So far, the NFL and the NFLPA have avoided the pitfalls and training camp is scheduled to begin as planned on Tuesday, July 28. But this is not training camp as we have come to know it. The impact for the Dallas Cowboys goes far beyond not being able to head out to Oxnard. They and the rest of the league have a lot less to work with in preparing for the 2020 season. Just look at the rules.
NFL players just received this email breaking down how this unique training camp will work: pic.twitter.com/UoCwXxialO— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) July 25, 2020
The first four days are eaten up by testing just to clear everyone for participation. Then there is an extended period of conditioning to try and get the players, who missed all of the offseason work, able to play without a rash of injuries. Following that, the players will be eased into full practice very slowly and carefully, leading up to a grand total of 14 padded practices maximum. And of course, there are no preseason games.
The question is obvious. How does any team get its players ready to go in the regular season? If the standard for that is what we have seen in a normal year, the answer is simple.
With new head coach Mike McCarthy and two new coordinators, the Cowboys have a bigger hill to climb than most. Keeping Kellen Moore as the OC appears smarter and smarter as the installation of the offense should be much less trying for Dallas. That still leaves them with getting the defense and special teams schemes installed under incredibly trying conditions.
At least for the first few games, it will be necessary for the Cowboys to stick to basics. The full playbook will be a long time getting fully implemented. In all phases, expect to see things kept simple, with little room for trickery or complexity. Timing and coordination should be ragged for everyone. That will likely force the team to come into a game with a smaller play sheet built around less involved concepts.
Under these unique conditions, that means that winning or losing is going to rest even more on one of the primary factors. Your guy will have to beat the other guy one-on-one. It is going to be much harder to scheme around things and mask weaknesses. It would have played right into Jason Garrett’s concept of lining up and beating the other man to move the ball.
He’s not here, of course, but that is what is being forced on the Cowboys.
Now, after all that desultory stuff, some good news. This roster may be built to do just that.
Start with the foundation. The Cowboys return four of last year’s starters on the offensive line, and the likely center will be Joe Looney, who played every single snap in 2018. That should greatly assist in getting as much done to prepare in the limited time they have. It is one place Dallas has an advantage over most teams, who have to incorporate one or more new linemen into their offense.
The picture is exactly the opposite on the other side of the ball, with a much-revamped defensive line. However, two key components there are Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, both very experienced DTs who know everything they need to about breaking down and beating blockers. With DeMarcus Lawrence returning at end, the pass rush and run defense should be good - perhaps very good. And this just emphasizes the value of a healthy Tyrone Crawford, which will buy some time for Aldon Smith to hopefully return to something like the form that made him so formidable before his long suspension. Jim Tomsula is a very experienced coach and should have no issues making this work.
Another place where the Cowboys should be fine is linebacker, with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch returning for their third season together. If the latter is healthy, the middle of the defense should be just fine. Mike Nolan is strong coaching his backers, and this is a great pair for him to deploy.
The secondary is the big worry on defense. Second-round pick Trevon Diggs may get a lot of work early, but there are other new pieces to fold in. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Daryl Worley, and Maurice Canady all will have to help out. Given everything, man coverage may be the default for a long time. This might actually boost Diggs, given his skills in college, but it still will be a challenge for him. Expect some anxious moments whenever the ball is thrown downfield against this bunch.
However, the offensive skill players are about as good a group for this kind of football as just about any in the league. Dak Prescott has always shown an ability to extend plays and make good things happen. Ezekiel Elliott is a force with the ball, especially if he is not running into a loaded box. Given that personnel and formation is the best way to avoid that, this is one thing that Moore should be able to do no matter how limited practices are. Blake Jarwin is possibly a true upgrade in the passing game where he has shown ability to get open and gain yards when the ball comes to him.
The real fireworks should happen with the wide receivers. Amari Cooper is simply brilliant running routes, and since the opponents are dealing with the same basic issues, that should lead to some open opportunities for him. Michael Gallup took big strides in that department last season and gives opposing defenses a double headache in trying to figure out how to cover the pair. The Cowboys only have one rookie to meld in on offense, and CeeDee Lamb is as well situated to thrive this season as any first year receiver. If games do often come down to who can get open against his man, which is almost a given, then Dallas may be in better shape than the limitations would lead you to believe.
Is this too optimistic a take? Perhaps, but in games where individual matchups may be even more paramount than normal, Dallas has some real horses ready to go.
The Cowboys have some potential to do well early. It is going to be a different, even bizarre season. With the talent they have put together, Dallas might be able to use it to good advantage.