Welcome, fans, followers, and haters of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys! We are kicking off what will probably not become an annual tradition, but you never know. As you are aware, 2020 forced some radical changes on the NFL that certainly affected training camps. Add in how Mike McCarthy turned out to be a wee bit more paranoid and obsessed about security than we imagined, and we have come to the eve of the regular season with much less information about the Cowboys than normal. To highlight some of the things you might have missed, these are the inaugural Rowdy Awards. Rowdy couldn’t be here tonight, as he is having problems finding a face mask that will fit his oversized, vaguely terrifying head, but we will press on!
The OMG, we were right award
Step up, CeeDee Lamb! It has been a long, long time since a first-round pick was met with as much enthusiasm in the fan base. High first-round picks are expected to be immediate starters, but by the time you get to 17 overall, you are into more uncertain territory. Draft day excitement sometimes turns into concern and worry in camp, much less the regular season. Additionally, wide receiver is well known for being a boom or bust position in the first round.
The case is exactly the opposite for Lamb. He simply has looked like an NFL starter from the moment he set foot on the practice field. It was at times like bursting into Technicolor from black and white. Training camp is just practice, of course, but if he continues to look like he was reported to, and did on the rare video clips, we are talking OROY material.
Murphy’s law award
It almost always seems that a projected starter is injured and misses the season during camp. This year, Gerald McCoy was the unfortunate player. With the excitement building about the team in general and the defensive line in particular, it has to be a real disappointment for him that he will not be a part of things. It was perhaps even more galling that it was a purely freak injury during routine drills.
However, before you get too down in the dumps, consider how many other teams have seen a key player lost. One example is the Philadelphia Eagles, who saw not one, but two of their projected starting offensive linemen go down. They were fortunate that Jason Peters, their former star tackle, was now playing guard, and since they lost their starting left tackle, they could just move him back.
Well, except that he is on a guard contract, and is playing the wicked witch role as he has no intention of moving back to tackle without a commensurate pay raise. That has led to an impasse for the moment.
You hate to see it.
Too good to be true trophy
The Cowboys are no strangers to taking a bit of a risk on a player, and signing EDGE Aldon Smith certainly fits that category. With him on indefinite suspension at the time of the signing, there was no guarantee he would even be allowed to play, although the team probably had some strong hints it was coming. Even when reinstated, he had been out of the league since 2015, and would probably have more rust than the Tin Man did when Dorothy found him.
Or maybe not. Smith showed up to camp looking like he had not been away from the game a day. He was always very talented, and that talent seems intact. The desire seems in full force as well. The odds were very long that he would be a true impact player this year, but all signs are that the Cowboys are about to cash in on that ticket.
Oh, well, we tried prize
Dallas had a lot of important free agent additions outside of McCoy and Smith, including Dontari Poe and Andy Dalton, who each in their own way provided an element the team has lacked for years. But the addition of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix did not produce much evidence that he was a real help for the team. Reports are that both Donovan Wilson and Darian Thompson outplayed him in practice, with Thompson being seen by many as a reason Clinton-Dix just might be on the bubble. That argument of Clinton-Dix on the bubble may turn out to be a straw man, but it will be worth watching.
Wait, they did what? award
As just mentioned, the Cowboys were very active in free agency and had a much more impressive group than we have seen in years. That in itself was a bit surprising, and then we got a true shock just before camp when Dallas signed Everson Griffen to further bolster the pass rush. Some had been loudly calling for him to be added, but we have become conditioned to the team not taking the plunge on what seem to be obvious moves.
But now with DeMarcus Lawrence, Smith, and Griffen, the team has three starter-caliber DEs, and a supposedly developmental rookie in Bradlee Anae who arguably showed he is going to be in the mix very early. We still have to see real games, but all indications are that this is the most potent pass rush since maybe the Jimmy Johnson years.
Award for least expected emergence
One of the most pleasant and needed developments of camp was the emergence of Trysten Hill as an effective defensive tackle. He was seen as a major disappointment last season, but between his own efforts and a little waving of the magic wand by Jim Tomsula, he appears to have made enormous strides. Given what happened with McCoy, it was just what the team needed. Now the defensive front looks extremely potent, with plenty of depth to boot.
Special Rowdy for costume design
For most of camp, it looked like this would be given for the introduction of the revolutionary red jersey for quarterbacks, an idea that is so logical and intelligent that it is amazing that it is not widespread throughout . . . What? Oh, OK. Anyway, this catching up with the rest of the NFL was long overdue and appreciated.
But then, in the now widely celebrated Cowboys Night practice, McCarthy stunned us all with the bold decision to have the team in BLANK JERSEYS! The clean, crisp look hearkened back to an earlier, purer era of football where establishing the run wasn’t just a philosophy, it was pretty much the only thing going on. A simpler time when football players needed outside jobs to make ends meet. It was bold, daring, and on social media, you could just bathe in the approval from fans . . . What? Oh.
Too good to be true, part 2
If Lamb did not look so good in practice and Smith was not such a surprise, the talk of camp would likely be second-round pick Trevon Diggs, who just may have played himself into one of the starting cornerback slots. When the Cowboys made the, um, considered decision to not try and retain Byron Jones, the void he left was logically seen as the biggest thing the team needed to fix. While no one is going to anoint Diggs as that level of player, he is probably closer than we dared to hope.
He and the rest of the secondary are also benefiting from the new coaching, which had their own breakthrough in coming up with the radical and completely new idea of having defensive backs TURN TO FIND THE BALL AND TRY TO INTERCEPT IT!
The innovation just keeps coming.
Just load management, really, award
McCoy was the only significant loss, but there were a whole bunch of players who spent time rehabbing or just hanging around on the sideline for no specified reason. One was Sean Lee, the elder statesman of all the players who don’t snap the ball on kicking plays. Given his well-established acumen and work ethic, plus no longer being a starter in the nickel, it is not illogical to have him sit out for apparently the entire camp. Amari Cooper was held back quite a bit in the final week or so. We are assured by the coaches and ownership, who would never, ever, lie or withhold pertinent information, that he is fine, they are just being cautious, and pay no attention to the nagging injuries he had last season that are behind that curtain.
Offensive tackle is a whole ‘nother situation. For many practices, the team was down to the fourth and fifth guys on the depth chart to run with the first team, and may have had one where even that fourth one was unavailable. However, while there were injuries or conditioning involved for all of them, they did see increased workload the last week or so. The evidence points to the team being legitimately cautious to have them ready to go when the games count. We need to hope it works out, because the Cowboys don’t have a Jason Peters all ready to step up and help out. For a hefty fee, of course.
It’s good to be Dak plaque
For months, the biggest story was whether Dak Prescott would get a new deal or play on the tag. Well, he’s on the tag. Don’t worry about that being any kind of disincentive for him, however. He knows that a good season will lead to bountiful riches in his next deal. The Jones family seems to think they will be the ones opening up their checkbooks, but let’s not completely underestimate their ability to screw up the relationship with their franchise QB. However, that is a topic to obsess, rail, and fall into the darkest, deepest pits of existential despair about later. For now, the important thing is that there were multiple receivers who had outstanding camps - and the biggest share of the passes they caught were from Prescott. He seems to largely have overcome his tendency to under-perform in practice. If he can just continue that into the real contests, this will be a great year in Dallas.
Special musical performance of “Baby got back” in the style of Judy Garland
As you should know, coverage of the camp practices was limited to a small pool of reporters, who could not live tweet, record video, or comment on where players were lining up or with which unit, the hat McCarthy was wearing, the weather, or whether Ben Affleck was a good Batman or not. Still, there was one thing that they fought valiantly to get out to the world through indirect hints and skirting dangerously close to those rules, That was that we would see some much more creative use of the running backs, particularly in how Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard would not be just mixed but at times matched on the field.
At the same time, the lack of any preseason games, live tackling, and really any video coverage at all made evaluating the trio of UDFA running back/fullback candidates nigh impossible. We are left to wonder if they will even carry more than two backs on the roster.
However, from an overall perspective, it does seem that “establishing the run” is a phrase that can be found nowhere in McCarthy’s lexicon.
All quiet on the Worley front tribute
As in CB Daryl Worley, an unheralded free agent signing who was a steady and effective performer. He is another factor shoring up that unit, and while he may not be a starter, look for him to play an important rotational role. And he might not be the only one, as the draft class looks to have so much potential from top to bottom. The big name signings are how most rate the front office, but it is in deals like this where they add a solid and affordable piece that the really earn their paychecks. Well, except the Jones family, but we all know that Will McClay is the wonderful wizard of scouting.
Best swap of the camp
The starting nickel linebackers are exactly the same as last year, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. But they exchanged positions, with Smith now the WILL and Vander Esch the MIKE (just for any offensive players to note in case LVE argues his assignment pre-snap.) Every indication is that this has been just what the DC ordered. Indeed, Mike Nolan and his staff have this defense looking ready to wreak some real havoc. Color us all over the rainbow.
The top Rowdy: We’re not in Kansas any more
Let’s finish out by milking the Wizard of Oz jokes for all they are worth. Oh, and also note the most important thing about this year: The McCarthy effect.
From the new approach to talent acquisition, to taking a WR at 17 with Cooper and Gallup already on the roster, to retaining Kellen Moore while making so many desperately needed changes elsewhere, to the iron-fisted control over things in camp, right down to the camera work in the Cowboys Night practice, the new head coach has exerted his will. While some of the resulting favorable reviews from the team might be due to the tendency to think the new guys are better than the old guys when there was growing dissatisfaction in the organization, the positive developments seem real, and spectacular. With due credit to Jerry Jones for the hire, the bulk of the credit (and eventual responsibility) has to be laid at McCarthy’s feet.
There are so many ways, both big and little, it has shown, but the most crucial may just be this. After a decade of “following the process” in climbing that playoff mountain, McCarthy has brought in an attitude of “we know where the mountain is and what we need, now let’s go and get to the summit.” That is another way of framing an approach that seems to have a badly needed dose of aggression and confidence. We can’t wait to see it.
That’s a wrap folks. Hope you enjoyed the awards.