The refs arrived today. Big deal, you may be thinking.
Yes, it is a big deal. The human barcodes can tell us a lot about the state of the team. Last summer, everybody was ooohing and aaahing over the alleged corner depth. Pacman Jones was catching six punts on "Hard Knocks" and a lot of people were wondering how a talent like Evan Oglesby could be retained.
Then, the refs arrived -- and the flags started to fly. The cornerbacks drew a rain of yellow laundry in the refs first couple of days. I overheard one team official grouse that the corners were doing way too much grabbing and holding, suggesting that the "great" early corner play was due to a little bending of the interference rules.
And we all know how the secondary's season went...
We'll have to wait another day to see if the refs find similar errors among this year's secondary group. Today's session, held in full pads, resumed the week-long attention to kickoff returns and worked on the team's power offense, in the red zone and in goal line situations.
For what it's worth, I saw very, very few flags today. In fact, I don't recall any in the 11-on-11 scrimmages, which is a good sign, though I'm waiting for the 11-on-11 passing drills before I officially declare an optimism alert (what color would that be on the charts?) concerning penalties.
The Cowboys devoted more time to kickoff returns, as they did the past two sessions and perhaps more this week. Today, the individual drills focused on blocking in space and on reacting and thinking on your feet.
The initial drills split into two groups. On the left half of the field, John Garrett and Reggie Herring oversaw two "bull rings." In each, pairs of players would start at one end of a zoned off oval. One was designated a cover guy, the other a return man. When the coach blew the whistle, the return player would run fifteen yards to the opposite end of the oval, turn around and then shadow the coverage player, who tried to shake, slalom and out maneuver his opponent. The drill approximates the type of blocks the front five or six players will have to make on kick returns.
On the opposite end of the field, Joe DeCamillis worked with the back five -- the wedge pair, the two deep outside return blockers and the single deep setback. For the first time, Nick Folk worked with this group, as the initial task was handling squib kicks.
The wedge men worked first. The theme of DeCamillis' exercises is understanding where you are in space, where you are in the formation and reacting accordingly. For instance:
-- on the first squib kick, Cory Proctor bounced the ball into the air, dropped it when it came down, got it under control, and then dropped and covered the ball.
-- on the second kick, Pat McQuistan fielded the bouncing ball cleanly on his own 30. Since he would have at least 25 yards or so of clear space were this a live game situation, McQuistan did the smart thing in this situation: he locked the ball to his belly with both hands and then lumbered straight upfield until he met some resistance.
-- deeper kicks to either up returner, fielded at the fifteen or so, saw the wedge guys find the man and then run interference for him. The deep returner would lurk behind the up-man, to cover in case he dropped the ball or it skipped past him. Once the deep returner saw the ball was handled cleanly, he sprinted past to become a third blocker just wide of the wedge.
As I mentioned yesterday, the kick return teams will have to be more reactive, and take their kicks to the side of the field where the ball is kicked. Today, I saw plenty of evidence that the team is getting comfortable with DeCamillis' new tactics.
The team then practiced a number of different types of squibs. They dealt with kicks that came from near midfield, after a penalty, and from the normal spot on the 30. DeCamillis had Folk kick several balls from midfield, to get the coverage unit on his return guys faster and force them to react more quickly. There were no major problems.
The return teams then worked on two new return formations, difference from the one I diagrammed yesterday. They also worked on some return trickery.
It is clear to me that DeCamillis sees the new two-man rules as an opportunity to open up the kick return game and is going to look for big returns as often as possible this year. It's also clear that this year's team is paying much more attention to repetition than last year's team did. The '08 Cowboys had just as many coaches working on the drills and just as much personalized attention as this year's team. What I didn't see was a drill carried out as thoroughly, over so many sessions as this team has. We won't know if this more repetitive approach will bear fruit for a while, but right now, it offers some reason for optimism.
The coaches made use of the refs by holding a coffin corner drill. All the return players went to the right near corner, just in front of the goal line, and drilled in stopping rolling punts before they reached the end zone. In each case, the player went to the five, put one foot on the sideline, anchored it there, and attempted to reach onto the field and snatch a rolling kick before it got past him. The refs would make the ball where it went out, to give the players an idea of how the call would be made in a real game.
The drill suggests that Mat McBriar won't be working on punting to the five or ten in the middle of the field, but will go for a lot more "coffin corners" in this campaign.
Later, the team practiced half a dozen field goal attempts with the first and second units. It was impossible to guage kick accuracy because Nick Folk and David Buehler were kicking to the left end, where the goal post has been removed. A mini upright was rolled into place to give them a target, but I think the emphasis was on blocking the attempts properly.
I watched both starter L.P. Ladouceur and backup Matt Stewart, who snapped for the second team. Both looked accurate in their warmups, though L.P. was a perfect 3-for-3 on his kick snaps. Stewart's last snap was a bit low, though the holder fielded it easily and the kick went off without a problem.
I can't say off this one drill if Stewart can push Ladouceur for the job. I'll have to see how they snap on punts, since that's the real tough job.
Day 9 Install
The offense and defense then broke up into groups. The offense worked on sets from a two-tight end, two-back, one wideout formation. Historically, the Cowboys have used this in three situations: when they're trying to escape from inside their own 20, when they're inside an opponent's 25, or in the late stages of a game, when they have a lead and are trying to grind down the clock.
The team ran several variants of the set -- two TEs, one on each side of the line, with a flanker and an offset I; two TEs on one side of the formation and an offset I, either set to the weakside or overloaded on the strong side, and a fullhouse "Packers" formation, with three backfield players in a diamond set. (I call this Packers because I first saw it used extensively by former G.B. coach Mike Sherman, back when Ahman Green was his tailback.)
SE LT LG C RG RT TE
Dallas called mostly runs and some passes from this package. After running through their daily red zone list, the offense moved the ball to the three yard line and worked on this set and a three TE set in goal line settings.
On the opposite end of the field, the defense was working on goal line defenses, getting into the proper gaps in a goal line set, recognizing passes and reacting to them.
The two units then met at the 25 and the offensive and defensive sets were practiced 11-on-11. I won't make too much out of individual plays, because there was a lot of mixing and matching going on. On one play, the first offense would run against the 2nd defense, then they might run a play against the 3rd unit. Then, they would leave and the 2nd offense would rotate in to face the 1st defense and so on. I will add these observations:
-- The first team offensive line got a steady push, regardless of which defensive unit it faced. Again, I won't make too much of this until they face other teams, but given the line's troubles with short yardage runs the past few years, it's better to see them doing well than poorly in these drills.
-- Jason Garrett's plays, mixing overloads with balance, got the defense off balance several times. I saw several pass plays where the main action completely bamboozled the coverage and left backs wide open on checkdowns.
-- Bradie James looks better in pass coverage. This has never been Bradie's strong point, so it is reassuring to see him on top of backs whenever passes are delivered in his direction.
-- Nothing has fooled, and nobody has beaten Demarcus Ware thus far. The offense has run plays away from him. It has run misdirections to get him to bite. Forget it. Demarcus sees all and thus far, he's snuffed all.
-- Alan Ball made some plays in coverage. The offense tried lulling the defense to sleep, callng five consecutive running plays. When it ran a bootleg on the sixth, Ball closed quickly from the free safety spot to break up the pass. He also had a breakup in the goal line packages. He's looking fast and steady as Ken Hamlin's backup.
-- The team needs another nose tackle, reason 18: backup Tim Anderson limped off the field late in the session. I don't know the extent of his leg injury, but for a team that's already questionable at the backup NT spot, this isn't good news.
-- Don't chase shiny things: It always amuses me that so many fans stand up and cheer when Tony Romo enters the arena. They'll cheer anything he does. Today, he left through a corner exit, presumably to visit the little boys room. He got a rousing cheer when he returned.
-- Strange moment of the day: while the offensive and defensive units were running a goal line drill, the receivers were gathered as a group near midfield. They knelt in a circle, around position coach Ray Sherman. While Sherman addressed them, Patrick Crayton seemed to respond to his sermon by pointing to some of his colleagues. At one point, Crayton turned to Roy Williams, who was right next to him and pinged the top of Roy's head with his index finger. A few seconds later, he turned and pinged Roy again...
I was too far up the stands to see if any words accompanied the pings, but they seemed good-natured. After the sixth or so ping, Williams slowly stood up, sauntered to the opposite end of the circle and knelt down again, where he could be ping free.