Spagnola: Maybe The Biggest Camp Surprise Ever


OXNARD, Calif. – Surprise, surprise, surprise, there always seems to be surprises when it comes to training camps, the Cowboys in particular.

One year out in Thousand Oaks, right up the 101 about 20 miles, at the time seven-time Pro Bowler Randy White, in a contract dispute with the Cowboys, held out of camp that summer of 1984. No one knew where he was until outdoor writer Andy Anderson bumped into the defensive tackle fishing on an East Texas lake.

Two years later, after a trip to play a preseason game against the Chicago Bears in London, the USFL folded the summer of 1986 and the Cowboys had the rights to Herschel Walker, their fifth-round flyer of a draft pick from 1985. They now had Tony Dorsett and Walker, who was given a million-dollar a year contract, virtually unheard of back 32 years ago. And when Dorsett was asked how he felt about Walker signing with the Cowboys, Tony said, "Like a million dollars."

In 1992, eight-year starting defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, much to his chagrin, found out he would become a situational pass rusher, with Tony Tolbert entrenched at left defensive end and the Cowboys eventually trading for Charles Haley.

In 2001, the Cowboys had signed veteran quarterback Tony Banks in March, and was told he would be the starter following the Cowboys releasing Troy Aikman. But in April, with a second-round pick, the Cowboys drafted Quincy Carter. Two preseason games in, and Banks is released right here in Oxnard.

Three years later, assuming Carter was the starter following the Cowboys 10-6 playoff run in 2003, the Cowboys, right here at River Ridge in 2004, up and release Carter for violating team provisions, probably saving a roster spot for, uh, Tony Romo.

In 2003, Larry Allen and Bill Parcells butted heads in Oxnard over Allen, at age 33, feeling as if he needed a veteran day off. Bill blew his stack. By 2006, Allen, one of two Pro Bowlers from the 2005 season (Jason Witten the other), was released.

Ah the surprises.

And now the 2018 training camp, the Cowboys heading home Friday to play the Cincinnati Bengals, 6 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium.

Over the last 25 days, the Cowboys have met a few surprises. Good surprises at camp for a change. One, a great surprise, we think.

Who knew the five-year veteran Tavon Austin, primarily known as a gadget player – receiver/running back with speed to burn – could function as a receiver on the edge? Who knew the former first-round pick the Rams basically gave away to the Cowboys for a mere sixth-round pick would become such a team leader for a young receiver corps?

"This is my No. 1 camp," Austin says. "The receivers coach (Sanjay Lal) made me better."

Then there is Antwaun Woods, the first-year defensive tackle. Barely knew the guy was on the 90-man roster. Now, 3½ weeks later, the guy is running first team at the 1-technique tackle position.

As for fourth-round draft choice Dorance Armstrong, there were flattering assessments of this guy's talents after the draft. Who knew he would prove during camp to be one of the team's more effective pass rushers.

But the greatest surprise, the biggest upset of training camp, has to be Randy Gregory. Are you kidding me? The 2015 second-round draft choice had been suspended for violation of the league's substance abuse policy three times, the latest a year-long penalty for the entire 2017 season after suspensions cost him 14 of 16 games in 2016. The guy basically had played two NFL games since the end of the 2015 season. Just two games in 32 months.

Gregory petitioned the league for reinstatement in June. He was conditionally reinstated July 17. By July 23, the day before the Cowboys left for training camp, he was fully reinstated.

Now, 26 days later, there is a good chance you will see Gregory Saturday night run out there with the first-team nickel defense at right defensive end. No one will say for sure, but if a smile can be interpreted, Gregory's was a dead giveaway after Thursday's final workout of camp.

"Pretty sure I'm playing," Gregory says with a sly grin. "Either way, I'll be ready."

As for the defensive boss, Rod Marinelli, he said of Gregory's availability, "I think so, but we'll see what the trainers say."

Now understand, this is not some gratuitous elevation. Gregory has earned this every step of the way during this incredible comeback. Now it's one great thing for him to go through a rehab program, trying his best, with the help of others, to overcome the demons he has come to understand.

But in less than a month's time to play football at the level he has played in the past week once his conditioning with the trainers was up to their satisfaction is nothing short of miraculous. Understand, Gregory is not ready to play 60 snaps a game as a fulltime defensive end. But then the Cowboys, being smart, aren't asking him to do that.

Think – for now – designated pass rusher. Third-and-8, yo Randy, go get quarterback.

"We'll see on second and third downs," Marinelli says. "There is no sense putting him in on heavy downs."

Not yet, anyway.

Gregory's inclusion makes the Cowboys defense even stronger. Remember, at the start of camp the question was who rushing at right defensive end would take some pressure off DeMarcus Lawrence on the left side. There were candidates a plenty, with Tyrone Crawford working with the first-team defense at right end, and the rushers including Taco Charlton, Charles Tapper, Kony Ealy and Armstrong.

But with Gregory emerging, especially when it comes to nickel downs, then he goes in at right defensive end, Crawford can move inside, as can Ealy. And that should take some offensive attention away from Lawrence, whose 14½ sacks this past season were the most by a Cowboys player not named Ware since Randy White had 16 in 1978 when sacks weren't even an official NFL stat until 1981.

You bet offensive coordinators will circle Lawrence, not trusting their second best offensive tackle to deal with him one-on-one on a consistent basis and why the second half of last year we saw D-Law bouncing from side to side.

But with a threat on the other side . . . .

This is not to presume Gregory is on his way to a Pro Bowl season. But this has been a good week for him, ever since putting on the pads and participating in a full practice, considering how long he has been away from the game.

"There is no question he's done a really nice job," Garrett says.

There is no question the coaching staff has thought so, too. In the final practice of camp on Thursday, a faster-paced, no pads practice, Gregory was out there at right defensive end with the first team nickel defense. Normally when the Cowboys have a walk-through workout, they line up the way they expect to play.

Just think, though. This has just been one full week of practice for Gregory. One! He's just getting started.

"I definitely can see myself gaining confidence," Gregory says. "I know I can be pretty good. I'm a good player, but there is more I can work on."

You bet there is. But at this point, don't bet against him.

Who'd a thunk this.

Surprise, surprise.