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Upon wrapping up the team minicamp on June 19, which followed several weeks of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), official Cowboys on-field action ceases for awhile, giving the players about five weeks off before they report for training camp in Oxnard, Calif., on July 22.
So what is on the agenda for the players during that time?
Is it a chance to rest and relax and re-charge the mental batteries? Is it an opportunity to work out even harder, try to hone their technique and skills to increase their odds of earning a roster spot? Is it for spending one last chunk of quality time with family before checking in to college-style dormitories for the three-plus weeks in Oxnard?
The short answer is probably "all of the above," but it really depends on who is answering the question.
The primary objective of that crucial period hinges on each individual player's specific circumstances. But no matter the activities on which he focuses, ultimately the intended result is to be fully prepared for the physical and mental demands of training camp.
Obviously, for any players who are injured or just dealing with nagging ailments, the first step is to heal and/or rehab as much as possible. But after that, according to linebacker DeVonte Holloman, it's equal parts rest and preparation.
"You've got to go into camp ready, and the break is also the last little bit of free time, so you've got to balance it," said Holloman, who enters his second NFL camp expected to shoulder a larger role. "I'll probably take two or three days a weekend to go home and spend some time with my family, then come back Monday or Tuesday and get back to work. Because that first day of camp, it gets pretty intense."
Upon the conclusion of the June 17-19 minicamp, each player receives his own specific workout program and is expected to show up in Oxnard maintaining a level of physical fitness high enough to jump right in to that first practice on July 24. [embedded_ad]
"The best way to get in shape to play football is to play football, so we will not be at 100 percent coming into camp," said Cowboys strength and conditioning coordinator Mike Woicik. "But we've got to be at a high enough percentage that they can withstand the rigors early of training camp. They'd probably have to be at 85-90 percent at that point. That's what we'd like. That's one of the reasons that we do a conditioning test, and we don't allow them to participate if they can't pass the conditioning test. That's part of their physical."
Woicik points out that during the OTAs, most players ramped up their workouts to get into excellent shape already, and the coaching staff insists that their conditioning level be maintained – requiring players during their "time off" to not only lift weights and do cardio exercises, but also perform drills specifically designed for each position on the field.
"By the time we break minicamp, we've had them for nine weeks, so they're in pretty good shape at that point," Woicik said. "We recommend they take at least a week off, to give their body a break, before beginning the workout program that we give them all when they leave. The weightlifting tapers a little bit during that period in comparison to where it is (during OTAs). We also have them focus on football skills, so quarterbacks should work on their drops and their throws, wide receivers should run routes and catch balls. Defensive backs should work on their coverage skills. Those types of things are what we call metabolic workouts, which are positional-specific and simulate their two-minute drill. They have calendars, so there is something to do each day. It's specifically laid out for them.
"Now, how many of them follow it? When I see them report to camp, I know some don't follow it very well, and I know others follow it to the letter."
Most will adhere to the programs because for the vast majority of the 90 players attending, their jobs hinge on their performance in those late-July practices and the subsequent preseason contests. Making sure they arrive prepared to give themselves the best opportunity to succeed is ultimately what the post-minicamp period is all about.
"That month goes so fast," said seventh-year cornerback Brandon Carr, one of the few whose roster spot is already secure. "You don't want to have a big drop-off from everything you worked so hard on from April until the time we break minicamp. Guys are back at it and working again so they can be ready for training camp, so they can pick up where they left off or even take it to the next level."
Carr noted that a significant aspect of the time off for most players is the mental respite gained just by getting away from the game for a while, before having to become fully submerged in it for a good six months.
"You may take a week off to kind of let your body rest up, and get a mental break, and after that week, you get back into it," said Carr, who is getting ready to enter his third year as a Cowboy after signing as a free agent in 2012. "I can't stay away from the game too long, so that (first) week is a long time itching to get back to it. At the same time, you can always be sharpening up your skills, your mental psyche, as far as watching film, studying other players, trying to add some different techniques and things to your repertoire."
For the squad's rookies, including the new draft picks and the undrafted free agents signed afterward, utilizing film to learn and improve, as well as getting up to speed on the team's playbook, just might be the most prudent use of that five-week dead period.
"Definitely for me. It's my first go-round so I don't know too much, but that's definitely what I'll be doing," confirmed linebacker Will Smith, the Cowboys' second of five 2014 seventh-round draft selections, of using his time to study.
And while the rookies also receive workout instructions when they depart minicamp, theirs are a little less detailed than the veterans. That is because Woicik and his assistants Brett Bech and Kendall Smith haven't had as much time to observe and evaluate the new guys' conditioning levels, so it's a little tougher to customize them so soon.
"They get a much more vanilla type of program," Woicik said of the newcomers. "We try to give them some of the things we give the veterans, but we have to try to teach them these (workouts) the week after the minicamp. We'll keep them for another week, but then we have to cut them loose on June 27. But I'm not as concerned with them getting time off because, No. 1, they're younger and they started much later than the other guys."
It may seem like a bit of an advantage for players like Carr who stay in town to utilize the Valley Ranch facilities, particularly for rookies aiming to get noticed, but they really don't receive much coaching guidance. That's because during this five-week stretch, there are league-mandated constraints on how much club employees can be involved.
"We have some players that will still be around here and we can work them out, but with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, we're limited," Woicik explained. "We can supervise them in the weight room, but they're pretty much on their own out on the field and in running. We can kind of give them some direction, but we can't coach them like we do during the nine-week period (of OTAs and minicamp)."
Six-year veteran defensive tackle Nick Hayden is one player that doesn't stick around, preferring to spend his off time back in his native Wisconsin.
"I like to go back home," said Hayden, whose wife and young daughter live there year-round. "I like to get away from here, but I continue working out hard and getting prepared for camp, like hitting the weights and running and conditioning, and other football stuff."
Getting in one last dose of full-on family immersion is also an important component of that pre-training camp period because the players know they will not see their loved ones much once it begins.
"You've got to soak it all up," said Carr, who famously witnessed the birth of his son from his dorm room in Oxnard via modern technology during last year's camp. "That's kind of the equivalent of going away for awhile. You want to make sure everything at home is tidied up and you get the time with your family. But when we punch in and get ready for training camp, it's all of us, and this is our family when we get there.
"We have one common goal and we love each other, and we have to get the job done."