A new week begins for the Dallas Cowboys and unlike many before them this one features an actual game at the end. Preseason football is, well, preseason football, but it will be the first sip of water for all of us after wandering through the desert of the offseason. So we will take it and be very happy.
I spent last week in Oxnard at Cowboys training camp with my friends from San Antonio Sports Star and in the process we put together a lot of fun interviews that we shared bits and pieces of here on the blog. All told the Cowboys practiced three times while I was in California and after each there was a post listing observations, thoughts, takeaways and the like.
I had some travel time on Saturday and some Sunday time with my pellet grill to really digest everything that I saw over the week, and as a result here is a collection of observations during practice as well as what was said in the aforementioned interviews.
Here we go. The jalapeño poppers were fantastic, by the way.
Players understand the “why” of things a lot more on offense
One of the most common things said by offensive players all week long was that the offensive coaching staff (shout out Brian Schottenheimer and Mike McCarthy) has done a great job of teaching everybody the “why” of each play call.
Obviously coaching is a critical part of success in the NFL and it seems evident that this year the Cowboys are being given specific understanding as to why even the tiniest details are the way that they are.
Dak Prescott may indeed scramble a bit more in 2023
When SASS had Dak Prescott on the radio last week the quarterback was asked directly if he was going to be scrambling more this season. Dak said yes in a bit of a roundabout way and also noted that the offense in general is going to be moving faster than we have seen.
To be clear he wasn’t saying in an up-tempo way but in a delivery sort of way. Dak mentioned that the ball will be coming out of his hands quickly and that Mike McCarthy is a bit more aggressive as a play-caller.
The hype is fair on Jalen Tolbert, KaVontae Turpin and Deuce Vaughn
Before the trip, I was skeptical of the Jalen Tolbert fanfare that was all over social media. The idea of KaVontae Turpin and Deuce Vaughn was a bit more palatable. Before I even arrived at LAX for my departing flight though, I was sold. Tolbert, Turpin and/or Vaughn may not set any records or receive a Pro Bowl nod in 2023, but they should be significant pieces of the offense.
When last season ended we lamented the lack of explosive playmakers on the team and noted only CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard qualified as options in that capacity. With the latter injured in the final game of the season, things were all the more difficult for the offense as a group. The point here is not to say that any of these three players are that caliber of explosiveness, but they are definitely closer to it than anyone else.
Zack Martin’s absence was treated as an opportunity with no real concern
Something that that was amazing during the week out there was that the Cowboys were already dealing with two multi-week injuries in Donovan Wilson and Israel Mukuamu, had an injury pop up (Sam Williams wound up fine thankfully) and were in the middle of a holdout with one of the team’s most dominant players in Zack Martin. None of it seemed to matter.
This was my fourth training camp in a working capacity and I can tell you that tension has been present in other instances. I happened to be in Oxnard when all of the Lucky Whitehead drama unfolded and you could sense that in the air. Things seemed really chill which was a nice surprise.
It seems like we all think things will ultimately work out with Martin, but nobody seems overly-concerned.
The Cowboys pass rush looks unstoppable right now
It is not uncommon for a defense to be ahead of an offense at the beginning of a training camp. But this was more than that. Micah Parsons (duh) was unbelievable. DeMarcus Lawrence looks incredible. Sam Williams had his moments. Shoot, even Dante Fowler popped.
The Cowboys have a wide variety of pass rushers on this team and they are going to be a big strength of the overall group. Some are worried about not seeing Mazi Smith’s name a lot in highlights and discussion, but sometimes things take time. Patience is a virtue after all.
This is the best Cowboys secondary in a long time
Moving further back in the defense... holy moly. These are the princes that were promised 11 years ago with Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr (both very solid players that didn’t totally pan out, but the era wasn’t as bad as some make it seem to be in retrospect, but I digress).
Trevon Diggs and Stephon Gilmore working together is so unbelievably cool to watch. Obviously Wilson and Mukuamu were not out there, but Jayron Kearse remains a sight to behold. DaRon Bland looks like a better version of the rookie that we were all very impressed with. Eric Scott Jr. continued the impressive start to his NFL career and Nahshon Wright might be the better cornerback taken on day two in 2021 (not exactly a heavy competition).
There have been times where it has felt like we winced every time the Cowboys dropped back into coverage. Those days are over.
There is legitimate leadership from newbies Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore
There is very little that I can say about Brandin Cooks and/or Stephon Gilmore that has not been said. Excitement around them has been building and manifesting for about five months now.
Still, seeing the two in action is very impressive given their list of accomplishments in the NFL prior to joining the Dallas Cowboys. One enjoyable aspect as a result of that was the leadership that they seemed to bring. Three years ago when the Cowboys signed Gerald McCoy I was hopeful that he could be to Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys what Charles Woodson was to Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers in terms of being a big brother sort of presence, someone who had seen and done serious things in the NFL.
Obviously Cooks and Gilmore bring that in bunches, and they are very much living up to their legendary status, and showing it off in the form of leadership. Both Cooks and Gilmore were vocal and instructive with younger players; the value that they are bringing to the team far exceeds what they are able to do on the field as individuals.
The Mojo moments are cool
Mike McCarthy catches a lot of grief, but the mojo moments are some of the more fun things that he does. If you are unaware, the mojo moments are meant to simulate the intense moments that the season can bring. The team even plays the theme music from productions like Sunday Night Football to create as much of the aura as they can. They vocally shout “tv timeout!” to really bring in the full effect. You get the picture.
Consider me a student of the “practice how you want to play” school of thought, and that kind of stuff is really cool. This isn’t cutting edge or innovative in any sort of way, but it is indicative of some sort of secondary level of thought with regards to preparing the team for the season to come.
Hope reigns eternal this time of year.
Kicker is a very real concern, but will it matter later?
The Cowboys kickers were wholly unimpressive. There is no other way to say it.
To be very clear, I have spilled many a bottle of BTB’s finest ink on the subject of kicking, consider this 2018 post advocating for someone other than Dan Bailey to handle kickoffs (and this about Bailey a few months before that too), so I care greatly about the subject and position; however, I am not as concerned as the masses seem to be.
The Cowboys were incredibly lucky last year in that they pulled a Brett Maher-shaped rabbit out of their hat after arriving in Oxnard with Jonathan Garibay and Larim Hajrullahu in tow for the kicking competition. Unfortunately Tristan Vizcaino and Brandon Aubrey have us feeling very similar to those times.
But the Cowboys did pull it off. They get the benefit of the doubt. For now.
Dan Quinn is a menace and it is so cool that he is on this team
Is there a Cowboys fan out there who is not a massive fan of Dan Quinn? Nope. The defensive players clearly love playing for Dan Quinn. This sounds cheesy and corny and silly and cliché, but it is true.
Perhaps it’s the second glass of kool-aid talking, but that stuff does matter a bit. The Cowboys defense seems like a brotherhood. It is clear that Quinn has cultivated a culture on that side of the ball that has given us all reason to believe in them being elite and defying odds (particularly in the sense of inevitable regression).
Gone are the days of Kris Richard putting on cleats and running drills with his team, here are the moments of Dan Quinn just coaching really good players and having fun while doing it. It rules.