Today was the day we had all been eagerly awaiting: the Cowboys first practice in pads. Indeed, the entire team wore pads for the first time this season. However, unlike camps run by coaches from Bear Bryant to Bill Parcells, they didn't use the padded practice as an immediate test of manhood by asking the players to run an Oklahoma drill or start the day with a brutal goal line session. Instead of jumping headlong into a cold pool, they tentatively dipped a toe, then eased in one leg at a time, ending the day immersed from the waist up. Even hitting in pads is, under Jason Garrett's watch, a process.
I'll have more on that later, in my longer training camp update post. For now, here are some scattered impressions from today's action in Oxnard:
- The offensive line continues to be a position in flux. Today, utility lineman Ryan Cook returned to the fray, taking up a position as the second team center, a move which displaced Phil Costa to second team right guard. But the football gods giveth and they taketh away; Cook's return was matched by the loss of backup tackle Jermey Parnell. One piece of good news on this front was that Nate Livings passed his conditioning test and should join his comrades in O-line drills shortly.
- Even before he was sidelined, Parnell seemed to losing ground to Doug Free in the right tackle battle, both because Free appears to be playing with better and more consistent technique and because Parnell has really struggled with his. Observers expected Parnell to use this camp to give unpopular incumbent Free a run for his positional money but that quest has now been sidelined by - wait for it -a bad hamstring. He's scheduled to undergo an MRI to determine the extent of the damage. Today, Parnell was replaced by Edawn Coughman as the backup RT (Coughman moved over from RG, thus creating room for the aforementioned Costa switcheroo).
- Despite the flux at O-line, the offense, which had been taking it on the chin during the camp's first two days, made marked improvement in today's team sessions. If I had to choose, I'd say the defense won the day, but that the offensive guys stepped up, playing with increased precision and execution. This is a fairly typical training camp arc: the defense starts out with a lead and it takes the offense about a week of practices to get their timing to a level where they can counterpunch effectively.
- One of the offensive players who bounced back nicely was rookie receiver Terrance Williams. The Baylor product had really struggled in the first two days of practice, running less than crisp routes and too often trying to catch passes with his body rather than his hands. As a result, he had been hearing it from the offensive coaches. Even his fellow players had expressed their frustration; yesterday, Jason Witten barked at the rook after a dropped pass in the team period. Today, Williams appeared to run routes more precisely, and made some nice hands catches in both the seven-on-seven and full squad sessions, including a lovely rolling end zone grab on a post pattern. The kid is getting coached hard; today, he seemed to have taken in some of the lessons.
- Speaking of coaching, Rod Marinelli took a significant amount of time out of a defensive line session to school Ben Bass on the finer points of hand usage. During yesterday's "Podcast from Camp," KD and I discussed the leading candidates to be the "next man up" to fill Tyrone Crawford's shoes. We agreed that Bass, who, like Crawford, is a hybrid DE/ DT 'tweener with a little pass rush in his game, was the likeliest lad. Today's action suggested that the defensive staff shares this belief: Bass lined up with the first team at Spencer's strongside end spot.
- With the pads on, the Cowboys safeties' games got a bit saltier. Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox worked as the first- and second-team free safeties, showing great range and confidence throughout the session as they barked commands to their fellow defenders and chirped at offensive players. On two occasions, they brought more than commentary. On one of the offense's most successful plays, Phillip Tanner found a nice crease over left guard and broke into the secondary with a full head of steam only to be stopped in his tracks by Wilcox. On another play, Church closed quickly to level Dez Bryant after number 88 caught a short swing pass. Both plays drew a collection of "Ooooh"s from the crowd.
- Although he was stymied by Church on that one play, Dez Bryant continued to assert that he is the best player on the 2013 Cowboys. He is playing with a terrifying combination of strength, speed, agility, ferocity, passion and confidence. Poor Mo Claiborne, whose game is light years better than it was at this time last year, cannot do anything to stop the dominant Bryant. I pity the rest of the NFC's corners during Dallas week; there's not many restful nights on their horizons.
- Because of players like Bryant and Claiborne, the day's most interesting one-on-one drills were not, as I had anticipated, between the offensive and defensive linemen but, rather, between the receivers and cornerbacks. Think about this in terms of marquee match-ups: on the lines, you have Tyron Smith against DeMarcus Ware (and its not much of a match-up; Ware blew by him in a pass rush drill). Out on the perimeter, Bryant, Claiborne, Miles Austin and Brandon Carr are deluxe veterans who offer highly competitive reps, and players further down the depth chart, guys like Orlando Scandrick, Sterling Moore and rookie Eric Rogers, are making plays. Its a joy to see them compete, both at the line and when the ball is in the air.
The gauntlet has been thrown; its up to the offensive and defensive lines to respond. Certainly a return to health will exponentially increase the likelihood of this happening.