Your Dallas Cowboys have now conducted ten practices in a little less than two weeks time. Every year, this proves to be an interesting two weeks, in no small part because of the news cycle. Because the three to four week period immediately prior to camp is usually, to say the least, a slow news time, and the kickoff of the season such a news-rich time, saturated with stories, training camp reports, etc., we often struggle to adapt to the new paradigm. In the training camp bubble, everything is magnified ("Dez Bryant missed practice today? The season is lost! Mike Woicik and his staff are amateurs! Why does this ALWAYS happen? WHHHHYYY?"). As we struggle to return to news saturation, the most important thing we can do is to refocus, and see the forest where it is, standing behind the trees.
This is a long and convoluted way of saying that we needn't panic about such things as injured offensive guards, because the general state of affairs in Cowboyland is very good. This is especially true when we compare the current state of the team to that which was happening a year ago. Then, you may recall, eighteen players - an even 20% - were unable to participate in the Blue-White scrimmage, which took place on August 5th. And, even though the current narrative is that the respective lines have been decimated by injuries, the hurts in question, as O.C.C. so astutely pointed out, have been neither as severe nor as widespread as those that plagued the team a mere twelve months ago.
More importantly: at this time last year, myriad questions about the team had not yet been answered, and continued to be open questions into and throughout the season. Here, just over halfway through camp, many of the questions that we posed coming into camp have been answered, most of them convincingly. Consider the questions that were posed by the various "offseason headscratcher" posts penned by the front page writers:
- How will they use their two TEs in 12 personnel? Who would play the "F"? the "Y"?
- Who would be the backup defensive linemen and where would they play?
- Who will man the three interior OL positions? Will Travis Frederick play OG?
- Who will be WRs 3-5? Will they keep six receivers?
- Who will be the backup linebackers?
- Who will start at safety? Who will back them up? Which of them will play strong safety? Free safety?
- Who will be the third running back?
Looking at these questions, the only ones I can't answer definitively as I sit here are numbers two and three, which pertain to the respective lines. And that can partly be attributed to positive developments: the backups on the defensive line have been so good that they have muddied the interpretive waters a bit and, while injuries have delayed clear understanding about the offensive side, the performances of David Arkin and Ronald Leary have been a revelation. Indeed, both have developed about as much as we could possibly have hoped. That goes in the "good news" column, my Cowboys-lovin' friends.
With that in mind, let's break the camp happenings down into two columns - things that are going as well or better than we hoped and things that aren't going as well as we imagined they might - as a way to gain a bit of perspective on our fave team:
Going As Well (or Better):
The Cowboys have four good running backs, each of whom has shown himself to be adept at the one-cut running style a zone blocking system demands. All are good to very good receivers. More importantly for Jason Garrett and his staff, all have proved to be willing (and, in the case of DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle, downright combative) blockers.
The right side of the defensive line is superb. DeMarcus Ware has been the best defensive player in camp. No surprise there; what might surprise is that the second-best guy might well be Jason Hatcher, who has been lining up next to Ware as the three-technique. The two of them have stopped many a run to that side in its tracks, and have provided a potent, even overwhelming, pass rush.
Wide receiver is a talented and deep position, filled with guys capable of making plays. Unlike 2012, the down-roster receivers in this camp have been much more competitive and consistent across practices. It remains to be seen how many wideouts make the 53; whatever decision is made, they will cut more than one pass catcher who has had a better camp than guys who made the team in recent years.
The linebacking unit is dynamic. We know all about the starters. Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and the under-rated Justin Durant form arguably the best 4-3 LB unit in the league. But their backups have been very good as well; Ernie Sims has been reborn, and looks capable of stepping in for any of the starters if need be. DeVonte Holloman is big and superfast, and Brandon Magee is a football playin' dude. Plus, both Alex Albright and Caleb McSurdy have flashed, both on defense and special teams.
Twelve personnel. The two tight end offense looks to be as versatile as advertised. With four or five capable tight ends on the roster, the offensive staff can mix and match them in myriad interesting ways, setting them in motion, lining them up in the backfield, placing them both on one side of the line, etc. Jason Garrett loves to "go against formation" in his offensive calls, passing out of running sets and vice versa. With 12 personnel as the base offense, he'll be able to do it with regularity.
This is the best group of defensive backs the team has had in twenty years. The top five corners, Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb have all played very well, and the safety unit has exceeded (my high) expectations. Together they are a tough, physical, cohesive (and, increasingly, playmaking) group - a tribute to secondary coach Jerome Henderson, who has done yeoman's work. Along those lines...
This coaching staff is coaching guys up, up, up. Jason Garrett has assembled a staff that, from top to bottom, is composed of excellent teachers. Thus far in camp, their lessons started with the micro (technique, hand placement, etc.) and built to the macro (assignment, scheme). At each stage, they have proven to be meticulous, consistent, clear and rigorous in their pedagogy.
Center is a position of strength. Not only did drafting Travis Frederick upgrade the center position, in relegating Phil Costa to second-team, it strengthened and deepened the position. While he might not be cut out for a full-time starting role, the tough, smart, tenacious Costa is arguably the best back-up center in the league, a guy capable of stepping into a close, heated game and taking over for Frederick if need be. A position in disarray a year ago is now one of real strength moving forward.
The team's depth in general is very good. The second and third teams are dotted with good, competitive players. As I have written in recent training camp reports, the seven-on-seven and OL-DL competition periods are featuring terrific matchups when second- and third-teamers go head to head. Its exciting, and suggests that roster spots 37-53 will be occupied by talented, competitive and tough-minded players. How can you ask for anything more than that?
Not What We Imagined:
The left side of the defensive line. The primary concern here isn't whether they have capable starters; in Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, the team has two players who appear built to excel in this system. The question is when, and for how long, they'll have them. One positive side effect of their prolonged absences is that guys like Ben Bass, Monte Taylor, Jerome Long, George Selvie, and Nick Hayden have asserted themselves, to the degree that all of them are legitimately competing for roster spots. That said, they are all in the Costa mold; they don't have starting stuff, but will comfort the hearts of Cowboys fans in rotational or back-up roles.The one position where this is not the case is...
The backup/ swing tackle. This, to my mind (and to those of other close followers of the team whose opinions I respect), is the biggest problem nagging the team. Going into camp, it was thought that Doug Free and Jermey Parnell would duke it out for the right tackle position and whomever lost would be the third/ swing tackle. Sadly, Parnell spent two days struggling with basic technique material that had been covered in OTAs and minicamps, promptly got injured, and has been out for the duration.He may come back and end up being who we though he was capable of being: a naturally strong foot athlete whose arrow was pointing up. Until that happens, however, the team is hamstrung.
But there is another issue compounding Parnell's disappearance. I believed that former Oregon Duck Darrion Weems would be nimble-footed and athletic enough that we could picture him, after a bit of time in an NFL strength program, filling in for a starter without the offense going ker-plop. But he has looked slow and ponderous of foot, and has been beaten routinely by the down-roster defensive linemen. His and Parnell's struggles in camp, and the absence of another reasonable candidate, explain the team's continued interest in the bag-of-donuts shaped Demetress Bell.
As I promised, much of the news is good. A global overview like this serves as a restorative tonic when we get caught up in the teeth-gnashing about gloom and doom scenarios, the latest of which is the injuries at guard. Take a drink; you'll feel better. Doctor's orders.