The second practice of their 2020 training camp is in the books for the Dallas Cowboys. We continue glimpsing things through the league imposed keyhole of strict rules on media access and reporting. But some of those glimpses have been very tantalizing. Compared to the way things were done last year, there are some important changes already emerging, and we aren’t just talking about having the players’ names on the back of their jerseys in camp.
Many of us, including me, were big fans of the Mike McCarthy hire from the start, and he has won quite a few more over. But there was always that ugly connection to those heart-breaking games when the Cowboys would get close to a win against the Green Bay Packers, only to see a certain quarterback pull a ridiculous play out of, um, somewhere, and win the game. Most simply attribute that to some unique skills of the guy throwing the ball, but McCarthy apparently is taking a different viewpoint, as reported by Todd Archer of ESPN.
Mike McCarthy saw Aaron Rodgers’ improvisation act for years in Green Bay. He’s working something similar with Dak Prescott in scripting situations during individual drills when plays break down. As the quarterback broke free from the pocket, receivers, tight ends and backs all worked to get in the QBs eye sight for passes. One of Prescott’s strengths is how he operates in off-script situations.
This seems very different from the way things were. Preparation but staying with the script was how business was conducted. McCarthy is acknowledging that the script is going to get torn up at times in football, and to properly manage the ensuing chaos, you have to have your players ready for it. It is a lot harder to handle breakdowns in a game if you never really practice how you should do so.
It also raises the intriguing question of whether Aaron “Freaking” Rodgers was just a natural talent at all that, or was perhaps some of that taught? It would be nice if it was something a smart, talented QB with good instincts could learn, because Dallas just happens to have one of those starting for them.
This also fits in with the whole idea of playing to the strengths of your roster rather than forcing them to fit a mold, scheme, or game plan that ignores specific talents and skill sets. We know Prescott is very dangerous when he is forced to improvise, especially if he has some room to use his legs. He can run the ball effectively, or make some very good throws on the move from any angle or place on the field. Actually devoting time in practice to learn to do that better seems an excellent investment of time.
Using all the weapons
For years, under more than one offensive coordinator, we bemoaned the predictability and frequently one-dimensional nature of the Cowboys’ offense. One of the most glaring examples of that was the use of Ezekiel Elliott in the running game. He was mostly handed the ball in obvious running situations and obvious running formations and personnel sets. He not only was often wasted in his chances, he seemed very poorly utilized as a receiver. A secondary frustration was that the one real value from the 2019 draft, Tony Pollard, saw very little action despite looking quite good when they did get him involved.
This may be changing as well.
Without getting into specifics, per the team’s training camp policies, I was also struck by the fact that the Cowboys coaching staff definitely seems to recognize that they employ two very talented and versatile running backs.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) August 16, 2020
“T.J.” Helman goes on to laugh about how pumped people were from this deliberately vague report, but so many of us see potential to really capitalize on real talent and ability. It was baffling in the past few years to see how creativity and innovative plays were so often not just overlooked, they were avoided. This just spurs hope that this staff is much more interested in doing what the players do best.
(If you get the “T.J.” reference, you have been around Cowboys Twitter for a while and paying attention.)
Stand ‘em up
We’ve already mentioned how surprisingly well Aldon Smith is doing. He is also a case where some flexibility could more effectively use his talents and experience, which includes many snaps as a 3-4 OLB. And it looks like he and DeMarcus Lawrence may benefit from the same kind of open-mindedness from the defensive staff.
Cowboys said they were going to be multiple on defense not just traditional 4-3. So it was no surprise that ends like DeMarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith were standing up and rushing with 3 down lineman.— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) August 16, 2020
Lawrence said in the spring that he would rush standing up in the new look.
This isn’t just a way to show a different look and give the pass rushers more ways to get to the quarterback. It also could let the Cowboys bring both Lawrence and Smith from OLB positions. It gets extra pressure if the opponent passes while being an excellent formation to shut down the run. Offenses would likely have to keep extra protection in if they want to throw the ball, which would help the coverage.
It’s just delicious.
Maybe, just maybe, takeaways won’t be so elusive
Along with all the offensive issues we saw, the defense has been kind of terrible at forcing turnovers in recent years, particularly interceptions. While those are heavily influenced by random chance, the Cowboys were so far in the bad direction that there had to be some elements of coaching or scheme that contributed. Obviously, camp, which involves a lot of reps from backups, is not always an accurate indication of how things will go in the regular season. Still, this is another thing that creates optimism.
biggest impression from Cowboys Practice, Day 2 is the defense getting their hands on balls.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) August 16, 2020
in 7v7, AB had a nice bat & INT of Andy Dalton, Jaylon broke up a pass from Dak to Jarwin & Chido picked off DiNucci. in team, Diggs made a nice grab on a deep ball to Devin Smith.
Nothing changes the direction of a game faster than a turnover, literally. While the offense has to do their job keeping the ball away from the opponent, the defense can make winning so much more likely with a few picks. Seeing the players in coverage getting their hands on the ball is a great sign, and may hint at something more.
Creativity works on both sides of the ball
Predictability wasn’t just a problem for the offense.
Chidobe Awuzie talking evolution of Cowboys D. Offenses will need to diagnose.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) August 16, 2020
"It's about the pre-disguised look," Chido tell us. "Last year everybody knew what we were running."
The entire Cowboys team had a problem. They exhibited a belief in lining up with little to no deception and beating the other guys man-to-man. That often worked out poorly, both against the run and the pass. Part of the latter was that the defensive backs seemed to play most of the game watching the receiver rather than getting their heads around to find and track the ball. Players have stated, with some rancor, that it was how they were coached.
The first two practices are showing that things have changed. If this can lead to more interceptions, then this could be a very good season. And don’t forget, picks are also a product of a strong and disruptive pass rush, and we’ve already looked at how that is developing.
This is the time for optimism across the NFL. Some caution must be exercised. There are, however, a lot of very good signs emerging already.
It is hard to not be eager for the start of the season, now just four weeks away.