The NFL season is here again and you can already feel the excitement amongst the fans as they hope their team performs and makes it to the Super Bowl. After moving to Dallas six years ago, I am personally watching the behaviors of the Cowboys and still waiting for the team performance to improve. It makes no sense: they have some of the best resources and facilities in the NFL, yet every year their performance gets worse and worse. What is it about the behaviors and coaching of one of the most recognized brands on the planet that continues to inhibit their success of getting even close to the Super Bowl?
The start of this season already looks bad for the Cowboys. I actually think this is probably going to be one of the team’s worst performances of all. Why? Well, whenever a team is struggling, the effectiveness of the coach usually comes into question and blame starts to fly for the team’s lack of performance. Now, I am the last person to blame the coach because I want to believe that the players are all professionals, getting paid huge sums of money to play at the best of their abilities in the best interest of their team. It’s important though to understand that, regardless of how good the individual players are, if they cannot play together as a team with common goals and objectives, the team will probably not succeed. Babe Ruth said it best: “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”
To me, an NFL team is like a military Special Forces team. Both are very physical with set goals, objectives and teammates that need to look out for, and support each other in order to stay safe and succeed in their mission. These goals require strict discipline and holding all the team members to task, since a single mistake can cost a team member (or the entire team) their life. It is important that this discipline, together with all the operating procedures, is enforced in the strongest possible manner with relentless training and zero tolerance for failure. To do it right, only strong and unforgiving leadership will ensure flawless execution and operational success.
So, military leadership = coaching in the NFL as the coaches are the leader of the group. They are responsible for getting the team to play together as a disciplined and well-oiled machine. They need to follow the directives and execute the game plan as a collective unit, placing the success of the team above that of their own. Their job is made tougher since they have to work with sports “celebrities” who often believe their status and personal contribution is the only reason for the team’s success. Many of the players seem to forget that they can only play as well as the team around them allows, and that team failure can happen despite their own immense skills.
So how does this specifically apply to the Cowboys? I believe that both past and present coaches (Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett) have been just too nice! I believe they have struggled to enforce the method and discipline required to produce a be successful NFL team. I don’t personally know Jason Garrett, but while watching training camp videos and his demeanor on the sideline (as well as pre-and post-game interviews), he seems to me like the nicest guy on the planet (and I don’t think that’s a good thing). I’m sure all the players and staff love him, and I bet he always has everybody’s best interest at heart. He seems to go the extra mile to make sure all the players are comfortable and taken care of, and offering lots of personal encouragement and motivation where required. While attending their pre-season game against the Denver Broncos, I saw that the Cowboys showed no intensity during warmup or in the game. They made countless errors with a lackluster performance throughout. For me, that is a clear signal that life is too easy in the Cowboys camp.
One of the coaches that I believe has the right behaviors to manage an effective team is Nick Saban from the Alabama Crimson Tide. Although not an NFL team, Crimson Tide has become one of the top College football teams in the country over the last few years. Saban demands absolute discipline and does not accept failure. He will yell and scream as much as necessary and hand out punishment (suspensions, additional push-ups, running sprints, etc.) as appropriate to provide the players with some consequences for their lack of effort or concentration.
This relentless focus on discipline and execution slowly becomes the way of life for players and they start to operate more and more like a well-oiled machine, eventually resulting in success. Once the team starts to taste victory, they start to believe in and support this regime of discipline and relentless execution. The result is that the team starts to play better, more cohesively, and demanding compliance from all the members in the team, resulting in even more success.
So where does that leave the Cowboys? This is a tough one! Firstly, I think we had better brace ourselves for a disappointing season that’s probably going to be painful to watch (even Jerry Jones commented that this is going to be a difficult season). I further believe the team needs a strong-minded coach that can enforce the discipline required to execute relentlessly and flawlessly to ensure victory. Of course, the problem is that a strong-minded coach working for a strong-minded owner might result in some fireworks (just look at the remnants of the relationship between Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones!).
The challenge we all have in any team and working environment is to select and group people with the right skills AND the right habits and behaviors required to work as a team. When we manage to do that successfully we all score a touchdown.