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Posted: Thursday August 13, 2009 12:23PM; Updated: Thursday August 13, 2009 12:46PM
John P. Lopez John P. Lopez >
INSIDE THE NFL

Postcard from camp: Cowboys

Story Highlights

Tony Romo certainly looks like a better player without any distractions

Martellus Bennett oozes confidence and is primed for breakout season

Free agent additions and rookies give defense reason for optimism

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Martellus Bennett has been garnering attention at Cowboys camp, both with his hands and mouth.
AP
NFL Team Page

SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what John P. Lopez had to say about the Cowboys' camp in San Antonio. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.

Setting The Scene

While in San Antonio for Cowboys camp, I decided to visit my father's grave at a cemetery not far outside of town. After cleaning up the plot and placing flowers, I noticed on the adjoining plot that a headstone had a Dallas Cowboys star engraved on the back.

When I looked at the front of the gravestone, there was a picture of the departed, wearing a Cowboys polo shirt and a Cowboys cap. On each side of the picture were full-color engravings of a Cowboys helmet. Flowers had been placed in a 64-ounce Cowboys beer mug next to the stone.

Jerry Jones' licensing police aside, that image alone would have said much about the kinds of fans in these parts. This one literally took his Cowboys allegiance to the grave. But it wasn't just one.

As I walked back to my truck, I noticed another headstone on another plot. It, too, had a Cowboys star engraving.

Such is the depth of Cowboys loyalty in San Antonio. They not only are lifelong Cowboys fans in San Antonio. They are eternal.

Buildings are decorated with Cowboys logos. The Cowboys' open house at the Alamodome before camp drew more than 30,000 fans. At least 15,000 fans show up for practices everyday, including during two-a-days. Fans line up hours before the doors open on weekends and sprint to the prime sideline seats.

Welcome to San Antonio, where living and dying with the Cowboys takes on a whole new meaning.

Three Observations

1. Now that the Twin Divas -- Terrell Owens and Jessica Simpson -- are out of the picture, Tony Romo has a clear head and certainly looks like a better player. It seems crazy that the buffoonery of Owens and drama of Simpson actually impacted Romo so much between the lines and between the ears. Anytime the subject has come up during camp, Romo and the Cowboys guffaw at the ol' "girls weaken the legs" thing. As for T.O.'s impact, ditto. They say it's overblown and Romo has just been working hard and getting better, like always.

Nevertheless, even my Aggie math can figure out that two plus two equals four. Or in this case, Romo minus two equals a quarterback who is sharper, more confident and looks more focused than he's ever been. Romo has been on-target and impressive in drill after drill, scrimmage after scrimmage.

The only ominous thing: While it is true Romo no longer has all the annoying TMZ-fodder distractions, neither does he have anymore excuses if the Cowboys fail to advance in the playoffs.

2. "Mr. Mean" Wade Phillips lasted about as long as a snow-cone in the South Texas sun. Phillips promised to toughen up and "whatever" after losing 44-6 to the Eagles to end the 2008 season. And he was tougher, for a while. He held players more accountable in drills and scrimmaging, sending them out if they made mistakes. He even pounded his fist -- kinda, sorta -- into the table when emphasizing that the Cowboys would rise again before camp began.

But while it is not exactly "Camp Cupcake" as in 2008, Phillips remains a gentlemanly sort who doesn't figure to change after 30 years in the game. Cowboys camp can be called crisper and sharper, not necessarily fire and brimstone.

The more significant changes figure to be Phillips' taking over the Cowboys defense and hiring respected special teams coach Joe DeCamillis. Early returns from players on both moves are positive.

3. The only thing more difficult than keeping second-year tight end Martellus Bennett from chattering and talking trash to anyone within earshot has been trying to stop him. Bennett easily has been the most impressive player in camp, considering his superb blocking skills complemented by tremendous playmaking ability and speed to stretch the middle of the field. In fact, while everyone wonders if Roy Williams and the patchwork Cowboys receiving corps has what it takes to replace Owens' threat, don't forget 'Tellus.

Bennett has been working overtime throughout camp because of his blocking skills on rush ends. He has taken many more snaps with the first team than anyone expected and is taking every snap with the second-teamers. Phillips noted recently that everyday in camp, Bennett has done something "spectacular."

Williams may be T.O.'s replacement and Jason Witten the primary tight end target, but the Cowboys implementing much more double-tight sets in camp is a sure sign they have big plans to use Bennett as a threat down the middle, deep and in goal-line situations.

New Face, New Place

Igor Olshansky, defensive tackle. The former Oregon Duck, whose family immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union when he was 7, is making the most of living the ultimate American dream. Now he's playing for America's Team.

Olshansky signed a four-year free-agent contract worth $18 million in the offseason and has been strong and difficult to block throughout camp.

The Cowboys are going to need every bit of Olshanky's experience and strength in the rough-and-tumble NFC East. He will team with Marcus Spears and Jay Ratliff on a defensive line that should be deep and skilled.

As big as he is (6-foot-6, 309 pounds) and known more as a run-stopper, Olshansky has looked quick and could thrive putting more pressure on offenses behind the line of scrimmage, given that Phillips knows Olshansky well from their days together with the San Diego Chargers.

Rookie Report

Victor Butler, linebacker. The Cowboys have raved since the start of camp about how NFL-savvy Butler has been. Even more impressive is that Butler didn't even attend organized team activities for a month because his class had yet to graduate at Oregon State.

It didn't matter. In a season in which the Cowboys need lots of help on the depth chart behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, Butler has stepped in and impressed.

One reason he has picked things up quickly is he's smart. Another: He's got a big family.

When Butler realized he couldn't practice with the Cowboys in the early summer, he solicited the help of his seven brothers and sisters. He often took them to a local high school and had them all, including his mother, play various positions, so he could practice.

The 6-2, 248-pound Butler has earned a place in the linebacking rotation in camp. He has been physical, smooth and instinctive.

Memorable Image

Martellus Bennett was standing there in the middle of the Alamodome, drenched in sweat after the second session of a two-a-day practice. He was tired and, by Bennett standards, even a little reluctant to talk. He was THAT tired.

But then the topic of LeBron James getting dunked-on by a college player came up. Bennett, who calls himself, "the LeBron James of tight ends" and was an extremely gifted basketball player on the summer circuit and at Texas A&M, lit up.

"LeBron, I saw that dunk," Bennett said. "It wasn't that bad. Nike did not have to hide the tape.

"I've never been dunked on. I've been dunked-by, but never been dunked on. I've dunked on more people than anyone. I've dunked on Greg Oden, Josh McRoberts, Kevin Rogers, C.J. Miles ... I've dunked on so many people, my résumé is long."

Parting Shots

• What do the Cowboys have over the New York Yankees? No problem selling tickets. Nearly every seat (95 percent, the team reports) of the new $1.15 billion Cowboys Stadium already is sold out.

• If Martellus Bennett isn't the player primed to have a breakout year, then Felix Jones is. Jones has flashed brilliant, electric speed after an injury-shortened 2008.

• The scene is the same, day-after-day. Romo is one of the last players to jog onto the turf at the Alamodome and always receives the loudest cheers and ovations. There's been a Jessica Simpson-effect, too. Lots of women offer marriage proposals, now that Romo's a free man.

• The Cowboys say they are going to find a way to make up for Owens' absence. Sam Hurd, from San Antonio, may not be a huge star, but continues to make acrobatic catches, including one ball he tipped into the air, bounced off his head and then cradled.

• Wade Phillips clearly is having an impact on the defensive side of the ball. He is much more involved in practice, running every defensive meeting, and has gained the players' confidence. If it doesn't take away from Phillips' head-coaching duties, the Cowboys should be better.

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