Well, folks, your fave team has now hit the dog days of camp. This is a definite physical phenomenon: the team is exhausted from being in pads for the better part of two weeks. But, after gearing up for the Blue-White practice and then, a week later, for the first preseason game, they are also psychologically spent. Monday's sloppy affair was followed up Wednesday morning by a sloppy walkthrough, during which the offense had to repeat one play three times, and redo others. As if to underscore that its exhaustion was legitimate, the team capped off the day with a rather moribund afternoon during which the dominant idea in the players' heads appeared to be "survive and move on."
Before practice, we were hit by a big, late-breaking story, the revelation that all-everything TE Jason Witten sustained a lacerated spleen against the Raiders, and will be out for the remainder of the preseason. They immediately signed a free agent tight end, Princeton product Harry Flaherty, who, being an Ivy League fellow, should get up to speed fairly quickly. Until he does, however, the Cowboys continue to be wafer-thin at tight end. Thankfully, second-teamer John Phillips returned today just in the nick of time, allowing Dallas to remain merely underhanded (instead of crippled) at the position.
With this latest injury, the offense continues to play with an increasingly shaky skeleton crew. The "starters" are running out a third receiver (in name only), a second tight end, a third-string guard, and a fourth-string center. With Witten, Miles Austin, Phil Costa and Nate Livings all very likely to miss the Chargers game, it doesn't look like we're going to see the offense's fortunes (or their play) improve any time soon. The good news was that both Austin and Livings were working the bands today, signaling that they will be back soon...
The better news was that, at long last, the defense was almost at full strength: Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff returned to fortify the defensive line, and Mo Claiborne was back in pads, participating in the full practice. Matt Johnson practiced in pads for the first time as a Cowboy, and moved well, but was held out of contact-intensive work. The only player missing from the defensive starting eleven was Anthony Spencer, who was running well on the sidelines. I'd expect to see him on the bands soon, and to return to practice after the San Diego game.
So, how did the respective units fare in their first practice after Monday night's snoozefest? Be a jumper and ask no questions...
The "blue" period for the younger players once again featured a special teams practice. Today's specials on coach Joe DeCamillis' menu were kickoff and punt coverage. He and the other coaches spent far less time than they have in recent practices on individual drills or single-level matchups. Instead, the onus was on full squad work, with occasional breaks to tune up the coverage scheme's sloppiest aspects. As this suggests, the larger teaching phase is now complete; from here on out, coach Joe will work on cycling different players through the various units, mixing and matching to see what the best combinations are.
Every single training camp practice has seen the offensive linemen excused from the special teams period. Instead, they meet up with Bill Callahan and Wes Phillips (often gathering before the blue period begins) and work on technique. Typically, the two coaches divide the linemen so that they can work more intensively; after today's morning walkthrough, Callahan found some time for a more intensive session, working for quite a while with rookie free agent guard Ronald Leary. This heavy dose can't be something that was decided on the fly; when Jason Garrett and Co. formulated the training camp schedule, they must have carved out extra time for Callahan to work with his guys, suggesting that, going in, they were all-too aware that the unit that would need the most work was the O-line. And they've certainly got it; sadly, injuries have ruined any chance for Callahan to develop the cohesiveness that the unit demands.
Perhaps as a result of Witten's injury, the playbook chapters under the magnifying glass covered three receiver sets, and third down packages. As a result, we were treated to the full gamut of both pass and run packages from those pass-heavy formations. A lot of the work focused on running and defending bunch routes. Consequently, when the team broke into position groups, they drilled subsets of these formations. For example, the coaches had two receivers line up against two corners and a safety, thus allowing the receivers to perfect their spacing and releases and the defense to work on picking up receivers out of a bunch, something they have struggled with in recent seasons..
The remainder of the position work asked players to return to fundamentals that were lacking on Monday night, even though they have been drilled throughout camp. Offensive linemen worked on hand placement and firing out low; the D-line practiced their club moves; receivers ran through agility drills that demand they stay low out of their breaks. Also lacking in Oakland was the ability to maintain or to fill running lanes, respectively. So, as the offensive line worked on sustaining blocks, the defensive line practiced shed drills. Then, the two units got together and tried out what they had just re-learned.
In that and in later pass rush drills, the defense dominated. This continued a narrative begun late last week, when Rob Ryan's troops began to give the depleted offense fits. Today was no better; at one point, after a Ware sack and a botched screen pass, both Tony Romo and Jason Garrett yelled at the offensive players to get their act together. Later, after back-to-back sacks on safety blitzes, a disgusted Romo angrily spiked the ball. It didn't help; the defense continued to register "sacks." At one point, they had three in an eight-play stretch. The last of these was on Kyle Orton who, like Romo, was on the run a great deal. On one snap, after he was flushed from the pocket, Marcus Spears tried to strip him after the play's conclusion. An angered Orton flipped the ball at Spears, and then glared at him as the defensive lineman returned to the huddle.
I suspect that this imbalance is going to continue as long as the offense is missing so may starters, which should be the case through Saturday's game in San Diego. As a result, don't be surprised to see more of the same offensive ineptitude that marred the first preseason game. Frankly, Jason Garrett's guys are over-matched right now, and the pendulum isn't going to swing in the other direction until there are a few more superstars on board to give it a push.
Other notes from the practice:
A couple of observations for those of you intimately following the wide receiver battle: during the special teams period, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris were the coaches' punt returners of choice. When they ran through the scripted 11-on-11 material, Kevin Ogletree remained the starter opposite Dez Bryant, with Beasley in the slot when they went to three wides. However, they began to rotate Harris in at the slot as well, so number 17 may have moved a half-step up the receiver depth chart.
Javarris Williams, who was a camp replacement called in when Lance Dunbar hurt his hand, followed his solid performance against the Raiders by taking the vast majority of third team snaps at running back. In doing so, he seems to have displaced Jamize Olawale, who served that function on Monday night. Williams has shown good quickness and (as Todd Archer remarked, appropriating an old Parcell-ism) "wiggle." Should he continue at this pace, I wonder if it will complicate Phillip Tanner's return from a hand injury. Do the coaches see Williams as realistic competition for Tanner? The longer Tanner is on the sideline (and the more Williams impresses) the more this becomes a legitimate question.
Although he wasn't on the post-game injury report, Orie Lemon must have got dinged Monday night, because he didn't participate in the full practice. He went through walk-through portions in pants and shell, but was held out of full-contact work. In his absence, Alex Albright played very well. He used his hands well and filled nicely in run fit drills and made some nice plays in the passing drills, almost picking off a Kyle Orton pass to Andre Holmes on a short crossing route. Later, he had a would-be sack on an inside blitz. I think that Albright is a roster lock due to his versatility; with his work today, he made the argument that he deserves to be based solely on his defensive play.
With Costa almost certain to miss the Chargers contest, we saw more serious work with alternative center candidates. But these weren't surprises; we saw them last week: Harland Gunn took second team center snaps and Pat McQuistan filled in at third team. I wonder if, after running poor David Arkin out for nearly every snap against the Raiders, they want to get other players up to speed, to avoid a repeat in San Diego.
An injury downer: seventh-rounder Caleb McSurdy ruptured his left Achilles. Although this is certainly bad news for him, its might be a blessing in disguise, as he had no chance to make this team. This will buy him some time to rehab, work on getting his body up to NFL standards, and familiarize the staff and strength personnel with his work ethic, etc. The kid is a worker; I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the mix at backup ILB in 2013.
How to characterize Mo Claiborne's return? In a word, rusty. Early in practice, he received a little extra coaching after allowing too much room on a slant to Bryant. Later, he did a nice job picking up Ogletree out of a bunch only to overplay him going for the ball, resulting in a sizeable upfield gain. Later, in team drills, he allowed completions on back-to-back plays, first to Ogletree and then to Tim Benford, who beat him easily on a sideline route. On the other hand, he was electric in the field goal period, showing the ability to dip and bend around the corner, coming close to blocking a couple of kicks. Expect him to see time on the field goal block team when the games count.
Later in practice, Andre Holmes made a contested catch against the rookie corner, hauling in a pass with Claiborne draped all over him. By the practice, Holmes seems to be learning better how to use his long, lean body, and in a variety of ways: to shield defenders from the ball, to go up and high-point passes, and to muscle defenders on contested catches. Holmes doesn't have elite speed or quickness, but, as I suggested in a recent assessment of the team's receivers, if he learns to catch passes when he's not what we might consider "open," he can have a long and productive career.
And, the closer: the funny moment of the day came at Rob Ryan's expense. I know the man has lost a lot of weight this offseason, but he's still carrying a huge belly. He looks like Ubu Roi. Don't know who/ what that is? Look it up here and marvel at the stomach-ular resemblance. When the team broke down into position drills after the scripted full 22 work, some fans in the endzone section began to shout at Ryan to hustle, so he went with it, offering us an exaggerated run to where his guys were setting up and, once he got there, taking a knee as if he was spent. Good sense of humor shown by the scraggly bearded one.
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