IRVING, Texas – Jason Garrett doesn't like labels such as "rebuilding year" or "transition period," but he'll freely admit the plan for 2011 was something akin to that for his Dallas Cowboys.
Prior to the season, the team released six veteran players who had started for them for multiple seasons. Out were running back Marion Barber, wide receiver Roy Williams, defensive end Igor Olshansky and three offensive linemen, Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode. In their place, the Cowboys splashed young players into the mix in an effort to help them grow.
Rookies like Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray and Bill Nagy were counted on for key roles at different times, while second-year players such as Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Phil Costa were given more of an opportunity. As the Cowboys go forward with the continued transition from an older team to a younger one this offseason and in coming years, decisions will be made based on a certain level of faith in the team's young players, according to Garrett.
"When you think about some of the younger guys that we've added to our program in the last couple of years, we do believe that there's another level coming," the coach said. "Some of these guys that we've drafted, we think they can be the cornerstones of our team as we go forward, and to add those to the more veteran guys who are really some of the elite players in the league, we feel like there's a foundation that's being developed throughout our team."
In addition to the contributions of guys like Lee, Smith, Bryant and Murray, the Cowboys will expect to add more useful talent in the April draft. The team will pick No. 14 overall in the first round.
Potentially an even bigger addition would be the return of a healthy Murray. The 2011 third-round pick took over for an injured Felix Jones at midseason and posted 824 yards in only seven full games as the featured back, plus the first quarter of the Week 14 loss to New York, when he broke his ankle, landing on the injured reserve.
"I had some success, and there's still a lot of things I need to learn and do," Murray said on Monday, while standing with the help of crutches. "With Coach Garrett and Coach (Skip) Peete coaching me the way that they have, I'll definitely continue to gain more knowledge and get better."
Murray, who is only three weeks removed from surgery, said his recovery was proceeding as planned.
On defense, the Cowboys' biggest breakout star was Lee, who was originally expected to split snaps with accomplished veterans Keith Brooking and Bradie James, but earned full-time duty with a great training camp.
As the defense attempts to turn things around from another down season, there will likely be a number of personnel changes, each made to complement the team's up-and-coming inside linebacker.
"I think I stepped forward as a football player," Lee said. "I think I have room for improvement and I'm not where I need to be. But I'm going to move forward as a player in all phases. As a third-year guy who has now started, I'm going to try to jump into a little more of a leadership role. But I've got guys on this team that are really great leaders that I've followed and I'm going to continue to follow."
On Monday, players took their exit physicals, cleaned out their lockers and met with both Garrett and their respective position coaches. After those talks, the Cowboys' young core seemed to clearly understand the message from the head coach that every individual and every phase of the team has to improve.
"I think that stuck with us real well," Bryant said. "I just feel like we just have something to prove. We'll work hard this offseason, and hopefully we'll come back and get it done."