I finally arrived in Oxnard. Camp is nestled next to the River Ridge Golf Course, and the links provide a peculiar backdrop to the action; you have practice fields in the foreground and golfers who are oblivious to the team's existence on the low hills behind you.
Admission is free. Parking is not. What's worse, the weekend rains have turned the dirt lot into a giant mudflat. The novelty of camp appears to have worn off after two weeks, as the crowd was sparse.
But I'm digressing. A practice occurred.
The Cowboys got to work early this morning, hitting the field before the 8:50 advertised start. The team went through stretching before meeting on the far field. There are two practice fields at Oxnard. One is close to some low bleachers set up for "VIPs." The second field is farther away and does not allow fans sideline access. Parcells took the team to the far field immediately after stretching for some 11-on-11 action at half speed. There was no hitting, with the focus appearing to be on recognition and reaction to different sets. Both the offensive and defensive units were liberally rotated, with the first offensive unit getting two to three plays before being replaced by the second, who was replaced by the third after a few plays, and back to the top...
A major story of the day was emerging to the left of the field where the trainers were running Jacob Rogers and Marco Rivera through stretching and agility exercises. They then joined an extensive lineup of players on exercise bikes for the remainder of the practice.
After fifteen minutes of going through mostly passing plays, the entire team gathered on the far sideline of the field nearest us and ran a couple of sprints towards the crowd and back. The team gathered for some brief words with Parcells before breaking up in to unit work.
Some units broke up into even more discrete units. The defense came to the near field with the offense moving to the far field.
The linebackers were in the middle of the field right in front of the fans. They split into an OLB group and an ILB group. Gary Gibbs spent his time with the OLBs, who drilled on redirecting TEs to the flats, getting drops at the proper depth and cutting into passing lanes. All the LBs were smooth in their work, though some were smoother than others; Kevin Burnett looked natural in his movements. Demarcus Ware, on the other hand, looked like he had spent most of his time going forward. He's got plenty of speed and range, but got some extra attention from Gibbs on the proper positioning and order to his drops.
At the same time the ILBs engaged in a series of drills covering recognition of running plays. They then worked on getting proper drops and filling passing lanes in zone coverage. They ended the individual sets practicing standing up runners and stripping the ball.
In the corner of the field, line coach Kacey Rogers drilled his linemen on turning the offensive linemen back into plays run at them. After a few minutes of this, all the linemen drilled on dropping, turning and beating double team blocks. If you have any doubt that the Cowboys will run the 3-4 extensively, this drill should disabuse you of that thought. The ends lined up against a tackle and an tight end and worked on holding the edge. The nose tackles lined up opposite a center and two guards and had to recognize and react to double teams that were not broadcast.
Rogers would signal to his "offensive" players which way he wanted them to block. There were some minor surprises to the drill. First, the ends worked on both sides of the scheme, with first teamers Greg Ellis and Kenyon Coleman drilling at both the LE and RE positions. Coleman looked much more certain, with Ellis needing some extra work on dropping a knee and letting the blockers cut past him.
On the far field coach Tony Sparano led his charges in a series of pass blocking recognition drills. The o-linemen also split up into sub-units, with Sparano working with the guards and centers and an assistant working out the tackles. The inside linemen first worked on stunt recognition and redirection. They then moved on to practicing proper hand placement, getting their hands inside the d-lineman's shoulders and keeping proper footwork as they rode the opponent sideways.
On the opposite end of the far field the QBs, backs and receivers ran 6 on zero drills, where they practiced running routes and combinations properly. The QB would select the primary and throw him the ball. The drill kept all the receivers on their toes; when Bledsoe was throwing, Tony Romo and Drew Henson would stand several yards to each side of him. As soon as Bledsoe let fly to the primary, the other two would throw passes to secondary and tertiary receivers. It looked a little like a skeet shooting drill, with three balls going airborne in rapid succession. No receiver could give up on a play for fear of having a ball drop at his inattentive feet.
When the position drills concluded, the offensive and defensive players met with their opposing units. For instance, the outside linebackers would meet with the tight ends and challenge each other in passing drills. The offensive and defensive linemen met to work out run blocking. Sparano gave his younger linemen the third degree, with Ben Noll and Stephen Peterman getting scolded for not finishing off their blocks.
On the near field, the running backs squared off against the inside linebackers in pass coverage drills. There were three things of note: Ryan Fowler shows strong recognition skills, almost intercepting a pass to Anthony Thompson. Bradie James looked erratic; he was strong on one rep and then was turned inside out by Julius Jones, who ran an out and up down the seam for a deep reception. The speed of Tyson Thompson is also apparent. LBs could match him in the initial few yards but he consistently exploded away from them on his cuts.
Parcells mixed situational special teams work in between the pass and run drills. After the passing drills were over the team practiced field goals. A few minutes later the kicking unit worked on quick kicks with a snap going directly to Billy Cundiff who would try to pooch punt the ball inside the ten. The drill provided some levity. On the first units first attempt Parcells yelled at Al Johnson, who was lined up as a tight end, for downing the ball at the seven. "Let it keep rolling," he told Johnson. Parcells then turned to second unit TE Matt Tarullo and asked him why Johnson should have let it roll. "So we could down it inside the five," Tarullo answered. "Okay, you do it then," Parcells told him. Tarullo then promptly downed the next punt at the twelve.
The team then went to a sequence of 11 on 11 scrimmages. The first set involved running plays, with the offense getting the better of the defense. Jones, Anthony Thomas and Tyson Thompson all ran off big runs. The loudest man was Gary Gibbs, who was unhappy with the technique of his backers. Parcells singled out Bradie James for some double special scolding, pointing out to him that he was making the same mistakes in plugging holes that he had in the Arizona game. James knelt with his head down for a minute, not appreciating getting the business in front of his teammates.
Another special teams drill was held, this time for kickoff returns. Coach Bruce DeHaven disoriented the fans, with a special boombox that he wears on his back. The speakers are wired to a headset, which allows him to broadcast across the field without yelling. DeHaven schooled his return men on properly running away from the direction of the called return for a couple of steps so that the blockers could gain angles on their men. The return men would then run to the proper side of the field.
The second 11 on 11 drill worked on passing. Roy Williamsopened the drill by intercepting Bledsoe, who was looking into the face of a Al Singleton blitz. Bledsoe redeemed himself by standing in the pocket and hitting Terry Glenn on a deep ball on the following play. Glenn schooled Terrence Newman with a neat hesitation move.
-- TE Brett Pierce is getting a lot of work and a lot of balls. He might be adequate for the third TE spot should Sean Ryan's rehab linger.
-- Tyson Thompson is too good to be hidden. He got touches in nearly every drill. He's working on passing sets, as a kick returner, you name it. It's clear the staff wants to see him handle the ball as much as possible.
-- There is no panic at RT. Rob Petitti is being force fed the position. His head is spinning, but he's not backing down. He's getting extra attention from Sparano on every aspect of his game and stayed a few minutes after practice with both line coaches to work on the footwork in his drops.
Copyright 2005 by Rafael Vela