DENVER – This occurred to me while watching the Cowboys practice against the highly spirited Denver Broncos here on Thursday.
This is a young team. Maybe not totally in age but surely in experience at a few vital spots.
Might have been a growing up lesson for the youngins', certainly better understanding afterward what they walked into at the Broncos' practice facility and what might be awaiting them Saturday night at Empower Field at Mile High in the Cowboys' first preseason game of 2022.
Remember, this is a new coaching staff, a new owner and a new starting quarterback. Lots to prove.
"This is our sanctuary here," Denver linebacker Bradly Chubb said afterward, and even though a mere joint practice, by golly the Broncos "practiced" as if trying to protect their homeland. He talked about the Broncos needed to get their "swag on."
In fact, on one play against the Cowboys first-team offense, Chubb blindsided Ezekiel Elliott, knocking the ballcarrier hard to the ground.
According to Chubb, Zeke got up and said on his way back to the huddle, "You ain't got to do that."
Chubb said he replied: "My bad, bro."
You get the idea of the tone of the work.
The practice was a good one. Lot of work, and in the 93-degree, high altitude conditions of Denver for a bunch of Cowboys players just trying to learn their way around the NFL.
Think about this: Unless something significantly changes, the Cowboys will have two new starters on the offensive line. That would be Terence Steele at right tackle. Though he has started 27 games over the past two seasons, this is the first year the third-year undrafted offensive tackle is considered the starter on the right side from Day 1, no longer an injury or suspension replacement.
Then there is left guard. That will be either first-round draft choice Tyler Smith, obviously no NFL starts, or fourth-year offensive lineman and former third-round draft choice Connor McGovern. After missing all of his 2019 rookie season, he has since started 13 games as a backup guard and one at fullback, but now vying for a fulltime starting job.
How about backup swing tackle candidate Josh Ball, having spent last year's entire rookie season on reserve lists, playing nary a down.
Now then, wide receiver, and possibly for the first month of the season since Michael Gallup (knee) and James Washington (foot) are no more than questionable to return from injuries surgically repaired in time. That means after CeeDee Lamb, and at this point a month out from the Sept. 11 season opener, competing to break into the top three receiver spots are third-round draft choice Jalen Tolbert (no NFL starts), sixth-year veteran backup Noah Brown (five starts in 50 career games), undrafted rookie free agent Dennis Houston (no NFL starts) and last year's fifth-round draft choice Simi Fehoko (five NFL games, no starts, seven snaps).
Sure, the Cowboys have franchised Dalton Schultz starting at tight end, but behind him, if sixth-year tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (four starts last two seasons) doesn't make the 53-man roster, possibly will be third-year tight end Sean McKeon (three career starts, one of those in a three-tight set) and likely fourth-round draft choice Jake Ferguson (no starts).
Think we need not lose sight of all that.
Good news is there still is a month of work until the Cowboys take their first _shot_ on Sept. 11 against the Bucs. Still time for more lessons to be learned.
· Sweet Move: The Broncos defense did a lot of hootin' and hollerin' during Thursday's joint practice, but none of that occurred seemingly when Dak Prescott was throwing the ball to Lamb. They diced up the Broncos defense with the lone exception of a Lamb drop when he tried to run with the ball too soon, spinning out of his move. And tell you what, when Dak and CeeDee hooked up on a touchdown pass, Lamb put a sweet move on cornerback Michael Ojemudia, faking an out-and-go before deftly sliding inside, Dak throwing the ball well before Lamb came out of his break for a touchdown, leaving No. 13 in his wake.
· QBs Spotted: While Russell Wilson was running the Broncos offense Thursday, two former Broncos Hall of Fame and Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were watching. John Elway, of course the team's former president of football operations and now "consultant," along with Peyton Manning and his son Marshall down on the sidelines. Overheard Manning and son Marshall talking ball while watching the Broncos defense against the Cowboys offense.
· Randy Too: Crossed paths with former Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, having decided against the contract agreement with the Cowboys during free agency this year to sign with the Broncos for basically the same five-year, $70 million package. Gregory, on PUP following late March surgery to repair a rotator cuff problem, fist-bumped me, but Broncos PR shielded him from being interviewed for obvious reasons as he walked into the locker room.
· Hackett Tree: The two head coaches in Saturday's Cowboys-Broncos preseason game styled their offenses off what they learned from Paul Hackett, the father of Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett and the guy who first hired Mike McCarthy as a college coach. But here is the Cowboys twist. Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm hired the senior Hackett in 1986 to become the Cowboys offensive coordinator. The Cowboys rose to the No. 1 offense that 1986 season at the halfway point, standing 6-2, tied with the Giants for first place in the NFC East. Then it happened, in Game 9 the Cowboys lost to the Giants, 17-14, when Danny White had his wrist broken. The Cowboys won only one more game that year, the Giants never lost again, winning Super Bowl XXI, beating Denver, 39-20. Hackett remained the team's offensive coordinator though the 1988 season but was sent out the door when Jimmy Johnson took over the team in 1989. Hackett then became the University of Pittsburgh head coach from 1989-92. That is when McCarthy arrived on campus as a volunteer graduate assistant and eventually became Hackett's wide receiver's coach at Pitt. Hackett was fired after the 1992 season, then hired by Marty Shottenheimer in 1993 to be the Chiefs offensive coordinator and Hackett brought McCarthy to KC as his quality control coach. And the rest is history. So, McCarthy would have known Nathaniel since he was 10 years old and pointed out before Thursday's practice against Nathaniel's Broncos, "I wouldn't be standing here if not for Paul Hackett." Neither would either of them.
· Just For Kicks: The brewing kicking competition between Lirim Hajrullahu and newly signed Brett Maher will heat up in these next two preseason games. There was no behind-the-line kicking periods in Thursday's practice. The Cowboys signed Maher, their former kicker (2018-19), on Tuesday but the two have yet to dual in a practice.
· Mile High Tidbits: At one point in Thursday's practice Prescott had completed nine of 10 passes and then 14 of 18 with one interception and then that ensuing touchdown pass to Lamb … The Broncos were welcomed to the can't-block Micah Parsons club during the practice, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year putting on quite an exhibition … The Cowboys continue to share first-team snaps at left guard with Connor McGovern and Tyler Smith. Both should play on Saturday … Chances are the majority of the Cowboys starters will not play in Saturday night's game … Bad break for Cowboys quarterback Will Grier, having mounted a challenge to incumbent backup Cooper Rush so far in camp. But a strained groin muscle in Monday's practice kept him out of Thursday's practice and quite possibly will in Saturday's game, robbing him of two opportunities to provide further competition with Rush … Tyron Smith twisted an ankle early in Thursday's practice, did return for his planned reps then watched the remainder of the practice. They could have used his intimidating presence to patrol some of that Broncos nonsense … Josh Ball, currently the top prospect to man the swing offensive tackle job with Matt Waletzko possibly lost for the season with a shoulder injury, replaced Smith at left tackle and predictably struggled some in his first practice against an opposing team since last playing in a game his final year at Marshall (2020) … Fifth-round pick "Big John" Ridgeway left practice Thursday with a sprained knee, with further tests forthcoming … The other highly noticeable injury was suffered by last year's practice squad tight end Ian Bunting (neck), and while he collapsed awkwardly on the field and remained there motionless for several minutes, he did walk into the Broncos medical facility and was later seen during practice walking down the sideline on his own toward the Cowboys locker room.
And the last words shall go to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, talking after the workout about the resurgence of Noah Brown, who's been making a case to edge his way into the starting three receiver group in his sixth season with an impressive start to camp.
"Noah is a guy, you give him an opportunity – what, he's going on six years now? – you give him an opportunity he'll take advantage of it," said Dak of Brown, who had an impressive day against the Broncos. "Today was just another showcase of that. He's had a great camp. He's showing up playing every position we need, and then obviously he gets in there with the first group and comes out and does exactly what he's been doing.
"Just consistent, great for young receivers to follow, great for young receivers to learn, great for young receivers to see how to practice. That's what he means for this team."
As for Brown, when asked if he thinks he's caught the eye of the coaching staff, he said, "I've been here a while. I mean, I think they definitely notice it. I wouldn't say they're not taking me seriously."
Oh, and about all those contested catches you've been making.
"To be honest, I've been working a lot this offseason to not be in contested catch situations," Brown said.