On Wednesday, I'll be flying to Southern California to join the Cowboys on Oxnard's ocean-breeze-cooled practice fields to witness our heroes up close and in action. And I do mean up close: as I noted on our "visitor's guide to camp and to Oxnard," there are two fields at the River Ridge complex, both perhaps ten feet from the short fence where fans gather, making it possible, for example, to hear every word the assistant coaches say to (or yell at) their players when they break up into position groups. Wonder what choice language Jerome Henderson uses on rookie safety Ray Vinopal? You'll hear every syllable...
From that vantage point, priority one will be to bring you as much clarity as possible about what, exactly, is happening with the team we spend so much time following. This occurs on both microcosmic and macrocosmic levels; on one hand, I will try to focus on individual players and plays (taking into consideration issues of technique, route running, athleticism, competitiveness, etc.); on the other, I hope to monitor more global issues, like the developing story at critical position battles, who will man each starting unit, how the linebacker and cornerback depth will play out and, later in camp, which players are likely to make the 53-man roster.
Luckily, we have a professional lens with which to focus our analysis. In 2007, Marc Trestman, currently the Ravens' offensive coordinator (after being the Bears head coach in 2013-14), wrote an article for Sports Illustrated (no link; its no longer available online) in which he offered a "how to" primer for watching training camp practices the way that NFL coaches do. Want to study the team instead of merely watching it? Here are Trestman's ten tips for observing training camp like a coach by looking for the things that they consider important:
1. Protect the QB
Although most head coaches will tell you that they want tough, physical practices, their most important priority during camp is player safety. The CBA and salary cap makes an injury to a starter, and especially a starting quarterback, a catastrophic event that can ruin a season. Coaching staffs, Trestman reports, try hard to instill what he terms a "common respect" in players and demands they make a conscious attempt to avoid a situation that could lead to a teammate's injury.
And this starts with the quarterback. Defensive coaches must communicate to all pass-rushers, including blitzing linebackers and DBs, that they must avoid the QB. This avoidance relies on several key precepts:
- The quarterback should always be allowed to complete the entire throwing motion on every play in practice.
- Defensive players must avoid "ducking" in front of the quarterback, because the QB could get his hand caught in a passing facemask or shoulder pad.
- A defensive player should run by the QB if the defender gets free.
- Defensive lineman shouldn't be pushing offensive linemen back into the signal caller with a "bull rush," as it can expose his legs to injury.
Hey, quarterbacks wear different colored jerseys in practice for a reason, right?
2. Players should be finishing
This is "so big in NFL practices," Trestman reports. As if to dispel any doubt last season, posters and t-shirts all over Valley Ranch broadcast "Finish" as the team goal; we should expect it to continue to be in '15, even in the absence of such visual evidence. Coaches want to see all players should be going as fast as they can until the whistle. As one example, when a pass is completed in practice:
- All eleven defensive players must run to the ball, taking the appropriate pursuit angles to the ballcarrier.
- Offensive linemen must turn and run to help the ballcarrier get a block (and to be in position to cover a loose ball). This is a time when you may hear Frank Pollack yell, "cover!"
- All other downfield players "go to the ball" to get that key block to spring the receiver free.
- The ballcarrier must explode and score, running the length of the field with intensity and purpose.
Both Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells asked players to work so hard during the week that, by comparison, Sundays were a bit of a reprieve; I believe Jason Garrett wants to create as close to such a situation as the CBA will allow. I'll be looking to see how effectively this is accomplished.
3. The ball should stay off the ground
Trestman avers, "An NFL quarterback should be able to properly locate the ball 100 percent of the time in practice." When he uses the word "locate," he's referring to accuracy. Tony Romo should throw the ball in an optimal location for his receivers to make the reception and, on certain routes, get yards after the catch. He, Brandon Weeden and Dustin Vaughan should keep the receivers' bodies between the ball and the defender. Responsibility for keeping the ball off the ground doesn't fall exclusively in the QBs laps, however; receivers and running backs need to catch the passes that are thrown to them; when they do, Trestman notes, it signifies a high level of focus and concentration in practice - which will be important a week to ten days in, when the players grow physically and mentally fatigued.
4. Its all about tempo
One of Garrett's primary watchwords is "tempo." Indeed, the first thing he changed once he became head coach was to ratchet up the tempo during in-season practices. No longer were players standing around, watching other guys run, block and catch; now, everybody was involved, all the time. And free agent veterans have often commented about the fact that practices in Dallas are faster than they were in their former cities; that was one of Darren McFadden's key talking points this spring.
There are a few key advantages to up-tempo practices: 1) it keeps players on their feet, moving and thinking quickly, and maintaining a high energy level; 2) it asks players to practice at a tempo (and levels of effort and concentration) more closely approximating what they will need in games; 3) players thus work on their timing at game speeds; 4) it's efficient; decreased wasted time means that players get more out of less practice time.
How can we determine whether practices are up-tempo? Trestman offers some clues:
- Once the whistle blows, see how quickly the coaches get their players to the next play. In training camp, coaches coach "on the run." This is a term used to describe the fact that the tempo or pace between plays isn't generally stopped for a coaching explanation. Rather, points are hit on quickly and then discussed at length in post-practice film reviews.
- See how quickly the ball boys have the ball spotted for the next play
- Do the players run to the ball?
- Notice how quickly the next drill starts. This speaks to how well the coaching staff has organized the practice and communicated a sense of urgency and expectations to their players. The only time there should be a delay, Trestman notes, is if the coaches allow a break for the heat.
5. Watch for pre-snap penalties
NFL players are taught that pre-snap penalties cannot be tolerated. Unlike other kinds of penalties, which tend to result from physical situations and, often, limitations (and are subject to an official's interpretation), pre-snap penalties are the result of mental lapses and lack of focus. So: are players jumping offsides? Jumping the snap count? Are defensive linemen (or OLBs) being drawn offsides? Are receivers in motion heading upfield before the ball is snapped? Are quarterbacks pulling out early? Centers snapping the ball late? A focused squad will have very few of these unforced errors.
6. Look carefully at match-ups
The level of intensity is at the highest when players of equal ability are practicing against each other, as that gives the top players their best chance to improve. So: are starters working against starters? Are we seeing "best-on-best" situations with great frequency? Is Orlando Scandrick? How often will we see talented rookie Byron Jones take on wily vet Jason Witten? How are each of these men faring in their specific matchup? Last year, Jason Garrett began to institute daily best-on-best periods, in which he would choose two players - say a running back and a linebacker - to go head-to head for a single play while the team gathered around them to watch. The players, competition junkies all, loved it - as their collective cheers and groans testified.lining up against
7. Watch the turnover battle
During the season, its fairly certain that whoever wins the turnover battle wins the game. So, Trestman suggests that observers "grade the practice" on how well the team handles the ball. Some questions to be asked:
- Were there any center-quarterback exchange problems?
- Were there any ballhandling errors between quarterbacks and running backs? Does the quarterback look the ball all the way into the ballcarrier's hands, and do ballcarriers have the ball securely tucked away?
- Did the quarterback ever expose the ball to the defense in the pocket? If the coaching staff is coaching their charges to avoid turnovers, Tony Romo and his fellow signal-callers should have two hands on the ball and should never drop it below his waist. Both of these "don't do's" expose the ball to oncoming and blind-side rushers, resulting in a much greater potential for turnovers.
- When in a crowd, do players cover the ball with two hands?
8. Look for grabbin' and pullin'
Players should avoid grabbing and pulling other players' jerseys. At first glance, this would appear to be a penalty issue, especially along the offensive and defensive lines. To avoid holding penalties in games, coaches shouldn't allow any kind of holding in practices. But Trestman points out that getting handsy extends to the integrity of the practice. If defensive players grab the opposing ballcarriers' jersey, for example, they prevent both units from "finishing" the play. Other defenders cannot establish correct pursuit angles, nor can they adopt proper tackling position. Offensive players can't "finish" (see number two above). Lastly, this figures as a safety issue; grabbing a players jersey when he is running free is tantamount to a horse collar tackle, and a potential source of leg injuries.
9. Players should be off the ground
Speaking of leg injuries, they are most likely to occur when players are on the ground (as are shoulder injuries), when another player falls on them when a leg or arm is extended. Veteran players should know how important it is to keep their feet moving until the whistle blows, to avoid leg injuries, and to stay off the turf. Along these lines, Trestman declares, we'll see some things in practices that we won't in games:
- We won't see a lineman executing any kind of cut block or blocks below the waist. If he does, and endangers a teammate, he might just get his walking papers that afternoon.
- When wideouts block downfield, we won't see them block below the waist.
- Receivers or pass defenders should not leave their feet to dive for the ball. Awkward landings must be avoided at all costs.
- Similarly, players shouldn't dive or pile up to retrieve a fumble.
10. Training camp fisticuffs
When it is hot and players get cranky and tired of hitting each other play after play and day after day, its easy for tempers to get short and guys to lash out if an opponent plays after the whistle or gets his hands up under the facemask. What was formerly an annual training camp rite of passage (and was often orchestrated by coaches to test their players) is now seen as another opportunity to damage an organization's expensive goods. As Trestman put it back in 2007, "If your $6 million-a-year left tackle breaks his hand, who will replace him?" The answer in 2015 (so far): Darrion Weems. While Weems had a solid spring by all reports, his starting multiple games this season is an anxious-making proposition.
If a lot of Trestman's precepts seem geared to injury concerns, it's because they are. While Jason Garrett and Co. want to install their systems, work diligently on technique, learn to execute precisely and to compete hard, they do so while negotiating a constant fear that a key player, a Tony Romo,, or Dez Bryant, will be lost for an extended period of time and, as a result, the season will be in jeopardy before it ever gets going. It's this concern that keeps so many players on the sidelines during OTAs and minicamps, nursing the smallest of dings; the same concern will govern many of the team's decisions during camp an in preseason games. Guys will be sidelined for injuries they would almost certainly play through during a game week during the season.
For coaches, it's a two-edged sword: think back to training camp in 2010, when the first week of salty practices came to an abrupt halt when Dez Bryant went down with a leg injury. The coaching staff immediately dialed down the intensity level, and the team practiced without focus or tempo for the rest of the preseason. They went into the regular season soft and unprepared, and lurched to the 1-7 start that cost Wade Phillips his job. To my mind, that's as bad as, if not worse than, losing one of the stars for ten games. With that in mind, the watchword in Oxnard must be "balance": our Beloved 'Boys must strike a delicate equipoise between ferocity and safety. Not an easy task, to be sure.
I don't know about you, but July 30 can't come soon enough...