OXNARD, Calif. — In a former life that I choose not to discuss too often, I covered the entire NFC East for a fledgling website based in Bristol, Conn. In my travels, the one thing that always grabbed my attention was how much more physical the Philadelphia Eagles were in training camp than the Cowboys.
Head coach Andy Reid didn’t mind seeing big hits in training camp because he felt like it helped his teams form an identity. As we all know, former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips had a different approach. You rarely saw players go to the ground on tackles, and if it happened, a defensive player would be chastised. In Wade’s defense, he’s now coaching one of the best defenses in the NFL with the Texans.
But we’ve been poking fun at the Cowboys’ finesse approach for several years. And I can’t say that Bill Parcells ran the toughest camps around.
The good news is that Jason Garrett is presiding over one of the most physical training camps in years. And that’s pretty remarkable, given the limitations of the new collective bargaining agreement that has pretty much wiped out two-a-days as we once knew them. On Tuesday, I had just made my way out to the practice field when I heard a loud cheer go up from the players. Garrett had called for a goal-line drill, which meant live contact between the first-team offense and defense. On the first snap, linebackers Sean Lee and former Penn State teammate Dan Connor broke through to stuff fullback Jamize Olawale at the 1-yard line. But the offense scored on the next two plays. It was probably the most violent contact I’ve witnessed in 10 years of attending Cowboys training camps. And as offensive players roared after a touchdown, the normally stoic Garrett offered a hint of a smile.
Earlier this week, he talked about how important it was to become a more physical team. And he even wants the football novices to stop and take notice.
“You know it when you see it,” said Garrett, borrowing a phrase from a former Supreme Court Justice. “You know one of the things I’ve used with our players a lot, and I believe it: If someone came up here, say from Germany and Japan, and maybe as a guy from Mars, and came and watched our team play, and they’ve never seen football before, they should know what we’re all about.
“They should know that we play together,” he continued. “That we value the football, that we’re tough, that we’re physical, that we’re competitive, that we’re relentless, that we know what we’re doing, and we execute and then ultimately, we finish.”
Incidentally, the Cowboys have only had one player from Mars on the roster. He now plays tight end for the New York Giants.
But seriously, this seems like a really good development for a team that’s gained the reputation for wilting in December and early January. Phillips said he was following his father’s blueprint in trying to protect players from injury in training camp. But Bum Phillips was probably just protecting his defense from Earl Campbell at the time.
In this camp, running back DeMarco Murray and linebacker Sean Lee are the ones setting the tone in practice. Lee is humble in interviews, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s become the leader of the defense.
Defensive end Jason Hatcher couldn’t come up with a single name when he was asked to name the leaders on this team during the offseason. After observing four days of camp this week, I’m pretty sure Hatcher would now bring up Lee’s name immediately. He’s a great example to the younger players because he finishes every play in team drills and then sprints back to the huddle. And when Murray tried to lower his shoulder into Lee during a drill that wasn’t supposed to be full speed Sunday, the linebacker threw him to the ground in anger.
It’s too early to tell whether any of this will translate to more wins this season, but it’s obvious the Cowboys are practicing with a different tempo. Even a man from Mars could see that.