The Dallas Cowboys say farewell to San Antonio and the Alamodome practices, the first stage of the 2011 training camp now complete. The team is heading back to Valley Ranch as they prepare for the preseason opener at Cowboys Stadium. Midday Wednesday, John Clayton of ESPN had counted 301 players off the unrestricted free agent list, with about 120 still available, yet NFL rosters are still a work in progress. The Dallas Cowboys are no exception. There are still a lot of questions. There may be starters on the 2011 Week 1 roster that have yet to join the team or will surprisingly rise from the ranks. As the Cowboys prepare for their first preseason game, injuries are testing depth charts while offering opportunities to the new and young players on the roster.
Looking back at the first days of the first Jason Garrett led training camp, there are certainly reasons to hope for, dare I say expect, a competitive team. There have been signs of well thought out plans, clear and concise messages, a vision of design and implementation, and a coaching staff well prepared to motivate, teach, and lead their excited players, who happen to have done a good job self-motivating and leading themselves through unofficial practices during the lockout. Many first time NFL head coaches struggle their first year as they begin the process of creating a team and the mentality to meet their plans, but Coach Garret got a head start last season. And it certainly seems the team has responded from Garrett's time as interim, and for the most part, was well prepared at the start of camp. The practices under the Garrett regime have been crisp and focused, and with the new coaching additions have had a much different environment and pace than recent years. For the most part, the early results have been impressive.
The Cowboys recently had a dozen players injured, with several (presumed) starters on the list, including Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins, Jay Ratliff, Keith Brooking, Andre Gurode, and Montrae Holland. A few seem likely to play a series or two Thursday night against the Denver Broncos, but more than a few players taking first team reps at practices will remain on the field far longer than just two series. Yes, it has been a very interesting start to the 2011 training camp, and the writers at BTB have some first impressions and observations.
Some things to remember, and other surprises, from the first act of the Dallas Cowboys 2011 Training Camp...
Remember that the majority of the upcoming game will be played by backups, but that a few of them are competing for game day reps, let alone many will be fighting just to make it past the upcoming roster cuts. I understand why some do not like early preseason games that often have sloppy play and sub-primetime performances - some by players that will not make it to the NFL - but I love the glimpse you get at the potential and raw talent on the roster for the coaching staff to test and train.
So far, some of the most impressive things to remember from the early days of Cowboys 2011 training camp are the displays of leadership. Veteran players helping teach even the new undrafted players, living by the simple rule for any team - combined efforts present quicker progress, greater unity, and reinforce great work ethic throughout the entire roster. While I have already mentioned Jason Garrett, I must add that I am more excited about him as the head coach than I ever was about him as offensive coordinator. Don't get me wrong, he certainly provided a potent offensive attack, but he seems to excel in aspects of coaching that reside only with the head coach. More than just his organization of team activities, more than just the intangibles and philosophies effectively communicated and implemented, from the draft strategy to the handling of the media, Coach Garrett seems to bring an (hate the term too) "It" factor to his coaching approach that just couldn't be fully tapped until he was the man in charge, the head coach.
I have also been impressed by his coaching staff hires. While Mike Woicik's full value as strength and conditioning coach will take some time to develop, I am more confident that injuries to our corners, like a stinger and groin pull, won't be mismanaged or pushed into becoming lingering problems or things like sports hernia operations. I am excited about new positional coaches like Jimmy Robinson, Matt Eberflus, and Brian Baker, and of course, Rob Ryan. I am not the only writer here at BTB that thought a coach was actually the MVP of camp thus far. Here's what the others answered when I asked them,
1. "Who is the MVP of training camp so far?"
Dave Halprin (Himself a Fearless Leader): Rob Ryan. Just because he has injected a new enthusiasm into this defense. And his 'mad scientist' approach to defensive alignment is fun to watch. Hopefully, it will translate into the real games and the Cowboys defense will be fearsome this year.
OCC: Jason Garrett. All the reports from camp are unanimous in that this year's camp is a radical departure from the previous year's festivities and carnival atmosphere. There's a definite sense of purpose and urgency that can be felt coming through. No rookie hazings, no rookie haircuts, no fooling around. Strictly business.
As for the most valuable players during the first part of training camp...
Rabble: Tony Romo. He has been the poster child for a businesslike camp. For the most part, he seems to have been very sharp, especially once he got his starting line back.
KD: From all reports, Dez Bryant is the first, second and third best athlete on the team, and fourth is in another zip code. I'm a big time trash talker, I love that aspect of being a fan, and Dez Bryant is primed to give me the most ammunition we've had in a long time.
When considering the offense, there were more than a few surprises at practices. Kyle Kosier and Doug Free missed some days due to the new CBA rules involved in their re-signings, Andre Gurode nursed a knee scope, and Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis were released, ok, the last two weren't very surprising, but the amount of reps the young offensive linemen got early in camp was certainly a delightful surprise; even better, the reports of their progress. But my personal favorite, David Arkin, has provided the nicest surprise...
2. Biggest Offensive Surprise?
KD: Montrae Holland coming in out of shape. Sike.
David Arkin has been working the most out of the opportunities presented. He was athletic enough to dominate at left tackle, albeit at a small school, but tough enough to record a tremendous amount of pancake blocks, and early signs of run blocking on the move as an NFL guard is where Arkin has been most noticed at camp. With the intelligence to match his blossoming abilities, Arkin seems to be quickly grasping NFL blocking assignments though tested by Ryan's "organized chaos" and the move to left guard is not only beneficial to both David Arkin and Tyron Smith, it also appears to be a legitimate shot to compete for a starting job. I wasn't the only one most surprised by this new look to the offense.
OCC: David Arkin. A fourth round, small school prospect getting extensive first team reps? Pinch me please, I need to wake up, I'm dreaming about a team that cannot be the Cowboys.
Other exciting developments for the offense to remember from the first part of the 2011 training camp...
Rabble: Raymond Radway. Nobody had ever heard of this guy and now he's in the conversation for the last receiver spot.
Dave: Lonyae Miller. That guy runs hard and has some moves. With the injuries to Choice and Murray he's getting plenty of reps. He might just make this team.
Of course, the arrival of Rob Ryan had preempted more than a few (eagerly awaited - irony) surprises for the 2011 Cowboys. But I am shocked (and awed by the results) of how quickly Ryan has opened up his playbook this early at training camp. It remains to be seen how routinely the players can execute the exotic schemes and blitzes, but Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee, Victor Butler, Brandon Williams, Alex Albright, Josh Thomas, and other unfamiliar names seem to be causing pressure and havoc for the offense...not to mention all the pre-snap movements and Ratliff lining up anywhere. While it may be a while until we see it on full display, the early implementation and practicing has been a pleasant surprise.
3. Biggest Defensive Surprise?
KD: Not so much a surprise, but a pleasant thought. Rob Ryan's scheme diversity is one of the most intriguing things we've had in Big D in a while. I can't wait to not see it until the regular season.
OCC: Early glimpses of the formational flexibility of Ryan's defense. Ware and Butler lining up and rushing from the same side? Igor as DT in the nickel? Ratliff freelancing as DE? Wow. I just hope this all works out.
Rabble: Alex Albright: see Radway, substitute OLB for receiver... nobody had ever heard of this guy and now he's in the conversation for the last outside linebacker spot.
Dave: Alex Albright. Every day I was at camp he made plays.
There have been plenty of pleasant surprises early in Cowboys training camp, and we should remember the progress and displays from some of the young guys, and drafted and undrafted rookies. Of course, not everything is roses and sunshine. It is the basic principle of yin and yang. On the list of disappointments one must add the injuries to DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice...though they have provided Lonyae Miller and Phillip Tanner opportunities.
The release of Leonard Davis and the injury and poor conditioning of Montrae Holland have awarded Phil Costa, Bill Nagy, and David Arkin chances to shine, but the depth at guard could certainly be considered a disappointment.
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah may not be the future answer at safety as he has struggled in coverage, a big disappointment for me, but Barry Church has stepped up as a legitimate backup to the starting safeties. And of course, though nothing new, the injuries to Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins make the Cowboys cornerback depth chart a bit of a disappointment, though Brian McCann and Mario Butler have shown more than expected. While we should not forget the disappointments at the early part of camp, we should recognize some of the benefits they have provided.
But while we have covered many of the early surprises, let's consider what they may mean for the future of the Cowboys training camp. In short,
4. Don't be surprised if...
Dave: ...Sean Lee ends up taking most of the snaps with Bradie James. It's a bad time for Keith Brooking to be injured.
OCC: ...the Cowboys hand Martellus Bennett a contract extension soon. He is going to seriously start turning heads this season, and the Cowboys should pounce while he can still be had for a relatively modest contract.
Rabble: ...Montrae Holland gets cut.
Or if the Cowboys sign (maybe even re-sign) a veteran guard to bolster the depth chart even if David Arkin wins the starting spot.
This post was inspired by a piece at the Mothership where the Cowboys beat writers did something very similar. As a final bonus, let's look at a few of their observations from the first part of the Dallas Cowboys 2011 Training Camp.
Camp MVP -
Josh: For the first week, DeMarcus Ware was making things really difficult for the offense because starting left tackle Doug Free wasn't practicing. He was constantly in Tony Romo's face - even more than usual.
Nick: This one might be the easiest for me because I can't see one player that was more dynamic in this camp than Dez Bryant. And more importantly, I do think he's the most valuable. He's the most talented player on the team and the drop-off behind him seems pretty drastic.
Rob: Tony Romo, because he did his best to keep this team together during the lockout. That's what the starting quarterback is expected to do. Then he showed up for camp and looked healthy, confident and efficient for two straight weeks.
Defensive Surprise -
Nick: Not signing Nnamdi Asomugha. All summer I thought the Cowboys would just make it happen and standing there on the field at the Alamodome and watching Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones hand their phones to Rob Ryan, it seemed like a done deal. When it fell through, it was certainly a big surprise.
Rob: We knew Victor Butler had ability, but Rob Ryan's scheme might lead to a breakout season. Butler has been active in various packages. In a defense based on pressure, he's another pass rusher who can find a role.
Josh: The Cowboys clearly didn't think Sean Lissemore was ready for a big role, since they signed three free agent ends, but he's made some plays and shown the ability to get to the quarterback.