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What Lessons Did the Cowboys Learn at the Football University?

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School's out.  The '09 Cowboys have received their degrees and are matriculating their way up I-35 towards Dallas.  Their first serious job interview comes this Friday, when the learned Tennessee Titans hit town. 

Training camp offers a unique opportunity to view and feel the game at its most basic.  Every day, the coaching staff takes some component of the game, be it red-zone play, kickoffs, goal-line play, what have you, and reduces it to the the smallest, most personal lessons. 

The mentor-apprentice nature of the camp is the biggest reason I miss Oxnard.  Don't misunderstand.  I love San Antonio's proximity, the air conditioning and the great views you get up high in the stands.  It's the only chance I'll ever get to see the good team from the 50 yard line.

The Alamodome, however, takes you far away from the minute-to-minute teaching which goes on every day.

Let's say one day the team plans on refining its 3rd down passing and pass defense games.  Both units will break up after stretching and walk through the personnel packages and plays to be run in that practice.  Then, the units disperse further, working in units. 

The receivers will meet in the middle of the near field and Ray Sherman will have them practice the routes the plays emphasize:  deep outs, comebacks, slants.  Further down the near field, the quarterbacks and running backs work out the formation calls and blitz pickups.  On the opposite end of the near field Hudson Houck will work his guys on front recognition and blitz pickups.  Do they need to slide towards one side on a play?  Make switches to nullify twists?   Farther away still, John Garrett works his guys on blocking outside linebackers when protection is called for and getting clean releases upfield when a pattern needs to be run.

On the far field the defense is working in small groups on the process of destroying the offense's plans.  Todd Grantham drills his guys on proper hand usage, on knocking down an offensive lineman's punchout.  Reggie Herring schools his guys on building a repertoire of move.  The OLBs will work on rips, on counter moves, on spins. The inside backers work on recognizing run or pass, on identifying whether they wait in short zones for receivers running crossing routes or whether they should chase backs into the flat.  Or, better yet, if they get to blitz inside. 

At the far end, behind the quarterbacks, Dave Campo and Brett Maxie bring the same approach to the secondary.  Their guys will spend minutes doing what appears like a slow-motion game of tag, as the corners and safeties form two lines and shadow each other along a yard line, the coaches looking on in near silence. After several minutes of confusion it hits you -- they're learning how to recognize motion and how to switch according to the defense called.

This time of the practice can induce the most yawns from the single-day visitor, but I've come to appreciate this relatively quiet time. Once the dynamics of a practice become clear, you realize that here, in the position drills, up to ten hands-on lessons are going on at the same time.  And each of the football professors brings his own lecturing style.  John Garrett is the Socratic type, liberally mixing questions into the drills.  He'll encourage a gunner in a punt coverage drill on a tactic and then ask him, "why do you do that?"  Garrett's methods extend beyond his players. One afternoon he stumped one of his special teams guys with a question about a touchback rule.  When no answer came, Garrett turned to the visiting NFL referee and stunned the official by demanding, "explain it to him!"

The line coaches teach in more more deliberate, yet effective ways. Grantham walking his guys though a technique, stopping them midway a move to show where their arms belong.  Houck will stand with his arms folded, watching his guys work on an individual or combo drill. He'll then step in and deliver a sharp, carefully considered,sometimes complementary, sometimes withering critique. His voice never seems to carry as far as the fans, even when the linemen are working ten feet or so from the camp fence.  His words are received.  You only have to look at the intense concentration on his linemens' faces every time to makes a point to understand.

Then, there are the screamers.  Herring wants his backers to play with abandon and he coaches them that way, flying into the drill to explain what he wants, his arms flailing.  Campo, however, is the king of volume, until his voice goes, which it inevitably does near the end of every session. He machine guns criticisms and encouragement at his players in a worn, hoarse tone.  Campo nevertheless makes a point of answering the press' questions every day, regardless of how much or how little voice remains.

In the meat of these practices, every position on every play is overseen by a pair of experienced eyes.  The cuts the every receiver makes, the angles every safety takes to a ball, the reads a quarterback or a receiver makes -- all these things are fine tuned.  That's why the "camp cupcake" description grates.  Hitting occurs, in the 11-on-11s, but it always follows the instructions. The coaches don't confuse contact for proper execution of assignments.

How well did the pupils learn?  The funny part of camp is that the professors never give the final exams.  This week, some guys from Tennessee, with names like Roos, Johnson, Collins, Scott, Griffin, Finnegan, Kearse and Bullock will pose the questions.  It will fall to the fans in the stands and those watching on TV to grade the Cowboys' answers.