I am trying to not become a total Kool Aid souse. I really want to maintain a modicum of objectivity about the coming season for the Dallas Cowboys. Nonetheless, I keep seeing things that make me pour another round of the primo blue stuff.
Our own OCC started it with his look at where the team is injury wise versus where it was a year ago. He makes the valid point that things were worse last season. And there have certainly been a bunch of major injuries around the league since Tyrone Crawford was lost for the season, reminding us that the football gods do not just pick on our favorite team.
I think there is another reason this year is better. It may be a bit subtle, but it looks to me that there are not a lot of camp bodies in Oxnard this year. Here, I am defining "camp body" as players they tell not to waste time checking out the Dallas area real estate market. These are the ones who are hired to make practice work, but that really no one expects to make it to the regular season. But when you run down the 90 man roster this year, there just are not that many names that have not had some good days of practice, the kind that makes the coaches rewind the video and look at it again. What there are this year are a lot of camp contributors. Players that might have been brought to the roster to get to the 90 needed for the practices, but who are making themselves hard to cut.
The main focuses (or "foci", for the terminally pretentious) in watching the team so far has been in two areas. One is on the established stars, like Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, who just keep reminding people of why they are the stars of this team. The other is on the rookies and the "redshirts", the players who are new and who have mostly been very pleasing to observers such as Jason Garrett. He sees the fact that four rookies have taken significant snaps as starters in camp as an indication that the team got those draft choices right. This happened mostly because bumps and nicks suffered by the people ahead of them on the depth chart have offered opportunity as the starters heal, but in Travis Frederick's case it is simply him getting ready for his role this year. The important thing is that the rooks are acquitting themselves well.
However, there is another group that has been surprising to me, in a really good way. It is the journeymen, those players with at least a couple of years in the league already who have been brought in to fill holes. Some are players that have seen a little time on practice squads or the fringes of rosters, but could not catch on elsewhere. Others are seen to be on the downhill slide and were no longer needed at their last job. And one or two may have been marginal guys on the roster in Dallas, including the street free agent pickups last year, but their planned replacements have already been acquired, or so we thought. In the past, these were the quintessential camp bodies, brought in because they knew the game and could be competent so the players you want to keep can get quality practice.
I'm not talking about priority signings like Justin Durant, Will Allen, and Dante Rosario, who were brought in to upgrade an identified weak spot and were penciled in as likely making the team from the start. I'm talking about players who very few (including me) would have given a second thought to before dropping them off a projected 53-man roster.
There's one small problem there. These guys are not playing by the rules.
Let me run down some names, varying from their third year in the NFL to their eighth, all of whom have knocked around and been with at least one other team, and all of whom are not making the decisions about who to keep easy for the coaches.
DT Landon Cohen Brought in to fill in on the defensive line after Crawford went out and while the team is waiting for Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer to get healthy. He has done rather nicely, and with the D line so depleted, he will at least get a long look.
S Eric Frampton One of those street free agents brought in last year as the defense was shredded by injury, he has been showing up unexpectedly as a real special teams asset. There are suggestions that he may just force Danny McCray off the roster by giving Rich Bisaccia much the same value on ST, while being a noticeably more competent backup at safety than McCray is. Remember what happened when McCray was forced into starting last year?
CB Sterling Moore Everyone pretty much assumed B.W. Webb would make Moore an afterthought. It hasn't happened. He is doing a more than adequate job, and the view of many watching is that Webb is now trying to catch him. OCC, in his own 53 man projection, puts it exactly that way - and I agree.
DT Nick Hayden He is more a case of being in the right place at the right time. When Crawford went out, the team started using Ben Bass more as a DE than a DT, and that opened up more snaps for Hayden. And he has seized the opportunity, showing up well as one of the rushmen. He has gone from a pet cat for some to one of the leaders to be a backup DL.
DE George Selvie Signed at the same time as Cohen, for the same reason, he has been more impressive. Hit the field day one and started making plays. I don't think there is room for both of them on the field (and the team is reported to be signing Toby Jackson to further bolster the D line in camp), but I would not be surprised to see one of these guys make it.
DE Cameron Sheffield If neither Selvie or Cohen make it, it will likely be because Sheffield takes the job. This is a question largely because Sheffield is going to miss a significant chunk of camp with a groin injury. (Am I the only one who squirms a bit every time I see that term? "Groin injury". Ew.) It may come down to who is healthiest, and how much depth the team goes with on the D line.
LB Ernie Sims Another one of those street guys who tried to hold things together last year, he is having a really solid camp. It is likely that the move to the 4-3, which he had played before coming to Dallas last year, has helped. He looks to be a key competitor for a backup job, he showed he was capable of filling in in 2012, and he has been seeing time at both the Sam and Will position to spell Justin Durant and Bruce Carter with the 1s.
These are all players fighting hard and making an impression. It is not unusual to see a player like that get a shot with a team in the NFL. It just seems unusual to see so many.
I was discussing this with the FPW, and OCC, with his normal statistical omniscience, pointed out this:
Last year, we had 27 rookies on the 90-man roster early in camp. This year we "only" have 20 [and 21 since yesterday].
It is always a bit risky to read too much into a one year trend, but I think that does show that the team had an issue with the lack of experience last year. Things are better now, and the players that have been brought in to bolster the numbers are turning out to be legitimate candidates to help the team. That swing of seven rookies may not seem that big, but it shows greater retention. Which is a function of better acquisition. The flow of talent into the team is getting better and more reliable.
Another thing the FPW talked about was seeing too much in the little things. And we have fooled ourselves before (like the last year or two or three). But I see a lot of improvements, some incremental, and some fairly large. And I don't see anything that is really worse this year than last. And that is comparing the start of the two years, not how the team looked stumbling to the 8-8 disappointment. While players who would most likely be backups filling out the bottom of the roster may not seem like a big deal, it is how the overall squad looks that matters. If your last guy on the roster is capable of filling in at his position, that means that the other 52 guys ahead of him should be pretty decent, too. The lack of depth last year was part of what killed the team down the stretch. This year, the depth seems to be there. Both rookies, and some cagey veterans. It will be interesting to see who survives the Turk this year. Those cut downs are going to be very difficult decisions this year.