A long-standing joke about Jason Garrett is his use - most would say overuse - of the word "process." In a more global sense, his use of this word goes hand-in-hand with his insistence that his players focus on the task immediately at hand (each day, each drill, each rep) rather than the big picture. But more than this is the plain fact that football IS a process, a long, wearying journey comprised of little steps - often, as we'll see below, while carrying a large weight.
This was plainly evident during Friday's training camp practice, during which we were treated to many of the same drills that we had witnessed during yesterday's affair: offensive linemen practiced keeping their weight low while punching out; linebackers worked on taking on and shedding blocks to get to the ballcarrier; defensive linemen again practiced on getting off at the snap; defensive backs honed their breaking down and tackling acumen; and of course, the pedagogical through-line: ball security and generating turnovers.
That's not to say that today's script was merely a mimeographed copy of yesterday's schedule. Although the offense and defense again remained on separate fields, coming together only for special teams sessions, those sessions featured different work. Yesterday, you may recall, Rich Bisaccia ran his charges through the initial lessons in punt coverage; today, we saw them shift the focus to kick returns. As he has the last two camps when it comes time for such highly complex lessons, Bissacia recruited several other position coaches to help him teach the multiple elements that go into such a chaotic operation as kick return.
During the first special teams period, they broke a kick return up into two groups: the front men, who retreat some fifteen yards at the kick, gather and then block, and the back guys, who gather to form a loose wall of blockers for the return men. These two groups were put together during the second, and final special teams period, which often saw Bisaccia stop and work on technique, timing, spacing or placement with one of the various levels of the return team. At one point, he divided the kick coverage into two sides, running one side at a time so he could focus on how each side of the return unit was gathering and spacing themselves in preparation to block.
There was another small yet noteworthy development today. After spending the bulk of the first two practices broken down into positions groups, Friday's final segment saw all the units on each side of the ball come together. The offense ran 11-on-air; the defense ran air-on-eleven. On the far (defensive) field, the opposing offense consisted of the younger assistants (i.e., the guys who can still run), quarterbacked by Garrett. In what might have been the play of the day, one unknown assistant skied up over Robert Steeples to grab an arcing Garret toss along the sideline. In years past, when the Cowboys' roster wasn't as deep as it is now, I suspect the Joneses might just have been tempted to offer the kid a contract...
As most of you have probably read, Tony Romo had stye in his eye and had to skip practice as a result. Consequently, I decided to spend the bulk of the afternoon observing Rod Marinelli's defensive guys. This decision was also motivated by my own, long-percolating interest in finding out about the bevy of new additions on that side of the ball, since it's improvement there that is likely to dictate just how far this team progresses in 2015. In my practice report, I'll speak more about the various drills I observed. For now, I hope it will suffice to share some initial impressions.
This is a much more athletic defensive line group than the one that began camp last year. During the first week of Oxnard 2014, the most faithful among you may remember, players like Martez Wilson and Ceasar Rayford were the objects of our attention. Given the lack of quality in the defensive line's meeting room, we may be excused for hoping fervently that such players would offer a pleasant surprise. This year, there are no Wilsons or Rayfords in the D-line group; instead, there are nothing but large, long-limbed, and relentless dudes who seem collectively to play with an edge. It's clear that Marinelli finally has the kind of group he wants: guys who are not "rushmen" only in name.
The linebacking corps doesn't look quite so sturdy, in large part because Rolando McClain and Mark Nzeocha are sidelined with injuries and their places (and that of recently-retired Keith Rivers) have been taken by camp bodies. That said, this linebacker group feels like a unit for the first time since Dallas switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Two years ago, there were remnants of 3-4 LBs on the roster, guys like Alex Albright. Now, those body types have been cleared away, and all the men who worked out today were built similarly: compact, quick, fast. In 2015, we can be sure of one thing: the LBs will all flow to the ball, and quickly.
Yesterday, I mentioned that the cornerback unit is composed largely of players with the length the team covets in order to match up with the tall outside receivers now fashionable across the league. SIx of the nine CBs now on the roster are 5'11" or taller, with three of them measuring above six feet. And all of them flash good to great athleticism. Talking to a couple of knowledgeable observers yesterday over lunch, we agreed that this is the deepest and most talented group of corners we can remember populating a Cowboys roster - and we all remember watching Cornell Green. I'll say it now: Mo Claiborne might just end up being the best of them before all is said and done; the kid looks smooth, strong, in control and confident.
Practice ended with my favorite part of the practice day: the late afternoon "blue period" reserved for down-roster types (and the entire offensive line, which, despite being filled with blue-chippers, takes pride in being the Cowboys' hardest-working position group) to receive special instruction. Today, Frank Pollack asked his men to don the big elastic bands usually reserved for rehabbing players while stepping backward in pass protect, all while holding out a 50-pound sand bag. Next, they took turns standing with each foot on a gel-filled "doughnut," with their arms joined to more resistance bands, as they tossed a medicine ball back and forth with another O-lineman (who was stationed on the ground, not on the doughnuts).
Both exercises forced the OL to punch out violently while retaining their base and keeping their ballast (i.e, their big backsides) above their feet. Both it put the players in extremis, and thus separated the elite athletes from the merely good ones. Tyron Smith, for example, never lost his footing while tossing the heavy ball on the doughnuts; Ronald Patrick, Laurence Gibson and Sean McDermott on the other hand, had to step off the doughnuts multiple times. I suppose that's why he's an All-Pro and their roster status is in question...
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)...