After an off day, the Cowboys eased into the second phase of training camp 2015, a three-day stretch that gets us to the end of the week, and a Friday off before a big weekend that includes the Blue-White Scrimmage. And it was particularly important to ease into things today not only because of Monday's off day, but because of the energy spent (and, in the case of a fight, perhaps misspent) over a weekend consisting of the first two opportunities to hit other men wearing pads. Both weekend practices were uptempo yet sloppy, to varying degrees, with Sunday's being the more physical of the two sessions. With the current order of business a three-day build to the scrimmage - which we might consider the training camp's first exam - it was crucial that they approach today's affair with a combination of renewed vigor and level-headed passion.
In short, they needed to approach Tuesday's afternoon practice in much the way that Darren Woodson approached every day as a Cowboy. The day's best news happened long before practice; the team announced that Woody will be inducted into the Ring of Honor on November 1, when the Cowboys host the NFC Champion Seahawks. Its high time that Jerry put Number 28 into the Ring; in his honor, allow me to quote from Woodson's "Midsummer Madness" bio:
What made Woodson special was his versatility. He was a strong safety who, playing like the former collegiate linebacker he was, could lay the wood (recall his knockout of the Eagles' Rodney Peete in the 1995 playoffs) yet had the ability to line up as the nickle/ slot cornerback. Not only was he able to shadow receivers across the field but, by deploying him close to the line of scrimmage, the Cowboys' defensive coaches were able to use him to help stop the run and pressure the quarterback. In the mid-90s, he was the most productive player on one of the NFL's best defenses.
In his career, Woody was selected to five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams. He also was the first Cowboys safety since Cliff Harris to be chosen to consecutive Pro Bowls, making the squad from 1994-'98. He played in sixteen playoff games, was a three-time Super Bowl champion and the winner of the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award in 2001. In 2002, he broke the Cowboys' career tackling record; unfortunately for Woodson, it occurred in the same game that Emmitt Smith set the NFL career rushing record.
If I were to do this exercise next year (I won't be) I'd be thrilled to add the sentence, "Woodson was inducted into the Ring of Honor in 2015" to the end of his stellar bio. Salute, Woody!
But on to today's practice: it was readily apparent from the get-go that the headline for the afternoon's work would be two-minute situations and a close cousin, the end-of-half hurry-up offense. The assembled crowd was first able to witness this in the opening team period, the 11-on-11 walk-through, during which the offense largely utilized 11 personnel (one RB, one TE). Fittingly, in the subsequent position group work, we were treated to a series of exercises that asked players to develop skills that pertained to or correlated neatly with the various elements of the extensive two-minute chapter in the team's playbook.
That's not to say that the entire afternoon was spent working on the passing game. When Frank Pollack's big uglies gathered together during the position group period, they split up by sides (right/ left), with each working on assignments in the running game. Pollack would signal to the O-linemen playing "defense" how he wanted them to move at the snap, and the linemen on that side were tasked with deciding on the fly who to block or which of them would peel off the double team to get the second-level defender. Sure enough, this work was put into action when they joined the defensive linemen in the first competitive period, which featured a heavy dose of run calls.
Other than this work, however, the order of the day was largely the passing game, at tempo. The entire team - coaches, staff, players, assistants, members of the chain gang - hustled in and out of each play. It was clear the coaching staff was trying to put the players under a bit of temporal duress; because of this, the communication between the players consisted largely of single words or hand signals. This was followed by a pass-heavy second competitive period. All the smaller, prettier fellows engaged in a lengthy 7-on-7 session (which, of course, is a misnomer, since it's typically 5-on-5) while the larger, uglier gents gathered in a circle, going head-to-head in one-on-one pass rush drills.
Who were the standouts, you ask? I have a couple of names for you. I'm not the first to say this, but Reggie Dunn continues to look very good; although he's undersized, he's smooth, catches the ball well, and had good body control. At this admittedly early juncture, he's the best receiver of the cadre of possibilities for the fifth WR spot. I wonder how he'll fare in the return game, as that will, of course, be a critical factor in who emerges from the roil and tussle with the much coveted final spot.
I'll also give you two defensive linemen who are flashing every time I look over: DeMarcus Lawrence has garnered much deserved praise thus far in camp. Today, during the second "best-on-best" session, he against abused Doug Free, making a move that had the veteran tackle grasping at air. Jason Garrett compared him to Tony Tolbert, which is high praise - yet Lawrence looks to be much more powerful. The other man to watch is Terrell McClain, who increasingly is simply too quick for the Cowboys interior linemen to contend with. Watching him go against Travis Frederick, I was reminded of the schooling the undersized, compact yet cat-quick LaRoi Glover put on Larry Allen in camp about a decade ago.
It is fitting that I rep a couple of Rod Marinelli's defensive players here, since his guys had what I thought was their most effective afternoon this camp. Last weekend, during the first two padded practices, they were frequently gouged in the running game, and Marinelli was oft heard showering them with invectives that signified his displeasure. Today, they gave up a couple of decent runs (I mean, it's the Cowboys offensive line, after all...) but more often than not they played gap sound and limited the Cowboys backs to short gains. They were also generally quite sticky in coverage. This ebb and flow is typical, as units take lessons in different time frames.
The exception was anyone covering Dez Bryant. Its almost unfathomable, but he's even better than he was at the end of 2014: totally in command, at the very pinnacle of his game. Check it:
Dez doing Dez things pic.twitter.com/y9Q0kpLsXC— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 4, 2015
This is made even more impressive by the rapport he has with Tony Romo, who continues to "throw him open" in impressive fashion. To offer one example: in the final team period, when the first teamers were in a two-minute, hurry-up situation, Mo Claiborne had textbook coverage, and couldn't do anything to limit a 22-yard gain on an in route. At the end, he just hung his head, shaking it slightly, as if to say, "what more could I do?" Plus, Number 88 returned punts in the special teams period - to loud cheers. He is a special, special player.
As the various team periods wore on, it became rather clear that the down-roster defenders are better (at least at this point in camp) than the second- and third-team offensive guys. To a degree, this was the case in camp last year; this year, however, the depth on the defensive side is much more impressive. Consequently, the gap widens the further down we go; in both the second and third team periods, the third team offense was outclassed by the third stringers on the other side of the ball. As if to underscore this distressing reality, the practice culminated with Dustin Vaughan and his offensive mates going down like lambs, with a weak four-and-out, capped by a hurried, inaccurate pass on fourth-and-five.
If you are wondering how the Cowboys camp practices compare to those of other teams, especially those with in the division, I'll leave you with this little tidbit, interpret it how you will.
Dwayne Harris described #Giants practices as more fun & less intense than #Cowboys practices. DAL won 12 games last year. NYG won 6.— Jordan Ross (@TheJordanRoss) August 4, 2015
Because I'm running off to have dinner with some friends (Cowboys fans, of course!), I'm going to change up the offerings a bit. Instead of the standard full report tomorrow morning, I'll have a video diary for you, with footage of drills, etc., taken from Tuesday's practice.