As all Cowboys fans remember, going into last season just about every pundit in the NFL considered Dallas a major contender to become the FIRST team to ever appear in the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Alas, it didn’t happen; the ‘Boys got off to a horrible 1-7 start and Head Coach Wade Phillips was banished from Dallas. Things did turn around after Jason Garrett came in as Interim Head Coach to complete the season. He managed to go 5-3 over the last half of the year, but the Cowboys still finished a shameful 6-10.
Fortunately, that was last year, and everyone knows if you are going to be successful on the football field you have to be able to forget the past and forge forward. That is exactly what Head Coach (the interim title now gone) Jason Garrett and his charges have done.
We asked him at his press conference last Saturday afternoon how he feels about where his team is at this point in Training Camp. “I feel good. Obviously we’re a long ways away from where we want to be, but we talk about it all the time with the team: the approach has to be right. You have to come to work every day and you have to approach it the right way. Right now for a lot of our guys, it’s a lot about learning. We have a lot of players on our team who are new to our team and learning our systems of football. The meeting part, the walkthrough part is really critical to be able to practice well. I think our guys are going about it the right way. It’s still a lot of stuff for them, it’s still very early, but their approach is right and I feel like we’re getting better each and every day.”
“We go into pads this afternoon and really it’s just a more physical practice. One of the things we emphasized to our team a lot is knowing how practice and what kind of gear you have on. You put your full pads on and it becomes a more physical practice and becomes more like playing actual football. But we have to understand how to practice when we’re not in full pads and I think we’ve done a real good job of that the past couple of days. We still practice with great tempo, great energy, great enthusiasm. You just have to understand how to compete without getting in trouble physically and getting anybody hurt. You still have some of those same conversations when you’re in full pads because it’s not tackling the (running) backs to the ground and competing where guys can be in jeopardy of getting injured. You have to be physical; you have to get after each other a little bit and start laying down the foundation of the physical part of your football team.”
Garrett was also asked if the defensive unit under new Coordinator Rob Ryan was where he expected them to be at this early point camp following the end of the lockout. “I think our guys have done a great job first of all communicating the information to our players. One of the things that was so impressive about Rob (Ryan) in the interview process was that you could tell he’s a very good teacher. He’s very natural getting information across to people. He communicates well with a variety of people - younger guys, older guys – and just seems to have a good understanding how to get information across to people. I think that carries throughout our defensive staff, and it’s a good challenge for him. Twenty-or-so practices went by the wayside in the spring, so now we have to catch everybody up. They communicate well. I think our guys are into it. They’re locked into meetings and they’re doing a nice job going from the meeting room, to the walkthrough to the practice field. There’s a ton of mistakes. There’s mistakes all over the place on both sides and in the kicking game, but we’re going about it the right way and I think our guys have picked it up fairly well so far.”
He was also asked if due to the lockout he was doing things “one step at a time”, or if he was putting everything in at once. “We’re very aggressive with our installs. We believe that you have to be aggressive, get a lot of information in there and then hopefully you teach it well and hopefully you have a system that the players see some consistency within and then you can keep growing from there. We talk to our players a lot about knowing the alphabet. You’ve got to know the alphabet of the system. You’ve got to know what the numbers mean, the words mean. We’re going to have a lot of pages, a lot of schemes on the page every morning. They need to understand what those things mean. What the letters mean. And then you can start putting that stuff together and you can have a lot of volume. At the end of the day, you have to evaluate how the players are playing within the scheme. Can they run this play? Can he run this ball? Can we use this blitz? Whatever the thing might be, are we good at those things? And then the whole thing kind of whittles down and you get to your offense and defense and kicking game system. So we believe in being aggressive in our installs and seeing how guys can handle it. Hopefully we’re systematic and we’re good teachers, and then what sticks and what we’re good at is what we’ll keep in our system.”
There is no doubt the Cowboys have a LOT of work to do if they are going to climb back into contention in the NFC East and make the playoffs this season. It is very evident watching practice that some of the sharpness on offense has dulled. Quarterback Tony Romo is throwing more picks in practice than usual. Part of that can be attributed to his rustiness after missing a good part of last season due to the broken collar bone he suffered that ended his season early, but a good part can also be attributed to the new-found excitement and confidence that Rob Ryan has instilled in the defense.
It is very early in Camp, and as Coach Garrett said, there is a lot of work to do, but seeing the determination of the team early on, it is apparent there is a new attitude and a determination to dramatically improve from last year’s disappointing season. Cowboys fans are just hoping that all turns into a return trip to the playoffs at the end of the 2011 regular season.
We’ll get a clearer indication of how realistic a hope that is once the regular sesason begins, but for now, we’re all just happy to have NFL football back on the horizon once again. A couple of weeks ago it wasn’t a given that would be the case.