Training Camp | 2021

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Spagnola: The Band Is All Back Together Again


OXNARD, Calif. – What a sight to see.

No, not the backdrop of the River Ridge Golf Course during the first practice of Training Camp 2021out here.

No, not looking at the Pacific Ocean during this morning's early bike ride to Mandalay Beach.

No, not once again after a year-long interlude interacting with players in person, somewhat distanced of course, along with coaches, some we had never met in person all last season, and even with some of the fans, the camp volunteers and the people who work here at the Residence Inn that we hadn't seen in two years.

All special.

But nope.

For the Dallas Cowboys during their first official training camp practice Thursday preparing for their 2021 season with hopes of big rebound, this had to be a painting they had been anxiously anticipating for quite some time.

Dak Prescott once again under center.

Tyron Smith out there at left tackle, and what a sight to see after having played just two games last year.

La'el Collins at right tackle, where a balky hip vacated his 2020 season.

Zack Martin back at right guard after missing the final five games of last season.

Blake Jarwin back at tight end after lasting no more than 25 snaps in last year's season opener, a torn ACL on that 25th snap costing him the rest of the season.

Even defensively, Leighton Vander Esch, not only back on the field after missing six games last year, including the final two, and not only that, but back where he belongs at weakside linebacker.

Man, even the somewhat stoic Mike McCarthy couldn't contain a smile starting his second season as the Cowboys' head coach after last year's 6-10 false start.

"Stating the obvious, we are a different team with our veteran players coming back," McCarthy said on Friday just after what he calls a "re-gen" practice in the morning, meaning regeneration day after Thursday's camp opener. "Just watching them go through the rehab and feeling good about the return, it definitely will be a huge impact to our roster, huge impact to our team, and that's why we want to have a healthy, competitive training camp, and that will be a big part of our success."

The loss of those players, along with currently starting left cornerback Anthony Brown for six games, was a big part of their failure last year when even a mediocre 8-8 record would have won the NFC East.

No one is making excuses for the 6-10 of last season. But injuries do matter. Especially when you lose your starting quarterback for 11 games, your immediate backup for two more and parts of a third and having to start two other quarterbacks, each making his first NFL career start.

Then your two starting tackles, both Pro Bowl caliber, playing in just two games, and the Cowboys paying the price for having no experience behind them after your presumptive backup swing tackle (Cam Erving) missed 10 games and parts of an 11th. Then, on top of that, after the Cowboys found it necessary to move Martin out to tackle, the All-Pro guard ends up missing six games.

So on that offensive line, the Cowboys weren't missing just anybody. These guys are some high-paid, high-caliber somebodies.

Never good when at times the best your offensive linemen can do is shout, "Watch out" to your quarterback, those four suffering through 44 sacks and your star running back Ezekiel Elliott rushing for a career-low four yards a carry while being met repeatedly at the line of scrimmage.

The Cowboys paid a high price.

So, see, what a welcomed sight it was to have all these guys, all but Martin and Brown having eventual surgeries, back on the field for the start of training camp. And for the three offensive linemen and Jarwin, this was their first practice, having spent the offseason rehabbing during the team's workouts.

"It's special," is how Dak pointed out on Friday to have his guys back out there with him. "When that group is in the huddle, I think I pretty much say every time, the band is back together. It's a blessing.

"Me and Tyron talked about it as we were approaching that first team session (Thursday), 'It's been a long time, huh?' To have L.C., Tyron, Zack, a healthy Zack, a healthy Zeke, all healthy, having us all back in there, with those young guys who are going to be great players, it's awesome.

"And my excitement is through the roof."

For good reason since all these guys on the offensive line are ready to go, along with Jarwin.

"They looked great," McCarthy said of his top three linemen.

"Obviously, the offensive line as a whole, I really like the look of our offensive line . . . was great to get those guys out there."

But that these guys are ready to go is not just a testament to their hard work all offseason. McCarthy, one day, Dak the next, couldn't say enough about the work of Cowboys associate athletic trainer Britt Brown, the team's director of rehabilitation. He spent so much time with these guys, it's as if they had grown a third arm.

"Britt Brown's done an amazing job with each and every one of us, and I'd be remiss if I didn't thank him obviously, as well as I'm sure the other guys want to on his behalf," Dak said. "Just pushing us each and every day. There is nobody like that, that could have gotten us back to where we want to be."

There is a long-standing saying since Brown has been with the Cowboys going on his 25th season that players would rather practice than rehab from injury with Britt. His success rate has been phenomenal.

"Old school, special, gritty, he's passionate how he does his job with true passion, true love," is how Dak describes Britt. "Loves the guys who he is coaching and you feel it each and every day when you go out there."

From my perspective, straight-shooter, doesn't mince words and pushes guys beyond their own set limits. And brutally honest with these guys. And was with them the entire offseason, only taking a short break himself the end of June.

So, what a grand start to training camp, and especially to have the band leader back on the field, showing no apparent signs from having suffered that dislocated and compound fractured ankle in the fifth game of the season. Showing no signs of being laid up nearly two months before starting some serious rehab nearly every day when finally cleared to begin.

So Dak, any trepidation on Thursday for that first camp practice, even though he participated in the OTAs and minicamp ones?

"The walk onto the field, and before I crossed the line, and that's something I do before the injury, so now it's been a long time since I've been out there, been a while obviously since we've been in Oxnard, it was a special moment to think about where I was, to think about all the hard work, all the support that went into getting back out there and just being able to do what I love again," Dak said.

"No part of practice did I think about my ankle."

Neither did anyone else.

Just great to see, to see it all.

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