OXNARD, Calif. – This is a valuable lesson learned a long time ago. A long time ago, like back in 1979.
Was covering a basketball coaching clinic. Bob Knight was the guest speaker that day. He called two young high school coaches up onto the stage. He was going to demonstrate a point.
Knight takes, if I can recall correctly, like a $100 bill out of his pocket and places down on the center of the stage. He separates the two coaches to each end, and tells the guys when he says go, the first guy to grab the C-note gets to keep it.
Why at go, you never saw two guys in their street clothes tear off to arrive first.
Moral of the coaching pointer: Create competitive drills in practice with consequences for winning and losing to get the best out of your players. Everything you do has to be competitive.
Jason Garrett is a proponent, and of the 32 Cowboys training camps I've attended, including the past 29 straight, this has been one of the most competitive training camps I've ever witnessed. That would cover camps run by Hall of Fame coaches Tom Landry and Bill Parcells, along with in my opinion now future Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson, who back in the day when there were no practice rules turned two-a-day practices into that Bataan Death March Garrett said he wanted to avoid with five preseason games to play this summer.
Now some of the competition during this four-week stay at the River Ridge Sports Complex roughly 60 miles north of LA was organic. Starting jobs were open at left guard, defensive end, defensive tackle, all across most of the secondary, backup quarterback, swing tackle and backup center/guard, competition just to make the roster at running back, tight end and wide receiver. That was going to take care of itself.
But Garrett wants to always up the competitive ante. A few years back he came up with the idea of "compete" periods, where he calls two players out of the crowd, one offensive, one defensive, and let them go at it, either on the line or in coverage. Man, talk about getting after it. Like, who wants to lose a battle, no matter if it's just practice, with the other 88 guys on the roster and all the coaches gathered around, plus camera-carrying media and thousands of fans each day.
At the start, the drills consisted of three rounds. But by this week, back on Monday, Garrett called out nine pairs to go one-on-one. That sure amped up practice.
Oh, and remember the consequence part? Well on Thursday, the last padded practice of the Oxnard portion of camp – the Cowboys will resume their two-a-days back at The Star for the following 1½ weeks following Saturday's 6 p.m. preseason game at AT&T Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts – Garrett put some consequential pressure on the guys.
First, pick a non-quarterback guy who could throw the ball halfway across the field and hit the big Cowboys star draping down on Jones Tower between fields. Jameill Showers front and center, technically a safety but very wise of the guys to choose an ex-quarterback. Bull's-eye. No afternoon meeting. The guys road him around up on their shoulders.
Then it's pick a non-kicker guy to hit on a 25-yeard field goal. Jeff Heath step right up since legend has it he hit the game-winning field goal back in high school to win the state championship. Dead, solid, perfect. You'd have thought Dan Bailey kicked it. No 5 p.m. walk-through. More hoopin' and hollerin'.
One last one: Pick a non-skill player to catch a Chris Jones punt. Do so and curfew moves back from 11 p.m. to midnight. Not sure how rookie free agent tackle Dan Skipper was chosen, but out comes the 6-10, 315-pounder. Never flinched. Caught what would be classified as a pooch punt. Hello midnight. Let the celebration begin.
Get the idea. Competition. Pressure. Consequences.
Plus, during these practices, especially in team drills when they play what's called "move the ball," meaning you play out down and distance, there's no first offense vs. the seconds or thirds. Oh no, with Garrett, they will go first against firsts, Maliek Collins butting heads with Zack Martin. Dez vs. Scandrick. Witten vs. Jones. Good stuff.
And man, when your pride is on the line, you practice hard. No brother-in-lawing out there.
"Extremely competitive," Bryant said of camp after Thursday's final practice here. "We loved it, I think we embraced it. I think that was the best thing about the camp."
Here is also what happens. What do you think these young guys, guys such as Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods think when they see 15th-year veteran Witten grinding away in one-on-one drills or still going full-bore up against those first-team defenders? Or when he or Sean Lee end up arguing with the volunteer officials when they forget – in his opinion – to pull the flag out of their pocket?
Makes an impression, right. This is how we do.
Mention this competition on the rise, and a smile creases Garrett's face. Hey, this is the guy who was there at Super Bowls when Johnson had the Cowboys butting heads in pads the week of the game while the poor Bills were basically going through jersey-and-shorts practices?
"That is your objective when you are building a team, to create competition, and really throughout your team," Garrett says. "Obviously, we have a lot of established starters on our team, guys who have played a lot of football for us. But when there is an opportunity to create a competition for a starting spot or a backup spot or for whatever role it is, that benefits everybody, and I think our team understands that.
"And just beyond roster spots and starter spots you want to create competitive environments every day in practice, and I think our team gets that. We put them in a lot of different situations and they respond well. I think we all get better as a result of that."
Now we are about to find out how much better this team might be. There is a long way to go yet: Three preseason games, another week-and-a-half of training camp back at The Star for starters. The cut to 53 by Sept. 2.
And then how do you decide what "better" is since no team in Cowboys history has ever had a better record than last year's 13-3. No teams since 1995-96 have won back-to-back NFC East titles or consecutive seasons winning at least 10 games.
And at this point, who knows what happens with Ezekiel Elliott. Six games? Maybe four games or less upon appeal? Who knows how the Cowboys will handle the upcoming suspensions to David Irving and Damontre' Moore.
And then there is that darn schedule, having to play the improved NFC West and much-improved AFC West, not to mention those first-place teams from Atlanta and Green Bay.
But if this training camp here is any indication, these Cowboys have a chance. They haven't had many, if any, sluggish practices out here. Maybe a time or two. That's it. And that's good.
Plus, did I mention how competitive things have been out here?
"We're going to be better because of everybody's spirit," Dez says.
Yes, that spirit. That has to count for something, doesn't it?