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Cowboys 2015 Training Camp Practice Summary: Running Back Competition? Merely A Tease

Observations from the Cowboys twelfth training camp practice, during which the team shook off five days accumulated rust in a lively session that featured increased defensive physicality, a less than full complement of offensive players, and only the merest tease of a running back competition.

With the team's best player missing, the Cowboys' offense sputtered on Saturday...
With the team's best player missing, the Cowboys' offense sputtered on Saturday...
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Cowboys took the field after an extended hiatus away. Think about it: the last time they had a focused practice that was entirely dedicated to skills building and playbook installation was Monday, and Tuesday's agenda items primarily concerned preparation for San Diego. The last three days were a preseason sandwich. With five days since their last typical camp practice, then, the Cowboys definitely had some rust to shake off. Thus, not surprisingly, they looked a bit, well, rusty.

This is not to say that today's practice was a Keystone Cops short. Indeed not; it was a fast, intense practice for the most part - and the defense in particular ramped up the physicality. There was a lot more contact at the end of plays, with defenders not just playing "two-hand" down, but lining up for chest-to-chest contact with ballcarriers. The most notable example came in the second 11-on-11 session, when the playsheet featured a heavy dose of run calls, and the defense went just short of tackling to the ground. The super-competitive guys, like Sean Lee and Barry Church, visibly struggled not to tackle the runners who they collided with at the end of plays.

Another defender who might soon join the likes of Lee and Church is rookie linebacker Damien Wilson. I've been touting him for most of camp, and apparently I'm not the only one to notice; in today's full team walk-through, he took some snaps ahead of camp-long starter Kyle Wilber. To this point, Wilson has worked as the backup on the weakside, and has had many opportunities, with Sean Lee rounding back into shape, to get snaps with the starters. Now that Lee is back in full, and taking reps in all the various practice periods, Wilson is suddenly seeing time on the strong side. Might this be an instance wherein the coaching staff wants to cross-train all the back-up linebackers, as they did with Anthony Hitchens last year? Or could this be an indication that they want to put their three best linebackers on the field, and Wilson now figures as one of those three? This new wrinkle will bear watching, to see if it turns into a full-blown development ...

Today was scheduled to be the much ballyhooed return of the yet to be unveiled running back competition. And, as predicted, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar were both fully dressed and joined their fellows for position group work. However, much as we had seen with Sean Lee in the second week of camp, they were held out of anything that involved the running game, or contact in general, which included the last two full team periods. So, the good sized crowd of Cowboys fans that came out for a Saturday practice were essentially teased for two hours; we could see McFadden and Dunbar taking handoffs and cutting, and even going out for short passes in the 7-on-7 session. But running? No siree.

The result was this uninspiring rotation during full team sessions (note that the Cowboys added Texas A&M product Ben Malena and former Missouri Western State RB Michael Hill to bolster the depth chart):

This was probably just as well, since Tyron Smith and Doug Free received the same treatment. Both starting tackles were excused from the run-heavy portions of practice, and could be seen during these periods running shuttles and sprints with none other than strength and conditioning guru Mike Woicik (who, when running, makes Rod Marinelli look coltish and agile). Because they were absent from the most impactful parts of practice, the "starting" tackles were Darrion Weems and R.J. Dill. As was the case in San Diego, the offense struggled to sustain much of anything with them as Tony Romo's edge protectors - and it only got worse was Brandon Weeden was treated to what amounts to the third teamers, and so on.

As might be expected, therefore, this was one of the offense's least effective days in camp. In the initial go-round for the first team in 7-on-7, Tony Romo went 0-4 (he did manage to go 3-4 the second time the starters took over); later, in the final full team period, the first stringers got the ball in situational play and meekly went three-and-out, failing to make a single first down. Perhaps it was because of the layoff (remember that Romo took a veteran day last Monday, so he's only practiced once all week), and perhaps it was due to his bookend protectors being absent, but Number Nine looked off all afternoon, throwing behind and low to Gavin Escobar and Cole Beasley.

Speaking of Beasley, watching him and Jason Witten work the middle of the field today, I marveled at how they do so many subtle (and not so subtle) things to get open. I remarked to my podcast partner, the great Landon McCool, that they have three players on offense (these two men plus Dez Bryant) who essentially cannot be covered - at least not one-on-one. You may remember a comment earlier in camp that Romo has the football equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld with all three players. Add to that the fact that none of them can be covered, and the offense is one that will keep defensive coordinators up at night. Provided, of course, that they have both starting tackles.

One more receiver note: Bill Parcells always used to tell the assembled reporting pool that many NFL hopefuls, UDFA types in particular, might only get one shot at getting into the league. And that opportunity is incredibly tenuous; it can be easily and suddenly derailed by an injury, even a slight tweak. I was reminded of this when I watched former Baylor wideout Antwan Goodley work with the training staff on the sidelines alongside Dez Bryant. Every day he misses, Goodley - whose odds of making the roster were long to begin with - watches his NFL dream slip ever further from his grasp, and yet the training staff probably won't let him go back to the practice field until he's fully healthy.

A single misstep during a competitive drill can end the career hopes of a fringe player like Goodley. I think he's probably too far behind at this juncture to make up lost ground. For his sake, I hope he heals up and gets another shot, either with the Cowboys or another team. More globally, this is the time in camps across the league when the desperation begins to build, as guys see their chances at securing a roster spot begin to wane. In a Darwinian environment like the NFL, competition rules all, and the fittest survive - and that's as it should be. Still, that doesn't make it any easier to witness a player's lifelong hopes begin to ebb in the face of the inevitable, like those of an injured antelope on the edge of the herd.

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Sadly, I won't have a full practice report up for you to peruse as you eat your waffles tomorrow morning. Instead, McCool and I will be engaged on our annual deep immersion Cowboys nerd weekend project: ranking the Cowboys roster from 1-90. A preview: I'll be making a strong case for Dan Bailey (who went 6-6 today) to be in the top five...

Follow me @rabblerousr

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