It begins in January and lasts until September. The starting line is staggered; some teams and fans receive a brief respite by going to the playoffs before jumping on the road. Eventually, though, all must begin the long journey through the wilderness of the offseason, and each milestone passed brings incremental relief. Today represents the passing of a milestone; the Dallas Cowboys close shop on training camp for the year.
There's much to please the avid Cowboys fan from this camp, but the absence of any season-ending injury to a major player stands above the rest. Patrick Crayton is still on the shelf with a bum ankle and Terrell Owens continues to battle the mysterious hamstring injury - scourge of skill players everywhere - but both should be back sooner rather than later. Marcus Spears gave us a scare early in camp, but has already returned to the field and feels better than he has in two years, according to his own words. Not so lucky was Justin Beriault, who sees his career end before it ever truly got started. You still must worry about preseason games and the practices in between, but to make it out of camp relatively unscathed is a good enough reason to cheer.
We learned a few things in this camp, and one of those things is that the Cowboys have learned how to draft again. Jeff Ireland has helped Bill Parcells remake this roster, not only in Parcells' image, but what looks to be a winner's image. A strong showing by Pat Watkins, solid performances from Anthony Fasano and Bobby Carpenter, the raw potential of Jason Hatcher and the better-than-expected effort of late-round choice Pat McQuistan are just an extension of the previous few drafts.
2003 brought us Terence Newman, Jason Witten and Bradie James. In 2004, it was Julius Jones and Patrick Crayton. 2005 may have been the best with DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Marion Barber, Chris Canty and Jay Ratliff. There are others who've shown potential from these drafts and could be added to the list of draft successes in the near future.
If the 2006 training camp is any measuring stick, then the 2006 Dallas defense should be extraordinary. Among those who had an outstanding camp on that side of the ball include DeMarcus Ware, Chris Canty, Jay Ratliff and Terence Newman. Pat Watkins and Kevin Burnett also showed they are ready to get on the field this season. Greg Ellis has adapted remarkably well to his new position, but his experiment continues with no official verdict due until well into the season. The Cowboys depth across the board on defense gives Parcells a wealth of choices and a dilemma on cut-down day. Some of the Dallas castoffs will end up on other NFL rosters this year.
On offense, things didn't go quite as smoothly. Terrell Owens missed valuable time needed to integrate him into a new system. Drew Bledsoe struggled to find consistency in camp, though his past history says this won't be an issue once the season begins. But more critically, the offensive line is still a question mark after three intense weeks of practice. Right tackle has no sure answer, but at least the possible solutions look more acceptable than the previous few years. Newcomer Kyle Kosier looks to be a solid addition and Marco Rivera returned to form. Center Andre Gurode had an impressive showing and put some distance between him and last year's starter Al Johnson. Backup quarterback Tony Romo was given the opportunity to show what he can do in the first preseason game and cashed in with a stellar performance.
A couple of players came out of nowhere to make an impact and make a serious run at the 53-man roster. Sam Hurd was a major revelation as he moved from also-ran on the depth chart to 1st teamer when injuries struck the wide receiver corps. Safety Abram Elam took advantage of the Justin Beriault injury to thrust himself into the backup spot behind Roy Williams.
Tomorrow night's tilt against the New Orleans Saints will go a long way to finalizing the open spots at the bottom of the roster. It will also, according to Parcells, help him decide on the starter at right tackle. Between now and the opening game, the Cowboys will explore the opportunity to improve the team for this year or strengthen their draft hand in years to come by trading some players who are caught in the numbers game. Kenyon Coleman and Scott Shanle are two players who could help another NFL roster who look to be out of options in Dallas.
The Cowboys' faithful should feel a sense of optimism going into 2006, and not just the optimism annually felt because the team hasn't lost a game yet and anything's possible. This team has very few holes and only one potential major trouble spot, the offensive line. Granted, without a solid effort form that group almost nothing else will matter, but I say this group will put together a solid enough year to propel this team into the elite. We may not make it all the way this year, but it's certainly within the realm of possibility. And it's been a long time since we could seriously say that about the Dallas Cowboys.