OXNARD, Calif. — In all his years as a Dallas Cowboys assistant coach and head coach with the team training in Southern California, Jason Garrett has never once ventured off the team’s camp headquarters. Not once.
“Brill (Garrett, Jason’s wife) is coming to town in a few days,” Garrett says. “I think she’s going to try to get me to sneak up to Santa Barbara for dinner one of these nights.”
After reading one of the details of my one-on-one visit with the Cowboys coach, some might think the cerebral Garrett could use a little mental break after learning that he truly believes the club’s “other” outside linebacker, Anthony Spencer, is essentially on par with bookend superstar DeMarcus Ware.
During Wednesday’s media-at-large press conference, Garrett claimed Spencer is “in the top five in the league at his position if you combine the pressures, the tackles for losses, the sacks, and all those kinds of things.”
That seems an outrageous statement, if only because there is an immediate “top-five guy” comparison to be made on Dallas’ own roster, with Ware coming off another brilliant sack season (19.5) and Spencer having totaled a more meager six sacks last year — his career high.
“It’s sort of like advanced stats (in basketball),” Garrett said. “You don’t want to put too much weight in them. But add up what Spencer does as a run-stopper and as a playmaker, and yeah — he needs to get more sacks. But those numbers put him in that (top-five) range. And when I talk to the Giants coaches, they recognize it. They say, ‘We can’t block that No. 94 (Ware), but we have trouble blocking that …… , too.”
The Cowboys believe Spencer can total in the 15-sack range this season, which would help justify the decision to franchise-tag him at $8.6 million. Garrett says the money helps create the negative impression of Spencer.
“I was at a White Sox game a few years ago and all the fans are booing Adam Dunn because he’d just signed a multi-million dollar contract and had, like, three home runs,” Garrett said. “So his own fans were yelling at him about how many millions he was being paid for each of the home runs. So I get the perception. But I’m telling you what I think of Spencer, what the numbers say, and what the opponents say, too.”
Ware has established that he’s at an elite level, and in fact Garrett says that when he has time in practice to pinpoint specific one-on-one match-ups, Ware against gigantic (and gigantically talented) young left tackle Tyron Smith is a favorite.
“They are each working against a guy capable of being the best,” Garrett said.
His other pet match-up: First-round rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne vs. controversy-saddled wide receiver Dez Bryant.
As an organization, the Cowboys are concerned and, yes, “pissed” (owner Jerry Jones’ word) at Bryant’s involvement in a domestic violence incident with his mother. Jones continues to talk about things like “moving on” from Dez and “giving him a plane ticket home” if he doesn’t become someone “his teammates can rely on. If we can’t rely on him, there will be consequences for him.”
Garrett has the same concerns, and said so at the Wednesday presser, noting:
“We talk to the players all the time about leaving the emotional baggage at the door. Everybody has issues in their lives, and we’ve just got to make sure we’re mentally tough enough and mature enough and strong enough to say, ‘OK, when it’s time to go to work, playing football and coaching football, we’re able to do that.’ It’s a theme that our players hear from me over and over again. … It’s about mental discipline. The best ones are able to focus on the task at hand and we’ve certainly talked to (Bryant) about that as well.”
But purely in football terms, the third receiver has been a week-long joy to watch — and may also rank as a “guy capable of being the best.”
Garrett’s focus is such that on Monday, when the Cowboys staged an opening day’ of camp complete with Cowboys cheerleader performances, the national anthem, speeches from local dignitaries and a cluster of skydivers carrying American flags and Cowboys banners, 5,000 fans and 100 players and staffers looked skyward to watch the show.
Garrett did not. He smiled, ignored the “did-you-see-that-nudges” of those around him — and kept himself on schedule.
But Mrs. Garrett and Santa Barbara do beckon. The coach reveals to me that today’s players’ day off — mandated by the NFL’s new CBA — will not, however, be an opportunity for Garrett family sightseeing.
“I’m going to use Thursday to start installing the game plan for the Giants,” Garrett said, working well in advance of the NFL’s Wednesday, Sept. 4, Cowboys-at-Giants season opener.