OXNARD, Calif. – Training camp is not ending for the Cowboys this week. It just feels that way.
Thanks to the advent of The Star in Frisco, local fans in Dallas-Fort Worth won’t have to trek to watch the team in camp for the first time in club history. (And next Monday at Ford Center at The Star, there’ll be some historically big doings to kick that off. Details will be forthcoming here at DallasCowboys.com). For the next week and a half after the team returns Friday, it’ll still be a camp regimen for the players. But when you’re packing bags and loading trucks after a month away from home, it feels like stocktaking time.
I’m fortunate to work with walking wisdom at the Cowboys Radio Network. Waiting for coach Jason Garrett’s press conference to start Monday, broadcast partner and former Cowboys’ quarterback Babe Laufenberg observed, “Just because you can identify a problem, doesn’t mean you can solve it.” Sideline reporter extraordinaire Kristi Scales chimed in, “When you have a problem you can’t solve, that’s an issue.”
Staring at the last few practices this summer in Oxnard (#sad) with two preseason games at home, plus one in Houston, it doesn’t appear from here that the Cowboys leave California with serious issues. But they do have some problems.
One is minor injuries. They’re really fortunate to have avoided disaster with Tyrone Crawford’s ankle, and Tyron Smith’s back bears watching (Smith being out would be an issue). But there’s a rash of hamstring ailments that seems to be as contagious as the upper respiratory blahs running through camp. Unofficially, we counted 15 of the 89 players on the roster who weren’t able to practice Monday. At this point none of them appears bad enough to threaten a player’s availability for the regular season. But there have to be enough bodies to practice and play the preseason games. Every team has these problems, but hey, we don’t care about every team, do we? Just saying.
Left guard is a problem. It’s a problem because no one has jumped up and claimed the job. It’s not an issue because the top candidates have also not eliminated themselves. Byron Bell may not have reminded anyone of Zack Martin on Saturday against the Rams, but he’s an experienced player with 75 career starts, including playoffs. At the least he appears a serviceable backup.
Jonathan Cooper, who started the Hall of Fame Game at left guard and then moved mostly to backup center, was back taking first team snaps Monday. He’ll probably get another shot against the Colts this week.
Chaz Green is working his way back into practice from a shoulder injury, and while he’s also playing tackle, he may get a long look next week. And Joe Looney is working his way back from a toe injury. So without even thinking about players on other teams at the moment, there are potential solutions. Potential. They’ve identified the problem. Now they’re trying to solve it, before it becomes an issue.
Suspensions are a problem. Up to six players could be facing them when the season starts, and that’s just too many. Everyone agrees with that. Everyone. These eyes don’t see it as an issue because, despite the naysaying from some corners, it just doesn’t look from here that there’s a culture problem.
Leaving Randy Gregory aside (Randy has issues), almost none of the players currently or possibly facing suspension is what you’d call a problem. The one whose behavior is most problematic, honestly, is Ezekiel Elliott. Any of you culture inspectors advocate releasing him? Anyone? And you have a locker room populated by Jason Witten, Sean Lee, Dak Prescott, Tyrone Crawford, Byron Jones, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, et cetera et cetera? Sorry. That’s not an issue, and it’s not a culture problem.
To be perfectly honest, after that, what the Oxnard portion of training camp has flashed is promise. The Elliott situation is beyond anyone’s control, but they have enough runners, blockers and schemers to make do. Presuming young Ryan Switzer can shake a nagging hamstring and get on the field sooner that later, the offense shows exciting possibilities. Give offensive coordinator Scott Linehan Switzer and healthy tight ends Geoff Swaim and James Hannah to supplement Witten and an apparently improved Prescott, and this group could be fun. Especially when Elliott is playing.
And for the first time in a few years, the defense is really intriguing. There may not be a DeMarcus Ware, but DeMarcus Lawrence looks great. So does Maliek Collins. So did Crawford before his injury, and he’s coming back. There are other additions you’ll like.
This week or next, we are likely to get a look at Jaylon Smith at linebacker. Just come watch him. That’s all there is to say right now. He’s still a fraction of what he was and will probably be, and he is already one of those players you have to watch.
Those nagging injuries mentioned above are going to keep you from seeing all of the changes wrought in the secondary before September. But Oxnard has revealed enough to say that Chido Awuzie and Xavier Woods are going to make the defense better sooner than many folks thought, and we haven’t even gotten a look at Jourdan Lewis yet.
And then there is the question of leadership. In this corner, that was identified as the team’s biggest pre-camp challenge. Replacing what Barry Church and Brandon Carr and Doug Free and Ron Leary and Terrell McClain lent off the field was something that had to be witnessed and experienced.
And it appears it is happening. Byron Jones and Tyrone Crawford and Frederick and Martin have stepped right up. There have already been leadership challenges, and from this angle they appear to be met. And if Jaylon Smith is able to return to the field in a meaningful way, it will be an even bigger impact. How would you not follow a guy who would have come back from what he’s trying to do?
Everyone’s got problems. As Bill Parcells famously said, don’t tell yours to people. Ninety percent of the people don’t care and the other 10 are glad you’ve got ’em. Just stay away from issues. So far so good, and fingers crossed.
Load the trucks.