As I have documented over the last two and a half weeks, the typical training camp practice follows a familiar script:
I. The Walk-Through Phase:
A. special teams period (usually kickoff or kick return)
B. full team period (walk-through of plays on the day's playsheet)
C. team stretch (lower-body focused)
D. pat-n-go; screen period (offense); ball period (defense)
*after the team is warmed up and their legs are properly stretched, practice begins in earnest
II. Position Group Drills
III. Three-Group Competitive Period
A. offensive line vs. defensive line (usually work on running game)
B. receivers vs. cornerbacks
C. tight ends/ running backs vs. linebackers/ safeties
IV. Full Team Period (11-on-11)
V: Special Teams Period
A: field goal unit (both field goal/ field goal defense)
B. full team (usually punt return/ punt coverage)
VI: Two-Group Competitive Period
A: seven-on-seven (offensive skill position vs. defensive backs and linebackers
B: OL vs. DL pass rush drills (one-on-one and then two-on-two)
VII: Final Full Team Period (situational work)
The categories and order on this chart change little from day to day. Due to the daily playbook install, there are a new set of plays and attendant concepts being introduced each day; these change what happens during the full team periods and, to varying degrees, during the position group drills and the competitive periods (the routes the wide receivers run against corners changes from day to day, even if the period itself is unchanging). Often, the position group period changes very little, or works on a short cycle, wherein we see the same drills crop up with some frequency, every two or three days.
Therefore, what we must really look for when trying to understand a camp practice is this: what is the nature of the day's install? Knowing that the team is working on goal line, for example, can help contextualize all the other work: the defensive coaches drilling their guys in getting low; the receivers practicing hand-fighting and contested catches, which are particular to end zone fades, for instance. Once the overall schema is clear, everything comes into view. The most difficult days at camp are those in which the global agenda is uncertain (usually when they are working on a specific segment of the base offense, which has such a general application that it's never fully contextualized).
On Saturday, we were quickly made aware that the day's larger topic was the no-huddle, an amorphous subject area that can have multiple applications: in-game change-of-tempo; tactical advantage; end-of-half scenario. As is often the case, therefore, we only saw a full application of no-huddle concepts in the final team period, when Jason Garrett and his coaching staff typically subject the day's learning to the pressures of game-like situations.
The larger point I'd like to make here is that successful execution of the no-huddle doesn't depend on specific techniques so much as it does on efficient movement and communication - neither of which are practicable in position drills or competitive periods, as the no-huddle requires all eleven men (and the entire coaching staff) to be on the same page. On the other hand, these aspects are eminently practicable when in the full team period - and, indeed, we saw a premium put on communication when the Cowboys were in those 11-on-11 sessions.
In particular, the final team period saw Garrett offer the following scenario: the Cowboys had the ball, trailing 23-20, with 1:42 on the clock. We have seen similar scenarios in earlier camp practices; what was different here was the fact that the clock was played out to the end. What that meant was that, when the offense was stopped, the defending team would take over and try to run off whatever time remained on the clock.
The "D" acquitted itself well in this exercise. Both first- and second-team defenses forced stops, and they made some impressive plays to do so. Orlando Scandrick made an athletic play to break up potential TD to Dez Bryant and rookie Terrance Mitchell got in on the act, doing the same on a Brandon Weeden to Devin Street effort. The session was closed out when the defense held the first team offense to a field goal when Justin Durant denied a high Romo-to-Witten pass near the goal post. In fact, Witten and two defenders crashed into a pike of equipment just behind the end zone on the play. As practice ended after the next play, this crash served as a kind of violent exclamation point on the day's work.
And a fitting punctuation mark it was. As they have in past practices, the defense ramped up the level of physicality. As I noted in my post-practice summary, there was a lot more contact at the end of plays, with defenders not just playing "two-hand" down, but lining up for chest-to-chest contact with ballcarriers (I also pointed out that this was probably in response to the problems the team had tackling against the Chargers). The most notable example came in the first full team period, as Cam Lawrence went chest up to Tyler Clutts, creating an audible pop, and knocking Clutts to the turf.
The reason I lead off with the practice schedule is this: other than a change in the situational work that marked the final period, today's schedule offered very little new material, due to the nature of the no-huddle. Rather than offer 2,000 words that read like they had been lifted from one of last week's practices, therefore, I decided to use this space for what I hope will be an interesting exercise: to rank the Cowboys position groups from strongest to weakest. In ranking them, I have considered both top-end talent and depth and, considering the nature of the NFL, consider the latter to be slightly more important. So, a position with an All-Pro caliber starter and replacement level back-ups would probably suffer next to one with solid starters and good depth. Okay, here goes:
1. Wide Receivers: This is the clear-cut top position group. Not only does it contain the team's top player, but has another quality starter (Terrance Williams), a match-up nightmare (Cole Beasley), one of the league's best special teams players (Dwayne Harris) and a group of productive guys, most with prototypical NFL size. The poster child for this deep group is Jamar Newsome. In almost any other camp, I think we'd be talking about how he has earned a roster spot; here, in 2014, it's a long shot, and then some.
2. Defensive Backs: In what will likely be the controversial choice, the DBs beat out the OL for the #2 spot. Why? Because of a combination of quality and depth. Not only is the position topped by some very good players (the top three corners, Barry Church), but boasts a very competitive second tier (J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Jakar Hamilton) and a very tightly bunched third tier, all of whom (B.W. Webb, Ahmad Dixon, Terrance Mitchell, Tyler Patmon, Sterling Moore, Matt Johnson, Ryan Smith) could conceivably make the roster. The only exceptions are the two new guys (Korey Lindsey and Johnny Thomas); I'm not sure they should even count, as they are merely temporary injury additions.
3. Offensive Line: Obviously the team's strongest position, the O-line comes in third because they don't have terrific depth. The top four gents range from solid (Doug Free) to sublime (Tyron Smith), and the next group (Ronald Leary; Mackenzy Bernadeau) is close behind, with another solid tier (Jermey Parnell, Darrion Weems, Uche Nwaneri) just behind them. Also, Ronald Patrick and John Wetzel have both caught the coaches' eyes and could potentially make the team. What drags this group down are bottom-feeders: Wayne Tribue; Josh Aladenoye; Andre Cureton, who are the very definition of camp bodies.
4. Running Backs: The top two (DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar) have an opportunity to be very dynamic, and complement each other well. After them is a drop off to the next tier, inhabited by Joseph Randle and, well behind him, Ryan Williams. There are several guys dragging behind them: Tyler Clutts and J.C. Copeland, neither of whom is a roster lock at this point, and newbie D.J. Adams, who must be seen as a camp body until he proves otherwise (and I don't think Ben Malena would have changed this ranking in any perceptible fashion).
5. Tight Ends: Superb at the top (Jason Witten is All-World, and "Mr. Cowboy" for the 21st Century), a second tier with some upside (Gavin Escobar) and then a fringe payer (James Hanna) and two guys that are difficult to envision on the roster (Dallas Walker and Jordan Najvar). The position tails off too quickly for my taste, especially considering the number of two-tight end sets Linehan is likely to run.
6. Quarterback: A very, very good starter (Romo) with unknown health, a reasonably solid backup (Brandon Weeden), and not much else. Caleb Hanie looked slow to react in San Diego and Dustin Vaughn is two developmental years away from being able to make any meaningful contribution. Like tight end, you have to love the starter, and can be comfortable with the next guy up, but there's not much to choose from after that.
7. Defensive line: Unlike the offensive line, there is no elite quality at the top, with the possible exception of Henry Melton. The next tier down, however, is richly populated, with as many as seven or eight players all vying for playing time and a roster spot. The good news is that the fellows at the bottom of the position group - guys like Kenneth Boatright and Adewale Ojomo - have shown they belong in the conversation with the top players in the position group. The bad news? The top guys haven't distinguished themselves from the likes of Boatright and Ojomo. Ultimately, this group is hurt by their mediocre topside.
8. Linebackers: As clear cut a weakest group as the receivers are the best group. This bunch has quite a bit that's not working: there is no difference-maker; they were poor across the board in San Diego, missing tackles and run fits in equal measure. It's not clear who will be the three starters; whoever they are, will any position on the team have a worse starter than the third-best starting LB? It's hard to imagine. And, finally, even after releasing Joe Windsor, they probably have more guys who are clearly not in the coaches' plans (Dontavis Sapp; Keith Smith; Orie Lemon) than any other position group.
What do you think, people? Agree? Disagree? Want to take a flamethrower to these rankings? Go to the comments section and let 'er rip!