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Cowboys training camp 2020: Three things we learned from the first practice

Yes, it’s extremely early. But there are still lessons to learn from the Cowboys first practice.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Coach Mike McCarthy Press Conference
The new head coach finally got to see his team at work.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys finally got things started with their first team practice since the end of last season on Friday. So naturally, the schedule calls for a day off on Saturday. No one wants to say this was done out of cruelness. It just feels that way.

On the bright side, it does give us some time to digest what happened. Even with the team being in helmets and shorts, and spending a lot of time slurping down popsicles in the Texas heat, there were some interesting points that merit our attention.

Even in the first practice, depth was tested

Having good backup players and a plan to use them properly often makes the real difference between success and failure in the NFL. It is game that creates many injuries, even with all the rules to try and reduce them. The season often becomes a game of attrition, with the healthier teams going farther than most.

That made it a bit alarming to start the first practice of the season, after months off, with the fourth-string right tackle, Wyatt Miller, lining up with the first team. Fortunately, the situation does not appear to be dire. Starter La’el Collins was held out of the team portion after participating in the opening drills due to what was reported on Saturday as a minor injury issue. Cameron Erving was out with what was reportedly a non-COVID illness, and Brandon Knight was working alongside Collins on the sidelines, and is thought to just need a bit more work to get back in shape. The expectation is that all three will soon be at work with the rest of the team. But it also shows just how that last guy on the depth chart can suddenly be out there with the ones.

It is a harsh reminder of how quickly the best laid plans of mice and football coaches can quickly go awry. And a reason why having Mike McCarthy as the head coach might be an advantage for Dallas. When he led the Green Bay Packers to a Lombardi Trophy in 2010, he did so with a team that was riddled by injury, with fourteen players on injured reserve by the time they got to the playoffs. Clearly, McCarthy is not cowed by having to make adjustments and incorporate new players into the mix. It’s an intangible that is often unnoticed, and he has it.

The red shirts

Everyone knows what a red shirt means. If Captain Kirk picks you for the landing party, you are toast. Except in the NFL, where a red jersey is worn by the quarterbacks in practice as a warning to all other players to not hit them under penalty of being thrown to the Klingons.

OK, enough nerdiness. For some reason, when almost every other team in the league had gone to the red shirts as a way to protect the most important and costly players on the field, the Cowboys held out and had their passers wearing a regular white jersey in practice. It was just the Cowboys way, and said, well, something or other.

Mike McCarthy don’t play that. He is widely viewed as a quarterback’s coach, and it probably shouldn’t have been so surprising to see the QBs come out in those bright red “keep away from me” tops. This certainly appears more than just one of those “changes to show I’m now in charge” things most of us have experienced with a new boss. He retained the tradition of rookies not getting a Star on their helmets until they make the roster. It not only is a little extra motivation, but it does offer a quick way to spot the neophytes.

No, this is all about the quarterback and his role in the offense. It is something that probably should have been done a long time ago. And may be one more little piece of evidence about just how firmly in control McCarthy is.

Yes, Virginia, that’s a good thing.

Way ahead of schedule

The Cowboys took a gamble in signing pass rusher Aldon Smith. Not only were they betting on him keeping at bay the issues that got him suspended indefinitely, with some help from the evolving NFL view of those things, they were wagering he still had enough in the tank and his now 30-year-old body to make a real contribution to the team. There was an expectation that he would need some time to get back into football shape after his years off. That was seen as one of the motivations to get the deal with Everson Griffen done, although Griffen is certainly a good enough talent to make acquiring him a smart move in any case.

It was only one practice with no hitting, but all reports are that Smith looks good. VERY good. Like, ready to go out there in the first game of the season and terrorize a quarterback good.

There is a long way to go before we see just how true that really is, but a strong start is so much better than a rusty-looking or out-of-shape one. If Smith is able to be even close to the player he once was, that gives Dallas a frightening group of pass rushers with DeMarcus Lawrence on the left side and Griffen conceivably an upgrade over the departed Robert Quinn. And Smith’s past work as a stand up rusher offers the tantalizing possibility of putting all three of these QB hunters on the field at once. Now add in how the defensive tackles stood out as well, something that was unusual enough to be noted by a few of the reporters allowed at the practice. The defensive line that had its struggles last year may just have become a real strength of the roster.

It’s early, of course. First impressions sometimes do not hold up. And many hopeful signs in camp lead to nothing. For instance, there was already a reoccurring theme that has disappointed us before.

But there is certainly a wide open competition for the backup wide receiver jobs this year, and maybe Jon’Vea Johnson will keep it up and have a role to play this season.

One thing is indisputable. We finally have real football stuff to discuss. That is a win in and of itself.