Jason Hatcher seems to be stepping up his game, which is welcome news for the Cowboys' uneven pass rush.
With a grand total of two (count 'em, two!) practices completed - neither of which was in pads, it's ridiculously premature to engage in what Bill Parcells used to term "State of the Union" assessments of the team. Nevertheless, eager Cowboys fans like yours truly have been attending to every detail of every report coming from Oxnard, sifting through the informational bites to separate the proverbial football wheat from the chaff - all in an effort to get some early sense of the state of the Cowboys' union.
This is difficult, as much of what we are given by those in attendance qualifies as chaff. While a tweet declaring that "Orton completed an out to Benford, with Scandrick in coverage" gives an account of the doings on the West Coast, it yields very little substantive information. For us to know what this means, we would have to have a series of questions answered: What were the offensive and defensive formations? How many receivers were on the field? Where was Benford in the formation? Was he Orton's first read, or did the QB check down?
I find other tidbits more helpful. When I read that a certain player looks quicker than in 2011, I file that away on my mental desktop, so I can access it more quickly at the end of the day. At the conclusion of the daily deluge of reports, I look for patterns or subtly developing memes that will allow me to understand what's happening at training camp on a more global level: how have individual players progressed (or regressed) since last December? How is this team different (and, we hope, better) than last year's iteration? Have there been important philosophical changes implemented?
Like other rabid fans, I have spent a couple hours each of the last two nights looking for answers to these and similar questions. And you know what? I'm liking a lot of the answers I'm getting thus far. No, I haven't stopped being a curmudgeon or a contrarian, but I have been pleased by much of what I'm hearing. And, hey, if you can't be optimistic about your fave team in the first week of training camp, when can you? So, without further ado, here are five training camp stories that have Ol' Rabble juiced about the upcoming campaign:
I know you want to read all five of these, so make the jump, people!
1. Tempo, tempo, tempo: When the Cowboys first hired Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator, I noted that one key characteristic he shared with Jason Garrett was that both men wanted to run brisk, uptempo practices, and that, with Joe DeCamilis as the special teams coordinator, they now had a man in charge of each of the three phases with this value system. In San Antonio last summer, with players returning rather suddenly from the lockout, the desire to avoid injury overrode that for super-fast practices. This year, with a full offseason under their belts, the players are fit enough to participate at the level Garrett expects them to: very quickly. Reportedly, the team is hustling from period to period, and they have instituted a play clock to keep things moving at game speed. As O.C.C. reported last night, at one point Tuesday, Garrett grew impatient with the tempo of practice (they failed to get the play off before the clock ran down) and was heard hollering for the team to pick it up. I'd expect to hear more reports like this, and not only from Garrett.
2. Guys stepping up: What we all hope for from our favorite team is that it bring players along, to the point where they are prepared to be major contributors, if not starters. In the recent past, this has been a real source of frustration, as we have seen them fail to develop young players, in no small part because the coaches (read: Wade Phillips) shied away from placing pressure and responsibility on their shoulders. In 2011, this appeared to have changed (we saw rookies linemen starting from opening day); now, we seem to be reaping the benefits. Guys from Barry Church to Orie Lemon to Jason Hatcher appear to be playing at a different, higher level. Even first-year players James Hanna, Saalim Hakim and Tim Benford have stepped up their games since the offseason camps. Of course, the player who has made the most noticeable leap is...
3. Dez Bryant: For months now, I have thought that 2012 would be Dez's so-called breakout year. With a year under the tutelage of receivers coach Jimmy Robinson, as well as a full offseason working with Mike Woicik, Dez looks not only ready to break out but to dominate. Whereas in the past, his route running left much to be desired, he is now running the entire tree, and as crisply as Miles Austin, who is a terrific route runner. In 2011 he suffered from poor conditioning; in 2012, he is leaner, quicker and has more endurance. I don't know what the fallout will be for his recent domestic altercation, but even if he is suspended for four games, I think we'll see the kind of dominant, 1,000+ yard season peppered with splash plays that we all envisioned when he was drafted in 2010. And like the rest of the team, Bryant is...
4. Focused on the practice field: As several scribes have pointed out, the team has hired officials for all the 11-on-11 work in training camp. Given Dallas' persistent, decade-long problem with penalties, this is an important move. In particular, the team must eliminate "mental" penalties, those that result from a lack of focus and concentration. Most of these are of the pre-snap variety: offsides, false start, illegal motion, too many men on the field. Thus far, the results have been good; the team has remained largely penalty-free. Of course, that may change today, when the pads come on, and guys get geeked up to hit someone in earnest (nothing like a good testosterone rage to make one forget the snap count). And, speaking of getting geeked up...
5. Playing at 1000 miles an hour: In Monday's opening presser, Garrett recalled Jimmy Johnson's fabled training camps in scorching hot Austin, acknowledging that they were brutal and then adding that he thought they were an integral aspect of the team's success. In Tuesday's press conference, ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer asked Garrett whether he was gong to caution his charges not "to go out there 1000 miles an hour and blow everything up." Garrett, pausing slightly and giving Archer a combination grimace and grin, replied "Well, we want them to play 1000 miles an hour." Although the new collective bargaining agreement limits what players are expected and allowed to do in training camp, Garrett seems to want to push his guys up against its boundaries, so that they have as close to an "Austin experience" as the CBA will allow.
The 90s Cowboys practiced so hard and, because they were going against themselves, against such elite competition, that Sundays were a comparative walk in the park. In the opening presser, Garrett stated that Dallas is building a "championship team." Clearly, they don't have the horses to compare to those 90s clubs. But, while they may not yet have a championship roster, the 2011 Cowboys are learning to conduct themselves like champions. To my mind, that's great news, and well worth watching.
And, while you're in training camp mode, don't forget to contribute to the BTB Training Camp Fund!