The veterans were back, as were the shirts and shorts, and the Cowboys spent 90 furious minutes working on special teams razzle-dazzle, red-zone and pre-red zone offense (and defense). They also found a little time to begin some elemental prep for the Cincinnati Bengals, their first opponent this year.
Through it all, the players had fun. The team took its time warming up, and made space for fans small and very large. A group of youngsters did mock drills in the end zone inside the red hoops the special teams use for drills. The special teams guys swapped roles in warm-ups, with guys like Deon Anderson practicing deep snapping. The ever-effervescent Martellus Bennett worked the north end zone, tossing a dozen or so foam footballs to fans young and old, who shamelessly screamed for the toys the way the seals at nearby Sea World beg for fish.
When the players got to business, they showed a depth of complexity and trickery, on offense and on special teams. Joe DeCamillis worked his hardest, most thorough kickoff return drill, working returns to both sidelines. D somehow manages to spot errant blocks on every return and rushes in to give the player a crash tutorial on proper angles and technique. Late in the drill the returners worked against squib kicks and unveiled a series of misdirection option returns, to both sides of the field. Don't linger at the refrigerator or the bathroom this year, ladies and gents, or you might miss one of Joe D's return specials. His guys practiced a bag-full of tricks today.
When the special teams work concluded, the first offense ran its run offense against a wide-end, stacked-linebacker 4-3. This is Mike Zimmer's base defense at Cincinnati and with the Bengals coming up next Saturday, the coaches began familiarizing the linemen with blocking even fronts. Every drill thus far, at least on 1st and 2nd downs, has been against a 3-4 front. Coaches claim they don't game plan for early pre-season games and I doubt the Cowboys staff will go crazy for this game, since the starters will play only a series or two. On the other hand, they don't want their players facing Cincinnati cold. That's a practice that retired with Bill Parcells; the Tuna always sent his offense into the pre-season opener with one hand tied behind its back, to see how it would respond.
With no pads the offense spent extra time on drives that started inside the red zone and on series that started just inside the 30, in the pre-red-zone. We've all heard the offensive coaches express their concern about their lack of points, in comparison to the yards the offense gained last season. They're doing more than paying lip service. Jason Garrett has a broad playbook near the goal-line. The screens I discussed last week continue to be drilled. The playbook also includes plenty of reverses, gadgets and passes of all varieties.
As I wrote this morning, Garrett continues to work on red zone runs, but the variety of passing sets and plays here shows that he's not counting on a mid '90s style bludgeon-ball attack which can simply steamroll to touchdowns on the ground. Dallas' offense has worked in this part of the field almost every day this camp. If the Cowboys don't show improvement in finishing drives, it won't be for lack of preparation.
-- Is your mind right, Dez? Dez Bryant appeared among the offense players wearing shorts and a large black walking boot. An assistant apparently drilled Bryant on his playbook. The assistant held a play script and when Jason Garrett called a play, Bryant was quizzed on his route. He could be seen gesturing the routes the split end was running on the field.
-- Man of the Drills: a split award, with one half going to Sam Hurd, who made the longest grabs of the afternoon, one a snag of a high Jon Kitna post between the safeties, and the second half goes to Roy Williams, who finished the drills with three TD grabs in the red zone. He's still making the occasional drop, but Williams today showed the red zone value he flashed in November and December last year. With the Cowboys putting double time into their red zone passing game, I can say with some confidence that Williams will retain his importance to the offense here. Jason Garrett got him open in close last year and he's got plenty more plays for #11 around the end zone.
-- Big Plays by Design: the receivers work nearly every day on making difficult catches. In the opening warmups they all try making one-hand graps on go routes and on seams. A couple of days ago Ray Sherman worked on shot-putting fades over the corners, and his guys worked on grabbing the high lobs over their shoulders while getting both feet in bounds.
Today the cornerbacks practiced their version of this drill, trying to bring overthrows back into the field of play for picks. When you practice the extraordinary it has a way of becoming more ordinary. The turnover-starved Dallas secondary could use more ordinary picks.
-- Josh is Back! Supplemental pick Josh Brent practiced today, as did Sean Lissemore and Steve Octavien. Brent swatted down a Stephen McGee pass late in practice. This is half speed, but I'll definitely have an eye on Brent tomorrow. He made some plays against the first line last week, then promptly broke his hand. I want to see if Brent can continue making plays?
Meanwhile, 2nd team G Montrae Holland watched the practice in t-shirt and shorts. Mike Tepper took Holland's place on the 2nd O-line.