Thursday, July 30, 2015

Off to Oxnard, 2015

Every year, I try to write this blog from a similar spot. Today, that spot is 16F, on my flight from Dallas Love to LAX on July 29, 2015.
Other years, it has been other flights to California or perhaps even San Antonio, but if you were to dig through the archives, you would see one from this particular spot for many seasons back.
It is the first blog of the season. It is the first ink spilled. It is the “Off to Oxnard” entry in the diary.
This is my 18th Dallas Cowboys training camp, and although I did not know what a blog was in 1998, I always think it is pretty helpful to time-stamp the initial feelings of a new Cowboys’ season before anything happens. What did we fell about this team on Day 1? Before “that” happened. We don’t know what “that” will be this year, but we do know “that” is going to happen several times this season and we want to recognize where it all started from.
Just last year I wrote one with a wildly different tone. In fact, the gag last year was to actually use several paragraphs of the “Off to Oxnard” entry from 2013 to show the element of “Groundhog’s Day” that Cowboys’ football had been in for the duration of the Jason Garrett era. The franchise could not break out of the rut it was in and there were no real signs that this was about to change.
One year ago, the biggest concern I had was based on QB1 not being right. As a long-time believer in the abilities of Tony Romo, it gave me great indigestion to know that his back was an issue that may limit his 2014 significantly, and the first several weeks of training camp were not calming my nerves. He was largely inactive and the team was being cautious almost to a point where it was difficult to project a point in the season where he could be the talisman from which this entire operation draws its power.
One year ago, I was spending this ride pondering another season of Jason Garrett looking a bit short of standard when it comes to difference-making head coach. In 2013, the Cowboys lost 2 vital games (at Detroit and home to Green Bay) that kept them from the post-season that they simply could not afford to lose (again) like they did and when 10-6 became 8-8 yet again, it seemed to continue to ask the question with the Cowboys head coach, “are you part of the solution or part of the problem?” In July 2014, that answer certainly did not seem obvious in either direction, but his time was running out as the final year on his deal was beginning.
One year ago, the team was trying to explain how adding almost nothing of note to the defensive personnel was going to fix a defense that was forced to say goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher of a 2013 defense that was certainly short of the necessary grade to be considered heavily as a playoff contender. Then, just when you allowed yourself to settle down and trust the process (if you will), then Sean Lee falls to an ACL injury during OTAs and the defense looks doomed in the first year of Rod Marinelli at the helm.
Those 3 significant items looked me right in the face as I wrote the 2014 “Off to Oxnard” from a similar spot on a similar plane and that of course was weighed against the prevailing numbers of the Cowboys since 1995 that indicated that this organization is .500 in just about every way since that last glorious run that ended at Super Bowl 30’s trophy presentation. The most prolific era in modern football history that spanned parts of four decades and originated in Dallas, Texas, had turned substantially in Tempe, Arizona, and since that time there had been season after season of mediocrity with but one playoff win of any kind from 1996 through 2013. Almost no franchise had such a hard time over the last two decades of putting together even one January run of substance in the entire NFL. But the Cowboys, who could not avoid winning for decades, now could seldom play a meaningful 17th game of the season.
The conclusions seemed sure. There was just no rational way to project a 2014 where the team turned the plot significantly. Oh sure, this league allows new teams to rise a bit off the 8-8 pace by sheer randomness, but, with a gimpy Romo who might not even be available in September, I thought it was just as likely as the team went in the other direction. 6-10 sounded about right, given that he might not even play in 10 games. And if that is true, then, this thing is in deep, deep trouble.
Well, you know how that worked out for me – and the countless others in the media that must have utilized the groupthink that had so few dream up a scenario where the Cowboys would fall just a play or two from the NFC Championship Game in 2014. 13-5 was the final record after a 12-4 season and two playoff performances that were worthy of remembering. It was a lesson (if anyone in this business needs one) that reminds us that we just don’t know what is around the next curve. Nobody can predict or project with any amount of certainty what a season in professional sports will bring us – good or bad – and yet, it doesn’t keep us from trying again and again to craft our predictive abilities.
So, let’s try it again.
Thursday, they will take the field for their very first practice of 2015 in Oxnard, California. From there until August 13th, the object of the camp will be to avoid anything that is newsworthy. This is important because the first week of camp has brought some bad injury news in recent year with Tyrone Crawford being lost for the year in 2013 and DeMarcus Lawrence starting his rookie season with an immediate injury that knocked him out until November last year in this very week. Get your work in, get acquainted, and get comfortable. But, no news, please. Keep the roster intact for at least until the games start, for crying out loud.
So, let’s review the big problems from 12 months ago? Well, now we are under the impression that Tony Romo is as good as new and while he may not practice each and every day from camp, it is not as part of a major rehabilitation, but rather a smart way to get an older player to opening day in the proper form. If the Cowboys are owed anything, it is a fair amount of credit for the way they nursed him to Sundays all year long last year. He played his best football when it mattered most in 2014, and that credibility they established will not be forgotten here.
Additionally, Jason Garrett is now appearing with a fine new contract and the mandate to continue the building of a program that resembles the heavyweights of the National Football League. The teams that contend for Super Bowls in today’s game appear to be stacked with home-grown talent that have learned since their rookie season inside one organization and have been developed to add responsibility as their careers have continued. The Cowboys are now built largely from within and do not rely on free agency to fill holes with duct tape and panic buys and for the most part that is something that seems rather odd and peculiar around here. Garrett has a team that has very few weaknesses and has (with plenty of help from a front office that is on quite a roll) a roster that appears to offer depth that also is not seen in Dallas in past camps, but surely is apparent when you look at the heavyweight contenders across the league.
In short, on the roster front, we actually can squint and see a real situation where the Cowboys will cut players who will be on NFL rosters this season. That has not been a real problem much in the last 4-5 seasons, as the Cowboys hardly had 53 NFL roster players for their own bunch. Their final cuts were not difficult; because they couldn’t find 53 they loved in their own camp. I think that is different this season and I think getting the roster down to 53 will be plenty difficult – as it should be on a team that has a chance to win something.
Then, that defense that seemed to be devoid of major elite talent has received a fantastic infusion of blue-chip talent in the offseason. Greg Hardy is an elite pass rush talent as a veteran, but more excitingly should be the young rookies Byron Jones and Randy Gregory being brought in, along with the return of Sean Lee and even a full camp of DeMarcus Lawrence. The idea that those 5 could all be in your preferred defense by Week 5 is magnificent news and a sign that this defense could go from adequate to substantial in no time if things go right.
There are fresh concerns for 2015, to say the least. We will no doubt wonder how you replace an elite running back coming off a historic season like DeMarco Murray who got away to Philadelphia. The running game is going to be different, and quite likely, not nearly as dominating, but that was going to be the case even if they brought him back. He had a year that doesn’t get duplicated, so his replacements should not be compared to an anomaly.
Also, the questions of what can be reasonably counted upon from Sean Lee and Rolando McClain at LB will be discussed plenty in California. Will they play together for the majority of the season, or like last year, will the Linebackers be a revolving door on a week-by-week basis?
The Corner position is going to be entertaining as will the building of the defensive line and I am interested in seeing if Ron Leary can hold off La’el Collins through camp. There are other ancillary battles to be waged at camp and the alignment of certain players in a certain order will occupy some time in August.
But, these questions are nowhere near as complex as what we looked at in previous Garrett camps, where the answers to the questions often were not seen on the roster anywhere. This team seems fortified to a point where the only questions we currently see appear doable and merely a choice of A or B from what stands before the coaching staff on the field.
That adds up to an odd feeling entering practice #1. An odd feeling that the contenders feel pretty often, but annual attendees of Cowboys camp may not find comforting; the idea that this team looks the part of a very good team in 2015.
Do we trust those instincts? The same instincts that told us 6-10 now feel like 11-5 12 months later, and who is to say that this year’s version is any more accurate than last year’s?
So much of camp talk is wild speculation. We don’t know how the team looks even though they stand in front of us and practice because we may only compare them with themselves. If the offense looks great, is it because the defense is awful? We don’t know. We don’t know what the other NFC contenders are up to (aside from reading people wildly speculate about how they look from their camps), and of course, a few times a week, some unlucky squad in the NFL will lose a very important piece of their team for the entire year. And there won’t be a darn thing anyone can do about it.
All of that said, it is camp. Today is practice #1. For my 18th July-August in a row, I will wander down and look at what the Dallas Cowboys are building. I will see some things I love and will see some things I think are awful. Some will matter in the long run, and some will be comical looking back in a year or two.
The Cowboys will now occupy our time on a daily basis from now until well into the new year (we hope). This looks like a special year on this airplane. A fair warning to all, very seldom does anything appear properly as it should this time of year. But, unlike last year, this year most expect your favorite team to have a great season. Let’s hope for the sake of our entertainment that our instincts serve us well (for once).
And now we wait for the first story of camp to arrive.

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