Postcard from camp: Cowboys
Despite Dez Bryant's many off-field headaches, Cowboys are committed to him
With Bill Callahan's help, DeMarco Murray is set to improve on his rookie season
Brandon Carr has been even better than the team expected when it signed him
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about Cowboys camp in Oxnard, Calif., which he visited on Aug. 7. Read all of our postcards here.
In sunny and comfortable Oxnard, Calif., where the Cowboys have returned to train this year, staying here the entire camp for the first time since 2008, the year the team was featured in HBO's wildly popular Hard Knocks reality series.
Dallas has a deal to train here for the next three summers as well, and it's worth the long trek west just to get out of the Texas heat and be able to practice outdoors in what is usually a nice ocean breeze blowing in from the nearby Pacific. The Cowboys pretty much take over the Marriott Residence Inn River Ridge hotel during camp, and it's a compact and convenient set-up that everybody seems to enjoy. Put it this way, I didn't hear anyone in Cowboys colors go on about missing San Antonio and the dark confines of the Alamodome during my camp visit.
1. The Cowboys are talking tougher when it comes to Dez Bryant and his off-field issues, but I don't think he's anywhere near the point of having exhausted their patience. The fact is, the third-year receiver is having a great camp and again tantalizing with his ability to create downfield mismatches, even while he deals with being arrested and charged last month in an incident that involved him hitting his mother in the face with a baseball cap. Owner Jerry Jones has been vocal about Bryant no longer getting the benefit of the doubt given his track record, but Dallas isn't even close to giving up on him, especially when he flashes the kind of focus and dominance he has early on in camp.
I talked to head coach Jason Garrett about Bryant, who is not being made available to the media while his legal issues are pending, and he said progress has been made in regards to Bryant's maturity and decision-making despite the recent off-field setback. "He's a good kid. He just needs some help with the structure in his life,'' Garrett said. "The leaps and bounds he's made in the two years we've had him are really significant. It's been a challenge, but the strides he's made are outstanding. There's been tough love shown him, but often times it's hard to control someone's life 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days out of the year.''
Translation? The Cowboys still believe Bryant is worth the trouble. Now they need him to stay healthy, stop underachieving, and start paying them back for the faith shown him since he was taken in 2010's first round. There's still time for this story to take a turn for the (much) better.
2. DeMarco Murray looks like a man among (Cow)boys in this camp. Last year's breakthrough rushing star has gotten off to an eye-opening getaway in his second season, and he looks determined to prove he was no half-season flash in the pan in 2011, when he gained a team-best 897 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry despite starting just seven games. Murray's season ended early in Week 14, when he fractured his right ankle in a home loss to the Giants, and Dallas' playoff contention expired shortly thereafter.
Murray is running with speed, power and determination, and shows no ill effects of his December leg injury. I'm the last guy to give fantasy football advice, but if I played, I'd find room for him on my roster. He rushed for just two touchdowns last year, a total he calls unacceptable and one he vows to increase many times over. His teammates gush about his intensity and how he runs with a mean streak, and in one recent practice he set the tone by bowling over reserve cornerback Teddy Williams, sending him to the sidelines with a concussion.
3. The Cowboys say they're not worried about their rash of injuries this summer, but maybe they should be. I get that you can't be panicking in early August, with the season opener nearly four weeks away, but Dallas looked pretty banged up the day I watched practice. Cornerback Mike Jenkins is trying to return from offseason shoulder surgery and may wind up starting the season on the PUP list. First-round pick, cornerback Morris Claiborne, has battled a sprained knee and offseason wrist surgery, and has participated in just one padded practice so far. Starting receiver Miles Austin is having hamstring issues again (see 2011), and standout nose tackle Jay Ratliff isn't practicing due to a nagging case of plantar fascia. On the retooled offensive line, the unit has yet to generate any cohesiveness or continuity because new free-agent additions Nate Livings (hamstring) and Mackenzy Bernadeau (knee and hip) have barely been on the field together.
"It's not frustrating, [because] we're not to the season [yet],'' Stephen Jones said this week. "[Frustration sets in] when the season gets here and guys aren't playing.''
OK, but if practice time in training camp didn't matter, coaches wouldn't schedule it. Dallas may be getting its injury problems out of the way early this year, but that's only the glass-half-full approach to this wave of ill health.
Brandon Carr, cornerback. The Cowboys targeted Carr as their No. 1 prospect in free agency, and then paid dearly to wrap up the ex-Chief, to the tune of $50.1 million over five years. But they're thrilled so far, because Carr has handled most every assignment with precision and poise, and is setting a furious pace among all defensive playmakers -- in the secondary or otherwise. Carr specializes in press coverage and his one-on-one duels in practice with No. 1 receiver Bryant are worth the price of admission (if there were any charged, that is).
Upgrading at cornerback was priority No. 1 in Dallas this offseason, and Carr is playing at a shutdown level through the first 10 days of camp, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan calling him the "best player in free agency by far,'' and Garrett praising him as being better than even advertised. Carr looks like he'll be up to the task of shadowing an opponent's top receiver this season, and that means throwing the ball against the Cowboys just got quite a bit tougher.
Bill Callahan, offensive coordinator/offensive line coach. Garrett can't seem to say enough about how fortunate he is to have the well-respected Callahan around this year, going on at length about how the ex-Jets assistant head coach/offensive line coach "takes a lot off my plate.'' Garrett will still call plays on game days, but Callahan is here to make sure Dallas doesn't forget about its running game, which it certainly did at times last season, in costly fashion. The Cowboys scored just five rushing touchdowns in 2011 -- second-fewest in the league -- and ran the ball just 40.1 percent of the time, ranking 23rd in that department.
All those blown fourth-quarter leads were the story of the season last year in Dallas, and a dependable running game could have helped salt several of those games away and made the 8-8 Cowboys a playoff team.
Making a rushing game work is Callahan's specialty. He helped the Jets finish in the top five in rushing twice in his four years on the job, and his experience as a head coach and offensive coordinator in both the NFL and college ranks should help shore up Garrett's shaky 2011 performance in terms of game management. Garrett said he'll "lean on'' Callahan's vast experience, and I'd be shocked if the Cowboys' running game doesn't produce a much more committed and well-coordinated effort this season.
The Cowboys got no breaks from the NFL in drawing the visiting team assignment in the regular season's kickoff game, Wed., Sept. 5 at the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. The opener has turned into a huge advantage for the home team, with the Super Bowl champs going 8-0 in that celebratory setting. Dallas follows that up by traveling all the way to Seattle in Week 2, before finally opening at home against Tampa Bay in Week 3.
The Cowboys schedule is plenty quirky. Dallas plays at home just three times in the first 10 weeks of the season, but then has five of its final seven at home, all from mid-November on. Three of those home games fall in a 15-day span, with Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia coming to town, with the centerpiece game being the Thanksgiving Day showdown with the NFC East rival Redskins.
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