It has only been three unpadded practices in Oxnard for the Dallas Cowboys, but that is enough to start forming some thoughts on this year’s edition of America’s Team, premature as they may be.
The best thing so far
Look at the picture heading this article. Depending on what device you are using to read this, you can see Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin all in uniform. That trio has also been walking out together at the start of practice. With Dak Prescott throwing to just about every available target on the field, Ezekiel Elliott looking ready to run over people, Randy Gregory turning into a monster, and rookies like Micah Parsons, Kelvin Joseph, and Nahshon Wright making plays, the big guys on the offensive line once again get overlooked. It does make some sense, since we really can’t get a true read on them until those pads are donned on Wednesday, but I nominate having all the projected starters healthy as the most important thing to happen. If they stay that way, it is the most important key to the success of this offense, and probably the overall record of the team this year.
Yes, Prescott’s injury was the single most devastating blow to the Cowboys in 2020, but by the time that happened, he was already playing without either of his starting tackles. It all starts up front for the offense. With two All Pros in Smith and Martin back, along with Collins who was definitely on the ascent in 2019, and Tyler Biadasz and iron man Conner Williams getting the timing and coordination down, this unit should be back in the upper echelon of NFL lines. Everything else about the offense will just benefit. Even the defense gets a boost when the offense holds the ball longer and puts more points on the board.
Give these big guys their due. They put in a lot of work to be ready. And boy, do they look ready.
Tyron Smith raises his hand to ask La’el Collins a question.— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) July 24, 2021
“How did you get so lean,” Smith asked. pic.twitter.com/9jWGzW1LEy
However, there may be another thing that bears watching during camp.
I wonder if all this Connor Williams work at center is to see if he can start there and put McGovern at OG. https://t.co/6BrB6OKKy3— BryanBroaddus (@BryanBroaddus) July 26, 2021
Given Biadasz’s own injury history, this may just be a possibility. At the least, it is very prudent to make sure your plan B is in good shape.
Mike McCarthy is winning - and it’s not just about what is happening in Oxnard
The practices so far have been very good. They seem crisp and well organized, and the performances to date are encouraging. That is to McCarthy’s credit.
Meanwhile, back at his old stomping grounds with the Green Bay Packers, things are not exactly going according to plan. From the team losing money last year due to a loss of home game revenue, to a real and mutual disenchantment with their star quarterback, to their top wide receiver also now a question mark for the coming season, they show all the signs of a franchise in disarray. When McCarthy was hired to be the head coach in Dallas, many pointed to his firing by the Packers as why he might not be a good choice. While he certainly has to prove that he can get much better results this season than last, there is growing evidence that he was not the problem in Green Bay.
The proof will be in the pudding, of course, and that appropriately will begin to be done around Christmas. But it does put a bit of a new light on things to see how bad it has gotten up north once McCarthy was no longer there.
There’s also another thing that he seems to have gotten right.
Putting the reins in the hands of the coordinators
It took a year and one glaring mistake, but all indications are that McCarthy has a great trio to actually handle things on the field, both in practices and during games. The latter has to be proven, but camp certainly points this direction.
When McCarthy was hired, he retained Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator. A suspicion lingers that it was a condition of his employment, but publicly McCarthy has done nothing but praise Moore, who is expected to get on the head coaching short list if the Cowboys have the kind of offensive production most predict.
He then hired his other two coordinators, and it was a hit and a miss. The hit was John Fassel, who immediately turned around the special teams. Mike Nolan was famously the miss. His hiring was largely seen to be based on his relationship with McCarthy. He did a terrible job adjusting to the pandemic restrictions. His players failed to grasp and execute the scheme. Well before the end of the season, he clearly had lost the defensive part of the locker room.
Some may argue he was scapegoated, but given how bad things were, moving on from him was all but inevitable. However, once Dan Quinn was brought in, the same arguments arose about him being an example of how the “old boys network” leads to a constant recycling of the same coaches for key jobs.
The first three days of practice, along with what was observed during OTAs, have changed a lot of thinking on that. Quinn is proving to be a personally involved and strongly qualified teacher, investing extra one-on-one time in players like Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons who are planned to have big roles for the defense. It seems to be going very well on the field, with a relative handful of missed assignments and reads so far.
Most importantly, McCarthy is keeping his hands off, letting the coordinators run their parts of the show. Even when he sees bad things coming.
Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy on Randy Gregory on stopping reverse plays: As soon as we called a reverse, Kellen said it and I laughed because I would’ve never ran a reverse toward Randy Gregory in the old days. You can’t get outside of him. He’s a great athlete. ✭ #dallascowboys pic.twitter.com/RNMcN7p2AE— The Cowboys Network (@TheCowboysNet) July 25, 2021
Letting the mistakes happen while you can learn without it hurting you is good leadership.
While it is far too soon to say that Quinn will be what we hope for, nothing has happened to discourage that idea. If he is, and Moore and Fassel continue to do the job they did (and that first four weeks of last season was a real indication of the potential of this offense) this could be a very strong team. It may be time to start talking about a new kind of triplets.
Well, not quite yet, obviously.
A player who may surprise people
At this stage, it is not only the offensive line that gets overlooked. Their counterparts across the line of scrimmage also have a hard time standing out without padded work. This is especially true of the interior linemen. Pass rushers like Gregory can make splash plays, and the battle between receiver and defender is a real highlight generator. But those defensive tackles just have a much less glamorous and visible job, locking down the middle of the line against the run, or pushing the pocket to give rushers and blitzers a shot at the quarterback.
So it says something that second year DT Neville Gallimore is generating some buzz.
Neville Gallimore is having a nice little day— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) July 24, 2021
McCarthy says Neville Gallimore has taken huge strides in terms of strength and conditioning. McCarthy kinda lit up when he started talking about it.#CC21— Joe Trahan (@JoeTrahan) July 25, 2021
Having both reporters and your head coach notice you in a positive way is a very good thing. Doing so from such a hard to notice position is really impressive.
A lot of the offseason moves were made to address the woes of the interior defensive line last year, in all phases of the game. They signed Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, then drafted Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna. Maybe a big part of the answer, however, is the second-year improvement of Gallimore. No one is going to complain about that in the slightest.
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