OXNARD, Calif. – Many moons ago my training camp roomie Brad Sham coined this clever phrase, "We go to training camp to find out who is going to get hurt," and in this my 28th camp there is some truth to his humor.
Right, that's about all you have heard since the Cowboys landed here last Friday, holding only their fifth practice on this Friday at the River Ridge Complex. It's been who has a pulled calf muscle, who has a strained hamstring, whose foot is keeping them out of practice. Man, and already they've had two players undergo successful surgeries – Tyrone Crawford having his torn Achilles sewn back together and Anthony Spencer having a bone particle scoped out of his left knee, both by Dr. Dan Cooper, team physician. Good gosh, Spencer hadn't even practiced once and Crawford went down before they even had their first team portion of camp practice.
And, of course, such news has everyone pulling their hair out – already – adding to the already dire projections most seem to have for these Dallas Cowboys, with the exception of a Gil Brandt and Peter King who seem to think the Cowboys are the team to beat in the NFC East.
Probably making that guy I met at the gas station about a month ago go, "Yeah, right," once again.
With the exception of Crawford and Spencer, and the probable exception of Jay Ratliff (hamstring,) the majority of these guys –especially the likes of Ron Leary, Mackenzy Bernadeau, James Hanna and L.P. Ladouceur – should be back next week, after Sunday's controlled Blue-White scrimmage, with Nate Livings (foot) having returned on Friday.
Can I begrudgingly get a "well good?"
Now, for a smile.
The two undeniable truths of training camp so far:
DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant have been beasts, beasts I say, virtually unstoppable, a continuation of those offseason practices for Bryant and a reaffirmation for Ware, finishing the final month of last season as the one-armed man and then cautiously kept under wraps during the offseason following his much-needed shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.
They have been something to behold, and really needing to be-held if anyone's had any hope of containing them.
And it's not just the great talent they exhibit, one catching the ball the other going after whoever has the ball, but also the passion with which they are practicing, especially once the pads first came on this past Tuesday, has been remarkable.
"You never want to take away that passion they play with," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said in response to someone wondering if he fears Bryant laying out for passes in mere one-on-one drills. "That's part of his nature, part of his DNA, part of what he is."
The P-word is exactly what new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli has learned about Ware after getting a chance to witness his practice tempo up close and personal now that he's with the Cowboys.
"His passion," Marinelli says succinctly after watching just two practices in pads. "What a special person he is. His passion for pass rush is impressive."
Both of these cats have been impressive so far. Bryant is running patterns and going up after balls as if a man possessed, and that does not take into account how hard he's running after he catches the ball, even though he knows tackling is taboo. Guess no one has told him he can't just run you over if he wants. And don't think the ball has to be in his strike zone to make catches. Just get the ball in his area code, no matter too high, too low or too wide, he's attacking the ball to make catches.
Just the way he caught one pass on Wednesday, then came charging down the sideline as if some buckin' bronc, which had a certain Hall of Fame No. 88 coming out of his skin watching on the sideline, Michael Irvin here on NFL Network assignment jumping up and down at the sight, and probably saying to himself, "See, told ya'll so," after having been advocating for the kid from the start.
"I'm just trying to compete, trying to be the best at what I do," said Bryant, whose maturity is starting to show through in how he conducts interviews, seemingly more in control, and of his thoughts, too. When asked the other day about if he's overcome his past, eliminating his off-field troubles, Bryant, instead of being defensive, took command, saying, "I killed that if the offseason (meaning he has shown he can act right). … I think that question is irrelevant."
He's talk about leading the younger guys by example now, the salty veteran he is in his fourth season, being able to explain to them what not to do. He's careful not to get full of himself, boastful, you know, and when asked about lofty goals, he parried the question by saying, "It's not about goals, it's about putting days together," which had to make Garrett smile for parroting his favorite phrase.
Watch out if he continues to put those "days together." For the past year or so I've maintained, from a pure physical-talent standpoint, that Dez Bryant is the most talented all-around wide receiver to have played for the Cowboys, and when asking Brandt permission to say that when interviewing him the other day, he basically said, "You have my permission," and in the course of the past 53 seasons he has seen every one of the those wide receivers to play for the Cowboys: Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel, Lance Alworth, Drew Pearson, Tony Hill, Butch Johnson and Irvin – three of them in the Cowboys Ring of Honor and two of them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Pretty high cotton you might say for Dez when the subject is pure talent, and he's only scratched the surface of becoming a complete wide receiver if you consider he's played like only five complete seasons of post-high school football. Yep, even I too did a double-take.
When someone asked him about the possibility of one day becoming a team captain, Dez beamed, yet still contained himself, phrasing the possibility this way: "I want to be a co-leader," and somehow you smiled, because you knew what sense he was making of it.
Now, there is no "co" hyphen in front of "leader" when it comes to Ware. My goodness, he too is playing as if a man possessed once the pads came on. And poor Tyron Smith wound up on the other side of the ball from him, in one-on-one pass-rush drills and in 11-on-11 team drills.
You've never seen a guy with his hand on the ground at defensive end so fast off the ball. Vroom, and he was gone, starting to trample this notion this will be a long transition from standup outside linebacker in a 3-4, to hand-on-the-ground defensive end in a 4-3.
Ware already is convinced this move will make him a better player, now able to use his speed and strength to attack instead of his just his strength to hold his ground and his smarts to decipher if he's rushing or dropping into coverage.
About 7 this past Wednesday morning, already milling around the training room, Ware gave me an in-service on the benefits of playing defensive end in the Kiffin-Marinelli system, using me as the way-undersized offensive tackle and demonstrating how he can better and faster get to the quarterback and also disrupt against the run. My, he possessed three-double-espresso enthusiasm.
Now entering his ninth season (can that be?) just four sacks shy of becoming the Cowboys all-time sack leader (Harvey Martin, 114), Ware says he's just now learning to play defensive end, that sitting in Marinelli meetings has taught him so much. Just learning? Heaven help those offensive tackles.
"There is no ceiling on him," says Marinelli, who knows a thing or two about skilled pass rushers, having coached the likes of Julius Peppers, Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice. "He just loves football, loves to play football.
"And he brings the group together. Guys feed off him, just feed of him."
Feed off Ware, feed off Bryant, two more undeniable truths so far this first week out here in this little slice of West Coast heaven.
Well, maybe training camp isn't all that bad after all.