Postcard from camp: Cowboys
In sunny and comfortable Oxnard, Calif., where the Cowboys have returned to train this year, staying here the entire camp for the first time since 2008, the year the team was featured in HBO's wildly popular
Dallas has a deal to train here for the next three summers as well, and it's worth the long trek west just to get out of the Texas heat and be able to practice outdoors in what is usually a nice ocean breeze blowing in from the nearby Pacific. The Cowboys pretty much take over the Marriott Residence Inn River Ridge hotel during camp, and it's a compact and convenient set-up that everybody seems to enjoy. Put it this way, I didn't hear anyone in Cowboys colors go on about missing San Antonio and the dark confines of the Alamodome during my camp visit.
I talked to head coach Jason Garrett about Bryant, who is not being made available to the media while his legal issues are pending, and he said progress has been made in regards to Bryant's maturity and decision-making despite the recent off-field setback. "He's a good kid. He just needs some help with the structure in his life,'' Garrett said. "The leaps and bounds he's made in the two years we've had him are really significant. It's been a challenge, but the strides he's made are outstanding. There's been tough love shown him, but often times it's hard to control someone's life 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days out of the year.''
Translation? The Cowboys still believe Bryant is worth the trouble. Now they need him to stay healthy, stop underachieving, and start paying them back for the faith shown him since he was taken in 2010's first round. There's still time for this story to take a turn for the (much) better.
Murray is running with speed, power and determination, and shows no ill effects of his December leg injury. I'm the last guy to give fantasy football advice, but if I played, I'd find room for him on my roster. He rushed for just two touchdowns last year, a total he calls unacceptable and one he vows to increase many times over. His teammates gush about his intensity and how he runs with a mean streak, and in one recent practice he set the tone by bowling over reserve cornerback Teddy Williams, sending him to the sidelines with a concussion.
"It's not frustrating, [because] we're not to the season [yet],'' Stephen Jones said this week. "[Frustration sets in] when the season gets here and guys aren't playing.''
OK, but if practice time in training camp didn't matter, coaches wouldn't schedule it. Dallas may be getting its injury problems out of the way early this year, but that's only the glass-half-full approach to this wave of ill health.
Upgrading at cornerback was priority No. 1 in Dallas this offseason, and Carr is playing at a shutdown level through the first 10 days of camp, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan calling him the "best player in free agency by far,'' and Garrett praising him as being better than even advertised. Carr looks like he'll be up to the task of shadowing an opponent's top receiver this season, and that means throwing the ball against the Cowboys just got quite a bit tougher.
All those blown fourth-quarter leads were the story of the season last year in Dallas, and a dependable running game could have helped salt several of those games away and made the 8-8 Cowboys a playoff team.
Making a rushing game work is Callahan's specialty. He helped the Jets finish in the top five in rushing twice in his four years on the job, and his experience as a head coach and offensive coordinator in both the NFL and college ranks should help shore up Garrett's shaky 2011 performance in terms of game management. Garrett said he'll "lean on'' Callahan's vast experience, and I'd be shocked if the Cowboys' running game doesn't produce a much more committed and well-coordinated effort this season.
The Cowboys got no breaks from the NFL in drawing the visiting team assignment in the regular season's kickoff game, Wed., Sept. 5 at the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. The opener has turned into a huge advantage for the home team, with the Super Bowl champs going 8-0 in that celebratory setting. Dallas follows that up by traveling all the way to Seattle in Week 2, before finally opening at home against Tampa Bay in Week 3.
The Cowboys schedule is plenty quirky. Dallas plays at home just three times in the first 10 weeks of the season, but then has five of its final seven at home, all from mid-November on. Three of those home games fall in a 15-day span, with Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia coming to town, with the centerpiece game being the Thanksgiving Day showdown with the NFC East rival Redskins.