IRVING, Texas – Last year, no offseason.
This year, the offseason we hardly knew, officially starting April 16, and zip, zip, zip, already over, the Cowboys finishing up by June 14. Two months, that's it, consisting of nine OTA practices, one day for Dallas Cowboys U high school football camp and three minicamp practices.
We have rules these days in the NFL, and hopefully no one thought Jason Hatcher and DeMarco Murray looking cross-eyed at each other on the goal line Thursday at Cowboys Stadium constituted too much physical contact and called in the Cowboys to the NFLPA. Saw where someone called the shove and the push back a "fight."
A "fight"? Please, I know fights in football practice, and that was no fight. While head coach Jason Garrett had to act as if he were upset with boys just being boys on the field as the competitive juices between the offense and defense began to escalate when he momentarily halted practice, deep down, I'm guessing he was going "yes" to himself.
Somewhere in the Florida Keys Jimmy Johnson is smacking his lips, wondering what in the world has this NFL offseason football come to.
So with a momentary lull in the action until those attending the three-day rookie, quarterback and selected been-injured-souls camp report on July 24 – aside from rookies continuing their strength and conditioning for the next two weeks and Tony Romo saying he'll unofficially get with the guys throwing now and then – let's do a little spring review.
Eye-Catcher: This one is easy. Dez Bryant, hands down. Lighter, quicker, running routes with more purpose and on the same page at a much higher percentage with Romo than previously.
Clubhouse Leader: Everyone wants to know who the leading candidate is to become the third wide receiver. That became obvious in Thursday's final minicamp practice when first-year receiver Andre Holmes worked with the first-team nickel offense, lining up his 6-5 frame on the outside with Miles Austin working the slot. But again, let's remember Holmes has yet to catch his first NFL pass. Then again, everyone he's competing against – currently on the roster – with the exception of Kevin Ogletree (25 catches in three years) is in the same boat.
Body Language: Maybe it was his shoulder. Maybe his inability to participate yet in practice. But Mike Jenkins sure didn't appear to be a happy camper having to be here this week for three days of mandatory minicamp to avoid a $60,000 fine. And this observation had nothing to do with not speaking to the media. That's insignificant. He just didn't seem engaged, as if he was serving one of those high school detentions. I mean, pouting that he has one year left on his original five-year, $9.275 million deal at just $1.05 million will do him no good. The Cowboys are dead set on keeping him, no matter how much he loathes the idea. Hey, this is life in the NFL. Not everything is fair. I'm sure someone back in 2008 wasn't happy to see him get that $3.1 million signing bonus he was paid as a rookie. Jenkins would serve himself well by remembering what Marcus Spears had to say when the Cowboys retained his services in the 2010 uncapped season as a restricted free agent for a mere $1.226 million: "At the end of the day I'm still making $1 million." Times change, markets change, and if he doesn't get with it, he'll have little with which to market himself in 2013 when he's scheduled to become a free agent.
Body Language II: Not all shoulder surgeries are identical, but let's put it this way, the ones Jenkins and Felix Jones had were similar. And certainly not everyone heals at the same pace, but Jenkins' range of motion, to my understanding, is not even close to where Jones is. Way behind, which could be an indictment on rehabbing at home instead of here at The Ranch with Cowboys trainers and rehab specialist, Britt Brown. You can tell whoever you're paying to rehab you, Ya know, I don't feel like coming in today, catch you tomorrow, but you don't get away with that with Britt, and that's a good thing. Yet still, with evidence before him, Jenkins apparently is deciding to return to Florida until the start of camp. Where is the logic?
Interior Design: The Cowboys seem set with Nate Livings at left guard, and if nothing else, at least he's already in much better condition than Montrae Holland was last year and certainly at 332 pounds, much bigger than last year's Day 1 starter, Bill Nagy. The Cowboys are somewhat OK at center with Phil Costa returning, but nothing set in stone ... yet. Right guard, well that's another story. With Mackenzy Bernadeau rehabbing from hip surgery, David Arkin has worked with the first team there. But rookie free agent Ronald Leary continues to get some first-team snaps. That likely will be a three-man battle in camp. There is something to this Leary kid. Like his mobility and aggressive streak. And if he should emerge at right guard, that could push Bernadeau into a battle with Costa for the center job. The free-agent signee from Carolina has never played that position in a game, though, only in practice. Stay tuned.
How Competitive? Here is how competitive things got on Thursday, with the first offense and first defense kind of barking at each other, and the defense sort of having the upper hand so far. When Jason Witten caught a red zone touchdown pass from Romo, he was fired up as he handed the ball to fullback Lawrence Vickers, who promptly planted a roundhouse spike of the ball in the end zone. Yeah, take that.
Guilt Free: Romo realizes the defense, in these pad-less practices, certainly has an advantage charging his pass-blocking offensive linemen in the highly-limited contact drills, especially when the running game poses little threat. So before practice on Wednesday, Romo tried to dull that aggression, telling the defensive guys their aggressive nature caused the Cowboys to get fined by the league for excessive contact and that they needed to back off, hoping to give his guys an edge. Funny guy that Romo, but no one was buying what he was selling.
'Backer Backer: Someone inferred to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that Bruce Carter benefited from Dan Connor missing OTAs and minicamp while still rehabbing from his offseason shoulder surgery, as if Connor would have gotten the first-team snaps alongside Sean Lee at inside 'backer. Not according to Jones, who said, "I think we would have given Carter all that we gave him," meaning they will give Carter every chance to win that starting job once training camp begins. Carter's recognition has been improving. Now we'll see once the pads come on.
No Equity: Teams are allowed to open training camp 15 days before their first preseason game. So, since the NFL chose the Cowboys for Monday Night Football that first full weekend of preseason games (Aug. 13), they cannot open training camp until July 30. On the other hand, their season-opening opponents, the New York Giants, are scheduled to open preseason Aug. 10 at Jacksonville, so they get a three-day camp head start on the Cowboys. Fair? While the Cowboys are petitioning the league – good luck with that – for competitive equity, asking to open camp three days earlier and then give the players three days off after the season opener when they'll then have 10 days between games, Jones said of the chances someone will listen to them, "I'm dubious about that ... don't think it will work out." Who ever said life was fair in the NFL.
No Equity II: Now if that's not bad enough, consider this one. The Cowboys, once again, were chosen by the NFL to play in its season-opening Kickoff Game on Sept. 5, a Wednesday night against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. Everyone else will open either Sunday or Monday (Sept. 9-10), meaning all but the Cowboys and Giants will have at least nine days to prepare for their season openers following the final preseason games. The Cowboys and Giants, both scheduled to play their final preseason games the Wednesday before the opener, not so much. So if you are scoring at home, the Cowboys will have as many as four fewer training camp practices as some teams, and like three fewer days to prepare after the final preseason game for the opener than most teams. Bad enough? Well it gets worse if you consider the final roster cuts aren't until Friday, Aug. 31, meaning the club will be hard-pressed to claim anyone off waivers – a 24-hour process before guys are awarded – and get them in town by the time they begin preparation for the opener on Saturday, Sept. 1. Problems also will arise putting together a practice squad, even if you want to keep your own guys. They too have to clear waivers. Guess practice for the Giants opener will begin like mid-August. No joke. And on top of all that, traveling to The Meadowlands shortens the opening week even more.
Ah, the price of being popular.