OXNARD, Calif. – Long-time reporters weren't buying what Jason Witten was trying to sell when he said he was excited for the preseason opener against the Rams.
"I'm excited – I really am," Witten said with a smile.
It's easy to roll your eyes at the Pro Bowl tight end, given his veteran status. Witten likely isn't going to play much, if at all, when the Cowboys line up against the Rams on Saturday in Los Angeles. He even acknowledged as much, telling reporters he wished he could play.
Despite that fact, Witten said the preseason opener serves as a valuable opportunity – not just for the Cowboys to play against another opponent or knock the rust off. Coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, Witten said it marks the official beginning of the new campaign.
"Any time you go through camp and you get ready to go against somebody else, there's an excitement that comes with that – I mean, it's real football," he said. "But I think probably moreso this year than any year, coming off the 4-12, this really kind of kicks off that season. For our entire football team, we're anxious for that. We're anxious to get started and see where we're at."
Thursday's practice was one final assessment of where the Cowboys stand after two weeks of camp. The early return is encouraging, judging from circus catches from the likes of Dez Bryant, not to mention some solid hitting in the defensive secondary.
How that carries over remains to be seen, as Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said his staff has yet to determine playing time for the roster.
"We'll have discussions about who's playing when, all of that," he said. "We'll do that today and tomorrow, and we'll get that information to you promptly."
But with Witten setting the tone, the hope is undoubtedly that the excitement carries over to the rest of the roster.
· Safety Jeff Heath had to leave practice with what Jason Garrett described as a shoulder injury. Heath, one of the team's core special teams, is also the team's third safety and plays on the nickel defense. Garrett was non-committal about Heath's playing status for Saturday's preseason opener with the Rams.
· Sean Lee was held out of most of Thursday's practice. Again, Garrett was rather vague about Lee's status, but it doesn't sound as if the Cowboys' starting middle linebacker has a significant injury.
· Darius Jackson took second-and-third team reps during the full-team portion of practice. Rod Smith also saw plenty of action as the Cowboys gear up for their first preseason game. It's a solid bet that both young ball carriers get an extensive workload in the game against the Rams.
Cedric Thornton –The veteran is still working his way back from the sickness that sidelined him for much of the week, but he showed flashes on Thursday. Thornton was a handful for the Cowboys' interior linemen to deal with during 1-on-1 drills. During the team period, while he was working with the second-team, he also batted down a pass from Jameill Showers.
Tony Romo –It always feels like a copout to praise Romo too much – he is a veteran, Pro Bowl quarterback, after all. But he was on fire on Thursday, as he appeared to play clean and mistake-free. He hooked up with Dez Bryant on a beautiful touchdown, and he repeatedly found his secondary targets like Jason Witten and Cole Beasley for gains to hurt the defense. It's doubtful Romo is going to do much on Saturday, but he seems to be working himself into good form for the season.
Mark Nzeocha –Sean Lee sat out of the competitive portions of practice, which upped the reps for all the rest of the linebackers on the roster. Nzeocha benefited most obviously, as he had a chance to run with the second-team – and occasionally the starters. The second-year linebacker was around the ball often, and got in on several tackles.
Play Of The Day
What makes Dez Bryant so great, is his ability to make the great plays despite being covered. And on a red-zone play during the team period, Bryant was undoubtedly covered as he ran towards the end zone with Brandon Carr and Byron Jones on each side. But Romo lofted the pass anyways and Bryant was able to stick his left hand out there just in time to snag the pass, as the ball stuck right into his hand. Dez got his feet down in the back of the end zone but his momentum took him all the way back to the VIP tent, where he was met with a raucous ovation from several impressed fans and media members.
Unofficial Injury Report
RB Ezekiel Elliott (hamstring)
LB Andrew Gachkar (thumb)
QB Kellen Moore (fibula)
DT Maliek Collins (foot; Active/PUP)
DE Benson Mayowa (knee; Active/PUP)
RB Darren McFadden (elbow; Active/NFI)
RB Lance Dunbar (knee; Active/PUP)
LB Jaylon Smith (knee; Active/NFI)
LB Damien Wilson (eye; Active/NFI)
TE James Hanna (knee; Active/PUP)
Jeff Heath (shoulder)