Why is Barry Church smiling? Because he knows Jerome Henderson will put him the right position to make plays.
In 2011, Jason Garrett's first year as head coach, he made a couple of key coaching hires in terms of his position coaches. Wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson and linebackers coach Matt Eberfluss were brought aboard (the latter came with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from Cleveland). Both are Garrett kind of guys: new-old school. What does that mean? They are coaches who are good teachers with fresh ideas but, on the other hand, demand tough, up-tempo practices from their charges.
For the most part, Garrett kept Wade Phillips' coaching staff intact, retaining running backs coach Skip Peete, offensive line coach Hudson Houck and secondary coach Dave Campo. These last two, in particular, didn't appear to be Garrett types; whatever the reason - their contracts had not expired, so Jerry hemmed; Garrett wanted to give them another chance to prove themselves - they were held over in 2011, with fairly catastrophic results. If you can bear to remember the carnage, Houck's and Campo's position groups were the team's weakest links. In several key games, breakdowns in the interior of the offensive line and the secondary contributed directly to losses.
Thankfully, Houck and Campo were replaced by Bill Callahan and Jerome Henderson, respectively (and there was much rejoicing). To my mind, the place where Callahan and Henderson provide the most evident upgrade is in their pedagogical acumen; both are superb teachers. If you read my camp reports, you know how impressed I was with Callahan, who arrived at practice early and stayed late to squeeze in extra work with his crew of big uglies. Largely, he drilled them on basic techniques: firing out low, hand placement, generating power on punchout. What amazed me was how precisely he worked them, making minute adjustments so that they could execute the technique perfectly.
What are the early returns on the most recent coaching hires? Make the jump to find out...
Although the results of Callahan's tutelage weren't particularly evident in the Cowboys' first preseason game, in which the offensive line (largely comprised of backups) was over-matched, particularly when lining up against the Raiders' first-stringers, we began to see evidence of improvement a mere five days later, against the Chargers. Where there had been no running room to be found in Oakland, in San Diego the O-linemen were able to block their men long enough for DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones to get decent gains; in the latter contest, Tony Romo enjoyed a clean pocket - especially up front, where the centers and guards had been sieves in the first game.
This is not to say that all is well; as Coty so ably demonstrated in a recent post, there were plenty of gaffes to mar an otherwise solid performance. When we consider that, going in, many pundits wondered whether the offensive line would allow the Cowboys to run their offense at all- which they did, easily - the five days between preseason games saw marked progress. And I think that's going to be Callahan's game, as it's Garrett's. His guys will get incrementally better as they internalize the technical precision he demands; the unit's return to health makes this even more likely.
During training camp, I didn't spill as much ink extolling Henderson's virtues; nevertheless, I was similarly impressed by his work with the defensive backs. Like Callahan, Henderson is an energetic and involved coach, the kind of guy who will run onto the field to deliver a tip, demonstrate a technique, or redden an offender's backside. Like his counterpart, he insists on precise technique, positioning and angles. Moreover, he drills his guys relentlessly on creating turnovers. Every practice, I saw they engage in some kind of turnover drill.
And the work is paying off. In the first two preseason contests, the defensive backs have shown marked improvement over 2011's miserable bunch. Part of this is clearly due to a substantial and necessary talent upgrade at cornerback. At safety, however, the Cowboys return much the same core group that we saw last year, save Barry Church taking over Abram Elam's spot. In a recent interview after watching Thursday night's "Silver and Blue Debut" at the Death Star, Darren Woodson remarked that he likes what he sees thus far from Church. The former Toledo product, a special teams ace who graduated to box safety, has now added a new level to his game. Woodson noted that Church
...seems like he’s slimmed down a little bit. He looks a lot more athletic and he knows where he’s supposed to be on the football field. If you know where you’re supposed to be on the football field, you can make a lot of plays even without the athleticism. That’s what I’m seeing from him now.
I think he’s a different player than what we’re used to from last year. That’s building from knowing where he’s supposed to be and that confidence that he has."
And Church isn't the only one. In training camp, I noticed (and many observers concurred) that the safeties were taking better angles to the ball, and were significantly more often in position to help out on deep balls. Moreover, Henderson is getting physical play from his troops; all the defensive backs appear to be much more willing and able to support the run, both in the middle and on the perimeter.
Church and his fellow safeties offer a good test case: while it can certainly be argued that number 42 is an upgrade, I would argue that the overall talent level at safety is roughly the same as it was in 2011. So why are they playing so much better? I believe its because, as Woodson suggests, the most significant upgrade in the secondary is not athletic; its intellectual. And, I think one of the reasons that I didn't comment as much on Henderson's fine work in camp as I did on Callahan's is because so much of Henderson's took place in the film room, where issues of angle and spacing and "where you're supposed to be on the football field" are taught.
In hiring Henderson and Callahan, the Cowboys found two terrific teachers, guys who are going to get the very best from their players. They might not be at peak performance by the September 5 trip to New York. But, in true Garrett fashion, we should expect incremental gains and, as a result, small breakthroughs, throughout the 2012 campaign. I'm looking forward to seeing them take another step forward at home versus the Rams. Go Cowboys!!
Positional overview, offensive line: At this point, most positions are set. The starters are clear: Tyron Smith, Nate Livings, Phil Costa, Mackenzie Bernadeau and Doug Free. In addition, Jermey Parnell and David Arkin are locks. I think Ronald Leary is safe, especially if they can find a backup center during cutdowns. This would render Arkin the backup guard on gamedays (I don't think Leary is ready for such duty, which he would have to perform if Arkin were the backup center). If this transpires, then they may hold onto a player like Daniel Loper, at least until they feel Leary is ready to play.
Positional overview, secondary: This is one of the clearest positions on the roster, with five corners (Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Mike Jenkins and Mario Butler) and four safeties (Gerald Sensabaugh, Church, Danny McCray and Matt Johnson, who immediately stepped in on the second team, displacing Mana SIlva). The one question is: what will the Cowboys do if they have to place Jenkins on PUP to start the season? They'll need a fifth corner; will that be C.J. Wilson? Lionel Smith? If they keep Smith, they can probably get him onto the practice squad when Jenkins returns.