If you can judge anything from head coach Jason Garrett's demeanor, it looks like the OTAs and minicamp went very well for the Dallas Cowboys this year. In his final post-practice press conference, he had a big smile, and gave the reporters a hard time when they weren't enthusiastic in responding to his first "How're you doing, guys?"
That tracks with the general feel of the articles and Tweets coming out of Valley Ranch this offseason. What was said, and many times what was not said, add up to a sense that this year's edition of the Cowboys is shaping up well, and has made some major steps to getting away from the 8-8 doldrums.
In the press conference, available to watch at DallasCowboys.com, Garrett talked about several things (including NBA coaching, which I will skip). As you would expect, he addressed the importance of the messages he and the coaching staff wanted the team to get. He was very positive about looking forward to training camp, and praised the team for the almost 100% participation in the "voluntary" parts of the offseason.
He did take a sort of backhanded swipe at the CBA restrictions on practice, talking about the players getting "antsy" trying to achieve the right balance between aggression and restraint without pads on. Obviously he is eager to get those pads on and see what he really has this year, but he feels very good about how that is going to turn out.
On the increased role for Tony Romo in offensive game planning, he again talked about how this was discussed months ago, and how Romo has embraced the new responsibilities. He also praised him for how he is helping with the younger players. There was a question thrown out to the SBN NFL sites yesterday about what player on the current rosters would make the best coach in the future (another NBA driven question, based on Jason Kidd's hiring to coach the Brooklyn Nets). For the Cowboys, Romo is the obvious choice. He is already a player-coach of sorts, and if he does choose that route once his playing days are done, he looks to have a bright future.
The head coach was asked about Lawrence Vickers' status. The approach is to see what Vickers brings versus carrying another tight end once they can look at a healthy Vickers in camp. The decision has not been made, but he is definitely open to not carrying a fullback if that offers the best chance for success.
A question was asked about whether Travis Frederick was strictly a center or if he could be looked at as a guard. Garrett said the decision was made to work him exclusively at center in team drills because it was likely to do him the most good, but revealed that he has done some side work to be familiar with the guard position. The team is going with the best five offensive linemen however they have to line them up, so the position battle between Frederick and Phil Costa is still very much alive.
Something I really noticed from Garrett was about the emphasis on takeaways. He said the team was stressing it, and he made a nice observation that having the defenders constantly going for the ball teaches the ballcarriers to work on securing that ball. Both sides gain.
The word coming out of the practices certainly supports the emphasis on takeaways. There were a lot of defensive hands on the football, with Sean Lee involved at least three times. Overall, the first team defense is seen as ahead of the offense. This is partly because the backup quarterbacks have not done very well in Romo's absence, but when the question was put directly to Bryan Broaddus, he maintained that the defense was just looking very good. That certainly bodes well for the installation of Monte Kiffin's defense, with Lee and Bruce Carter both looking very good in the 4-3. The players are all responding well, and Rod Marinelli's rushmen have certainly not disappointed. Even though DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were largely not available, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher looked very good. Backups like Kyle Wilber and especially Ben Bass impressed. The only negative news regarding the D line was the loss of Rob Callaway due to knee issues. (Sean Lissemore was back on the field the last day after leaving with a trainer on Wednesday).
For the most part, the injury situation is good, and much better than last year when it seemed that every day saw someone else going out. Of course, the Romo cyst problem did limit the offense somewhat, but Kyle Orton felt he was benefiting from the extra work (although the biggest problem in camp was the inadequate play most of the time by Orton and Nick Stephens, the presumptive number 3). Given how good Dez Bryant and Jason Witten looked with the backups, I am drooling to see what happens when Romo is on the field. He is getting ready, doing some throwing to Bryant and Miles Austin on the last day while the rest of the team was in special teams drills.
There was a similar situation at guard, with Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau recovering from injury again, but this allowed Ron Leary and David Arkin to work with the first team throughout camp. Reports are they look good. Actually, there was not much news at all regarding the offensive line, and that seems to be a good thing. No one was standing out as struggling. Some players got beat at times, but that is part of practice, and the second team OL did get singled out for praise in a Tweet for providing good protection for the quarterback.
One of the biggest pluses this year is that Joseph Randle was the only rookie who was not able to participate fully. The rest of the new players as well as the "redshirt rookies" from last season were all on the field. Because there was so much good stuff going on with the first team, many of the backup battles are very unclear. Joey and I will be looking at that later, but there were some who did stand out.
Speaking of my favorite source for expert analysis of what he sees on the field, Broaddus has his daily review up at DallasCowboys.com, and he discusses some of the position battles. He feels Leary is a real contender to take over Livings' starting job, having made great strides in the mental part of the game. Gavin Escobar has made his own strides, playing with much more speed now than when he started, and he showed some good things in the last practice. While we are all raving about Bruce Lee at linebacker, Justin Durant is shaping up to be a very good compliment for them at the Sam. And for those who have wondered what happened to Sterling Moore, he apparently has gotten his game back on track and looks like an important part of the defensive backfield.
There won't be much coverage, but don't think nothing is going on the next few weeks. Players continue to work out on their own, and you can be sure Romo has some workouts planned with the receivers to make up for the time he lost. But for the rest of us, the next big event is Oxnard, where the players report on July 19th.
Just a little over a month. It will get here. I promise.
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