IRVINE, Calif. – Camp out.
But now 26 days later since arriving in Oxnard, Calif., three cities, two states, one preseason game played of the three and just nine padded practices later, these 2022 Cowboys might have answered one prevailing question hovering overhead, yet still are facing many unanswered ones heading into preseason Game 2.
The season opens in 22 days.
There is time, but the clock is ticking.
If these two padded practices here the past two days with the Los Angeles Chargers are meaningful, this defense appears on the rise in Year 2 of Dan Quinn, despite the free agency loss of defensive end Randy Gregory. Consider the injury-return additions of DeMarcus Lawrence and Neville Gallimore, the addition of veteran linebacker Anthony Barr and second-round draft choice Sam Williams, with a year of experience under that lion of a linebacker Micah Parsons and the apparent 2018 version return of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
Consider the maturation of defensive space-eater Quinton Bohanna, having already earned the nickname "Q," plus a veteran secondary, maybe this Cowboys team will be able to win games when scoring less than 27 points, something they only did three times in the 12-5 season of 2021, losing three of their five when they did not, while their other two losses came when scoring 29 and 33 points in overtime.
Maybe an identity is emerging.
And do not consider Saturday's preseason game against the Chargers starting at 9 p.m. CDT a litmus test for this theory since as they did in the 17-7 preseason loss to Denver this past Saturday, only the young will play, the same 22 considered starters still on dry dock.
"I think we are 10 times better, and that's just all around the board," Micah Parsons says of this being Q2, "guys knowing their role, owning their role and doing their role. I don't think anyone tries to come outside, and I think everyone had to adjust to everyone we have in the room … and as long as everyone does their role, great things can happen."
Or this from LVE, who, by the way, picked off Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert early in Thursday's practice.
"I think just having a steady plan or scheme that we're used to instead of having to change defensive schemes three times in three years definitely makes it a little bit easier," he says. "Definitely allows you to line up and play faster. And this is the scheme a lot of guys are used to."
And when did you realize Quinn was for you and for this defense?
"First day I met him. First day I met him, absolutely," Vander Esch said. "I don't think it takes much more than that to get a feel for DQ."
This is good. Maybe answering the question if this defense can improve.
Ah, but the others, the unanswered.
First, the kickers. The Cowboys have those 22 remaining days to answer this one, and the competition is on between Lirim Hajrullahu and returnee Brett Maher. They kicked well behind the line on Thursday, but somewhat distorted since the Chargers didn't have two sets of regulation goal posts and the Cowboys were kicking toward the skinny one. But from what I saw, only one kick was way off the mark between the two. TBC – to be continued.
Now left guard. Who takes Connor Williams place? So far, undecided.
The Cowboys continue a rotation on first team with Connor McGovern and first-round pick Tyler Smith. Saturday night's game figures to go a long way toward making the decision likely forthcoming. Smith has a lot of talent but comes down to how quickly he can transition to guard and know more of what to do.
Moving on to wide receiver, especially that first month of the season when the Cowboys very well still could be without Michael Gallup and James Washington. Crowded field.
Every practice seems a different guy puts his hand up in the air, saying pick me. First it was third-round draft choice Jalen Tolbert, showing uncanny skill and knowledge of the position for a rookie. Then sixth-year veteran Noah Brown, looking more like a legitimate NFL wide receiver than one used primarily in wide receiver blocking situations in the past.
Of late, it's been undrafted rookie Dennis Houston, who dramatically ended Thursday's practice two-minute drill by going high and bodying up the Chargers defenders to come down with Dak Prescott's Hail Mary for the touchdown, causing an eruption on the Cowboys sideline, his teammates rushing onto the field as if they had just won a playoff game. You ever had the winning, walk-off hit in a baseball game? Then you know the feeling.
"Good to end on that note," Dak said.
No kidding. This might sound sophomoric but building team chemistry like that is important in football. The Cowboys added a few layers here the past two days.
After all this, the Cowboys must build some depth, especially at the backup swing tackle position. Currently, with fifth-round draft choice Matt Waletzko trying to return from a shoulder subluxation, that backup swing tackle is Josh Ball, who did not play a down during his rookie year in 2021. Unfortunately, as Bill Parcells was known to say, you just can't go down to the Texaco and buy you one. Offensive linemen these days are hard to find.
They also must determine the backup quarterback, once thought last year's backup, Cooper Rush, a lock for the job. But Will Grier, the former third-round draft choice in Carolina, began emerging until suffering that strained groin muscle, missing all last week. Well, he got into practice fully on Thursday and there is a chance he plays in Saturday's preseason game, which would continue the budding competition for that job.
The Cowboys came into this training camp knowing there were answers to be found. They aren't quite all there yet but have another three weeks of discovery. Plus, if you look at their first two opponents, Tampa Bay has some injury situations at wide receiver and that starting quarterback of theirs is on a two-week planned hiatus. Hmmm. And in Cincinnati, the Cowboys' Week 2 opponent is trying to get its quarterback, Joe Burrow, back on the field after surgery to remove a ruptured appendix.
No one out there is perfect. Every team has problems. We just intimately know those of the Cowboys.
The Cowboys basically will have two more weeks of training camp practice at The Star once they get back early Sunday morning, and then the last preseason game against Seattle on Aug. 26 at AT&T Stadium to sort things out before going into full-mode preparation for the Sept. 11 opener against the Buccaneers.
Seems as though everyone is trying to get a handle on this Cowboys team, but at this point who really knows? There still is a lot of work to be done for sure. They know that.
That is why there is something out there called "practice."
So, this much we know after these past 26 days of training camp. There is some potential in the youth on this team. The problem is you just never know with kids these days.
Leaving most of us waiting to see.