The current NFL CBA has placed some severe restrictions on how much teams are able to practice. There are strict limits on not only the number of days teams can hold various kinds of drills, but on how many of those can be done in full pads. The idea is to limit injury and keep from wearing out the players. But a side effect has been that there is just not as much time to get players ready for the regular season as there used to be. Now the Dallas Cowboys have taken things a step further, limiting offense versus defense drills the first two days of their training camp in Oxnard.
For those of y'all asking: Saturday's & Sunday's practices will be no pads, no offense vs. defense. Pads go on Monday afternoon.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) July 30, 2016
Reducing injuries is undoubtedly a large part of the motivation here, as the Cowboys are extremely aware of the cost of losing key players. But there is also another thing that the team seems to be trying to do. Before they start putting players up against one another in competitive drills, they are going to focus more on the fundamentals.
An erosion of skills has been another unintended consequence of the CBA restrictions. Teams are forced to choose at times between installing plays, evaluating talent, and teaching the basics of the game. Those basics seem to be where most of the cutting has taken place. In some minds, this has been even more of a factor in the seeming decline in the ability of young players to adapt to the pro game right out of college than the frequently discussed divergence of the games at the two levels. Many are blaming the differences between how the game is played in the NCAA and the NFL for the struggles many rookies have, but the reduction the CBA has forced in time for the coaches to work with their new players may be the bigger problem.
By holding the first two practices with the offense and defense on separate fields, Dallas is gaining some extra time to focus on just those fundamentals. (You may have seen videos of the offense and defense going against each other, but those were from the walkthrough earlier in the day - note that the players didn’t even have helmets). There is a better ability for the coaches to focus on subtle things like foot placement, weight distribution, crispness in cuts, and things of that nature. The Cowboys have many veterans who are more superb technicians than they are outstanding athletes. Travis Frederick and Jason Witten are the most obvious examples. While both could totally embarrass you and me in just about any athletic endeavor, they are not what are considered "freak" athletes. They have excelled because their technique is just about flawless on the field. Of course, the Cowboys also boast a lot of players who bring both superb skill and well-honed technique to the game. Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, and Tyron Smith all come to mind. For that matter, Tony Romo fits that category. He may not be as fast as some quarterbacks, but no one is more elusive than a healthy Romodini.
This approach by the coaches still represents a trade off, since there are certainly benefits to the more competitive practices. But the team does have a couple of position groups that make the potential benefits of this approach very appealing.
The first is the defensive line. Dallas is rolling into the season with an extremely young and inexperienced group. David Irving is switching from tackle to end, Benson Mayowa is new to the team (as is Cedric Thornton, but he is a more seasoned veteran), and there are the rookies like Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper. Now Rod Marnielli, Ben Bloom, and Leon Lett will have more time to teach the rawer members of the rushmen the fine points of their job. This may be much more help to them than going right out of the gate against the best offensive line in the league, at least when they line up against the starters. And according to reports from the walkthroughs, Irving was lining up with the first-string nickel package.
The other group that can really use the work on fundamentals are the backup quarterbacks. Dak Prescott is having to make that leap from a spread college offense, Jameill Showers does not have much more experience than Prescott after having been used in non-quarterback roles on the practice squad last season, and Kellen Moore faces a Himalayan-scale mountain of skepticism about his qualifications. Getting snaps is always a huge challenge for the backup QBs, but now the team can utilize drills that allow all of the quarterbacks to work at once (although if I had any input, Romo would be spending most if not all of his time critiquing and helping coach - HIS fundamentals don’t need a lot of polishing at this point). The important thing is that here, as in all positions, there can be a focus on things that there is not always time to stop and fix in the competitive practices.
It is an interesting approach. The NFL is mostly a copycat league, so any deviation from standard practices tends to stand out. We really will never know how much impact the first two days in camp have, since these are hardly measurable things. These practices are rather dull for the fans. But the logic behind going this route is pretty good. Keep the players healthy and make them a little more skilled. Those are always two things that are worth the effort in the NFL.