."
Garrett is so excited about Carter's new role that during minicamp he brought a group of reporters into a coaching office with a whiteboard for the sole purpose of showing them how the scheme would work. He honestly believes that Carter can still be a big-time player, as does owner and general manager Jerry Jones. And they aren't just saying this for the benefit of the media. Both are stating the same thing off the record as well, which isn't always the case.
"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.
As for Carter himself, he's in a good place. His work ethic was at another level this offseason. This looks like a man on a mission, obsessed with proving wrong those critics from a year ago. Well, maybe not wrong, but letting everyone know he's still that guy with all the promise from 2012, and that here and now, his promise is going to translate into big-time results.
Asked point blank if he still thought of himself as a player with Pro Bowl potential, Carter nodded.
"Every player that is in the NFL should have that mindset," Carter said. "When you have the skill and the talent, what caps it off is your work ethic. Once you have all the talent, you have to work at it and keep pushing yourself to be the best. I'm not going to let anybody take my joy away. I'm still going to go out here and give my best.
"I've been working hard this offseason. Justin [Durant] and I spent a lot of time at Valley Ranch working out and studying film. We have a young group, so we can't have any low days because if we're down, they're down."
Indeed, this is a young defense. Heck, look no further than a guy with 24 career NFL starts now being tabbed as a team leader to see just how young and inexperienced this group is. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are gone and Lee's season ended during minicamp.
And Carter is ready and willing to take on some of that leadership. He wants to be that guy, which is a significant first step. Many players have no interest in that role. They just want to play football. [embedded_ad]
"With everybody being out, especially the big-name guys like Sean being out, people are going to look to someone," Carter said. "You really have to take the good with the bad, but with all of that you have to be level-headed. If you're not having a great game, it's over. On to the next game. You don't really want to mope because the season is so long."
For the Cowboys to make a run at the postseason, for them to finally escape the 8-8 trend of the last three years, the defense has to make some plays. That is an unavoidable truth. They need to allow fewer yards, make timely stops and create more turnovers. There doesn't seem to be a ton of pass rush either, which won't help.
Carter, though, could be the tipping point. If he's the player many thought when the Cowboys drafted him, if he's the player we all saw in 2012, if the glimpses of talent evolves into a consistent, week-to-week force, then the entire defense should be transformed and should play at a higher level than we've seen in each of the last two years.
This is the season for Carter. No matter how his career turns out, this will be the season that dictates the direction. He's in the final year of his four-year rookie deal and there's not going to be an extension before the season ends. He wants to re-sign, he wants to stay with the Cowboys, but right now, no one is quite sure who Bruce Carter the football player is. He certainly seems to be a different guy this training camp, both on the field and in his understanding of the scheme, and is quickly developing into a team leader, but the time is now and Carter knows it.
"In the NFL, man, you go through your highs and your lows," Carter said. "I think that's just growth. Every player is going to have to go through it and experience that. But you've got to learn from it. I'm going to keep pushing. I'm a fighter. I'm going to just keep going.
"I'm in a great place, and that's the mindset I have to keep and I'm going to keep. I'm going to have a great year, I guarantee you that. We're going to be good."