What Cowboys Camp Storyline Is The Most Important?

The defense looked to be much improved during the Dallas Cowboys' training camp. Will that be the big story that carries over from Oxnard?

Over at DallasCowboys.com, the Cowboys Break had a discussion about the MVPs and duds coming out training camp. I thought this was a good idea, and also that it sucked I didn't think of it first.

Not being willing to just blatantly steal an idea - well, today, anyway - I pondered this for a moment, and decided to look at a different question. Namely, what storyline coming out of the Dallas Cowboys training camp will have the biggest, most lasting impact on the team this year?

Figuring it out up front.

If you are talking about things that will have a long term impact on the success, or lack of same, for the Dallas Cowboys, I think you have to start with the old standard, the offensive line. The team went into camp wanting to find out what it had and if they had succeeded in at least improving the perfomance from the uneven and sometimes very inadequate performance of 2011. But after camp closed out and the team finished with the joint practices with the San Diego Chargers, the answers are still not evident. The biggest issue was the interior of the line, and for a good part of camp, none of the projected starters was practicing.

This is clearly a work in progress. The expected starting guards, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, are at last on the field. Phil Costa is still working his way back, but David Arkin has at least become a possible solution at center, at least for a game or two. Doug Free seems to be having some problems. However, there are differing opinions as to just how big they are. On the O line, only Tyron Smith seems to be not only fully capable, but a standout player.

Will this end well for the Cowboys, or is this the vulnerability that will keep the team from improving its record? Can the line keep Tony Romo healthy? Will DeMarco Murray and the other backs have lanes? The answers to those questions could be the biggest carryover from camp.

Some other things coming out of camp after the jump.

Injuries, injuries, injuries.

Broken bones. Strained backs. 246 strained hamstrings. One lacerated spleen.

They just never seemed to stop coming. It started in the offseason, when at one point the top five draft picks of the Cowboys were out. James Hanna is the only draftee that has made it to this point without missing practice time.

And the hurts just keep on coming. Some, like Caleb McSurdy and Bill Nagy, get hurt enough that they wind up lost to the team for the year (or, in Nagy's case, forever). But many of the players sitting out are being held for what appear to be precautionary reasons. Many of the players have missed practice time with injuries that would never have kept them off the field in the regular season.

Which raises an interesting question: Could the excessive caution the team seems to be showing now pay off in the long run? Or are we just seeing an indication of how things will go for the entire year?

There are some unquestionable problems the team faces over the injuries. Mike Jenkins is just about certain to miss the opening game, Jason Witten is very shaky, and Phil Costa is not certain. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray are all expected to be ready for the Giants game, but all have a recent history of missing games. We all had hope that the conditioning program of Mike Woicik was going to help. There is no evidence so far that it really has. Injuries have derailed many a team. Will they do the same for Dallas in 2012?

The jumble at wide receiver

This has probably gotten about as much attention as anything else, and at this point it is still anybody's guess who will fill the roster slots past Austin and Bryant. The big feel good story of camp was UDAF Cole Beasley, who continues to make plays that make cutting him harder and harder to imagine. But he has been the only one of the players fighting to make the squad who has been consistent throughout, and that is if you disregard the odd episode when he left the team and then came back.

It looks like the team is planning to go with who they brought to camp, unless someone very good falls into their lap when the final cutdown comes on 8/31. I would be tempted to say this is not really going to be as major as almost everything else here, except for the undeniable fact that this is a passing league and having solid depth is crucial with the constant and familiar possibility of injury to the two guys at the top of the list. If the team does not get this right, the repercussions for the latter part of the season are likely to be dire.

Is the defense as good as it looks?

The offseason was heavily tilted towards fixing the defensive problems of last year. Based on the preseason games and observations from practice, those problems may be largely taken care of. Brandon Carr in particular has given every indication he is worth the big contract, battling with Bryant throughout the practices and then picking Philip Rivers off twice in San Diego. The starters have not given up a point yet in preseason. Barry Church was a bit of a surprise and makes the safety situation look much more settled. Bruce Carter and Dan Connor should be a noticeable upgrade, there may be some improved play on the outside, and the defensive line depth looks to be very good.

With the Cowboys going 8-8 last year, it is possible that an improved defense could get the team into the playoffs even if the offense continues to struggle, perhaps because of the issues at guard and center. The only concern is just that the improvement that seemed to be evident in camp may be somewhat of an illusion. They were practicing against the offense, and if the offense is really not that good, how much improvement did the defense really show? If the Oakland Raiders and the Chargers were both also weak, then maybe Dallas will not do so well against a good team. And as much as we hate to admit it, the Giants can be very good on offense.

Garrett is fully in charge

One thing that really struck me was how firmly Jason Garrett held the reins in this camp. I did not get to personally witness anything really telling about the camp practices, but everyone remarked about the tempo and how there was just no wasted time. Today, I got to see the live video from the Blue and Silver Debut, and I saw what they meant. And Garrett was right on top of it all.

Even more, I keep noticing how "Garrettisms" seem to come from everyone in the organization. For now, there is a huge amount of buy-in to the way JG is doing things. If things improve, he may be able to keep the players on board. If things just muddle along for a couple of seasons, then the belief will begin to fade. But it may feed on itself. If the players see improvement, they will keep putting effort into doing it his way.

2012 is not the make or break season for Garrett's philosophy, but he does have limited time. And it must be remembered, he just got his coaching staff in place this year. With the size of the turnaround he was trying to accomplish, it is totally reasonable for it to take two, three or even four seasons to fully accomplish. But all the indications are that he has the staff and team he wants, with at most a couple of exceptions. Based on what we have seen so far, anyone who does turn out to be a malcontent will be shown the door before they become a real problem.

Those are my storylines to watch after camp. All will play some role in the way 2012 plays out for our Cowboys. Which do you think will be the biggest, or do you see one I missed?

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