With organized team activities and mini-camp completed this is an ideal time to analyze what has been witnessed at Valley Ranch and Cowboys Stadium during the offseason.
Here are my thoughts.
1.) As he should, Tony Romo has looked sharp. It’s not breaking news that the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback has been accurate. After all, he’s one of the top 10 players at the NFL’s most important position and probably the team’s most valuable player. Breaking news would be if Romo had been performing poorly. The 32-year-old tossed the ball around like a quarterback poised to duplicate a very good 2011 season (31 TDs, 10 INTs and 4,184 yards).
“He is dramatically improved his ability to play that position from when he first came in,” Jerry Jones said. “That shouldn’t surprise us because he just soaks it up — his experiences and just puts them to use. As I said last year, the biggest disappointment that I’ve had almost since owning the Cowboys, was the kind of year he had and us not being in better shape when the dust settled and getting into the playoffs and competing.”
2.) Want a vocal leader? Look no further than Sean Lee. The inside linebacker has yelled for players to get in the huddle during 11-on-11 drills and has been routinely barking out instructions in other situations. In early May, Lee said he has no problem addressing an issue vocally if it’s needed. Judging by his actions during OTAs and mini-camp, I can see that being true.
“That’s the Sean Lee of old,” inside linebacker and Lee’s former Penn State teammate Dan Connor said. “I’ve seen Sean doing that since he was 18 years old. It was probably the first camp at Penn State and he was getting in fights, yelling at himself on the field, smashing his helmet like Bobby Boucher.”
3.) The best defensive back on the field has undoubtedly been cornerback Brandon Carr. His physical press coverage skills are what the Cowboys wanted when they gave him a $50 million contract in March, and that’s what they’ve been getting throughout the workouts in front of media members. He’s been good working with a lot of space and even better in goal line drills. And he’s made plays against all of the Cowboys receivers. Remember watching Terence Newman line up 10 yards off receivers on some occasions last season? Don’t expect to see that from Carr.
“I knew he was great, but the guy is special,” Rob Ryan said. “He shuts down everybody. He can cover anybody. He’s got long arms, great length, and he’s a great person, who works his tail off. He takes coaching, and I’m really impressed with him.”
4.) Don’t be surprised if DeMarcus Ware sets the single-season sack record. This was my first time watching every day of Cowboys OTAs and mini-camp so I don’t know how Ware has been during those sessions in the past. Working in Detroit, I always thought of Ware as a nearly unblockable beast on the field and someone that was probably intimidating in person. That’s not the case. He’s one of the nicest professional athletes I’ve ever interviewed. But like Lee, he seemed to be very vocal throughout workouts, routinely taking players aside — both offensive and defensive — and giving them suggestions on techniques. During about a 10-minute interview session after an OTA, Ware spoke about proving the “haters” wrong. The people that say he’s overrated. (I was shocked that anyone ever said that about him). You could tell the normally soft-spoken outside linebacker is excited about the 2012 season. While age could be playing a part — Ware turns 30 in July — his sense of urgency seemed obvious. Better defenders on the back end could realistically result in a 23-sack season if Ware stays healthy.
“Everybody always talks about me not being there in pressure situations or I’m an overrated player,” Ware said. “But every year I’m up there with a lot of the players doing exactly what I do, and that’s sacking the quarterback and being consistent. It’s all about shutting those people up who are talking and just getting that pressure in pressure situations and just doing whatever I can to help the team.”
5.) Dez Bryant always draws a crowd around his locker at Valley Ranch. During two separate occasions he talked with reporters about how he’s performed during his first two professional seasons and what he’s doing to be better in Year 3. While staying out of the headlines away from the field has been a positive sign for the Cowboys, Bryant’s improved conditioning could be equally important. The Cowboys are hoping that with guidance from strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik, Bryant, who tweeted two weeks ago that he’s at 3.1 percent body fat, can make more of an impact late in games. If one of the most physically-gifted athletes in the game can improve his fourth-quarter contributions, he’ll be headed to his first Pro Bowl. After all, the impressive grabs he’s made the last few weeks — one- and two-handed — are all the evidence needed to show that Detroit’s Calvin Johnson might be the only NFL wide receiver with a higher ceiling.
“His conditioning to me is where his focus is and where it should be,” Jerry Jones said recently. “If we can have him better conditioned, then we’ve got a chance to see him more focused in the latter part of games. … I know one thing. He certainly is different as far as his maturity and as far as his understanding of what it takes to play in the National Football League than when he got here.”
6.) It’s difficult to be critical of offensive and defensive linemen when no one is wearing pads. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that the interior of the offensive line remains a huge question mark. Will Phil Costa improve in his second year at center? Are Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings an upgrade from Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland? Can Bill Callahan turn this group into a unit that plows the way for one of the league’s best rushing offenses like he did in his first year as offensive line coach for the New York Jets? Those questions won’t begin to get answered until the pads are added in August. One thing that made the Cowboys running game effective last season was the blocking from fullback Tony Fiammetta who was released and replaced by Lawrence Vickers. Jerry Jones says Vickers is even better.
“I like what our running backs have a chance to benefit from with what we’re doing at fullback,” Jones said. “This can be the best we’ve been at fullback since Daryl [Johnston].”
7.) Many Cowboys fans wanted Rob Ryan to be quiet last season. The outspoken defensive coordinator called the Philadelphia Eagles the “all-hype team” and said the Cowboys had receivers better than Calvin Johnson on their roster. Those two comments were thought to add fuel to the fire of three games that all resulted in Cowboys losses in 2011. But that type of brash bulletin board material could be a thing of the past for Ryan. Whether Jason Garrett or Jerry Jones told him to dial it back or not, Ryan seems to be more reserved during the off-season. He’s talked only a couple of times during OTAs and mini-camp and declined to comment to reporters when exiting the Cowboys Stadium field on Thursday. As he passed by reporters, Ryan put his play card over the side of his face and said he was headed on vacation. Of course, Ryan has been his normal self — vocal and animated — on the sidelines during the practice sessions. Perhaps Ryan has toned it down because he is feeling the pressure to produce an elite defense.
“I think we’re all under pressure,” Ryan said. “This is why you come to Dallas. America’s Team. It’s the No. 1 football spot in the world, bar none. And so you get a little pressure, but that’s OK. It makes your job that much better.”