It's lonely at the top.
Just a few hours after a lighthearted morning session, Bill Parcells looked like a frustrated dad having to deal with a camp full of petulant children. An afternoon session planned for helmets and shoulder pads only offered an opportunity for ironing out more of the team's wrinkles. Instead it may have added a few new wrinkles to the head coaches brow, as his team careened through a second inconsistent practice of the day.
The session began as all the other ones this week had, with special teams. Bruce DeHaven led this team through another session of kickoff coverage and return drills. Once that was completed the offense and defense split into two groups, the offense working on timing and the defensive back seven working on defending passes in the red zone. The linebackers emphasized getting the proper width on their drops to defend against crossing routes.
While these drills were going on, Parcells engaged in a long, animated discussion with Keyshawn Johnson. It was impossible to tell the content of each's remarks but their moods seemed stern and each punctuated hsi remarks with sharp hand gestures. After the fifteen minute "discussion" Johnson spoke briefly to position coach Todd Haley and then rejoined the offense.
Twenty minutes or so into practice the team lined up between the two practice fields and ran a series of sprints towards the crowd gathered on the near sideline and back. The players then stretched for a few minutes before breaking into units for technique drills. As with all the other drills this week, the staff emphasized recognition and execution.
Once these were done, the offense and defense met for a series of 11-on-11 drills. The sequences seemed a goulash of packages and units. Bledsoe would lead the first unit on for three plays, and then quickly be followed by the second unit, which might get two or three more plays. The third unit would then lead the team on the field and try to execute. Players from each unit would then be rotated with each other. The same was true on the defense. The entire first team unit would begin a series, only to have the second team defensive line join the starting back seven. The offensive and defensive coaches stressed quickness in taking the field and in executing the plays called. While both units could get to the line and run the called plays quickly, the pace led to breakdowns. Rushed passes fell at receivers feet. Receivers dropped catchable passes. Dan Campbell dropped one. Lousaka Polite dropped two. Tyson Thompson took his eye off a pass and had it slip through his fingers. Keyshawn Johnson let one get away...
The ball was moved to different starting points on the field. First the offense started at the opponents 40. Then, the ball was moved to the 20. Then to the five. Finally the offense worked on moving out of its own red zone. The pace continued to be frenetic. After fifteen minutes Parcells sent the linemen to one end of the field and had the skill position players and defensive back seven units work on seven on seven drills from midfield. The defense won most of the early exchanges, reading waggle plays and generally taking intermediate and deep passes away. Bledsoe finally broke the offense free with two deep strikes, the first a deep out to Keyshawn.
After this drill's fifteen minutes elapsed, Parcells brought on the final drill of the day. This one had the first team offense line up against the first team defense at mid-field. On the near side stood two assistants, one with a first down marker and the other with a down marker. The point of the drill was to help the offense recognize down and distance and which plays were appropriate to the situation. The plays run had no relation to each other. For example, the offense might begin a sequence with a first and ten on the left hash mark and throw for fifteen yards. The ball would then be brought back to a predetermined spot on the right hash mark and the down and distance guys might set the next play as a third and seven situation. The players were to use the markers as their guide, not the results of the previous play. The point was to teach the player to be aware of what the official markers on the sidelines told them, to guard against any confusion that might be produced by penalties or substitutions.
It took only a handful of plays for the drill to enrage Parcells. After Bledsoe's unit had made a couple of effective gains, including a crossing route to Patrick Crayton, Tony Romo brought the second unit on. After a nice gain on the first play, Parcells whistled the play dead and brought the practice to a temporary standstill with a withering questioning of Torrin Tucker. "What down is it?" he asked Tucker. When the tackle could not respond, Parcells asked Romo what the down was. It turned out Tucker was in a three point stance, standard for a running play. But the down and distance showed third and seven. Tucker had assumed he was back in first and ten, since the previous play had gained eleven yards. Parcells continued riding Tucker when the tackle played distracted on the next few plays. "I've got you shaken up, Tucker. You're worried about me now," he yelled.
The drill continued and the execution generally improved. But Parcells himself was upset by his team's sloppy practice and brought them to the middle of the field for a long lecture at the end of the drill. His words were sketchy but what few filtered out expressed unhappiness at the abundance of mental mistakes he had seen. Parcells did end the practice on a lighter note, bringing CB Lance Frazier to the middle of the team huddle and telling a story that cracked the team up. With the mood lightened, Parcells let his men go.
Do not be surprised if tomorrow's single practice brings a return of the heavy hitting seen on Tuesday. Wednesday's practices produced a lot of frustration.
Copyright 2005 by Rafael Vela