Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 12/15/11
The Dallas Cowboys are a rough, tough, burly bunch. Why, just Wednesday, they practiced outdoors in a light drizzle. OK, it was really more of an intermittent mist. The point is, rather than seek shelter at Cowboys Stadium as they normally do when the weather turns, this time the Cowboys stayed at their Valley Ranch headquarters and practiced in the wet, muddy conditions. "It was a really good practice," coach Jason Garrett said. "I told the guys it was a little bit like when we were 8, 9, 10 years old and we first started playing football. You just keep playing through the rain." The decision to practice in the rainy conditions may have been tactical. The Cowboys play Saturday at the Buccaneers, and the weather in Florida can turn wet at any moment. The decision may have been psychological, too, to some degree. "If you get one of these kind of weather games, you have to fight through it," Garrett said. Right now, the Cowboys have to fight through an inability to close out games. They blew another double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to the Giants. That's the third time this season. It should never happen. Until this season, it almost never did to the Cowboys. Losing a lead of 12 or more points in the fourth quarter, and doing it repeatedly, points to a lack of mental toughness. To lose a late lead where the opponent has to score twice to win? That's a cardinal sin in the NFL. If it happens once, it's a fluke. Anybody can have a bad day or have the ball bounce the wrong way. If it happens more than that, you've got a problem. The Cowboys are physically tough. You can't say otherwise knowing what the team has been through. The quarterback, Tony Romo, won a game after piercing a lung with a cracked rib. And he continued to play thanks to painkillers and a flak jacket. An inside linebacker, Sean Lee, has played much of the season with his left forearm wrapped like a club to protect a broken wrist. Cornerback Mike Jenkins has played hurt nearly all season. He will finish the season wearing a harness to protect a shoulder injury that prevents him from raising his arm over his head. The superstar outside linebacker, DeMarcus Ware, is currently playing through a "stinger" a painful nerve energy in the neck that can cause weakness in one arm. So you can't say these Cowboys aren't tough from a physical or courage aspect. Mental toughness is something else. It's the ability to maintain focus, concentration and attitude in the face of adversity. When things are breaking down around them, teams that are mentally tough find a way to fight through it. Some players and some teams just have a knack for it. The Cowboys have shown some of that in the overtime wins in San Francisco and Washington, plus the last-second win over Miami. But those wins are neutralized by the collapses against the Jets, Lions and Giants. So far in his short tenure, Garrett has cleaned up some of the sloppiness of the previous coaching regime and put more emphasis on accountability. Changing the heart and will of a team is not nearly as easy. The Cowboys have a golden opportunity to prove their mental toughness with three games left on the schedule. Win out, especially that season-ending showdown at the Giants, and they will likely wrap up the NFC East title. They also have an opportunity to show they don't have the stomach for the fight, starting with Saturday's game against a young, talented but struggling Tampa Bay team. Until then, all the Cowboys can do is practice in the mist and hope that focusing on holding onto a wet ball and making cuts on a slippery field lead to bigger things. Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire
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