Ladies and germs, the moment we have all been waiting for. After dispensing with the two CBA-mandated days of pad-less practices, your Beloved 'Boys came out in full armor and spent part of a beautiful afternoon pounding on each other. The last time most of these guys wore shoulder pads was in the week 17 "NFC East Championship Game" to conclude the 2013 season. So, needless to say, the addition of padding (and knee braces) were developments welcomed by all.
It certainly seemed that the players embraced all that pads signify. After a couple of slow, quiet days of dutifully running through basic, global drills, they seemed to attack today's work with noticeable gusto. This was particularly evident in the various "competitive periods" when the offense and defense went head-to-head: O-line vs. D-line; backs and tight ends vs. linebackers and safeties; wide receivers vs. cornerbacks.
After a peculiar opening ceremony (the Dallas Cowboys' Cheerleaders, spectacular in every way, were followed by a moribund percussion section from a local high school band; a rousing rendition of the national anthem preceded the Mayor of Oxnard listing each member of the Oxnard City Council), the Cowboys began practice by resuming work on kickoff returns. Yesterday, you may recall, this was also the target of their special teams period. Today, they revisited yesterday's lessons with further teaching of the same principles.
This was followed by the afternoon's first full team period, in which we caught a glimpse of what would prove to be the day's workload: a heavy dose of basic zone runs, elemental route combinations, a variety of personnel groupings). Whereas in previous days, this was a fairly spirited affair, since it was the only competition the players would see all day, today, it was the 11-on-11 walk-through we've come to expect, one in which players bottled their competitive juices for later in the day.
As per usual, the team then embarked upon an extended stretching period, in which (in preparation for the increased leg use that full contact demands), the players spent as many as 20 minutes on lower body stretching. As suggested in earlier reports, the Cowboys organization's behavior makes it clear: priority one is to avoid the hammy whammy, and the team seems hellbent to ensure that media wags cannot dub this year's affair "Camp Hamstring."
Once properly stretched and warmed, the team broke into position groups for drills. As I had been tracking the defensive side for the first two days, I concentrated on the offensive group today, with a first stop at the offensive line drills. As they did many a-time last year, O-line coaches Frank Pollack and Bill Callahan divvied their guys up into two groups: Callahan had the Left side of the line (LT, LG, OC) and Pollack took the right (OC, RG, RT). They started off with basic zone blocking principles: getting off at the snap and directing a defender in a given direction:
Later, they began to build on this foundation, working on getting to defensive players' outside shoulders so that they could wall them off on outside runs. Indeed, they actually practiced hooking the opponent's arm, a move that, at speed, forces the defender to spin in the direction you want him to. This work was punctuated by an interesting moment, as Travis Frederick paused in the midst of a drill (he was on the right side, with Pollack) to help Ronald Patrick (playing center on the left side) with the nuances of snapping the ball and then taking a quick first step to maintain a good base.
Next, they worked on a drill that posited three O-linemen versus two D-linemen (say, a 4-3 end and tackle). The center and tackle picked up the two of them and the guard worked to shoot through the gap to block a second-level defender, an operation that requires timing and impeccable body positioning from all three linemen to succeed. Later, they put this into practice in a three-on-three drill featuring two down D-linemen and one "linebacker," with one of Callahan's guys supposed to get to the linebacker on the second level.
Next up was a standard: two linemen practiced double-teaming a single defender and then, once one of them had him securely, the other would peel off to find a man at the next level. Today, I noticed a nice wrinkle: Callahan would signal to his two "defenders" what he wanted them to do in order to make each rep distinct. On one, for example, he had the "D-lineman" slant toward the center - as if he were a "slant nose" - and had the "linebacker" (in this case, Tyron Smith) run wide to his left, thus forcing the two O-linemen to adjust on the fly.
As the O-line was put through its paces, the tight ends and running backs ran through the shallow route tree - quick outs, shallow crosses, hitches, swings, stops - and the wideouts did the same with the intermediate tree, tracking through routes like outs, digs, and 15- to 17-yard crossers. Two quarterbacks were stationed with each group, taking turns throwing the pill. A comment on the Cowboys QB situation: I don't know about his accuracy, timing or ability to process information, but Brandon Weeden certainly has more zip than any second-team signal caller Dallas has had in, well, many years. And Caleb Hanie may well be the best third-team quarterback they've had in decades; he's poised, athletic and also throws with zip. Gone are the days when practice would necessarily devolve when whatever UDFA QB took the field with the third team - which is a refreshing change.
Rod Marinelli is not the only veteran line coach that gets after his guys. Perhaps sensing the one-on-one battles that would happen later in the practice, offensive line coach Bill Callahan was very vocal with his charges. On one occasion, he yelled at Mackenzie Bernadeau, "get off the ball, Mac!" Perhaps Bernadeau was distracted by the presence of former Cowboy great Larry Allen, who naturally gravitated to the O-line drills. At one point, Allen was standing just behind and to the right of the man who now wears his old number:
No pressure, right Mack?
Another benefit of focusing on the offense today is that the defensive guys seemed to spend the majority of position group sessions revisiting the drills they had worked through on days one and two. The defensive linemen once again went through the "Crawford Drill"; the secondary worked on intercepting by high-pointing the ball, etc. I did have the opportunity to race over and get a close-up glimpse of the defensive backs working on the blocking sleds, practicing getting under potential blockers (necessary work, considering the running game was a significant part of the day's playsheet):
Next up was the day's first competitive period. As might be expected, we immediately saw the O-line apply the work that Callahan and Pollack put in with them, as they executed a series of running plays against Marinelli's defensive line. Callahan's boys worked on sealing the edge on outside runs, double-teaming and then peeling, and getting good fits on second-level defenders. The defensive guys, of course, tried to keep this from happening. It was fun to watch them face off for the first time this summer, and they got after it. We also had running backs and tight ends face off against linebackers and safeties and cornerbacks go heads up with wide receivers.
The receivers vs. corners matchups were particularly feisty, drawing lots of "ooohhs" from the assembled crowd. And the feistiest of all was Mo Claiborne, who played with a physicality and confidence not heretofore seen from him (consider that this is the first time he's had an offseason to develop his game). After pushing Terrance Williams around on one route (with smack talking continuing for the next several plays), he called out for Dez to face up against him. As Charean Williams tweeted, Mo took his helmet off after one incompletion and loudly asked "Who won?" Swagger, son. That's the number 24 we're going to need this season.
After a water break, we witnessed the next full team period, and the first one with contact in this year's camp. Scott Linehan's offense featured a nice balance of 11, 12 and 21 personnel, suggesting that the Cowboys' "base" offense may be harder to pin down than it has been in recent years. This year, to put it plainly, the Cowboys might just go with what works. As might be expected on a day when the pads came on, today's callsheet featured a lot of run plays; in fact, the first nine snaps Romo received in this period resulted in handoffs. And a note: in the early part of camp, I've seen the Cowboys work quite a bit on receiver reverses; this makes me wonder if Linehan's scheme will feature this a lot more - at least as a way to open up the running game by keeping weakside ends honest.
Yesterday, I offered a rudimentary defensive depth chart. After watching today's action, I can do the same for the offensive personnel - and I think I can go three deep:
|Position||First Team||Second Team||Third Team|
|SE||Dez Bryant||Dwayne Harris||LaRon Byrd|
|LT||Tyron Smith||Darrion Weems||Josh Aladenoye|
|LG||Mackenzie Bernadeau||Uche Nwaneri||Andre Cureton|
|OC||Travis Frederick||Bernadeau||Ronald Patrick|
|RG||Zack Martin||Darius Morris||Brian Clarke|
|RT||Doug Free||JermeyParnell||John Wetzel|
|TE||Jason Witten||James Hanna||Dallas Walker|
|TE2/ WR3/ FB||Escobar/ Beasley/ Clutts||Jordan Najvar/ J.C. Copeland||Tim Benford/ Dez Briscoe|
|FL||Terrance Williams||Devin Street||L’Damian Washington|
|QB||Tony Romo||Brandon Weeden||Caleb Hanie|
|RB||DeMarco Murray||Lance Dunbar||Joseph Randle|
Despite this offensive focus, the defense set the tone on Saturday, playing with tremendous passion and intensity. Perhaps they had been waiting, collecting steam through a long offseason filled with condemnation and ridicule; perhaps Rod Marinelli lit a fire under their collective backsides (he was certainly issuing challenges all day; an example: "Play your gap! Do your eff-in job!"). Whatever the case, it was very clear that, for the defensive guys, this session mattered. One example: a Caesar Rayford-Zack Martin face-off resulted in Martin's helmet flying off amidst cheers from teammates and fans alike.
After this was another special teams session, during which the team worked on field goal kicking (but with no kicking; the focus was on blocking assignment and clean execution of the snap), then punts and punt return. They were able to work on so many different aspects of 'teams because the morning's walk-through was entirely special-teams focused. As the punt teams worked, the offensive linemen worked in the far end zone on technique. Larry Allen hustled down there to get an eyeful - and he still moves well for a big man. This was capped by a water break, as the team gathered for the coming storm.
The storm in question was another competitive period. This one offered a cherry on the day's sundae: pass-rush drills (yipee!!), both one-on-one and in two-on-two combos:
Some highlights: Tyrone Crawford leveled Jermey Parnell; Ken Bishop walked Ronald Patrick into the backfield (Bishop plays low and with a lot of power), and Davon Coleman twice schooled Andre Cureton - once on a pretty spin move. Indeed, Coleman demonstrated terrific quickness throughout the drill. And the coaches had Kyle WIlber join the D-linemen to work on rushing the passer as his fellow linebackers worked on covering backs and tight ends on the other half of the field. On the downside, Martez WIlson plays with great speed, but he can't yet convert that to power; he gets stonewalled fairly easily.
In the earlier competitive session, Claiborne had openly asked for Dez to line up over him. This time around, he got his wish...and Bryant got the better of him, if only by a bit. On one deep pass, Bryant hauled the ball in despite strong coverage from the former LSU product. Later, Claiborne broke up a pass intended for Bryant. This is what coaches want most from these competitive periods: strength on strength, as each unit's best goes head to head. Dez vs. a resurgent Claiborne is one of the battles that I'll most anticipate for the duration of camp.
As per usual, the entire day's work built to the final team period. Often, in these situations, the first team goes up against the second team on the other side of the ball, and vice versa. For this final period, it was ones against ones, twos against two, etc. As if things weren't already combative enough, staffers blasted music during plays to simulate crowd noise, and the coaches asked their players to consider rudimentary situational work ("3rd and four!!" they would yell). Overall, it was a lively, spirited session to conclude a very competitive day. If this is an indication of the kind of camp we'll see, then it should prove to be a real treat. I, for one, can't wait.
And, finally: Jerry Jones liked the woman who sang the national anthem at today's opening festivities so much that he publicly declared that she must sing it at a real game this season. I chatted with her afterwards, and he apparently went up to her afterwards and reiterated that he wants her to sing on gameday in AT&T Stadium. A local girl who was recruited to sing on a Saturday afternoon, she was understandably walking on air at the prospect of what might prove to be a pivotal moment in her artistic life. Jerry Jones: career-maker. Whoda thunk?