The early, terribly premature evaluation of this year's edition of Cowboys camp can be summed up in four words: avoid soft tissue injuries. Going into this afternoon's practice, we were well aware that Jason Garrett had waived the traditional conditioning run, because it asks players just coming off the low ebb of their year-long workout regime to get off an airplane and run a challenging series of sprints, then jump into football drills the next day. In other words, it's, as he termed it "a recipe for disaster," which is a good way to describe the run of hamstring and other soft tissue injuries that have plagued the team in recent years.
Judging by their behavior, it's quite evident that the organization believes that injuries - and especially those of the soft tissue variety - were the primary contributor to last season's disappointments. As a result, item one in 2014's agenda is to rectify the problem. Those of you who follow our good friend Birddog26 on Twitter know that he spent the offseason traveling the country, researching how other sports organizations protect their athletes and facilitate their recoveries. And this kind of work continued on the first day of camp; the team's stretching period was exclusively focused on the "lower core" - back and groin - as well as the major lower-body muscle groups: hamstrings, glutes, quads.
We were told going in that the offense and defense would not be facing off in 11-on-11 drills for camp's first two days. This is presumably to avoid the hard use of leg muscles that tends to happen when athletes find themselves in competitive situations. Along these lines, when the offense worked on passing drills, they tried to save wear and tear on their receivers legs. One coach would yell out a specific receiving position ("X only! X only") and only that receiver would execute his route. Presumably, this was intended to rest the legs of receivers, saving them from running routes wherein they wouldn't be catching the ball.
Another consequence of the respective units not facing off other than in (spirited) walk-through mode is that they aren't working on plays for these first two days. Usually, we see the team working on a specific aspect of the playbook - say three-wide/ nickel formations or goal line. In the absence of plays (other than the brief 11-on-11 walkthrough), the players engaged in a series of elementary drills.
Many of these drills were those that we saw in the early days of last year's camp. Allow me one notable example: as they did in 2013, the Cowboys began their special teams teaching with a drill in which players fight to get off a "block", have to cut inside or outside a set of cones placed downfield (the cones represent the opposing punt return team) and then maintain lane integrity as they work to surround the punt returner. Last year, this drill was new; this year, many of the Cowboys have already executed it and are familiar with the nuances of timing and positioning that ST coach Rich Bisaccia demands. To my mind, this shows the benefits of coaching continuity; rather than learning new material whole cloth, the team can revisit familiar material, working on minute details rather than global considerations.
Garrett cautioned the media that, even though there wouldn't be competitive periods until the weekend, the coaches would nonetheless be putting pressure on their charges. Indeed, they were working the players hard, and a very fast tempo; players hustled between reps and in moving from drill to drill. Last year, I dubbed the Oxnard sojourn "Camp Tempo," and in the first day, I saw nothing to dissuade me form re-using this moniker. Garrett wants the bulk of the teaching to occur in the morning classroom sessions, and for the afternoon practices to show how well players can integrate teaching - while under pressure.
Rod Marinelli remains one of the most vocal coaches. On Thursday, he berated players for not bursting off the line on the snap; on one play, he cursed out Davon Coleman for being slow off the ball, calling his work "horse#$%@." Alternatively, he praised them for exhibiting good quickness: "that's the way, Martez, nice quickness." Indeed, it is once again evident that the watchword for the defensive line is quickness. Almost every D-line drill emphasized getting off the ball; even during drills that ostensibly test strength and power, the players were reminded that they had to be quick. During one drill, the constant refrain was "how fast can you play?"
Today, the starting defensive line was as follows: George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Henry Melton and Jeremy Mincey. I don't expect this to be a lasting foursome, however. I tweeted during practice that Mincey looks like a "bridge" player - i.e., a veteran who was signed as insurance in case they didn't find a younger, cheaper (and better) version elsewhere. With DeMarcus Lawrence safely in the fold, Mincey is looking a lot like this year's version of Will Allen, a solid veteran who will be released once he has served his function, which is to get the team safely to the younger player (thus "bridge"). And the fact that he's noticeably less quick than Lawrence and Martez Wilson further substantiates this thesis.
Speaking of Wilson, he appeared to have the best get-off of any of the defensive linemen during drills today. it remains to be seen whether he can play defensive end at the NFL level, but it's immediately apparent why the coaches are engaging in this conversion experiment with the former linebacker. Although undersized, he has the athleticism to become the Cowboys version of ex-Ram Leonard Little, a converted college linebacker who terrorized offensive linemen with his superior quickness for the go-go St. Louis teams in the early 2000s.
As he surely realizes that his team will go as far as its re-built D will take it, Garrett spent the bulk of practice with the defense. On one drill, he served as the quarterback during a "pick drill" in which corners practiced turning their backs to the QB as they covered receivers on 15-yard in and out routes, then turned and tried to locate the ball. On another, he hustled over to watch the defensive linemen do some wok on the blocking sleds. And he spent one water break talking animatedly (and amiably) with Rod Marinelli. He has mentioned that one of his tasks, now that he's been freed from offensive playcalling duties is to "coach the defense." Today, he appeared to be putting that plan into action.
As is usually evident at camp, the coaching staff takes extra time to tutor what they consider to be one of the club's weak spots or problem areas. Two years ago, it was the offensive line, who spend a lot of extra time before and after practice with Bill Callahan, working on technique. In 2014, the looming question appears to be who will replace Sean Lee's intelligence and instincts? Justin Durant took advantage of the special teams period to get some close instruction with linebacker coach Matt Eberflus on defensive calls. With Sean Lee gone for the season, several guys are going to be cramming in an effort at approximating what Lee brings to the table - or, to be fair, to bring about 80% of what Lee brings to the mental and preparation aspects of the game.
In case anybody missed, it, former Texas DT Chris Whaley, who has drawn comparisons to Henry Melton (both are former Longhorn running backs-turned-defensive-linemen), cleared waivers and was claimed by the Cowboys. He won't do anything this year, but will offer the team another possibly scheme fit along the defensive line next year. In effect, the Cowboys were able to bank an extra 2015 draft pick by stashing him on their non-football Injury List.
Stay tuned, loyal readers; I'll have a fuller, more detailed report on the day's action later tonight/ early tomorrow morning (depending on your time zone)...