Every training camp practice, as these reports will strive to show, has a specific educational goal, a set of precepts and techniques that coaches hope players are able to incorporate via the day's work. With this in mind, one might say that the goal for today was to teach the younger guys how to practice. In a sense, the first day of camp was all about establishing a working methodology for the camp and, by extension, for the season. Given what I witnessed today, I expect this team to work fast, hard and efficiently in 2013.
You may recall that Wade Phillips' 2010 training camp was dubbed by Cowboys-watchin' wags as "Camp Marshmallow." Taking a page from that book last year after watching a handful of training camp practices, I nominated the Jason Garrett-coached affair "Camp Punctual." Today, we again saw a meticulous adherence to a detailed practice schedule, but the pace at which everything was conducted, and at which the players moved from drill to drill was breathtakingly fast. As a result, I'm declaring 2013's Oxnardian sojourn to be "Camp Tempo."
An uptempo affair allows the team to get more work in - and work they did. What I want to share today is a thumbnail overview of the practice schedule to give you an idea of how they put everything together, building to the full team period with which they conclude practice. Before I start, a disclaimer: because they were working so quickly and getting so much done, it was hard to note everything that was happening. Forgive me in advance if I missed a few drills here and there.
3:30: Practice begins with the "blue period," in which, as was the case last year, the rookies and second year guys (essentially the second and third stringers) take the field for half an hour before the veterans arrive. This allows them to get some extra coaching and the vets a bit of a break, which will be positively felt as camp gets into its final weeks. The youn'uns worked on various position drills, in which they ran through the material that the coaches would work on with the vets later in practice.
3:50: With the veterans beginning to trickle onto the field, the youngsters went into 11-on-11, running through the day's playsheet. This gave guys like Danny Coale and J. J. Wilcox an opportunity to get much-needed reps, and they took advantage by making nice plays. Also worth noting: the team rotated players through the interior of the offensive line in this period. Costa, Kowalski and Frederick and Arkin all played multiple positions. I'll touch on this later.
4:00: Veterans joined the JV, and the team broke into positions groups for drills. While most of the team engaged in an interesting punt coverage drill devised by new ST coach Rich Bisaccia, involving red circles on the field to represent rival punt team blockers, the O-line worked on footwork in picking up pass rush games, particularly DE/ DT "twists," the quarterbacks worked on their footwork on rollout passes, and Jason Witten was alone with new TE coach Wes Phillips refining his hand placement on edge blocks.
4:15: Everyone gathered for team work, going through 11-on-11 work without helmets. Today, the pages from the playbook that they focused on were all part of the base offense, the kind of stuff we'd be most likely to see on first and second downs. Here, the team went through the day's entire palette of material as an uptempo extension of the day's earlier walk-through practice, concentrating on the mental and technique-specific aspects of their assignments.
4:24: The "warm-up" period began. As they did last year, this started with QBs and receivers engaging in a "pat and go" drill while linebackers and DBs worked on pass drops and turning to catch the ball.
4:27: The team took their places for a team stretch, with each new stretch barked out by a very vocal training staff.
4:32: The offense and defense went to separate fields, working on position-specific drills. The DBs, for example, focused on punching the ball out after a receiver had made a catch. It was during this period that second year defensive end Tyrone Crawford hurt his Achilles during a simple pass rush drill. I had the fortune (or misfortune) of being right in front of where he went down, and it was clear he knew it was serious, the pain and shock of his season most likely being over before it began hitting him more forcefully than the pain of the injury. When they carted him off, he was in tears. After practice Stephen Jones confirmed that the team fears he indeed ruptured his Achilles.
4:36 and 4:40: Horns sounded, signaling that it was time for the players to move to different drills. An example: The linebackers had been on blocking sleds, working on getting low and generating an upward burst when taking on an offensive lineman (I remember seeing Mike Singletary instruct college 'backers to do this during a Senior Bowl practice a few years ago). Then, they joined the D-line in a front-seven drill in which they used upside-down trash cans to work on gap assignments and spacing. As this was happening, other, similar, switchings and comings-together were taking place with other position groups on other parts of the field.
4:52: The wide receivers joined the quarterbacks to work on single patterns while, on the other end of the same field, the OL focused on proper technique and timing during double teams, sharing blocks until one lineman would peel off to attach himself to a second-level defender. On the other field, the LBs and DBs worked simultaneously, as Monte Kiffin went back and forth between both groups, offering tips.
5:00: Backs, receivers and tight ends joined the quarterbacks to work on route combinations, which were comprised of the single routes that they worked on a few minutes earlier. Now, the focus was on timing and spacing of patterns. Here, Garrett was watching closely, shouting out instructions to his signal callers, especially youngsters Nick Stephens and Alex Tanney. On the other field, the D-backs put on balaclavas to simulate receivers and worked on defending the very route combinations that the team was running on the other field. Again, the focus was on basic technical aspects such as coverage responsibilities and proper spacing for the different combinations.
5:10: Another horn signaled the beginning of an extended 11-on-11 period, during which the players were expected to put together all the material they had ingested over the day's many practices. As I will elaborate upon below, the defense had the offense's number for the better part of this period.
5:31: A special teams period began, as the field goal units (kicking team; kick blocking team) went head-to-head. Of course, Dan Bailey was perfect; for those of you interested in tracking such things, he is now 5-for-5 on the young season. While this was happening, the wide receivers worked on blocking technique, particularly for passing plays like bubble screens.
5:35: It became obvious that the screen game was part of today's package as the offensive line broke off to work closely on timing and technique for releasing opposing pass rushers. The defensive linemen engaged in detailed work on hand placement. The rest of the team revisited the punt coverage drill from earlier in the practice. As they did this, Bruce Carter and Sean Lee, the only two players who didn't belong to any of these groups, worked together on their pass drops.
5:45: The offensive skill positions, 'backers and defensive backs gathered for seven-on-seven passing drills, during which we saw the same pattern combinations that we had seen both units working on in earlier sessions. The D-line polished their spacing and timing on the inside stunts against which the offensive line had worked earlier in the practice, and the O-line received a lot of careful, meticulous coaching from Callahan on hand usage.
5:53: The entire team gathered for the culminating team period. This time, the added element was physicality. Whereas drills and previous full team periods were designed to develop proper technique, the final period asked them to maintain technique while being substantially more physical. Although the first two training camp practices are mandated by the CBA as "non-contact," the final team period was a chippy and surprisingly physical affair.
6:15: A horn blast introduced a final team stretch, after which they gathered around Garrett at midfield for a quick talk, signalling the end of practice.
What I hope this sketch begins to convey is the way all the various drills are scheduled to work in conjunction with one another. For example, we saw the defensive line working on perfecting tackle/ end twists and the offensive line working to pick them up. Tomorrow, it will be a different defensive line game, and a different set of pickups. The same goes for the pattern combos that they worked on today: the defenders worked on stopping the very patterns the offense was running.
Its fascinating to see how Garrett and his staff have broken each set of plays into component parts, and devised a schedule to teach each one of those parts -usually twice - in such a way that no position group is ever sitting idly by, watching the others, and such that each lesson builds upon the previous one. I'll continue to focus on the pedagogical aspect of camp practices in my time in Oxnard.
As I wrote earlier, the daily playsheet was taken from the base offense. What is interesting about that this year, of course, is that the base offense means "12" personnel. So, we saw a lot of DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar in single sets. When they were joined in the backfield, it was by a tight end - usually Dante Rosario or James Hanna - who started on the line and motioned into a familiar offset "I." The takeaway is that the offensive plays aren't going to be different. What will change is the way the offensive braintrust aligns personnel in those now-familiar plays.
As might be expected, the offensive line was quite a bit behind the defensive line. There are many reasons for that: injuries to the starting guards, the absence of pads, the choice to rotate guys in and out of the interior positions to take a look at various combos. Its no cause for concern at present, but I'll be watching carefully. Soon, the Dallas coaches are going to have to make come concrete decisions in an effort to develop continuity in a unit that desperately needs but is yet to enjoy it in the two years that Callahan has been the O-line coach.
As they did last year, the offensive coaches are dividing up the line to get more work in. In one drill, Callahan has the left side (Tyron Smith, Kevin Kowalski and Travis Frederick) and Frank Pollack had the right side (Phil Costa, David Arkin and Doug Free). In education, we talk a lot about teacher-student ratio. By divvying up the work, the line coaches significantly improve that ratio, to the benefit of their pupils.
Callahan seems to be coaching Travis Frederick very hard. This makes sense, as he has to get him up to speed if the offensive line is to make any progress from last year's rather dreary affair. Watching Callahan work with his charges was one of last year's camp revelations; its good to see him keep his teaching hat on even though he's now the offensive coordinator.
Speaking of which, Garrett tended to oversee passing drills today, while Callahan worked with the O-line. When the Cowboys went to the team period, Callahan, not Garrett, was standing next to the quarterbacks, playsheet in hand. Garrett stood behind the offense, but watched the whole enchilada, often shouting out encouragement to the defensive guys.
Player of the Day: Lance Dunbar. Not only did Dunbar (somewhat surprisingly) take second-team snaps, he backed up his depth chart status by often looking like the quickest guy on the field. More importantly, he showed a gift for finding a hole and shooting through it before it closed. Going into the season, many observers thought that Joseph Randle would be Murray's backup, with Dunbar serving as the third down back. Today's practice suggested a new possibility: Dunbar as the backup and the bigger Randle as the third-down back.
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