OXNARD, Calif. – Yes, it's the real "Return to Football" for the Cowboys out here at training camp.
Why, for the first time this camp the pads came on for two straight days this week before what head coach Mike McCarthy calls a "mock game" practice on Wednesday, more of a walk-through workout with absolutely no pads before two more padded practices on Thursday and Friday.
Real man's football these padded practice are, short of putting the guy with the ball on the ground. Just thudding them up if you know the definition of a thud.
"I want it cranked up," McCarthy said prior to Monday's padded workout. "I want the fur flying. I want the juice.''
Unfortunately, with fur flying and juice flowing comes injuries, and the Cowboys quickly found that out on Monday and then again on Tuesday.
Once again confirming what my camp roomie has taught me over the years, Brad Sham often saying, "We come to training camp to find out who is going to get hurt." Never fails. And we didn't have to wait long for disconcerting _shots_ to fall. Keep up, we're going quick here.
- Raise The Barr: The Cowboys quickly recognized the lack of depth at the linebacker position, agreeing to terms with ninth-year veteran Anthony Barr, a former first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings in 2014. Here was the worry. If the Cowboys were to play a 4-3 base defense with three linebackers, that would entail Leighton Vander Esch in the middle, Micah Parsons at one outside spot and … and … who? Could have been Jabril Cox, returning from the torn ACL as a rookie last year. Sobering might have been Cox missing practice Tuesday and Wednesday's walk-through with expected knee soreness, though also expected to return soon. In early July the Cowboys had shown interest in Barr. Somewhat concerning is Barr having played only 13 games the past two seasons, just two in 2020 after tearing a pectoral muscle and six in 2021 dealing with a knee and hamstring. Also troubling is the Vikings having restructured the five-year, $67.5 million package, including $33 million guaranteed, he signed in 2019. And to do that, clearing cap space by reducing his 2021 base salary, they allowed Barr to void the final two years of his contract. Doing that now is costing the Vikings $9.89 million in dead money this year. The Cowboys should have inside insight into Barr, current senior defensive assistant in charge of linebackers George Edwards the Vikings defensive coordinator the first six seasons (2014-19) of Barr's career. Also, the Cowboys could gain crystal clear insight into Barr's ability by talking to former 13-year Cowboys assistant Mike Zimmer (1994-2006), Barr's head coach his entire career.
- Dang 5th Metatarsals: Last year it was DeMarcus Lawrence fracturing the fifth metatarsal of his right foot during practice in the second week of the season. Now this. Veteran wide receiver James Washington, part of a depleted wideout group to start with, went back to Dallas on Tuesday for doctors to surgically- repair his fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot suffered in Monday's very first padded practice. He had a screw surgically placed at the joint of the metatarsal to help facilitate a speedier recovery. Early estimates have him missing six to 10 weeks. For an example, Lawrence missed 10-games last year, a span including the bye, so 11 weeks. The Cowboys dilemma will be if they place Washington on injured reserve 24 hours after landing on the 53-man roster so he can return after four games or do they keep him on the 53-man roster in hopes of a recovery in fewer games. The Cowboys are just less than six weeks from the Sept. 11 season opener against Tampa Bay. For a non-professional athlete like me, took three months to get back on the tennis court with the same injury – without surgery – having to go to training camp that summer in San Antonio wearing a boot and on crutches. No bueno.
- What To Do: At this point, seems nothing immediately at the receiver position, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones saying of Washington's injury, "It's part of the game, but what injuries do is give some younger guys a chance to step up and make plays." Well, the Cowboys have a number of young guys with those opportunities since projected No. 2 receiver Michael Gallup will miss possibly the first month of the season recovering from his ACL knee repair. That means, other than No. 1 guy CeeDee Lamb, no other healthy receiver on the current roster has caught a touchdown pass in the NFL. The names you will be hearing now are third-round draft choice Jalen Tolbert, sixth-year backup Noah Brown, first-year undrafted receiver Dennis Houston, first-year undrafted receiver Brandon Smith, last year's fifth-round pick Simi Fehoko who played only seven snaps on offense in his rookie season, recently signed rookie free agent KeVontae Turpin and the first-year 6-6 T.J. Vasher, a rookie practice squader last year. As for bringing in a veteran free agent, Jones said the Cowboys will wait a bit, realizing some of the guys they might be interested in are coming back from injuries and not ready for camp. The list of available free agents includes the likes of Will Fuller, T.Y. Hilton, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, Odell Beckham Jr., DeSean Jackson, Allen Hurns and Adam Humphries. Betting they sign a veteran in due time, short of at least an immaculate recovery by either Washington or Gallup.
- Galluping Along: Speaking of Gallup, while he is coming along nicely, there seems little chance he will be ready for the start of the season. If the Cowboys leave him on PUP to start the season, he must miss the first four games before he is eligible to return. If the medical staff thinks he can return sooner, then the Cowboys would have to carry him on the 53-man roster from the start.
- Tackling This, Too: Seems to be a good chance the Cowboys will be in the market for a veteran offensive tackle after potentially losing fifth-round rookie Matt Waletzko. Sounds as if he has suffered a shoulder subluxation, putting him out the rest of this week with eventual surgery needed. The medical staff must determine if he can play wearing a shoulder harness as players have done previously or if surgery is needed now. That leaves Josh Ball the only likely on-roster candidate to man the backup swing tackle and he hasn't played a down of NFL football yet. Good thing the Cowboys kept their salary cap "powder dry" should they need to dip into free agency for a veteran type. Problem here is there isn't much available, and if you should hear any familiar free-agent names, they are either aging or coming off injuries from last year. One veteran backup swing tackle-type was just signed by the Bears, 33-year-old Riley Reiff, an 11th-year veteran who inked a one-year, $3 million deal that can jump to $7.5 million if he plays at least 10 percent of the snaps. Get this, Reiff played last season for the Bengals ($7.5 million), but after they signed La'el Collins this offseason the Bengals decided not to re-resign Reiff.
- Cap Strain: And now you know why the Cowboys had roughly $20 million in cap space heading into camp. For these very emergencies or to carry over into next season when Lamb likely will be asking for an extension. Maybe Trevon Diggs, too. Hey, should they need to sign a backup swing tackle, a veteran receiver, potentially a veteran kicker and already Barr, that $20 million will quickly melt away.
- Seesaw Battle: Speaking of kickers, that is what is taking place so far between undrafted rookie Jonathan Garibay and CFL veteran Lirim Hajrullahu. One day LH shines and Garibay struggles. The next Garibay shines and Hajrullahu struggles. Take Tuesday, Garibay makes six of eight attempts while LH makes three of eight. Now, the wind is tricky out here when kicking into it as they've done in live special teams sessions. Said McCarthy, "This is needed, we need this competition. We need to give these guys opportunities. Right now, we don't know much about either one of them." Other than they have not been consistent.
- Quick Hitters: McCarthy says, "I'm not a fan of defensive backs that can't catch the football." … Then this from CeeDee Lamb, asked if he's motivated by the huge contract extensions recently signed by receiver DK Metcalf (3 years, $72 million) and Deebo Samuel (3 years, max $73.5 million) to produce a big 2022 season since he will be eligible for a contract extension in 2023, saying, "Not much. Motivation of mine is the playoffs." … This is welcomed news from Tyron Smith, saying of how he feels physically in camp, "Actually, I feel this is probably the strongest I've felt in a while. It's the quickest I've felt in a while. I feel excited to see how this season is going to go." … Special teams coach John Fassel had this to say about his inexperienced kickers, "I'd rather them experience some tough days early," that way he sees how they respond to misses, which will occur during the season. … And a last one from McCarthy when asked his thoughts on young receivers, he said, "I believe in developing receivers."
- Billion Dollar Business: Sportico has ranked the Cowboys the most valuable franchise in all of sports, coming in at $7.64 billion, an estimate that includes team worth, stadium worth owner worth and any real estate or business investments. The Rams came in second among NFL teams at $5.9 billion with New England third at $5.8 billion. Said Stephen Jones of Sportico's rankings, "Sports may not be for everybody, but for those who do love it, it is real fertile ground. Whether it's a Legends platform, a real estate platform, a technology platform, we've seen that you can use the Star, the Cowboys and sports to really enhance business."
And the last word this week goes to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn when asked why he decided to return to the Cowboys after having head coach interviews following the great coaching job he did in 2021, turning around what had been an awful Cowboys defense in 2020 and pointing out Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently said he did take care of him financially.
"The first rule of fight club is to never talk about fight club," Quinn began, diffusing the financial part of the question. "Unless my Jersey roots have changed, you don't talk about contracts.
"But honestly, I'm having a blast here, I really am. I'm enjoying the whole process of what we're doing. I just want to provide value to Mike first and to the defense. Every once in a while you find where your feet are and you're in a good space and you feel it, and that's really how I felt here."