The day literally started off under a dark cloud in Oxnard: it was overcast, windy and a little uncomfortable almost the whole afternoon, and that set the mood for the offense today. Drops, interceptions, false starts, bad game management, you name it, we had it.
Today's practice was the first practice since Friday, and even though there was a game on Sunday, the lack of practice seemed to show up today on offense. Then again, the defense did just fine, thank you, and they had the same amount of down time, so there may have been any number of other reasons at play here. No use speculating, the coaches will make sure the players look crisper tomorrow.
3:15 Practice unofficially gets underway. Backup QBs Nick Stephens and Alex Tanney were the first players on the field and started throwing balls to each other. The many fans in attendance waiting to see Romo, Austin or Bryant didn't even bother looking up who the two guys were, worrying instead whether they had the right spots to get autographs later on.
15 minutes later, the two QBs were joined by almost all of the remaining players for the blue period. Fans reacted when Miles Austin joined the players on the field.
The players then proceeded to focus on special teams work. A jugs machine was placed in the middle of the field and Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and Anthony Armstrong took turns returning punts. Groups formed all over the field working on individual drills.
While the returners were getting warmed up, different position groups were doing individual drills off to the side. Garrett had told them to get busy and not to "jack around" during special teams work, and everybody hurried off to their position groups.
The groups that caught my eye were Frank Pollack coaching the offensive linemen on how to explode out of their stances, and Jay Ratliff working with the defensive linemen (but without pads) on technique under the careful eye of Rod Marinelli.
Ratliff would continue working mostly with Leon Lett or some trainers throughout practice and was drenched in sweat at the end. I had the chance to watch Ratliff up close, and he is easily the most physically imposing player (outside of DeMarcus Ware) on the team. But in contrast to Ware, who always has a smile for everybody and seems like a very nice, easygoing guy, Ratliff appears to be permanently angry and exudes a tension that carries the promise of violence.
As an offensive lineman, you worry about DeMarcus Ware because he may beat you and make you look foolish on his way to the QB, but when you line up across from Ratliff, you've got to worry that he may hurt you physically. All the talk of Ratliff being finished magically disappears once you see the guy. He just needs to get healthy, and if he does, the defensive line will be dominant.
3:45 The entire team focuses on kick returns. Coach Bisaccia has three teams on rotation, the yellow team, the red team and a team running entirely without colors, which turns out to be the first team. On kickoff returns, the first team lines up as follows:
Frampton - Holloman - Hanna - Sims - McCray
Hayden - Lissemore - Wilber
Dunbar or Tanner
Wilcox or Harris
The first team is lined up against the yellow or red team (the kicking teams) and the whole practice is conducted at half speed. The kicking teams try to maintain lane integrity, the returning team tries to create a "tunnel" for the returner. Hayden and Lissemore form the two-man wedge ahead of the combo of Dunbar/Wilcox or Tanner/Harris. Wilcox or Harris are the returners and Dunbar or Harris try to lead and block them through the onrushing defenders.
4:00 Practice starts on Garrett time. The players hustle to get in position, Garrett runs the team through a collection of plays at half speed and without helmets. The first play is a nice pass from Romo to Bryant which Bryant effortlessly grabs with one hand to loud cheers form the crowd.
Today was military appreciation day, so military personnel and their families were given priority access to the far field, where most of the practices today were conducted. the raucous crowd cheered every big play and the players were generous with their time after practice in signing autographs on that side of the field.
The first team defense lined up with Bass - Lissemore - Hatcher - Ware on the defensive line. Linebackers were Durant - Lee - Carter. Sterling Moore was in for Brandon Carr at cornerback and the tandem of Barry Church and Will Allen manned the safety spots.
The starting offensive line contained no surprises (Smith - Leary - Frederick - Bernadeau - Free) but the second team line did take some getting used to: Weems - Cook - Costa - Arkin - Coughman.
4:15 Warm-up drills: The team again separates into various position groups. The offense is on the far field, where I'm sitting, so I don't see much of what the defense is doing on the near field. The offensive drills are largely passing drills, with the offensive linemen again working off to the side. The warming-up phase of these drills lasts for five minutes, then the whole team re-assembles for stretching.
4:25 Position drills: The O-line is working on hand placements and punches. Callahan is working with the first team, Pollock with second team. Both have their charges punching on the move: linemen deliver a series of punches to the opposing defenders while moving from right to left or from left to right. Focus is on proper foot work while on the move and punching with power at the same time.
On the other field, the DBs are practicing highpointing (and catching) the ball versus air. Off to the side, WR coach Derek Dooley is teaching his receivers the finer points of blocking techniques. Dooley does this in a very hands-on manner and is not afraid to manhandle Dez Bryant into a tackling dummy. Later, the tight ends join the tackles in blocking drills. The TE's are taught to block the defensive ends while the OT disengages and blocks a linebacker upfield.
4:45 Passing drills: Two different passing drills are conducted at the same time. Stephens and Tanney throw passes in 5-on-5-drills on the left side of the field, while Romo and Orton on the right side of the field throw passes for receivers who are working one-on-one against cornerbacks.
On the left side, the players start out with five-on-five drills, the highlight of which was Caleb McSurdy picking off a Nick Stephens pass. Later, the format changes and all eleven offensive players line up against air and practice some trickeration: Screens to receivers and running backs, end-arounds and other plays, highlighted by a fake hand off to Cole Beasley on an end-around followed by a short pass to a running back (Dunbar?). Interesting.
On the other side of the field, it looked like Dooley ran his receivers through the entire route tree against the corners. Highlight here was a spectacular Dez Bryant catch against Claiborne on a go route 40 yards downfield. Claiborne later got his revenge when he slapped away a pass to Bryant on a slant route. Later still, Claiborne outphysicals Bryant (!) on a pass. No flag.
Dez comes back from 1v1: "They're holding me every time!" To which Mo responds "Every time Dez don't get it, it's something."— David Helman (@HelmanDC) August 6, 2013
Both Garrett and Romo use these one-on-ones to coach their receivers on routerunning, with Romo lined up right behind the guy who snaps the ball to Orton and Garrett even throwing a couple of passes himself.
But things are starting to get sloppy, as passes don't find their mark or bounce off hands.
5:00 Redzone drills. Defense wins all three drills, the offense didn't look in sync.
5:10 Situational play. The team goes through various down, distance and time-remaining situations, and we have the first mini-fight of camp. Sims shoves Dunbar to the ground, Dunbar gets up and shoves right back, the benches clear and we have a big pulk of players standing around. After tempers cool, play continues and the defense continues to get the better of the offense.
5:25 Kicking/Punting drills. Dan Bailey misses two FG attempts, but later makes up for it with a field goal from about 60 yards (with the wind at his back).
5:45 End of game situations. The team practices end of game situations and follows that up with 7-on-7 drills until the close of practice. Sloppy play continues. Lee picks off Romo on a fourth down, Scandrick almost has an interception, Dez drops easy balls, as does almost every receiver in the late period of practice.
There'll be a lot to talk about tonight and tomorrow in Oxnard as the team reviews tape. Hopefully the offense will come out a little crisper tomorrow for what will be their final padded practice before the Oakland game on Friday night.