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Cowboys 2014 Training Camp Practice Summary: Pedagogy In Action

Observations from Sunday's fourth training camp practice, during which the Cowboys continued to build on previous lessons, as they began to show the effects of putting on the pads for the first time in months.

Is this the end of the line for The Unicorn?
Is this the end of the line for The Unicorn?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, Sunday's fourth training camp practice was not a particularly crisp affair. Whether the result of a young team that overspent its collective energy in yesterday's feisty first padded practice or the after-effects from no morning walk-through, the team wasn't overly sharp. On several occasions, in fact, the coaches asked the players to repeat a play or a drill, as they weren't executing according to expectations. And, as we'll see below, this ended up having a negative impact.

When Jason Garret was the offensive coordinator, it was usually clear in a given practice what the team was working on. By observing formations and play-calls, intelligent observers could quickly figure the day's agenda: third-down offense, base, two-minute. Under Scott Linehan, however, this is a much more difficult task. The last two practices have offered a wide variety of formations. Today, we witnessed 12 personnel, but with one of the two tight ends in the backfield (and QB under center), for a two-back look; 11 and s11 groupings (three-wide, both in and out of the shotgun), and even four-receiver alignments. And, several of the multiple receiver sets featured work out of bunch formations.

The takeaway from all this, I hope, is not my diminished capacity to analyze the on-field doings. Rather, I believe it to speak to the formational unpredictability of Linehan's scheme. Thus his base offense isn't, as we have so oft heard in recent camps about 12 personnel, a given set. Instead, it's a bewildering (to me, at this point) mix of personnel groups and formations. Judging from what we've seen thus far, on a 1st-and-ten we're as likely to see four-wide as we are 21 personnel. This will be something I'll track with interest as camp progresses.

As you know, I like to write about training camp's pedagogical process. What I find fascinating is the slow build, the development of skills  that are then honed and assembled over the course of a practice, a series of practices, a camp, a season. With that in mind, on Sunday we witnessed continued work on elements installed in earlier camp sessions. For example, the team worked on kickoff return earlier in the week, and did so by splitting the different return levels into groups and drilling them on separate fields At the end of that practice, they joined together on the same field, in a session punctuated by stops to make adjustments. Today, that's where they began: on the same field, where they continued to make tweaks on key aspects of kick return: spacing, technique, communication.

Similarly, we saw the running backs work as a group on the RB-specific route tree: swings, sneaks, shallow crosses, rubs, etc. As might be expected, we later saw these run when the backs faced off against the linebackers in passing drills. And, finally, they ran a heavy dose of these plays in full team period, and they were quite successful; with receivers running a lot of deeper routes in three- and four-wide formations, the RBs were often left alone underneath for nice gains

Another example could be found in the offensive line's work. At one point, Bill Callahan had his interior O-linemen focus on interior trap blocks wherein the center and one guard would block down and the guard on that side would pull around to trap an oncoming linebacker, allowing the running back to cut behind him. After they worked on this, they joined the offensive tackles and tight ends, who had been working separately in getting onto their opponent's inside shoulder to better kick them outside.

When these two elements were put together, we saw a play wherein a hole was opened up between guard and center, inducing a linebacker to fill the gap, whereupon he was trapped by the pulling guard. And sure enough, with the entire squad was in the next full team period, we saw a series of interior trap plays called, with the likes of Lance Dunbar and Joseph cutting behind pulling guards for nice gains.

We saw a healthy dose of screens today. Typically, after the team warm-up, the offense executes a series of plays against air at high speed. Today, many of these were screens, of two varieties: a typical play-action screen in which the QB would fake a handoff to the running back, who would then appear to block before releasing for the screen, and a misdirection screen wherein, after the same play-action, the QB would spin the other direction and hit a tight end going in the other direction.

In the team period, we saw these concepts deployed to good effect, especially the screens to backs - Lance Dunbar in particular. One of the camp storylines I'm most eager to follow is to divine the myriad ways the offensive coaching staff utilize number 25. Today, we saw him take these screen passes and quickly cut upfield for nice gainers (admittedly, with a moratorium on tackling). I've said this before, but it bears repeating: he's the most explosive offensive players they have with the ball (yes, moreso than with Dez); if he can stay healthy, he'll provide the Cowboys offense with a much-needed added dimension.

The good news didn't reside exclusively on the offensive side. Not only was Orlando Scandrick the team's best corner last season, many observers believe he was their best defensive player. With Mo Claiborne asserting himself, Scandrick clearly refuses to go quietly into that good night. He stepped up his game today, both out wide and when playing the slot: covering tightly, breaking up two passes and grabbing a pick in the team session. With Claiborne and Scandrick playing so well, the absent Brandon Carr has an increasingly difficult task ahead of him. Even were he here, I think he'd have his hands full keeping his starting spot.

Despite Scandrick's heroics, much of the defensive news was bad. As happens once the pads come on, the injuries mounted on Sunday. After yesterday's active practice, four players were excused from today's session. Three of them - Darius Morris (who was walking with a noticeable limp), Ben Gardner (with a shoulder) and Will Smith (groin injury) watched the action; a fourth, Ron Leary, came onto the field in helmet and shoulder pads, wearing shorts. He spent the day working with the trainers on the sidelines, which is an unenviable place to be, as it's probably more demanding than being in position drills, especially for a big man.

Tempering the good news re: Leary was the swelling of the injury roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where the team needs optimal health: Terrell McClain walked off the field with trainers, and had to get on a cart for the trip from the trainer's tent. It looked like his right foot or ankle. Soon thereafter, he was joined by Bruce Carter, who tweaked something in one-on-one pass coverage drills with the running backs, Jeff Heath, who hurt his right wrist, and DeVonte Holloman, who got dehydrated. Thankfully, Carter and Heath soon rejoined the fray after being checked out by the medical staff.

And, finally, Matt Johnson appeared to have pulled - you guessed it - another hamstring. This one hurt most, largely because of the irony of the situation. As I mentioned above, the coaches had to ask their charges to repeat plays several times. As the third-team defense was working on a pursuit drill, Tyler Patmon failed to run all the way to the end zone, which is a critical aspect of the drill. As a penalty, the coaches made them do it again - and that was when Johnson was injured.

I'm sorry, Virginia, Unicorns do not exist...


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)...

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