With the Cowboys' first preseason game against the Chargers squarely in their sights, they changed up the order of business during today's practice session. Every day, the team participates in several of the same exercises: a special teams period to open the day; a "ball period" in which the defense works on generating turnovers; a "screen period" wherein the offense runs through a litany of screen passes against air; firing out drills for defensive linemen, etc.
These are mixed in with full team 11-on-11 sessions, in which the offense and defense go head to head, running plays from that day's playsheet as well as "competitive periods" (usually, there are two of these) during which different units go against each other, either singularly or in groups. Today, in preparation for Thursday's contest, the Cowboys eliminated the competitive periods, using that time to schedule more 11-on-11 work.
This provided all sorts of pleasant surprises. The player of the day, to my mind, was rookie WR Devin Street, who has put together several very strong practices in a row now. After notching three TDs in the Blue-White scrimmage, he made some terrific grabs yesterday. Today, he had a spectacular TD catch along the left sideline, leaping up to snag a contested ball over B.W. Webb. Later, running a simple out, with Scandrick draped all over him, Street kept his body between the ball and defender, and reached out to secure a difficult, and impressive, hands catch.
Scandrick got his revenge, however, as he stepped in front of a Weeden pass intended for Bryant in the end zone. As I noted yesterday, Scandrick has been oft accused of having hands of stone. In recent days, however, he has shown otherwise, grabbing a spectacular interception on Sunday, and generally playing the ball elegantly throughout camp. The guy who was very likely the Cowboys' best defensive player in 2013 appears to have elevated his game once more.
As usual, all three units took turns in 11-on-11. Today, however, it appeared that the second and third teams got a greater slice of the pie than usual, as it's those players who will get the vast majority of snaps against the Chargers. The biggest ingredients in that pie will be three-receiver and two-TE sets; today, by far the most frequently-deployed personnel groupings were 11 (and s11) and 12 personnel - with the defense matching up mostly in nickel. When they did deploy in 21 personnel, they threw several times to the fullback. Watching this, I wondered if Jason Garrett and Co. have an arrangement with the Chargers to work on basic passing material (which admittedly seems counter-productive given the team's problems at corner).
Speaking of defensive injuries, there was a balance of good and bad news today. Barry Church was dressed but, after donning pads for the last two practices, Ben Gardner was not. Neither, as expected, were Jakar Hamilton, Mo Claiborne, George Selvie and Terrell McClain. Rolando McClain, who the coaches evidently like and want to nurse along much as they are Tony Romo, with the target date game one against the 49ers, also received a pass. Then, during practice, Tyler Patmon had to leave with the training staff, giving them a grand total of three healthy CBs (he later came back to participate in drills). This general defensive back shortage explains why, during the final 11-on-11 session, Jerome Henderson donned a red vest to play safety - they simply didn't have enough healthy bodies to run a full practice.
Perhaps because of this, today's affair was almost a full half hour shorter than usual. When they were working, however, the team was energetic and moved efficiently through their paces. Every year in camp, it's possible to tell when they are prepping for an opponent (as opposed to working through the playbook) because the assistant coaches will stand in front of the scout team and hold up a card that shows them what they should be running and how to run it (for example, this card shows the Chargers defense, which the Cowboys defenders haven't even seen). This was the first first time we saw those cards come out in Camp 2014. On the day, the Cowboys’ offense ran eight plays against the scout-team (Chargers) defense; the defense saw 12 plays from the scout-team (Chargers) offense.
As a consequence, today's work most closely resembled their preparation for games during the season, when all (or almost all) of their work will be in 11-on-11, against a scout team. Training camp affords coaches a football luxury: opportunities for teaching, both in groups and individually, that the in-season schedule doesn't afford. In fact, today's camp session offered the best of both worlds: teaching and prepping for an opponent. As camp moves forward (and the team builds toward the all-important third preseason game), the players should see this ratio continue to shift, favoring game prep over teaching.
Because of this, watching today's work was a bittersweet experience. We are now on the way to playing real games, which is what we have all waited for since early January. At the same time, the joy of camp - the teaching, the lazy, slow afternoons, the soft murmur of the assembled crowds, the proximity of the players, the long shadows at the end of the day - is soon to come to a close. Just because something cool leads to something awesome doesn't mean one can't mourn its imminent passing.
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)...