Going in to training camp, we knew that the team's veterans would get a few rest days here and there, as there's no need to wear out their aged bodies any more than necessary. As it turns out, one of those vets, Tony Romo, received just such a veteran's holiday last week, thanks to a stye in his left eye. Today, he was joined on the sideline by good pal Jason Witten, the only other player on this roster to join the team in 2003. From his vantage point, Witten was able to joke about the enforced vacation:
Jason Witten and Tony Romo just walked by. "Old Man's Club." Witten said.— Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) August 5, 2015
Wednesday's practice offered lots of material from yesterday's focused work on the two-minute drill: a preponderance of 11 (three wide receivers) and s11 (same, but with the quarterback in shotgun) personnel, in a wide variety of permutations (as we've seen already, Gavin Escobar often lines up as a receiver, which technically makes the grouping 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). Yesterday's material, you may recall, was subjected to a specific in-game situation: the ends of halves. Today's lessons were similar, but more global: third down package, broadly conceived. There is clearly a good deal of overlap with the regular passing and third down packages, which is what we saw on the field today.
That said, the team introduced a couple of wrinkles we didn't see yesterday. The most evident of these was the introduction of red zone work. Today, when the team broke for position group work, we saw the offensive skill position players running routes, then route combinations and, finally, a series of passing plays designed to push the ball deep into the red zone (or, better, into the end zone), with the likely thought that it's difficult to work slowly through the red zone, and better to try to score from from the 20-25 yard lines.
That said, we also saw the camp's first foray into perimeter toss plays. In previous practices, we saw the offense work on zone stretch runs, polishing the intricate ballet of handoff, reading blocking and, almost simultaneously, the quick, one step cut to (and, hopefully, through) the hole. Today, by contrast, Frank Pollack and his assistants worked his guys on getting position to wall off a defender to create a hole. On the other end of the practice field, the QBs and RBs worked on the timing and distance for off-tackle toss plays. We saw the team run them several times, in full team periods as well as in the "screen period" that is one unit of the warm-up that signals the real beginning of practice.
Perhaps more importantly, the frenzied tempo that characterized camp practices thus far was not always in abundance this afternoon. This was particularly evident during the position group period, when there was an uncharacteristically high amount of standing around while coaches demonstrated the proper way to do drills, etc. For the better part of camp, most drills start with a veteran or two doing his thing, with the idea seeming to be that the young bucks are supposed to learn by example.
This hasn't always worked to perfection. Recall Jason Garrett telling reporters last week that the young guys were struggling because they didn't yet grasp what it meant to practice well. He told reporters, "I don't think the young guys understand the level of commitment they need to make to learn their assignments and learn this game the way it needs to be learned." Given the brisk tempo of the camp practices thus far, it stands to reason that they were struggling a bit to learn their lessons; it's hard to grasp fully a given lesson when it's being delivered by a guy like Witten, who has everything lodged so firmly in his muscle memory that it happens immediately.
I kept thinking of this as I watched practice today; it appeared as if the coaching staff decided to take a bit of time to get their younger, less experienced charges caught up on the basics. This seemed to be a necessary kindness, an effort at getting them caught up so that they have all the necessary material they need to compete. As noted, this took place largely during the position group session; after that, the coaches seemed to ratchet up the tempo for the duration of the afternoon.
That's not to say that the team eradicated the sloppiness that Garrett criticized them for after the first couple of practices. The primary reason for this, to my mind, was Romo's absence. With Number Nine of the sidelines, the other quarterbacks move up one unit in rank. Brandon Weeden, working with the first team, struggled. Dustin Vaughan, promoted to second team, struggled. Jameill Showers, now the third team signal caller...you guessed, it: struggled. In the red zone work, for example, the first two units failed to gain so much as a first down; both settled for Dan Bailey field goals (on a day when the team was resting Bailey's leg, so field goals equated to snaps to the holder).
The offensive struggles continued in the second "best-on-best" session, that concluded the second competitive period. One example: rookie defensive end Ryan Russell schooled Darrion Weems, beating him around the edge with ease. Russell is one player who seems to have come on in the last couple of days. Earlier in camp, he looked big and powerful, yet heavy-footed. The last couple of sessions, however, he has been exhibiting more foot quickness and appears to be on the come. Three days ago, I thought Russell would be hard pressed to make the team; while this may still be true, he's much more likely to give the coaches a long, difficult decision.
Speaking of young guys, Byron Jones might have had his best practice thus far. He was active, and twice fought Dez Bryant to a stand-still. Recently, he told reporters that he needed to play with more physicality, with a stronger punch. Since then, he has been drilling this in earnest; on one play, he quickly got his hands up on Devin Street's chest (well within the legal limit), shocking him and preventing him from getting into his route. Later, however, Street repaid him, with what was probably the play of the day, a terrific, elevated grab in the corner of the end zone with a game Jones draped all over him.
Ironically, Street was injured on the play - albeit nor severely, if reports are to be believed. He was joined on the injury rolls by Chris Whaley, Terrell McClain (knee), and Lance Dunbar (ankle). Thus far in camp, nobody of note - i.e., no player likely to start, or to be a rotation player who garners a lot of snaps - has been injured (Rolando McClain and Darren McFadden were injured before camp started, and guys like Will Smith and Reshod Fortenberry were roster longshots). Thus, today was the first time such a player was dinged. Lest ye fret, it's best to compare this to the injury roster at this time last year, which had eleven players on it, many of whom were expected to play prominent roles.
There are many things to admire about Jason Garrett and the "process." One that has been under-represented is the way in which the benefits of hiring Mike Woicik have begun to accrue. This team is young, certainly, and young teams tend to be healthier than old teams. But more than that, they seem to be doing excellent work in preventing the massive soft tissue injuries that become the dominant storyline in 2012 and '13. When one asks who is favored to win the NFC East, the smart answer is: the team that has the best health. The early returns suggest that Woicik and company are doing their part to help Dallas be the first team to win back-to-back NFCE titles since the 2003-'04 Eagles.
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)...