In less than a fortnight, I'll be flying to Southern California to join the Cowboys on Oxnard's sun-drenched, ocean-breeze-cooled practice fields to witness our heroes up close and in action. And I do mean up close: there are two fields at the River Ridge complex; the closer of the two is perhaps ten feet from the short fence where fans gather, making it possible, for example, to hear every word the assistant coaches say to (or yell at) their players when they break up into position groups. During goal line drills, the ground literally shakes beneath the fans' feet.
From that vantage point, priority one will be to bring you as much clarity as possible about what, exactly, is happening with the team we spend so much time following. This occurs on both microcosmic and macrocosmic levels; on one hand, I will try to focus on individual players and plays (taking into consideration issues of technique, route running, speed and quickness), on the other, I hope to monitor more global issues, like the developing story at critical position battles, who will man each starting unit, and which players are likely to make the 53-man roster.
In 2007, Marc Trestman, who was recently hired to be the Bears new head coach, wrote an article for Sports Illustrated (no link; its no longer available online) in which he offered a "how to" primer for watching training camp practices the way that NFL coaches do. Want to study the team instead of merely watching it? Here are Trestman's ten tips for watching training camp like a coach by looking for the things they consider important:
1. Protect the QB
Most head coaches will tell you that as much as they want tough, physical practices, their most important job during practice is player safety. The CBA and salary cap makes an injury to a starter, and especially a starting quarterback, a catastrophic event that can ruin a season. Coaching staffs, Trestman reports, try hard to instill what he terms a "common respect" in players and demands they make a conscious attempt to avoid a situation that could lead to a teammate's injury.
And this starts with the quarterback. Defensive coaches must communicate to all pass-rushers, including blitzing Linebackers and DBs, that they must avoid the QB. This avoidance relies on several key precepts:
- The quarterback should always be allowed to complete the entire throwing motion on every play in practice.
- Defensive players must avoid "ducking" in front of the quarterback, because the QB could get his hand caught in a passing facemask or shoulder pad.
- A defensive player should run by the QB if the defender gets free.
- Defensive lineman shouldn't be pushing offensive linemen back into the signal caller with a "bull rush," as it can expose his legs to injury.
Hey, Tony Romo and Co. wear different colored jerseys in practice for a reason, right?
2. Players should be finishing
This is "so big in NFL practices," Trestman reports. All players should be going as fast as they can until the whistle. As one example, when a pass is completed in practice:
- All eleven defensive players must run to the ball, taking the appropriate pursuit angles to the ballcarrier.
- Offensive linemen must turn and run to help the ballcarrier get a block (and to be in position to cover a loose ball). This is a time when you may hear Bill Callahan or Frank Pollack yell, "cover!"
- All other downfield players "go to the ball" to get that key block to spring the receiver free.
- The ballcarrier must explode and score, running the length of the field with intensity and purpose.
Both Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells asked players to work so hard during the week that, by comparison, Sundays were a bit of a reprieve, and I know Jason Garrett wants to create as close to such a situation as the CBA will allow. I'll be looking to see how effectively this is accomplished.
3. The ball should stay off the ground
Trestman avers, "An NFL quarterback should be able to properly locate the ball 100 percent of the time in practice." When he uses the word "locate," he's referring to accuracy. Tony Romo should throw the ball in an optimal location for his receivers to make the reception and, on crossing routes, get yards after the catch. He and Kyle Orton should keep the receivers' bodies between the ball and the defender. Responsibility for keeping the ball off the ground doesn't fall exclusively in the QBs laps, however; receivers and running backs need to catch the passes that are thrown to them; when they do, Trestman notes, it signifies a high level of focus and concentration in practice - which will be important a week to ten days in, when the players get physically and mentally fatigued.
4. Its all about tempo
One of Garrett's primary watchwords is "tempo." Indeed, the first thing he changed once he became head coach was to ratchet up the tempo during in-season practices. No longer were players standing around, watching other guys run, block and catch; now, everybody was involved, all the time. There are a couple of key advantages to up-tempo practices: 1) it keeps players on their feet, moving and thinking quickly, and maintaining a high energy level; 2) it asks players to practice at the same tempo (and levels of effort and concentration) that they will need in games; 3) players thus work on their timing at game speeds; 4) it cuts down on wasted time, therefore allowing players to get more out of less practice time.
How can we determine whether practices are up-tempo? Trestman offers some clues:
- Once the whistle blows, see how quickly the coaches get their players to the next play. In training camp, coaches coach "on the run." This is a term used to describe the fact that the tempo or pace between plays isn't generally stopped for a coaching explanation. Rather, points are hit on quickly and then discussed at length in post-practice film reviews.
- See how quickly the ball boys have the ball spotted for the next play
- Do the players run to the ball?
- Notice how quickly the next drill starts. This speaks to how well the coaching staff has organized the practice and communicated a sense of urgency and expectations to their players. The only time there should be a delay, Trestman notes, is if the coaches allow a break for the heat.
5. Watch for pre-snap penalties
NFL players are taught that pre-snap penalties cannot be tolerated. Unlike other kinds of penalties, which tend to result from physical situations (and are subject to an official's interpretation), pre-snap penalties are the result of mental lapses and lack of focus. And, as we know, the Cowboys were plagued by these last year, especially early in the season. So: are players jumping offsides? jumping the snap count? Are defensive linemen (or OLBs) being drawn offsides? Are receivers in motion heading upfield before the ball is snapped? Are quarterbacks pulling out early? Centers snapping the ball late? A focused squad will have very few of these unforced errors.
6. Look carefully at match-ups
The level of intensity is at the highest when players of equal ability are practicing against each other, as that gives the top players their best chance to improve. So: are starters working against starters? Is Miles Austin lining up against Brandon Carr? Tyron Smith against DeMarcus Ware? Is Sean Lee covering Demarco Murray out of the backfield? If so, how are each of these men faring in his specific matchup? In particular, watching the best-on-best matches gives us the clearest idea of how well (or poorly) a given player is likely to perform on Sundays.
7. Watch the turnover battle
During the season, its fairly certain that whoever wins the turnover battle wins the game. So, Trestman suggests that observers "grade the practice" on how well the team handles the ball. Some questions to be asked:
- Were there any center-quarterback exchange problems?
- Were there any ballhandling errors between quarterbacks and running backs? Does the quarterback look the ball all the way in to the ballcarrier's hands, and do ballcarriers have the ball securely tucked away?
- Did the quarterback ever expose the ball to the defense in the pocket? If the coaching staff is coaching their charges to avoid turnovers, Tony Romo should have two hands on the ball and should never drop it below his waist. Both of these "don't do"s expose the ball to oncoming and blind-side rushers, resulting in a much greater potential for turnovers.
- When in a crowd, do players cover the ball with two hands?
8. Look for grabbin' and pullin'
Players should avoid grabbing and pulling other players' jerseys. At first glance, this would appear to be a penalty issue, especially along the offensive and defensive lines. To avoid holding penalties in games, coaches shouldn't allow any kind of holding in practices. But Trestman points out that getting handsy extends to the integrity of the practice. If defensive players grab the opposing ballcarriers' jersey, for example, they prevent both units from "finishing" the play. Other defenders cannot establish correct pursuit angles, nor can they adopt proper tackling position. Offensive players can't "finish" (see number two above). Lastly, this figures as a safety issue; grabbing a players jersey when he is running free is tantamount to a horse collar tackle, and a potential source of leg injuries.
9. Players should be off the ground
When players are on the ground, that's when leg and shoulder injuries are most likely to occur, as another player falls on them when a leg or arm is extended. Veteran players should know how important it is to keep their feet moving until the whistle blows, to avoid leg injuries, and to stay off the turf. Along these lines, Trestman declares, we'll see some things in practices that we won't in games:
- We won't see a lineman executing any kind of cut block or blocks below the waist. If he does, and endangers a teammate, he might just get his walking papers that afternoon.
- When wideouts block downfield, we won't see them block below the waist.
- Receivers or pass defenders should not leave their feet to dive for the ball. Awkward landings must be avoided at all costs.
- Similarly, players shouldn't dive or pile up to retrieve a fumble.
10. Training camp fisticuffs
When it is hot and players get cranky and tired of hitting each other play after play and day after day, its easy for tempers to get short and guys to lash out if his opponent plays after the whistle or gets his hands up under the facemask. What was formerly an annual training camp rite of passage (and was often orchestrated by coaches to test their players) is now seen as another opportunity to damage an organization's expensive goods. As Trestman puts it, "If your $6 million-a-year left tackle breaks his hand, who will replace him?" The answer: Darrion Weems. Yikes.
If a lot of these precepts seem geared to injury concerns, its because they are. While Jason Garrett and Co. want to install their systems, work diligently on technique, learn to execute precisely and to compete hard, they do so while negotiating a constant fear that a key player, a Romo, Ware or Jason Witten, will be lost for an extended period of time and, as a result, the season will be in jeopardy before it ever gets going. Its this concern that kept so many players on the sidelines during OTAs and minicamps, nursing the smallest of dings; the same concern will govern many of the team's decisions during the preseason. Guys will be sidelined for injuries they would almost certainly play through during the regular season.
For coaches, its a two-edged sword: think back to training camp in 2010, when the first week of salty practices came to an abrupt halt when Dez Bryant went down with a leg injury. The coaching staff immediately dialed down the intensity level, and the team practiced without focus or tempo for the rest of the preseason. They went into the regular season soft and unprepared, and lurched to a 1-7 record. To my mind, that's worse than losing one of the stars for ten games. With that in mind, the watchword in Oxnard must be "balance": the team must strike a delicate equipoise between ferocity and safety.
I don't know about you, but July 20 can't come soon enough...