As has been the case for two years now, the Cowboys' training camp practices start an hour and a half later than they did in earlier seasons. As a result, our reports of the doings at camp are pushed back, often so much so that they are published too late for our loyal East Coast readers to enjoy before bedtime. Because this simply will not do, I will be writing a shorter post (always labeled "summary" in the title) filled with general comments directly after the session ends, so that our East Coast brethren will have a little info before bedtime, and then follow that up with a longer post (labeled "Camp Report") that late-night West Coasters should get that night and others can access first thing the next morning.
Allow me to begin with a wee bit of football lore, quoting from a story on Vince Lombardi's first pre-season meeting with his team:
Football in hand, Lombardi walked to the front of the room, took several seconds to look over the assemblage in silence, held out the pigskin in front of him, and said, "Gentlemen, this is a football." In only five words, Lombardi communicated his point: We’re going to start with the basics and make sure we’re executing all the fundamentals.
As I mentioned in my earlier practice summary, the coaches are kicking off camp by keeping the offensive and defensive units on separate fields for the first two days. Rather than having both units run plays against themselves (or against air), , the coaching staff appears to be using these two days to start at ground zero, revisiting the most basic techniques and skills, material that isn't situation- or formation-specific: hand placement, firing out quickly, getting low, handfighting, breaking down and tackling. So, rather than taking on a couple of pages from the playbook as the day's agenda, they drank deeply from the spring from which the playbook flows.
After a half-hour "blue period" during which the younger players have the opportunity to work in twos and threes before the veterans take the field, the horn sounded to begin practice at precisely 3:45 to announce the special teams period, and the 2015 Cowboys officially began training camp with the same drill they started off last year's affair: a punt coverage drill wherein players (mostly defensive backs) try to get off a "block" at the line of scrimmage (a pad held by a teammate) and then surround the punt returner, often using the sideline to hem him in. On the way, they are instructed to run inside or outside some small orange cones placed on the ground, and represent the opposing punt return team's downfield blockers. The object was for the coverage guys to run just to the inside or outside of those cones; in games, this is what they'd have to do to maintain lane integrity.
Next, the practiced the most elemental aspect of kickoff coverage: the release. As Dan Bailey would simulate kicking the ball, the other ten men would time the beginning of their downfield runs. The key was not necessarily to avoid being offside but to develop proper spacing and positioning. They ran just this short segment several times, so as to get it down pat. As with any good pedagogical system, each lesson provides the foundation for the next. Today's teaching was digestible and fundamental: all other lessons build on this one. In the process, Bisaccia and the other coaches broke a hopelessly complex system - the chaos of kickoff coverage - into a series of discrete, digestible segments. Eventually they will all be put together and drilled, so that the players can be in control in the midst of chaos.
As I noted in my earlier practice summary, the team enjoys a distinct advantage this year that it did not last year, when they had new offensive and defensive coordinators. Here, the players who were with the team last year are able to go back to step one, but in a different way. Rather than learning lessons anew, they are able to revisit an old friend, making subtle technique refinements instead of laboring to integrate the entire system. In short, rather than learning broadly or globally, they are learning narrowly, polishing and perfecting.
It was not only Bisaccia's special teams that began where they had begun last year. While he and other coaches put the smaller, faster guys through their paces, offensive line coach introduced the big uglies to square one. In this case, it spoke to the very essence of the zone blocking system: the first step. With the OL lining up under a large metal apparatus, Pollack and the O-line staff charged their guys to take one clean step while staying "beneath the shelf":
This work on steps was essential to a later drill wherein two linemen execute a double team and then one peels off to block a second level defender - which one depends, of course, on the respective positions of the two defensive players. Next, he asked the O-line to hold a medicine ball while squatting down and walking through a frame made of PVC pipe - an exercise that forced them to keep their arms up backsides down, both essential to successful offensive line play. In all these early drills, the emphasis was on the first step, which is so crucial in a zone blocking system.
At 4:00, a horn sounded and the players broke into their only 11-on-11 session of the day. As with everything else today, the script here stuck to the basics: Marinelli kept his guys in base defense throughout, and Scott Linehan's offensive unit deployed mostly in 11 personnel, and ran only passing plays. Although the session was supposed to be conducted at a "walk-through" tempo, it proved to be quite spirited, which perhaps speaks to the this team's general competitiveness. I suspect that Saturday's practice, the first with pads, should be a physical, high-energy affair.
Last year, when the offensive skill players worked on positionally-specific series of pass patterns, Cole Beasley was the only receiver running the patterns specific to slot receivers - with the occasional exception of Lance Dunbar, who motions into the slot fairly regularly. On Thursday, I saw both Lucky Whitehead (who made a nice grab, extending to catch the ball on a short crossing pattern) and Reggie Dunn running patterns out of the slot. This is not to suggest that either represents competition for Beasley, but that, if they value the contribution a smaller slot receiver can make to the offense, the coaching staff darn well better have a back-up unless they want to remove that particular weapon from the offense altogether.
As is the case in a typical camp practice, the first full team period was followed by a lengthy stretching session, focusing, as it did last year, largely on the lower body - legs, hips, core - the pat-and-go segment and a brief "screen period" when the offense works on timing and spacing in the screen game at high tempo. As this was happening, the defensive players focused on turnover drills (you may recall that Marinelli had his charges work on generating turnovers every day in camp last year). The screen period over, the offensive skill players worked ball security: receiving a short pass, then tucking the ball and turning upfield to burst through two pads. You'll hear this again: the Cowboys will place significant emphasis on the ball: ball security (offense) and generating takeaways (defense)
Next, the defensive line worked on firing out with the movement of the ball rather than on a sound. Leon Lett would hold a ball out in front of him and sometimes make a sound when he snapped it, sometimes make a sound and not snap it, and sometimes snap it without a sound. The objective was for players to move not on sound but on motion. Later, they worked on firing out forward on the snap, and then cutting sharply to the right or left, depending on which way one of the coaching assistants would run. This was intended to simulate a running play, in which their job is to first fire forward and then to pursue. The first order of business in this scheme is to gain forward penetration - before running to the ball with your hair on fire.
The offensive skill players concentrated their efforts on a series of drills that challenged them to keep their weight above their feet. While RBs "ran the ropes," the receivers worked on executing a series of sharp cuts around small cones before catching a short pass. The key was to keep their weight above their feet while cutting, in order to maintain their speed and positioning during route running. Later, the running backs gathered with the QBs to practice another ZBS staple: the precision and timing required for clean handoffs on edge runs. A key here is for the quarterback to "lead" the running back to the hole, so the back can maintain his outside trajectory.
After this, Gary Brown asked his backs to practice another critical element in edge runs: cutting inside or outside the outside defender. They would run straight at a coach holding a card; at the last second, he would flip it to indicate where the defender's helmet was, and they had to quickly cut in the other direction. The quarterbacks later worked on another key element of this scheme: faking an edge run handoff and rolling out in the opposite direction. They worked through the footwork, both during the play-action ad at the end of the rollout, so they could make the pass under control.
As this was happening, the tight ends and wide receivers worked on their blocking, separately. The wideouts practiced working inside the DBs pads, getting low and lifting to take away his ability to shed the block The tight ends, as the offensive line had, worked on their first step, then combined it with a punchout to synchronize the feet and hands - a much more important technical detail than most people realize. And, speaking of tight ends, Geoff Swaim shows good balance and acceleration in and out of his cuts. We won't know much about him as a blocker for a while yet, but he looks capable of doing the one thing that has always limited James Hanna: cutting at speed.
As this was happening, Jerome Henderson led his cornerbacks in an exercise wherein they tried to pin a receiver against the sideline. The object was for the CB to turn and locate the ball while subtly pushing his back against the receiver's chest and then, ideally, to step in front of the ball. As they worked on this, the safeties worked on backpedaling and intercepting the ball at its high point. As I suggested above, ever since the Cowboys eschewed the 3-4 in favor of the "Kiffinelli" defense, turnovers have been priority one. Today, the secondary coaches crafted gamelike situations in which there is a potential for turnovers, then schooled their players on the techniques specific to making takeaways a reality.
Later, the defensive backs took over a bigger chunk of real estate to work on an interesting drill: a DB would run straight at a coach, who would indicate a direction at the last instant. The player would have to cut sharply in that direction, then wrap his arms around a large inflated yellow ball that was bounced just as he cuts. The drill enacts the process of breaking down, evading interference and wrapping up in the open field. The coaches instructed their guys to avoid crossing their feet (you cannot tackle or break down if you cross over) and to stay low (tackling high leads to getting bowled over) at speed.
They revisited this work in a "closing down and wrapping up" drill in space. But the most interesting drill using the yellow ball was one in which cornerbacks were asked to cover a receiver running a sideline pattern while watching the quarterback, who would either throw to the wideout along the sideline or would turn to throw a bubble or tunnel screen to a WR in the flat, whereupon, the CBs would quickly have to close on the second receiver, and finish the play by wrapping up on a yellow ball bounced at them as they approached the line of scrimmage.
Once this was finished, the defensive line practiced their timing on stunts, with one man hesitating so that others could get upfield and occupy blockers before he made his move. Later, the D-line was split into two groups, and the DEs were asked to get the edge on an offensive tackle (a coach wearing big blue arm pads), and to work on the "dip and run" essential to edge rushing. Marinelli and his guys firmly reminded them to get low and, more importantly, to stay low during their rush. Simultaneously, the offensive line revisited a staple of the ZBS: the two-level combo block wherein two O-linemen double team a defensive lineman and then one of them (depending on the position of the two defenders) peels off to get a second-level block.
At the same time, the linebackers worked on shadowing a moving/ pulling offensive lineman, and then cutting inside his "block" to get to a running back cutting back into the hole. Later, they worked on covering a back or tight end, then shedding him and going for an interception. I believe this was intended to hone their ability to cover a receiver across their zone, and then suddenly to jump a route in an adjacent zone.
The horn sounded, and the team assembled on the near field for the afternoon's second special teams period, with field goals and further punt coverage work. This time, the coverage team took turns by halves: the five guys on the right side would go, followed by the five on the left. Each man was instructed to take a few steps forward, then hit the pad of his man, bringing it up high and then, in a single motion, ripping it down to free them from the blocker to get to the returner.
As before, the next step was to maintain lane integrity as they surround the returner. At the end, the coverage guys jump to replicate the act of getting low and using their legs to tackle with good form:
Bisaccia punctuated this session with some choice language to inspire his charges. After this, they revisited the kickoff release work they had run through earlier in the practice.
Next up on the day's sheet" passing game basics. The offense split into two groups: the QBs and skill guys ran combo patterns, while the O-linemen engaged in their first pass blocking session of 2015. The first step was, well, the first step: they worked on stepping back while raising up (but dropping their backsides) and getting a hand up on the defender. As with the tight ends earlier, the key was to synchronize the hands and feet. Next, one lineman would have to sink and hold his ground, locking out as a succession of his fellow linemen came at him bearing pads. The key here was for the OL to "sink and shock" so as not to lose ground to oncoming rushers
Soon thereafter, the horn sounded to signal the final stretching session and the effective end of a brisk, energetic, up-tempo practice. From my vantage point, it was a good start to the 2015 season.
Greg Hardy works really, really hard. By now, most of you have probably heard that Hardy hurt himself during a hand-fighting drill. I'm not sure how he did it, but I saw the rep during which it happened, one that he used to attack the dummy with surprising speed, power and aggression. If the definition of an RKG is a guy who loves football and uses each rep to get better, then Hardy appears -from an admittedly small sample size - to be an RKG.
The slogan on the team's t-shirts last year was "finish." Today, team personnel sported "we do" shirts. I'm not sure what that means, exactly. That they are "married" to the process? Or, is it an answer to the question, "who believes in the 2015 Dallas Cowboys?" I'm sure that the real story will emerge in the next couple of days; in the meantime, the phrase is just cryptic enough to generate creative speculation.
A final point to make: after fretful discussion that the essential layout at camp would be significantly different this year, it appears to be relatively unchanged, with a couple of important differences. The wristbands that get fans near the field apply only to the near field; the area along the fence in the far field is general admission. In addition, they have installed bleachers all along the far field, and extended the fence's reach; whereas it used to go to perhaps the 25 yard line, it now extends all the way to the end zone, so you can see all the defensive position groups do their thing.
This is important, because one of the best viewing spots in recent year, the fence along the near field's end zone, is no longer available. That space seems to be taken up by the various accoutrements used by the offensive line, who traditionally work in that end zone. Another key point: I believe the main reason they had to open up the fence along the far field was so that it could extend to two new areas: a beer garden (!) and a the fun zone for the kids, both of which encroach a bit on the golf course that runs alongside the outside of the far field. I just hope no drunks or kids are hit by errant drives...