Although this was technically the third camp practice, many people affiliated with the Cowboys proclaimed today's affair as the opening of Oxnard 2015. Camp's "official" opening on Saturday was marked by a lengthy ceremony emceed by the great Brad Sham and, more importantly, the players donning pads for the first time since
Dez Bryant's awesome catch to beat the the playoff loss in Green Bay. To celebrate their return to football, your Beloved 'Boys came out in full armor and spent the better part of a beautiful afternoon pounding on each other.
And it seemed as if the players felt it was high time for such activity. After a couple of slow, quiet days of dutifully running through basic, global drills that failed to satisfy their competitive fires, they appeared to attack today's work with relish. That statement deserves some qualification: although this was a competitive affair, it didn't have the same level of frenzied energy that characterized the first padded practice last year. To my mind, this was because this year's edition has a greater sense of confidence about where they are in the NFL world. This is not to say that they are complacent; rather, their energy is more focused, largely because they radiate a confidence they didn't possess a year ago.
In short, this team is good, and they know it. But they also know that this means nothing, and are going about climbing a long mountain from a humble base camp in the valley below. How is the climb going? Here are a few scattered impressions from today's work:
As I watched practice, I noticed that the Cowboys were using Damien Wilson a LOT, and smiled to myself, thinking that the rookie was being rewarded by the coaching staff for showing an early acumen. Then I noticed that Sean Lee was on the sidelines, working on the bands. Soon, we all noticed this, and a murmur of anxious disappointment rippled through the assembled crowd. Several pointed out that Lee was only a partial participant in the team stretching session; when they did back and leg stretches, he stood there, seemingly protecting his back and/ or hamstrings. The questions started: did he pull a hammy? Tweak his back? Damage his groin? It was a tremendous relief to hear that his absence was merely precautionary. That his absence means more work for rookie Wilson is actually a side benefit of the Lee recovery plan.
After three days of practice, I've seen a lot of the O-line's work, and thus far they have drilled exclusively on zone blocking basics. The question that arises is whether this means they will be working on man blocking principles later in camp or whether, now that Frank Pollack, whose expertise is the ZBS, is the offensive line coach that they will be eschewing such man blocking staples as G-Power, wherein both guards pull, leading the runner around the edge, and sticking entirely with a ZBS system. Its a question worth revisiting as camp progresses.
Speaking of offensive line coaches, Pollack and Co. were joined by former Cowboys O-line coach extraordinaire Hudson Houck, who worked with interior linemen while others coaches were drilling the tackles and tight ends and later, when the OL were divided into left and right sides, coached the left side while Pollack and Marc Columbo worked with the men on the right side. The Cowboys have a long list of former players and coaches who have made appearances at camp. These men offer inspiration or lend expertise; Houck would certainly fit into either category.
One more thought about the offensive line: with today being the first practice in pads, the coaches drew up a run-heavy playsheet, and began the first 11-on-11 session with a long set of running plays. Its clear that they want the run game to receive the emphasis it did in 2014. Of course, we want it to be as effective as it was last season - and, if the early returns are any indication of what is to be (not something we would be wise to rely upon), they will: in the full team periods, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar were able to exploit big creases and often saw big gains before there was any contact, even of the two hand variety.
Speaking of hands: Gavin Escobar has been much maligned, largely for his draft position and scarcity of usage. But I continue to believe that he has the best hands on the team. On one drill, a zippy Brandon Weeden quick out died gently in his big mitts, with a soft but audible thump. I can't say that the Cowboys will use Number 89 any more than they have his first two years in the league, but I do think he's capable, with this length, savvy and superb hands, of being a very real threat in the passing game.
Allow me to say it: Greg Hardy is awesome. One day after ingratiating himself with Cowboys Nation by contributing $300.00 to help fund a banner to fly over Eagles training camp, he reacted to the defense's struggles at practice by throwing his helmet in disgust. This a couple of days after he strained his ribs by practicing too hard and too violently on a simple pass rush drill versus a padded dummy. Every story I hear about Hardy makes me think he's a perfect fit for the salty bunch that emerged last season after nice guy DeMarcus Ware's locker room leadership role was taken by perpetual curmudgeon Orlando Scandrick.
And there's this:
Greg Hardy gets underneath Tyron Smith pic.twitter.com/pdx0RV1K6E— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 2, 2015
One final defensive note: I continue to maintain that one of the most important offseason acquisitions - and perhaps the least publicized - was the Cowboys picking up cornerback Corey White after he was released by the Saints. On Saturday, he showed himself to be a versatile piece of the roster puzzle. In the first full team period, he deployed as a dime linebacker, and lined up in the A-gap on several plays. On some instances, he rushed the passer form the interior; on others, he peeled back into coverage - one time moving to his left to cover Witten after "sugaring" a blitz. He had the wherewithal, however, to peel off of Number 82, and undercut A.J. Jenkins to make an athletic interception. But that's not all: he was also serving as the gunner on the first team punt coverage unit - and regularly tracked the ball well, positioning himself near the returner.
Good teams tend to have a "Swiss Army knife" kind of player on the roster, guys capable of successfully filling multiple smaller roles (Dwayne Harris excelled at this in recent years) In the early going, White is staking his claim as one of these kinds of players.
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)...