Training camp is sort of underway. The COVID tests are progressing, and so far have not had a major impact on the Dallas Cowboys. Soon, the team will enter the ramp up period, and barring a major negative development, there will be padded practices in the near future, with the annual blue and white scrimmage also on the calendar. That has led to the return of one of our favorite camp traditions, speculation about camp battles. There are certainly some jobs to be filled, so these should be exciting, even if the coverage from camp is much more limited than we are used to.
Except they won’t. Training camp battles this season are going to only serve as auditions for the last handful of roster spots. Only one position has a real possibility for a traditional head-to-head battle, and that may not even hold.
Let me interject here that this is clearly an opinion piece, and not meant to be authoritative or reflective of special inside knowledge. It is just a reading of all the facts that seems to lead to a clear conclusion. If I turn out to be wrong, you have my full permission to point and laugh as you see fit.
However, let me lay out the reasoning so you can see if it makes sense.
First and foremost, Mike McCarthy is a new head coach, and has brought in a mostly new staff outside of OC Kellen Moore. That includes DC Mike Nolan and what is seen as his main lieutenant Jim Tomsula. They have been denied the entire offseason to familiarize themselves with the personnel. Now the rules of camp in the age of the pandemic further limit their ability to do so. Just as important, the install process is similarly curtailed. Groundwork for that is normally done in OTAs and minicamps. Now it is all compressed into the next few weeks.
How can you really have battles for starting jobs or some of the key backup positions when you also have to make sure people understand assignments and new concepts? It just seems unworkable. There have to be some tradeoffs. You can put a lot of time into evaluation and figuring out who starts, or you can focus on giving your anticipated starters as many reps together to hone coordination and understanding.
Frankly, the latter seems the more productive path. The starting jobs need to be more or less determined, including key rotational positions like on the defensive line and in the secondary. Then the precious practice reps will go to those players, not to challengers trying to break into the lineup. That means the 53-man roster will be all but set before the first padded practice, and only significant issues like injuries or a player just being glaringly inadequate would lead to a player or players being elevated. There will probably be a small number of roster spots at the bottom that will be more or less open, but the lack of practice time will keep that number low, perhaps just five or so.
That means, for example, that the often discussed competition to be the starting center is probably not happening. Joe Looney has sufficient experience demonstrating that he can handle the job to mess around with giving first team snaps to Tyler Biadasz or Connor McGovern. The latter pair should be penciled in as backups and treated as such from the start. The same argument can be made for McGovern challenging Connor Williams at left guard. The offensive line is too dependent on coordination and knowing what the men beside you will do to disrupt getting that as polished as possible.
It’s actually a little easier to work with positions like defensive end or cornerback. There, the coaches have the ability to figure out who they prefer to carry into the season based on what they know from past work or college performance. Then, since those positions will rotate to some degree based on situation and how the defense is deployed, they can figure out who will get the starter role at the beginning of the season. That can be adjusted as the season progresses, but without preseason games as well as those very limited padded practices, the team can’t waste a lot of time on that before the real games begin. It does mean there will be some guesswork involved. McCarthy and his staff are going to have to earn their paychecks to get things even close to right.
Fortunately, the offense is much easier to figure out. There might be some competition for swing tackle or a third interior backup, but the expanded practice squad is a real asset in allowing the team to have ready answers in hand for the regular season. The only real question is going to be the backup wide receivers, but the most likely thing there is to rely on players like Devin Smith and Cedrick Wilson who have worked with Dak Prescott and Moore. Stash the most intriguing newcomers on the PS and forge ahead.
Defense has more questions, but the time pressure applies as well. Figure on Nolan and his staff having a good idea who they expect to carry into the season from the beginning, with most of the starting jobs all but set as well.
I mentioned one real battle that still may play out, and that is the kicker. Greg Zuerlein and Kia Forbath would normally be in a real fight, but Zuerlein’s experience with new ST coordinator John Fassel may make that call less of a battle and more of a coronation.
Fassel will likely be a key factor in the relative handful of fringe positions, since those could well be players he needs for kicking plays. Even there, he likely has some he is more interested in and those will get the first crack, with relatively few chances for challengers to get into the mix.
This is clearly a contrarian position, but this is a very contrarian camp. The old rules just don’t apply in many cases. It may make things less exciting. The value of getting your roster ready for the season just makes it the most viable course.