The first day of the OTAs for any NFL team is exciting. It is the very first time that the entire roster is available, and you can actually start to get an idea of who is going to be on the final 53.
And there are always subplots, particularly if you are talking about the Dallas Cowboys, where drama is never in short supply. With secret cysts, unrevealed play callers, and hot seat rumor that never really die, there was plenty of news today as things got underway in Valley Ranch.
Today was the only session this week with press access to the staff and players, so I want to share a good cross section of what was coming out of those interviews.
One thing we all would much rather have not seen was the impact the Oklahoma tornadoes had on many members of the Cowboys. Not only is Dallas the closest NFL franchise to the stricken area, it has developed a habit of finding talent from the two main Oklahoma colleges. DeMarco Murray and James Hanna both played for the Oklahoma Sooners, while Dez Bryant, Dan Bailey, and Joseph Randle were Cowboys long ago, attending Oklahoma State. They have heavy hearts.
As much as the Cowboys need to focus on football, it's difficult for players who went to school in Oklahoma to get their minds off the storms, and they want to do what they can do help.
"It's crazy," Bryant said. "I wish the best. I hope the best. I'll keep that in my prayers. I really hope they get through it. Anything I can do or any fellow Oklahoma player in here can help, I'm pretty sure we'll do it."
We are with Dez. If you would like to help, here is a link that lists some organizations that are accepting donations.
In addition to his concerns for the citizens of Oklahoma, Bryant was also given some kudos for how he has matured. Following the family violence incident last summer that had many calling for his dismissal from the team, he has been an exemplary citizen, and is emerging as one of the best in the game at his position.
"Listening and looking at people who do it right," said Bryant when asked what has helped him turn a corner in his life. "When I was younger it wasn't like I was acquainted with all that stuff. I wasn't used to it. I had to get around people who do it right and I feel like that's been my stepping stone, these older guys."
Bryant joined the NFL's elite receivers last season after catching 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The man of the day, as expected, was Tony Romo. This is expected when you are the quarterback of America's team, but no one saw the story of the cyst coming. Apparently, he noticed the cyst in April and quickly got it taken care of to minimize its impact. He could have played if this had been the regular season, but he and the team understandably are going with a much more cautious approach for the "voluntary" OTA practices.
Romo had a minor procedure last month, getting a small cyst removed from his back. The stitches are out, and the area is healed, but the Cowboys are holding him out of the team's organized team activities as a precaution.
He is hoping to be back for the minicamp in June, but there are conflicting opinions circulating about whether he will make it or not. He certainly wants to, but despite his recent promotion to almost-a-coach, he does not get to make that call on his own.
Speaking of which, he does not think too much of all the talk about his "increased role". As he put it to the reporter types who swarmed around him after practice:
"I think you guys write some real interesting stuff sometimes that allows certain things to just get thrown around," the quarterback said. "My job is to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. It's to help this football team win however I can."
He is pretty outspoken about his intentions to do everything he can to make this a better season.
"We were 8-8 the last couple of years," Romo said Tuesday, the first day of the team's organized team activities. "That doesn't sit well with me. I don't think I'm an 8-8 quarterback. I don't think this organization is comfortable being 8-8. We're going to do everything we can as coaches, players and in this building to change that."
In addition to Romo sitting out the practice (although Tweets, including pictures, showed that he was very active on the field in a coaching role, particularly with the wide receivers), DeMarco Murray was also on the sidelines. It turns out that he tweaked a hamstring prior to the OTAs and the team, as it is with the quarterback, is being very cautious.
"It's really nothing,'' said Murray, who spent Tuesday at Valley Ranch doing resistance work on the sideline. "It's a hamstring thing. Very minor, really just a precautionary thing.''
Of course the topic of who is going to be calling the plays came up again, as it does every time a reporter gets near Jerry Jones or Jason Garrett. Garrett continued his artful and agile dance around the situation, basically refusing to clarify things. The basic situation was summed up quite brilliantly by Charean Williams.
The Cowboys' play-caller isn't undecided. It's unannounced.
This is the way it goes with Garrett as head coach. There is no real desire to make things clear for the reporters or anyone else about how things are run inside the organization. In the practices, this bled over into the depth chart. The players that were lined up with the first team seemed to change through the practice. In general, the rookies lined up at backups to start things, including Travis Frederick. But Fredbeard was soon taking snaps with the first string, and seemed to take more overall than Phil Costa, who had begun practice with the starters.
And no Cowboys offseason would be fully started without at least one question about Garrett's job security.
Jerry Jones tells @albertbreer that Coach Jason Garrett is "not coaching for his job this year"— Jeremy Ryan (@JRyanNFL) May 21, 2013
Well, as someone else said, what do you expect him to say? 10 wins or out? An Andy Reid/Philadelphia Eagles type, can't get away from it ultimatum? Garrett's job is secure - until it isn't.
The best overall summary of how players looked today is probably Bryan Broaddus' article at the mothership. He covers the various permutations of the lineups, including the 12 package, which got heavy work today. To start things off, it looks like James Hanna will be the "second" tight end to pair with Jason Witten, with draftee Gavin Escobar coming in for a "Big 12", which sounds like a short yardage or goalline package to take advantage of Escobar's size. He also named players who stood out for him, a couple of whom I want to highlight.
I liked what I saw from Johnson today for a couple of different reasons. His best trait and I remember this from his college film is his burst. There was one time where he was down in the box and they brought him off the edge on a blitz and he was on the ball in a hurry. He has a real feel for this. His pedal looked smooth and relaxed when he was playing deep. The main thing is that he looks ready to compete and I see that as a real plus.
This is very good news, given that the team has pretty much committed to having Johnson and Barry Church as the starters to open the season. Church was also looking healthy on the field today, and he took all the snaps as a first stringer, while Johnson moved up and down a bit. But Johnson is planning on being the starter, and said so after practice.
From my view, I thought he was the best defensive player on the field when they went against the first offense. There is something about him when it comes to putting his hand on the ground and getting up the field. There is explosiveness there that these coaches are going to take advantage of. He has a real understand of have to use pass rush moves as he is going up the field. No defensive linemen showed the quickness that he showed today.
Can we hear a cheer for the 4-3? How about that franchise tag? The arrival of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli may be the best thing possible for Spencer, and may do a great deal for another pretty quick rushman name of DeMarcus Ware.
Things are underway, folks. The veterans and rookies are getting to know one another. Stay tuned for all the latest from the Cowboys.