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What is Kintsugi? The secret behind the Cowboys’ fitting theme for the 2022 season

The surging Cowboys have embraced coach Mike McCarthy’s message through early adversity.

FRISCO — Cowboys first-round pick Tyler Smith would need several hours and some water breaks to summarize all he has learned, five months into his NFL career. The list includes lessons typical of an offensive lineman, details such as cadence, hand usage and where to direct his eyes before and after a snap.

On Wednesday, Smith eagerly discussed a less conventional teaching.

It applies both to him and this Cowboys season.

“Kintsugi is kind of like a new creation,” Smith said, referring to the centuries-old Japanese pottery technique. “It gets broken, but when it heals, it comes back in a new and better way.”

During a Sept. 7 team meeting, coach Mike McCarthy revealed “resilience” as the theme for the Cowboys’ 2022 season. Kintsugi — pronounced kin-SOO-ghee — was the final facet to the presentation. The theme seems to fit this team, which has overcome adversity during a two-game win streak that it carries into Sunday’s game against the Washington Commanders.

The Cowboys already were without left tackle Tyron Smith, who tore a hamstring tendon in August, when McCarthy announced “resilience.” That injury led Tyler Smith to shift from left guard, where he took all his reps in training camp and the preseason, to left tackle.

Four days after McCarthy’s presentation, the theme proved even timelier.

Dallas lost four players, including three starters, to multiweek injuries during a season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a right thumb fracture. Safety Jayron Kearse (MCL sprain) and left guard Connor McGovern (high ankle sprain) exited, too. Reserve defensive end Tarell Basham (quad contusion) was placed on injured reserve.

Afterward, tight end Dalton Schultz addressed media at his locker. A reporter informed Schultz that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones just announced Prescott would undergo surgery and miss several weeks.

Schultz paused.

In a vacuum, the words that followed may have seemed offbeat. They were a nod to the private meeting McCarthy held days before.

“The way I see it, it’s just a storm,” Schultz said. “You’ve got two choices: You can run away from the storm, or you can run right into it. I know myself included and everybody in our locker room is going to run right into that motherf-----. That’s just our approach.”

Four-part approach

A single theme can tie a large group and season together.

So, McCarthy chooses carefully.

He picks a different theme each year, seeking a concept that fits his players for that specific season. In 2020, his first year in Dallas, it was “20/20 vision,” a reference to seeing and adapting to surrounding changes. Last year, the focus was “victory,” looking to reclaim a winning identity and play style after a 6-10 campaign.

The Cowboys went 12-5 in 2021 before a first-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

“Resilience was something I felt like we needed because I knew the storms were coming,” McCarthy said. “We had to live through the storm all offseason. No one was talking about 12 wins. Everyone was talking about San Francisco, and I thought our guys handled it well. I just wanted to recognize that. … I really broke it into four parts.”

The first is what Schultz referenced.

McCarthy shared a metaphor that different motivational speakers have used over the years. Topographical features in Colorado result in wild bison — or buffalo, colloquially — and cattle inhabiting the same state. The respective herds are said to respond differently to a storm.

Cows attempt to flee by stampeding in the opposite direction, but since they cannot outrun the storm, they spend more time in it. Buffaloes charge the storm, more quickly making it through the other side.

McCarthy introduced this imagery in July during the Cowboys’ first team meeting of training camp in Oxnard, Calif. He wanted to establish the attack-adversity mind-set, he said, without using the word “resilience.” On Sept. 7, after he reinforced running into the storm, he revealed the second, third and fourth parts.

The second was tattoos.

A tattoo can represent a person, idea or memory bearing personal significance to the individual with the body art. Looking to deepen relationships in an already tight-knit locker room, McCarthy created space for players to share with teammates more of their personal stories. One player already has presented a tattoo on what the Cowboys call “Tattoo Thursday,” an open forum to do so in a team meeting.

The third part, sacred wounds, built upon the second.

These are core, adverse moments in life.

An emotional McCarthy stepped out of his comfort zone and became vulnerable here, players said. He described the phone call he received as Packers coach from his dad on Jan. 21, 2015. McCarthy learned his younger brother, Joe, had died at age 47. This happened after the Packers lost in overtime to the Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 18.

McCarthy can recall the NFC Championship Game date because of what happened three days later.

“That was quite the moment in the team room,” quarterback Cooper Rush said. “It got emotional for everyone, seeing him deal with that. I think a lot of guys thought about their own stuff and got emotional. He did a great job connecting.”

That left Kintsugi.

McCarthy told the Japanese legend of a 15th century shogun warrior, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, whose prized tea bowl was commissioned for repair. The initial repair disappointed. A different craftsman left its cracks visible; they were highlighted in lacquer resin mixed with gold. Yoshimasa, according to the story, embraced these gold cracks, believing they added beauty and value to the bowl.

In application, Tyron Smith’s torn hamstring tendon was a fracture to the Cowboys’ bowl.

They signed Jason Peters, a future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. He became another mentor for Tyler Smith, sitting directly beside him in position meetings, whispering in his ear what he sees from future opponents. As McGovern works back from injury, the Cowboys are stronger on the left side of their offensive line than when he left.

The same goes at quarterback.

“Kintsugi is basically when bad s--- happens, you don’t just throw it away and say, ‘Dak is hurt. The season is over with,” said Aviante Collins, an offensive lineman on the practice squad. “No. You take the worst of the situation, and you make the best of it. Cooper has been playing amazing. That’s what I said about Kintsugi, taking the worst part and making it beautiful.”

Perfect timing

Laughter and playful trash talk erupted from the Cowboys’ locker room Sept. 14, the Wednesday after the 19-3 loss to the Buccaneers. This was not a team in mourning. Never mind that Prescott was recovering from surgery. Never mind that Rush had previously started one NFL game, and his second would soon come against the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.

Exuberance bounced toward a news conference that running back Ezekiel Elliott held in a nearby hallway.

“There’s definitely some urgency, but there’s definitely no panic,” Elliott said then of the Cowboys’ mood. “We know we have a great team. We’ve got to go through some adversity to really figure out how good of a team we are.”

A theme is not responsible for the Cowboys’ strong finish to September. No one within the building, least of all McCarthy, would wage such an argument. ”Resilience” tapped into the team the Cowboys already had, allowing players and coaches to codify adversity in real time while continuing to come together.

Look, here is a storm to charge.

Hey, a gold repair is needed here.

“All aspects of his presentation came to fruition as soon as he said it,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “It was perfect timing. The way we’ve been weathering the storm, the way we’ve been playing relentlessly, it’s been amazing to see it come full circle. We’re playing resilient football.”

Naturally, some players felt a stronger attachment to the theme than others.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence recently sent a letter to the entire Cowboys organization, focusing on running into the storm like buffaloes. He sat at his locker Thursday and discussed resilience. After a few minutes, to better convey his point, he stood and raised his blue sweatshirt, motioning to his bare, right midsection.

There is one tattoo of a character from the “Assassin’s Creed” video-game franchise. Lawrence, who recorded three sacks in Monday’s win over the New York Giants, pointed to the adjacent inscription over his ribs. He had these tattoos done last year, not knowing their relevance in 2022.

“The devil whispers, ‘You can’t withstand the storm,’” Lawrence’s inscription reads. “The warrior responds, ‘Motherf-----, I am the storm.’”

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