In what now feels like eons ago, in my pre-camp podcast with KD, I noted that NFL teams schedule camp practices around the same principles that drive their in-season practice weeks. In the first three days of camp, the Cowboys roughly adhered to this weekly schedule:
Day one: base offense (in-season, this happens on Wednesdays)
Day two: third down plays (in-season on Thursdays)
Day three: a reprise of the material from days one and two
The Cowboys are treating the camp schedule as if it were a long game week. Thus, on day four, we were treated to the two-minute and no-huddle pages from Jason Garrett's playbook, which happens on Fridays during game weeks in-season. We got a heavy diet of three- and four-receiver sets and the defenses (largely nickel) designed to stop them. For the football geeks among our readership, the offense deployed almost exclusively in "11" personnel (one back and one tight end) and the shotgun variant, "s11."
Because clock management is such a crucial aspect of two-minute and no-huddle situations, a primary focus of today's work was getting to the line quickly and efficiently after each play. Garrett emphasizes situational football, and tries to incorporate as many game situations as possible so that his players can get used to behaving and executing as they would were they in a game. Today, this desire manifest in a two-minute drill, complete with officials and a ticking game clock, to complete the final team period. I'll have more on the specifics on Romo's "game-winning" drive in my full report, which you should expect tomorrow morning.
Until then, please allow a few scattered thoughts from today's session to when your appetites:
- The Cowboys added two new bodies to their depleted defensive line corps.During the first two years of the new CBA, teams had to wait two days after a player's arrival before he cold participate in a padded practice. This is no longer the case, and both George Selvie and Landon Cohen seemingly got off the bus, slipped on a jersey on the way to the practice field and jumped right into the fray. Not only did they hold their own, but each of them actually made a few nice plays. When an organization brings in camp bodies, the fervent hope is that they will provide competitive snaps, so that their opposites, in this case players like David Arkin, Ray Dominguez and Darrion Weems, will be able to maximize their reps. Today, both of the newbies seems to fulfill this hope.
- Their presence allowed Ben Bass to move up and down the line during drills today. Although he lined up at strongside end in the team periods, the former Aggie found himself in both the defensive tackle and defensive end groups during pass rush drills. It looks like the team is reluctant to move him over to end full time, as his greater long-term value might be as a utility backup capable of giving the Cowboys quality snaps in relief of both Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher. The ways in which he was used during drills certainly suggests that this is the case.
- That said, he has a way to go. On one play, Monte Kiffin sat him down for Cameron Sheffield after a blown assignment. Indeed, the coaching staff continues to bench players for mental mistakes during the team periods, and is demanding a high level of competition and focus during those sessions. In the final team session (and perhaps because it was the last bit of work before Thursday's off day), Garrett twice called the team together to direct their focus to the task at hand.
- Because the theme of the day was third down and two-minute situations, the running backs and tight ends worked on pass blocking drills this afternoon. Watching these, a couple of things became clear: the backs are better at blitz pickup than the tight ends are at pass protection. Among the running backs, Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle were the standouts. Randle, in particular showed impressive tenacity on his blocks. This lends credence to my pet theory that Lance Dunbar with be the second string, change-of-pace back and the sturdier Randle will be the third down back, who must be a solid pass blocker.
- On the other hand, the tight ends didn't fare as well. Jason Witten twice whiffed when matched up against Alex Albright, and all the tight ends save for Andre Smith were over-matched more than Cowboys fans would have liked. In particular, Gavin Escobar struggled. His height (6'6") and strength limitation both work against him; he often loses leverage and gets driven back. This is exacerbated when he lines up as the F-back (which, due to James Hanna's injury, he has done more the last two practices) and is asked to lead a runner through the hole. On more than one occasion he was not only stood up in the hole but driven back. I suspect that, when he finds his niche, most of his snaps will come at the in-line, or "Y" tight end spot.
- When the team gets back from the day off, look to the offensive line to be closer to full strength. Ron Leary and Nate Livings were both working with trainers on the big elastic bands, work that historically has signaled an imminent return. As these are the two front-runners for the two guard spots, their return can't come soon enough; although backups Kevin Kowalski and Arkin have acquitted themselves fairly well (as has Dominguez, who has been a pleasant surprise) and the entire line has made significant forward progress on their zone blocking synchronicity, we cant help but feel that Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack have been biding their time until at least one starting guard returns. Having two would be a good kickstart to a preseason in which O-line continuity must be a top priority.
- After being picked on during one-on-one passing drills the last couple of days, rookie corner B.W. Webb gained some measure of redemption by ending the final team period with a pick of a Kyle Orton pass. The learning curve for rookies is steep. To the credit of this year's draft class and the Cowboys coaching staff, we are seeing players overcome early struggles. Yesterday, it was third-round pick Terrance Williams bouncing back from a poor first two outings, during which he was chewed out by coaches and veteran players alike. Today, it was Webb making a play - indeed, given the fact that it came in a two-minute situation, one could qualify is as a "game-saving" play - to conclude Oxnard 2013's opening chapter.
The team will have an off day tomorrow. But the hardest working blogger in show business won't! I'm driving down to San Diego tonight, but will have a longer recap for you in tomorrow morning, and try to follow that up with an assessment of camp thus far. Like the team, I'll resume two-a-days on Friday, with a thumbnail sketch immediately following practice and then a more detailed summary closer to midnight Pacific time. Until then, faithful readers...