The exciting expectations for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys made for some newsworthy weeks during OTAs and this past weekend's mini-camp.
Having a first round pick at wide receiver showcasing his skills helped to draw even more national media attention to Valley Ranch. The pick even caused a ripple effect at the position as one veteran chose to sit out the first few weeks of OTAs.
Aside from Dez Bryant, Patrick Crayton and the rest of the Dallas wideouts, we learned many other things about what this offense will take with it into training camp. It will certainly take with it at least one new starter from the '09 offense: left tackle Doug Free. At that position and several more, such as at running back, slot receiver, fullback, and just about every backup spot on the offensive line, this unit will also take into camp a high level of competition.
Other than a few nicks and sore muscles, the Cowboys offense ran through a relatively healthy string of practices. This allowed the coaches to try some players at different positions. We learned that Miles Austin could be utilized more from the slot this season, and that the coaching staff will test the versatility of the tight ends and offensive linemen.
The Offensive Gameplan
We learned that the offense will focus on being more efficient in the red zone.
On 50 trips into what turned out to be their Twilight Zone too many times, the Cowboys scored points on 80-percent of their possessions (40). While that might sound decent, guess again. That ranked them just 24th out of 32 teams, hanging out in the neighborhood of Detroit (80.6), Oakland (79.3), Atlanta (80.4) and even a far cry from Buffalo's 86.8.
Now of the 50 trips into this 20-yard piece of bumpy real estate where you just have to be money in this league, the Cowboys scored 26 touchdowns, checking them in at a 52-percent rate. That ranked them 14th, or middle of the pack. Heck, Tampa Bay was 51.6 percent.
We learned that Tony Romo has been working hard on improving a specific aspect to his game, which he prefers to keep a secret. I think Tim MacMahon has it on the nose though.
Romo hasn't revealed it, but my bet is that he's trying to improve his back-shoulder throws. Those are especially important in the red zone, where the Cowboys were mediocre last season. He has weapons -- Roy Williams, Dez Bryant, Martellus Bennett -- who are built to make those kind of catches.
Or perhaps Romo is working on unleashing some aspect of his game that continues the improvement of his accuracy.
Quarterback Tony Romo is known for a number of things — his improvisational skills, his ability to throw on the run, even his golf game and his famous girlfriends. But he showed off some remarkable accuracy Friday, finding his receivers on several very accurate passes, including one he threaded to wide receiver Miles Austin through triple coverage by safety Alan Ball and cornerbacks Cletis Gordon and Jamar Wall.
As for the backups, we learned that soon-to-be 38-year old Jon Kitna still has a rocket arm and that Stephen McGee must make the most of an extended preseason to show he can be Kitna's successor.
"The fact that he wasn't in a real sophisticated pass offense in college and then getting hurt in training camp, all those things kind of compounded on him," Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson said.
"Then, you get no reps once the season starts except for the scout team. He was a little bit behind as far as that part of it. But the year was gained as far as learning the offense, the mental part of it. He's real good with that. He just needs to apply it to what he's seeing out there."
This is a big preseason for McGee. Kitna will turn 38 in September, and the Cowboys need to find out if McGee is their backup of the future.
On Protecting the Quarterbacks
We learned that Andre Gurode can hold his own against Jay Ratliff and Marcus Spears and that Pat McQuistan is one of the stronger players on the team. We also learned more about Doug Free's learning curve.
"He’s doing great," line coach Hudson Houck said.
"Each day he gets a little bit better. That’s what we’re looking at. Does a guy hit a wall or does he get even better? He’s got all the tools. Got good feet, good reach, he understands the offense and he tries hard. So if we don’t screw him up as coaches, we’ll be OK."
We learned that Alex Barron has some skills against pass-rushers.
When facing a team with an exceptionally fast right defensive end, the Cowboys might consider playing Barron instead of Free. Demarcus Ware — who, admittedly, makes a lot of blockers look bad — blazed untouched past Free, but Barron had both the size and quickness to keep Ware at bay.
We learned what the Cowboys plans would be if Leonard Davis was out.
With Davis out, the Cowboys mixed-and-matched their offensive line using Kyle Kosier at center and moving Pat McQuistan to both guard spots. One formation had Kosier at center and Andre Gurode, the starting center, moved to right guard.
We also learned that RT Robert Brewster's progress hasn't disappointed.
Cowboys coaches and scouts praised the work of backup right tackle Robert Brewster.
O-Line coach Hudson Houck considers his players' versatility as essential to preparing for the season.
"We will always do that," Houck said of some occasional shuffling.
"We have to have guys play different sides. If we have a center go down immediately, we might have to move a center to guard. It's all about experimenting and moving guys around. The starting unit is going to be the starting unit. There's nothing radical going on here."
About All Those Receivers
We learned Roy Williams is working on getting lower, improving his initial step, and that Dez Bryant just needs as much time on the field as possible.
"I think for him just like with everybody else, it's just getting the reps on the field," Garrett said. "Being with the system, breaking the huddle, playing with our players, against our defense at more of a game-type tempo. Those are important things. So that's valuable time for him."
Also from Garrett, we learned that Bryant is learning the playbook at a good pace.
"That's when you learn the so-called alphabet of the system," Garrett said. "You learn the formations. You learn how we call different routes by numbers. You learn the progression of the numbers in the routes. And when you get that it's like learning how to read. You're just putting things together, and it becomes a sentence, it becomes a paragraph, it becomes a play in our case.
"But he has some familiarity with this kind of system where he came from at Oklahoma State, so he seemed to pick it up well right from the start and he's been fine with that part of it."
We learned of some grumblings that Kevin Ogletree hasn't shown much progress.
Ogletree has shined whenever he's gotten a chance in the games, but whispers around Valley Ranch suggest he's had some trouble with assignments in practices this summer - lining up in the right spot and running his routes correctly.
But you wouldn't get that if you heard how Jerry Jones "gushed" about him.
"I see a really focused player that is being called upon to play every position out there," Jones said. "They are asking him to do everything there is at receiver -- Slot, X, Y -- and that is impressive. Boy, is he up to the challenge.
"He's having to concentrate and having to work. After his first about 120 days here, there was no question about his speed, his quickness, his athletic ability and his instincts. He's got it, but if he'll carry it through and focus and be more consistent ... then he's got a chance to be a real player."
We learned that Martellus Bennett is improving as a receiving threat.
TE Martellus Bennett looked to have made some progress over the weekend. He made a nice catch and a better first move on a quick throw from second string quarterback Jon Kitna during practice Saturday morning. After running a crisp route and receiving the ball over the middle in 7-on-7 drills, Bennett made a quick turn upfield to shuck the attempted tackler, and it looked as though there was some considerable real estate in front of him.
Bennett did, however, have a false start on the weekend, as well as a couple of drops.
Marty B is also focusing on building a rapport with Romo.
"It’s kind of like pleasing a woman," Bennett said, referring to his attempt to establish a rapport with Tony Romo. "Whatever he likes, that’s what I try to do. Wherever Romo needs me to be, that’s where I try to be."
"Me and Romo are getting on the same page," said Bennett, who frequently asks Romo for feedback after running routes in practice. "He knows what’s in my repertoire. Now he knows what I do and what I don’t do."
On Team Chemistry
Finally, we learned that all the way from the ownership on down to the players' pets, the Cowboys are very close-knit--almost like family.
Felix Jones and Miles Austin walked onto the practice field wearing sunglasses. Marcus Spears and Roy E. Williams wore stylish hats during stretching. Martellus Bennett had his dog, tied up to the playclock, watch practice. Marc Colombo chatted with his kids before practice.
Jerry Jones parked his black towncar next to his two-story suite sitting next to the practice fields before walking into the hot sun to watch things. He had a long talk with Romo as the second-and-third teamers got some snaps.