Thursday marked the end of my Oxnard sojourn. I was there for a total of 23 days, sixteen practices, 32 posts, two video diaries, and a preseason game. In that time, I have watched a lot of football, and written a LOT about all the football I've watched (I counted: 50,677 words), and have a big bag over-filled with general thoughts and takeaways about the state of the 2015 Cowboys. The first thought to share is that the news is almost all good: this is a very talented, deep and confident team, and one that figures to be much improved in places they were under-fortified in 2014: the defensive line, pass rush, linebacker depth, at cornerback.
This leads to a peculiar bit of good news: this camp has been, well, a bit anticlimactic. And that has nothing to do with the level of talent on the field (it's very high), or the amount of passion and tenacity with which they practice (both are impressive). The good players - those that excelled in 2014 - are even better. Tyron Smith is better; Zack Martin is better; DeMarcus Lawrence is much better. This improvement is nowhere more evident than at wide receiver, where Derek Dooley has done superb work developing what promises to be a very strong receiving corps. Although it's difficult to fathom, Dez Bryant is better. Cole Beasley has taken a huge leap forward; he's been uncoverable all of camp. Terrance Williams has improved noticeably, as has Devin Street. A group that was strong in 2014 is better across the board; frankly, that is scary.
Speaking of receivers, I was struck during camp by the degree to which Tony Romo has developed a unique rapport with multiple wideouts. For years, he and Jason Witten have shared the same brain. It took a while, but he is now regularly on the same page with Dez Bryant. Now, he has achieved the football equivalent of the Vulcan mind meld with Cole Beasley. In his weekly Tuesday morning post walk-through presser, Romo told reporters regarding Beasley:
With us, the way that his brain thinks, he understands coverages and things very quickly and he'll run a route slightly different because he recognizes, "I'm going to be open right now, but I need to come out of it a little bit different way" - and he'll do it. And I see that same thing, at that moment, and I'm like, "Boy, I hope he just comes out"...and he does. And, bam, I'm able to deliver the ball at that point. And that's a unique trait; not everybody has that.
All good news, yes? So, the fact that Oxnard 2015 has been less riveting than previous camps has nothing to do with the talent level on this team, or their rapport. Rather, I believe it has to do with the lack of burning roster questions. With multiple personnel groupings, most NFL teams have a "starting 26." We must ask: how many of those 26 on the Cowboys' roster will be made up of players that didn't start last year? Three, maybe? How many starting spots will be taken by players not on Dallas' roster at all in 2014? One? Two? When we engaged recently in a 53-man roster exercise, 42 of the 53 layers were considered "locks"; that's a secure roster, folks.
A corollary exercise is to ask how many of the Cowboys three "first round" rookies - Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, and La'el Collins - are slated to start. That's right, none—and not because they have performed poorly (more on Gregory later). Indeed, this year's rookie crop is showing itself to be a strong one. An exciting development to consider: building a championship-caliber team requires consecutive successful drafts. The Cowboys 2013 and '14 draft crops have been quite strong, and the early returns on the 2015 group are highly favorable. In the process, they have built a good, young (and cheap!) roster that is only going to improve as the youngsters develop.
While the three most ballyhooed draftees have garnered most of the headlines, my favorite draft pick to watch in camp has been Damien Wilson. Because he went to a Big Ten school (Minnesota) and was drafted in the fourth round, Wilson has drawn comparisons to last year's fourth rounder, Anthony Hitchens, but these comps are unfair to Wilson, who is more athletic, physical, and explosive than his 2014 counterpart. Wilson's recent move to strong-side linebacker hints at what the defensive coaches think of him: they want to get the best three linebackers on the field (the other two being Sean Lee and Rolando McClain) and they suspect that he might just be one of the three.
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 Randy Gregory. Lawrence is, by popular acclaim, the most improved player on the Cowboys' roster; Gregory has drawn positive comparisons to DeMarcus Ware in his rookie season. Remaking the D-line (and the pass rush in particular) was line item one on the Cowboys offseason agenda, and the early returns suggest that the makeover will be a rousing success.and Ceasar Rayford were the objects of our attention. 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. What is most exciting about this welcome development is the emergence of DeMarcus Lawrence and
A similar makeover has taken place in the secondary, where the front office has quickly assembled a cornerback unit composed largely of players with the length the team covets. 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. Early in camp, before the ranks were thinned by injuries, several of us agreed that this is the deepest and most talented group of corners we can remember populating a Cowboys roster. Much of this is thanks to new quality additions (or welcomes back): Byron Jones has been as advertised, Corey White has been a revelation, and 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. Plus, he's been the only starter not to miss a practice (although he did miss the San Diego game).
Because of these makeovers, I think we'll see a different defensive philosophy in 2015. From the opening bell, we witnessed Jerome Henderson and the other secondary coaches teaching the corners press techniques. After watching a couple of weeks worth of practices, my educated guesstimate is that the Cowboys will play a lot less cover-two defense and a lot more press man this year. As a result, we'll see a lot of cover-one, with a single high safety, and perhaps some cover-three, with the corners employing press-bail techniques. This philosophical shift suggests that the Cowboys braintrust thinks their defensive line is good enough to get pressure, and quickly, so they want to disrupt receivers at the line to cut down on quick hitters; they also think they have the corners to do this. In short, the Cowboys have the horses to play a pressure defense rather than the comparatively passive, keep-everything-in-front-to-avoid-giving-up-a-big-play defensive strategy they employed the last few years.
While their makeovers on the defensive line and at cornerback have been impressive, the Cowboys' most important offseason move was the rehiring of the vast majority of their coaching staff, particularly the three coordinators, Scott Linehan (offense), Rod Marinelli (defense) and Rich Bisaccia (special teams). Bringing these men and head coach Jason Garrett back into the fold in 2015 guarantees that the Cowboys will have the same head coach and coordinators in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 2003-04 seasons, when Bill Parcells was the head coach. Why is this important? Allow me a brief digression...
If we can conceive of training camp as "Football University," then the various coordinators are professors who are responsible for communicating a body of knowledge to their pupils, the players. Like most professors, they like to operate according to familiar syllabi. Because the Cowboys' front office has retained the same head coach and coordinators for two years running, many of the Cowboys players—and certainly the ones who are most likely to play the most snaps in 2015—have already absorbed the lessons on the three coordinators' respective syllabi. When a franchise retains the same coaching staff, its players have the opportunity to incorporate their lessons into muscle memory, where they occur unconsciously, reflexively. In short, repeated lessons sink in deeper. This is not to say that the team did not return to them during camp—Jason Garrett emphasized that the team will start at "square one"—but rather that that the various professors' lessons featured familiar material.
Additionally, this coaching staff teaches quickly, on the fly - an observation that was most clearly in evidence when they scrimmaged the Rams; they are able to teach during reps rather than between reps. One of the reasons this is possible is that the lessons have already been absorbed by the returning players. Watching position group drills, for example, and you'll see the starter take the first rep, and he'll effectively demonstrate the proper technique, whereupon the rookies and new Cowboys will attempt to repeat what they've seen. This pedagogical model is possible only when a team enjoys coaching (hence philosophical) continuity. In Oxnard, we witnessed the 2015 iteration of your Dallas Cowboys begin to reap the benefits of the repeated lessons coaching continuity provides.
And that's been pretty darned awesome...
In my time in Oxnard, I had the opportunity to watch practice (and to hang out after practices) with a coterie of other bloggers, as well as some of the most excellent of BTB folk. Some are past camp fixtures (O.C.C.; Yuma Cactus, Landon McCool) but there were many others who came up to me/ us and said how much they liked the site and our work on it, which is always a gratifying experience. When we had a chance to follow that up with a conversation, whether about what we were seeing in camp, where we were from, or the Cowboys in general, it was always rewarding.
I've been asked many a-time by family and friends who aren't affiliated with the blog why I put so much work into my camp reports, and my give them a two-part answer: One, I write what I as a Cowboys fan would want to read were I not lucky enough to come to camp; two, I'm able to come to camp in large part due to the generosity of our readers, and I feel I owe them the best I can offer. I hope you have enjoyed my reports and they have made you feel a bit closer to the goings-on here in Oxnard.
Our coverage here is a relay race, and I'll be handing the proverbial baton to the next runner, Michael Sisemore. He'll pick things up in NoCal, at the 49ers game, then head down south to give you his impressions of the final week of camp practices. Me? I'm off for three days with my lovely and VERY understanding wife in the beautiful Hudson River Valley. I'll catch y'all on the other side...