Peter King's dispatch from Oxnard, Calif. as the Cowboys get excited for a revamped pass rush featuring Randy Gregory and (soon) Greg Hardy.
Site: Grass fields adjacent to the Residence Inn, the Cowboys’ training camp for 10 summers since 2001. The team has committed to have most of training camp in southern California through at least 2017. It fits with owner Jerry Jones’ love of fame—Los Angeles is 70 minutes south, give or take a traffic jam—and a temperate climate more suitable to football training than the torrid summers in Texas.
What I Saw: Afternoon practice, Tuesday, Aug. 18, versus the St. Louis Rams. Fight-marred. Brawl-marred, really. Sunny and 81.
Three things you need to know about the Cowboys:
1. Once Greg Hardy returns from his suspension, the defensive line will be somewhere between formidable and respectable. The ban is likely to be four games for Hardy, and already the Cowboys are licking their chops at a duo of Hardy and rookie Randy Gregory coming off the edge. Hardy hasn’t talked in camp, but he and Gregory have been quiet off the field and productive on.
2. The running back rotation starts with Joseph Randle, then gets interesting. It’s not impossible to think Dallas could be in the market for a back at the camp cutdown time. As of now, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar look like the next two in line, and Jason Garrett is certain to not repeat 2014, when the Cowboys handed or passed the ball to DeMarco Murray 447 times. Randle is likely to be a 200-carry guy, and then Dallas could go in a few directions. McFadden just has never been durable, so the Cowboys figure if they manage his carries, maybe he can give them 100 quality ones.
3. Tony Romo feels better than he has in several years. No back pain. After an off-season of back-specific exercises (and only one or two rounds of back-torquing golf), Romo, who had to take Wednesdays off last year simply to survive the season, has gone through camp this summer with no pain. The day I saw him was the fourth straight day he’d practiced at camp. “For me,’’ he said, “that’s a milestone.”
What will determine success or failure for the Cowboys: Simple. It’s the ability to be able to generate a pass-rush, and to stop the run better this year. The Cowboys allowed more sacks (30) last year than their defense recorded (28). That seems crazy. It’s just another sign that, as good as the Cowboys’ offensive line was last season, the defensive front—low sack numbers, 4.2 yards per rush allowed—simply must be better this year. But in passing situations this year (once Hardy returns from his likely four-game ban for domestic abuse), defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could line up Demarcus Lawrence and Gregory at end, with Hardy and impressive former third-round pick Tyrone Crawford inside. The potential disruption there, if Hardy comes back in 2013 form, will be huge. Dallas plays Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in the final 12 weeks, and I’d like my chances in those games if that Dallas foursome can stay on the field, and be productive.
Player I saw and really liked: Randy Gregory, defensive end. I wrote about the rookie from Nebraska, the 60th overall pick because of college baggage, while visiting Dallas camp. Dallas drafted Gregory hoping he might become a Jason Taylor-type, a lithe pass-rusher who could grow into an every-down 4-3 end. The early signs for Gregory are good. Off the field, he’s done what smart rookies. “I have not heard a word out of him,’’ said Tony Romo. “He just comes in and works. He understands what’s got to do to be good.”
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Cowboys: Randle looks to have more juke to his game than DeMarco Murray but not the power … It’s still early, but Sean Lee looks fast and disruptive at middle linebacker, and the Cowboys need him desperately, particularly with the four-game suspension to linebacker Rolando McClain to start the season … With tremendous run-game teacher/offensive line coach Bill Callahan gone to Washington in the off-season, it’s up to first-year line coach Frank Pollack to tutor rookie La’el Collins, who has been a star of camp. He’s still working with the second unit, but he could eventually challenge left guard Ronald Leary to start … The best rookie offensive lineman in football last year, guard Zack Martin, went down in the practice I saw against the Rams and stayed down. Turns out he suffered a neck stinger, and the Cowboys decided to keep him out of action for a few days. Amazing to see the circle around Martin, and the concern. Jerry Jones looked ashen … Hard to believe Jason Witten, entering his 13th year, will play this season at 33. Still looks young and takes every rep with the first unit. As The MMQB’s Andy Benoit points out, the more effective Witten is (and durable), the better it is for the development of Dez Bryant, who needs the defensive attention focused on the middle of the field so he can have more freedom over the top.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. A.J. Jenkins, wide receiver. The former Niners first-round wideout is probably not going to make the team, but he will add another team to his NFL tour of teams. Everyone keeps bringing Jenkins in to see what the Niners might missed with him, and the answer continues to be not much. He’s had 17 career receptions, all in Kansas City, and likely won’t beat out fifth-round pick Devin Street.
The thing I’ll remember about Oxnard. The brawl. Three brawls, actually. Weirdest thing about the fights—which I believe have absolutely zero consequences (except the Cowboys’ seeming inability to get Dez Bryant to grow up a little bit and stop his incessant yapping) and zero meaning—was that they took place under a huge cutout of Stan Kroenke’s head. The Kroenke-head was held up by a fan in front of the huge rooting section chanting for the Rams to return to Los Angeles.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town. I felt better about the defensive line because of Gregory’s progress … but what of Hardy? When will he play? Will he be the dominant force he’d been in 2013? I also don’t think it’s any sure thing that Sean Lee, who’s missed 31 of Dallas’ last 48 regular-season games with injuries, can stay upright. So I left with much optimism about the offense, and cautious optimism about the D.