In today's presser, Jason Garrett shared a story about John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. Each season, Garrett intoned, Wooden would begin the first practice by teaching his charges - players who had won consecutive national championships and enjoyed undefeated seasons, mind you - how to put on their jockstraps, shorts and socks. The point Garrett sought to make was: no matter how successful a team has been the previous season, they must start all over again, with foundational lessons.
And this was what we saw in today's opening session: on typical practice days, we see the team working on a specific aspect of the playbook - say three-wide/ nickel formations or goal line, and the respective units spend the day building to the full team 11-on-11 segment that ends most camp practices. Instead, the offense spent the day on the near field and the defense held court on the far field, and the two units came together only for special teams periods and a brief but spirited walk-through at the very beginning of practice.
In the absence of practicing actual football plays, therefore, the players engaged in a series of elementary drills. Although they occasionally mixed and matched position groups, most of the day was spent with each group off by itself (and occasionally, a group would be split; interior O-line would work separately from the tackles, or the corners and safeties would split up). Thus the position coaches could put their charges through basic drills: footwork; firing out low; get-off; hand placement; lateral movement; staying above their feet when cutting at speed. In short, they engaged in the football equivalent of learning how to put on their socks and jocks.
In recent years, the Cowboys have debuted a new practice routine each camp, probably because they have had new offensive and defensive coordinators, each of whom has wanted to teach according to his particular lesson plan. Now that they have the same three coordinators in consecutive seasons for the first time in many years, the script has remained the same; this afternoon's work featured the same set of elementary exercises that we saw in first day of camp last year.
Allow me an illustrative example: As they did the last two years, the Cowboys began their special teams teaching with a punt coverage drill in which players fight to get off a "block", have to cut inside or outside a set of cones placed downfield (the cones represent the opposing punt return team) and then maintain lane integrity as they work to surround the punt returner. As they approach the returner, they get low and then jump up, to practice dropping their weight before tackling.
In 2013, the year special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia joined the coaching staff, this drill was new; in 2014, many of the Cowboys had already executed it and were familiar with the nuances of timing and positioning that Bisaccia demands. To my mind, this shows the benefits of coaching continuity; rather than learning new material whole cloth, the team can revisit familiar material, working on minute details rather than global considerations. Here, in 2015, this material is doubly familiar, and the teaching can be even deeper.
As was the case last year, one of the evident watchwords for 2015 will be injuries - specifically, intensive and creative injury prevention. After suffering a debilitating litany of injuries in 2012 and '13 that effectively derailed both seasons, the 2014 Cowboys decided to up the emphasis on avoiding the soft tissue injuries that were the primary contributors to those seasons' profound disappointment. And the emphasis paid off: the Cowboys were exponentially more healthy in 2014 than they had been in years, and had the improved record to show for it.
Given that overall high team health (especially in the realm of soft tissue injuries) last season, it's no wonder that the coaches and training staff appear to have cribbed from last year's script in this regard as well, eschewing the traditional first-day-of-camp conditioning run, because it asks players coming off the low ebb of their year-long workout regime to get off an airplane and run a challenging series of sprints, then jump into football drills the next day. Moreover, they continued to institute the more lengthy stretching sessions - both at the beginning and end of practice - and again focused on the "lower core" - back and groin - as well as the major lower-body muscle groups: hamstrings, glutes, quads.
Speaking of injuries: Darren McFadden and Mark Nzeocha spent the bulk of practice working with trainers "on the bands," which typically signals the player in question is close to a return. Chaz Green, on the other hand, was doing light jogging, and spent some time with his position group, watching drills. With the depth of this offensive line group, the Cowboys don't need to rush guys back from injury. Quite the contrary, in fact; it works well for them to be able to stow promising guys on injured reserve and get them back next year, after a year in the strength and conditioning program. Watching Green watch practice, it made me wonder if they have all but decided to give him a redshirt year in 2015.
Injuries, part II: Everybody watching the defensive line work on hand fighting drills with the "padded arm dummy" noticed Greg Hardy holding his left side in pain immediately after his (very energetic, violent, and effective) rep. He was holding his ribs and doubled over in pain, and sat out of subsequent one-on-one drills. But not to worry, since he's apparently superhuman:
Greg Hardy asked about his left side, says he's fine. "I'm invincible."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) July 31, 2015
This offseason, after seeing 5'10" Sterling Moore picked on by tall receivers (most noticeably by DeVonte Adams in the playoff loss to the Packers), the Cowboys have focused on collecting a stable of tall corners. And they have done excellent work in this regard; watching the CBs work with Jerome Henderson this afternoon, I was impressed by the group's overall length and athleticism. Perhaps the tallest of the group is Robert Steeples, who is listed at 6'1", but appears to be about two inches taller than any of the others. And it shows in his game: he struggles to keep his hips down and his weight above his feet - both unenviable traits that were exposed in today's work on fundamentals.
And, lastly, the biggest player on the team seems to be Jack Crawford. He's listed in the guide at 288, but it wouldn't surprise me if he's a good ten pounds heavier than that. When the team warming up or going through special teams drills, situations when it's possible to compare sizes, he stands out as the Cowboy's resident monster. He's HUGE.
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)...