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Cowboys Training Camp Report, Practice Number Sixteen: Adieu To Oxnard!

Observations and analysis from the Cowboys sixteenth and final training camp practice in Oxnard, a no-pads affair that eschewed competitive periods in favor of extended 11-on-11 work in preparation for the second preseason game, versus Baltimore.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in camp, I wrote that I preferred the mid-week practices, because they are less attended. As a result, you can hear the players and coaches much more clearly as they go through their paces. More than that, there is a stillness and, toward the end of practice, a beauty generated by the low-slung sun reflecting off of the players' helmets and producing the long shadows particular to summer afternoons.

Today's practice was a 105-minute embodiment of this idyllic preference. After two days of crazed, frenetic, combative energy as the team scrimmaged the Raiders (and the only thing we could hear were their fans' profanity-punctuated catcalls), today's final practice felt like a much needed respite, an extension of yesterday's evening beach barbecue. Indeed, for the first time since they first donned pads for practice number three, the Cowboys came out in shorts and helmets. After two days with plenty of hitting, the coaching staff was giving their bodies time to heal before facing off against Baltimore on Saturday.

The day's agenda followed that of padded camp practices, but moved at a brisker pace, as if everybody had agreed that they would get in a fairly regular amount of work, but end a half hour earlier (which they did). Between plays, the coaching staff could easily be heard exhorting them to hustle to the line as assistants called out the down and distance and noted at which hashmark the ball would be placed for the next snap. In the absence of physical challenges such as pads, it seemed as though the coaching staff chose to use this time to pose intellectual challenges, asking the players to process information quickly between plays.


Today's practice began, as per usual, with a special-teams period featuring work on kickoff and kick return - with a new wrinkle. For the first time in camp, I noticed Rich Bisaccia put his charges through onside kick drills. In particular, they spent time with the return team, in detailed work on spacing after the kick team shifts into "onside mode." Preventing recovery of onside kicks requires that the return team eliminate soft spots, which places a premium on spacing and alignment.

Next on the schedule was the 11-on-11 walk-through, where the team showed a look that I hadn't seen thus far in camp: it starts with something familiar: a bunch formation with two receivers and a tight end. Using motion, the tight end and one of the receivers motions to the other side of the line, and the second WR moves to the flank. Given how much Scott Linehan likes to use tight bunch formations to create confusion, a set of plays wherein the bunch is shown and then quickly, explosively changed to a wide set seems to be a nice addition.

This was followed by the team lower-body stretch (the one period that wasn't rushed) and pat-n-go sessions - part of which is the daily "screen period," when the offense runs screen passes against air. Today's menu had one interesting tidbit: a screen beginning with misdirection left and a hard cut right to receive the pass. What was interesting was that the right tackle is to allow his man to get upfield before continuing to block him in that direction and the other OL release their man and block down right. The back cuts inside the RTs and follows the other O-linemen downfield.

When the team broke into position groups, they followed a pretty familiar formula: receivers worked alone on patterns, receiving their throws from assistants as quarterbacks and running backs worked on handoffs to different locations. The WRs then joined the QBs to work on passing as the backs worked alone on footwork drills. The tight ends welcomed their newest member, Asa Watson (who, perhaps tellingly, is working as a TE, to a fullback) by catching "bad" passes from coach Mike Pope: low and behind, out in front, etc. Later, his group joined the other offensive position groups to run 7-on-air passing combinations.

The offensive linemen worked with Bill Callahan on progressive set of exercises: first, they worked on getting their inside shoulder on the opponent's inside shoulder (without using arms) before quickly releasing to find a next-level block. Next, they joined a teammate, and each got a shoulder on the opponent, with the idea that one of them had to peel off to get s second level block, with the other moving straight up on the defender. Frank Pollack would play the second-level defender, moving to his left or right, and the two O-linemen would have to adjust who went to the next level and who stayed heads-up on their man, depending on which direction Pollack chose.

On the far field, the Cowboys front seven worked for a long while on gap responsibility, running play after play wherein the defensive linemen occupied specific gaps and, depending on where the running back (played by the aged Monte Kiffin) went, the linebackers scraped along the line and filled the appropriate holes. After being gashed against the run at San Diego and again in both scrimmages against the Raiders, it's clear that getting proper run fits is a top priority - and perhaps the top priority - as we head into the heart of the preseason.

Along these lines: I noticed Kenneth Boatright and Adewale Ojomo taking snaps at defensive tackle this afternoon. Throughout camp, the Cowboys have been moving DEs inside, suggesting that one of their biggest concerns is tackle play, both in terms of holding up against the run and generating an inside rush. The unanswered question in what we saw today is whether this concern is limited to the Baltimore game (i.e., they are trying to get a couple of newer DEs up to speed to cover all positional necessities on Saturday) or for the longer haul (i.e., ultimately, they aren't pleased with any of the downroster DTs in camp, and are exploring all avenues in search of above-average possibilities).

Because the players were without pads, there were no competitive periods; instead, the two full team sessions were a bit longer than usual. The first team period saw the customary walk-through of material from the day's playsheet; the next two were scout team affairs: a scout team offense ran plays against Dallas' first team defense, and then the entire squad quickly moved to the other end of the field to switch roles, with the offense running plays against the scout team. In both cases, the scout team players got their cues from cards held up by coaching assistants:



As they worked, I was struck (again) by one of Scott Linehan's central philosophies: forcing defenses to cover the entire field. We have seen him send receivers deep and then throw short, to open underneath zones. We have seen him send RBs in motion to the end of the formation, spreading out defenses and creating mismatches. We have seen lots of edge runs and short passes - flares and bubble screens - to the perimeter. This variety indicates that he wants to exploit defenses on both vertical and horizontal axes. With the talent the Cowboys have on "O," that could prove a tall order.


Post-Training Camp State of the Union:

What was confirmed:

The offense - and specifically the offensive line - is as good as advertised. Going into camp, the prevailing mantra went as follows: provided they receive reasonably good quarterback health, this team will go as far as the O-line can take them. This line of thought has been borne out in Oxnard; the offense has dominated and the O-line has been very strong.

Lance Dunbar is going to thrive in this offensive scheme. Several times during camp, the offense showed a package seemingly hand-crafted for Dunbar's skills, plays designed to get him the ball in space or lined up against a linebacker on the outside. If he stays healthy, I expect Dunbar will have a very impactful 2014 campaign.

The fourth tight end is not on the roster. A significant pre-camp roster question was whether or not the team would keep a fullback. Another option, it was thought, would be to retain a fourth, blocking tight end - but that player wasn't on the roster. Training camp has confirmed that they still need that figure, be it a fullback who impacts the running game or a plus blocker at the TE position.

Terrance Williams can become a terrific complementary receiver. In Dez Bryant, the current Cowboys already have their version of Michael Irvin, a passionate leader at receiver. The question was: can Williams become their Alvin Harper, a big-play threat capable of taking heat off of the lead dog. In Williams, the team has a version of Harper - if Alvin had had any heart.

Orlando Scandrick is the team's best corner. At the end of last season, Scandrick emerged at the best CB on the team. Was this because he elevated his game or because the rest of the candidates didn't elevate theirs? Camp has confirmed the former hypothesis: number 32 has simply gotten that good...which is why his four-game suspension stings so badly.

Matt Johnson's body won't allow him to play NFL football. Many of our readers had publicly proclaimed Johnson's enduring fragility, while another contingent insisted that, with better trainers, he could fulfill his vast potential. A few practices into Oxnard 2014, Johnson pulled a hammy, and he hasn't practiced since.

Dez Bryant is the patron saint of Awesome. 'Nuff said.

What we learned:

Rolando McClain is the best linebacker on the team. When the Cowboys acquired McClain, the big question wasn't whether he had the talent to play, it was whether his head was in the right space to allow his immense physical gifts to shine. Thus far, it has, and he's poised to be a big difference-maker in the middle of a moribund defensive group.

The Cowboys did pretty well in the seventh round last May. The team made five seventh round selections, and picked up three players - Terrance Mitchell, Ken Bishop, and Ahmad Dixon - that will almost certainly make the team, and another, Ben Gardner, who will essentially get a redshirt year. The only real disappointment in the bunch is linebacker Will Smith. While he might be a disappointment, three for five is a great seventh round hit rate.

Ryan Williams is the player we saw in Arizona, not at Virginia Tech. When the Cowboys picked up Williams, many of us immediately jumped to his draft pedigree (top of the second round, 38th overall) instead of his Arizona tape. In training camp, he's been fine, but not dynamic. Moreover, he's too one-dimensional, the kiss of death for a third running back, who must be a good pass blocker and special teams demon.

What we don't know:

The state of Tony Romo's back. One of the problems is that the news has been so conflicting: he's a "full go" but is then held out of numerous practices; he doesn't seem able to throw deep, but then has a couple of days later in camp where his deep ball has some impressive zing. What Tony Romo will we get and how will he hold up? I honestly can't tell you.

Who will be the backup/ swing tackles? For a while now, the Cowboys have had the same cast of character at offensive tackle, with the backup spots manned by Darrion Weems (LT) and Jermey Parnell (RT). It looked like this would continue in 2014 - until Weems was injured and Parnell continued his, well, uninspiring play. These two events have opened the door for other players, whether guys currently on the roster - John Wetzel - or currently on other teams. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the positions Will McClay and his personnel guys monitor closely come cut-down days is OT.

What this defense is or will be. The reports form camp have generally disparaged the defense's play, and rightly so, as they have been bested on an almost daily basis. But the guys that have been getting beat don't bear too terribly much resemblance to those the team expects to get the majority of snaps against the 49ers week one. That's not to say that those players will be any better - and that's the problem. After three weeks, we don't know much more about this group than we did on July 24 when camp kicked off.

What to make of the muddled DT position. Perhaps the fuzziest position on the defense is tackle; the uncertainty is a result of health (starters Henry Melton and Terrell McClain), youth (Ken Bishop and Davon Coleman are untested) and questionable talent (Nick Hayden). But perhaps the biggest question concerns unexpected comebacks. With Josh Brent and Amobi Okoye recently in the news and expected to return to practice, the hierarchy at DT is very, very difficult to read.

How in the heck this team will generate pressure form the weakside end spot. There was a reason the team traded two draft picks to obtain DeMarcus Lawrence: there was nobody on the roster with the capability of being a difference-maker at what is arguably the defense's most important position. With Lawrence out indefinitely (and unlikely, frankly, to make much of his rookie season), the huge question that drove the team to overpay for him still nags...


Long-Brewing Thoughts Re: No-Huddle Offense

About 14 months ago, I penned an article in which I noted that the Cowboys were switching to a "new" offensive scheme, the Erhardt-Perkins system. The backbone of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that plays - pass plays in particular - are organized by "concepts," which greatly simplifies playcalling, especially in situations such as the no-huddle, when a lot of verbiage will waste valuable time (imagine communicating a Bill Walsh-style play with a call such as "Scatter-Two Bunch-Right-Zip-Fire 2 Jet Texas Right-F Flat X-Q" with the clock ticking). In the E-P system, each passing play has a name, or pair of names, that designate a set of route combinations that can be run by any players. So, in the example I used in the referenced post, "Tosser" indicates a double-slant concept on the side of the field that has two receivers (the key is that these can be any two receivers; that's what makes the offense so versatile: the same route in a given concept can be run by the "F," "H," or "Z" receiver).

At camp last year, I got a lot of questions about the "new" offense; my answers were that it seemed that they were working a lot on no-huddle, and particularly on getting to the line quickly and efficiently after the previous play was whistled dead. To my mind, that was where the E-P system would be most evident and would be most beneficial. What I didn't know with certainty was the language (either verbal or gestural) they were using to signal the next play. During the season, most viewers saw little change in the offense (other than a lack of deep passes), and thought the schematic switcheroo to be a BTB chimera.

In watching (and listening more carefully) to camp practices this year, however, I feel quite secure that they are using Erhardt-Perkins concepts when running no-huddle. As they scramble to the line between plays when in no-huddle, the quarterback usually cries out only one or two words (one I heard was "Parcells!") and sometimes just makes a hand signal to each side. As the above-cited article suggests, the other two common NFL offensive systems don't readily allow for this streamlined, efficient communication.

And, finally: the fact that they are doing this now as well as last year means that use of the E-P in no-huddle is not a Linehan idea so much as it is a Garrett or organizational notion. The team that uses the Erhardt-Perkins system to greatest use is the Patriots. In this, and in many other ways (not the least of which is to bring in ex-Patriots like Justin Green and Asa Watson), the Garrett administration seems to want to copy the best of what New England has brought to the league. Whatever we feel about the Belicheats, it's hard to deny their success; there are worse organizations to emulate...

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