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Cowboys 2014 Training Camp Practice Summary: A Competitive Practice, Indeed

Observations from the Cowboys fifteenth training camp practice, which also happened to be the first of two scrimmages with the Oakland Freakin' Raiders.

The Cowboys welcomed Mo Claiborne back to the fold - and the fray - today.
The Cowboys welcomed Mo Claiborne back to the fold - and the fray - today.

Without a doubt the principal storyline to emerge from today's camp practice was the veritable invasion of Raider Nation. Well over an hour before practice started, the stands on the far field were filled with black-shirted Oakland fans (on second thought, they might be fans of the franchise's Los Angeles iteration). This was by far the most heavily-attended practice of camp (far in advance of the first horn, the crowd already exceeded that for the Blue-White Scrimmage, which traditionally sets the annual high-water mark for attendance.

The size of the crowd certainly lent a great deal of noise, hype and general energy to the proceedings. Chants and catcalls filled the air, particularly when the two teams went-head to head in the competitive and full team periods. Indeed, today's work environment enjoyed an intensity that we haven't seen in the two plus weeks in Oxnard. And, I'm ashamed to admit, the Raiders fans were the more vocal bunch, for many possible reasons: they had greater numbers; their team gave them more to cheer about; they were seizing the rarer opportunity (the Cowboys have been here for nearly three weeks, after all).

Perhaps because Raiders' fans reputations' preceded them, there was a significantly expanded police presence today, replete with armed officers, police in commando gear, and K-9 units. Fans were wanded on the way in to the complex, checked for weapons. Strange, I never saw that happening when it was just the Cowboys scrimmaging against themselves...

As many of you have no doubt heard, the day was marked (or marred) by a bench-clearing brawl that erupted after Mo Claiborne tackled Raiders tight end Mychael Rivera on a play during the full team period. This, unsurprisingly, happened on the "Raiders" side of the field, where the Dallas defense squared off against the Oakland offense all afternoon. At one point, a Raiders fan swung at cornerback B.W. Webb with a souvenir helmet; Webb went after him, creating quite a stir among the silver-and-black-clad contingent. Once the skirmish was cleared up, extra police were sent over to that side fo the field. Later, the near field witnessed a mini-brawl between J.C. Copeland and Oakland LB Justin Cole.

Although the atmosphere was unique to Camp 2014, the daily schedule followed a familiar and well-trod path, with the sequence of position group exercises, competitive periods, special teams sessions and full team 11-on-11 work that we have come to expect. The key difference between today and other practices, therefore, was that, during competitive and full team periods, Dallas players went toe-to-toe with Raiders instead of Cowboys.

The Cowboys offense worked against the Raiders defense on the near field and the defense squared off against the rival offense on the far field. At practices, I usually run back and forth between the two fields to make sure I can get a close-up view of a specific position group's technique work and then get into proper position to photograph the full team period. Today, due to a combination of the format and the oversized crowds, I opted to remain on the near field, where Tony Romo and Company ran plays against the Raiders defense.

A few observations from that perspective:

  • I thought that the Raiders corners did a better job against the Cowboys receivers than we have seen from the Cowboys corners. This is not to say that they stymied the Dallas wideouts; rather, it appeared the Cowboys' WRs had to work harder to get open and were forced to make a lot of more closely-contested catches than we've seen them make in the past couple of weeks. The good news here is that they were physical, fought to get open and made a lot of grabs in tight quarters.
  • Along these lines, when the two teams were in 11-on-11, the Raiders defense didn't shut down the Dallas offense so much as they made them work hard for positive plays. Rather than gashing Oakland in the run game and hitting oodles of intermediate passes (there were certainly some of each of these) the Cowboys ground out a lot of 4-5 yard runs and short passes. If this were a real game (and I'm very aware that it was nothing like a real game), the Cowboys offense would have had embark upon several 10+ play drives to score - but there was no indication that they wouldn't be able to score.
  • One of the reasons they might have struggled a bit more than we've been accustomed to seeing is that, after a very strong weekend of practices, Tony Romo was not particularly sharp, especially on deep passes. In one sequence in the first full team period, he overthrew Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, both of whom had a good step or two on their defenders. And there were other examples: low passes, hasty throwaways, passes at the outer limits of receivers' catching radiuses (radii?).
  • Another reason (and this is probably not the one we want to discuss) is that the Oakland defense is much better than the defense the Cowboys play every day in practice. Not only were the Raiders' corners "big and sticky," their linebackers and safeties were similarly physical and offered tight coverage when matched up against the Dallas running backs and tight ends; they certainly seemed to take advantage of the five-yard bump rule. As with the receivers, though, the Cowboys backs and TEs did an excellent job making catches in tight spaces (and, I suppose, the quarterbacks throwing to them were excellent at threading the needle).
  • In addition, the Raiders' defensive linemen enjoyed some heretofore unseen success against the Cowboys O-line. First round draft pick Kahlil Mack shook loose from Tyron Smith on a couple of pass rushes, and newly-acquired free agent DE/ OLB LaMarr Woodley got underneath him and pushed him into the backfield on another. In addition, several of the Raiders defensive tackles outmuscled Mackenzie Bernadeau and the other backup interior OL (I even saw Zack Martin get tossed around a bit, a rare Oxnard sight, indeed). As with the other position group battles, this doesn't mean that the Cowboys didn't win the day, so to speak; rather, they appeared to receive stiffer competition than they have generally seen in camp thus far.
  • Whatever the case, it was a lively affair, especially after the fighting started and a logical extension of what has proven to be a spirited, energetic, physical camp:

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's affair - where I'll watch the defense go against the Raiders' "O" - and hope to get a more accurate gauge of where this team is overall.


In the big news today, as Tom reported earlier, Ben Bass was traded to the Patriots for cornerback Justin Green. In effect, this amounts to one team trading a guy who wasn't going to make their roster for a player in the same position on another team. The reason Bass was expendable is both bad news (he has been injured for the better part of the last two seasons) and good news, a hat tip to the progress made by youngsters like Ken Bishop and Davon Coleman. During today's work, absent probable (and injured) starters Terrell McClain and Henry Melton, Bishop sat in the starting three-tech's seat; when the twos took the field, he moved to the one and Coleman took over the three. This duo's meteoric rise meant that there might not have been room for a healthy Bass.

In other good D-line news, George Selvie donned pads for the first time in several days. He was seen hitting the sleds, suggesting that he is a full go. And, as Rowan Kavner tweeted, Anthony Spencer spent a good part of the afternoon working with the trainers on the resistance bands. Earlier in camp, he was running with the bands attached; a few days ago, he was doing lateral work, moving sideways; today, he worked on change-of-direction. As with everything Cowboys-related, it's a process. And, as Jerry Jones intimated (when telling reporters that he thinks Spencer will be able to play by week two, number 93's rehab process appears to be in a good place, indeed.

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