The Dallas Cowboys were in search of an identity.
It was the spring of 2011 and the Cowboys were coming off a disastrous 6-10 season the year before. Quarterback Tony Romo had played only six games, after he'd broken his clavicle while being taken down on a sack. Quarterback was far from the only problem. Dallas had issues all over the field, as it ranked 16th in rushing yards and 31st in total defense.
With the ninth pick in the draft, the Cowboys took Tyron Smith, a 20-year old offensive tackle from USC. In the second round, they selected linebacker Bruce Carter. In the third, they went with running back DeMarco Murray.
Four years later, thanks in large part to those three players, the Cowboys are 8-4 and have found their identity.
"The biggest thing that has steered our philosophy one way or another has to do with the personnel we have on our football team," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Tuesday in a conference call with Chicago-area media, in advance of his team's game against the Bears on Thursday evening. "We want to control the line of scrimmage, be able to run the football and have a balanced attack that attacks defenses in a lot of different ways. So what we've tried to do is play to the strength of our personnel, and I think that's an important thing for all coaches to do."
Smith has been a mainstay at left tackle since arriving in Dallas, starting in 59 of the team's 60 games since entering the league. He has been joined along the line of scrimmage by subsequent first-round draft picks – center Travis Frederick (2013) and right guard Zack Martin – to give the Cowboys one of the top young offensive lines in football.
Meanwhile Murray has become the NFL's top rusher, gaining 1,427 yards this season thanks in large part to the big, young road-clearers up front that give him room to operate.
"They're awesome," Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton said of his teammates on the offensive line. "Those guys have worked together and they're all lean. None of them are fat, they all can move and hold their blocks. So they're really good."
Melton – who was drafted by the Bears in 2010 and recorded 15.5 sacks in four seasons with the team – is trying to bring that same physical identity to Dallas' defensive line. He leads the Cowboys in sacks with five, despite starting only three games. The Cowboys use an eight-man defensive line rotation, constantly substituting in new players in order to keep the big bodies up front as fresh as possible.
Former Chicago defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is now the leader of the Dallas unit, after serving as the team's defensive line coach a year ago. Both Garrett and Melton said that his presence has given the Cowboys more of an attacking feel on defense, which has helped them this season.
"(Being physical) is what (Marinelli) preaches," Melton said. "Nothing has changed from his days in Chicago. He has the same style of defense. He knows how he wants his players to play and he's going to get the most out of them."
"Rod is an excellent coach. He did a really good job with our defensive linemen last year and now in the coordinator role and did a really good job with our defense," added the head coach. "He's coached football a long, long time in this league and does a great job relating to players, challenging players, helping players be their best. He understands the defensive philosophy we want to play, the system we want to play. He holds everybody – players and coaches – accountable to doing it the right way."
Safety Barry Church, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, leads Dallas in tackles. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who was out of football in 2013 after going through some legal issues, is the team's heavy hitter up the middle, along with Carter, the second-round pick four years ago. The defense isn't quite at the level of the team's offense yet, but it, too, has begun to forge an identity.
Over their final four games, the Cowboys will learn if the new way of doing things leads to better results. Since winning Super Bowl XXX following the 1995 season, Dallas has made the playoffs just seven times, winning only two postseason games in that time. The franchise only has one playoff trip since 2008.
"We are really focused on the task at hand," Garrett said. "What has happened in the past with our football team really has nothing to do with this team. This is a different team, and the biggest thing we have to do is focus on our preparation and focus on our task each week.
"This week, that's the Chicago Bears on Thursday night."