Bruce Almighty shows up at Valley Ranch
IRVING, Texas — The only thing missing was a banner hanging over the entrance to Valley Ranch. Without any warning, the Cowboys turned a mundane day of organized training activities (OTAs) into "Bruce Carter Day."
It was as if assistant coaches and players were reading from a script. Unsuspecting reporters, such as this one, had no clue the day would turn into a celebration of the life and times of the Cowboys' 2011 second-round pick. After all, Carter had only a minimal impact as a rookie. Coming off an anterior cruciate ligament injury, he mainly focused on special teams during the 8-8 campaign.
That the club signed inside linebacker Dan Connor in free agency appeared to be a sign that Carter's future might be in peril. Instead, he's emerged as the flavor of the month after two weeks of OTAs. They say it's hard to tell a lot about a man in shorts and a T-shirt, but coaches swooned over the progress Carter has made this offseason. Head coach Jason Garrett made it clear Carter was a starting linebacker, although he looks forward to watching Connor compete for the job.
Suddenly, the Cowboy's curious strategy of identifying the best player recovering from a major injury available in the second round has more credibility than ever. Starting inside linebacker Sean Lee slid in the draft in 2010 because of an ACL injury he suffered at Penn State. The same thing happened to Carter at North Carolina.
Obviously, it's a little ridiculous to overreact to a few weeks of voluntary workouts, but at least Carter appears to be moving in the right direction. Even the organization's scouts seemed to be walking a little taller as the team left the field Wednesday. And you can only imagine what the response will be if Carter makes a tackle in a preseason game.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who is 55 pounds lighter following offseason gastric sleeve surgery, said Carter wasn't ready for prime time last season because he missed the first six games of the year.
"He wasn't ready," Ryan said. "He looks like a real player now. The kid loves to work and he's doing a great job. He's jumping off the tape right now.
"This work in progress is really on the come, fellas. He's been one of our guys who has really looked good in this camp."
Of course, I've been sucked into these offseason MVP stories before. It's been seven years since former right tackle Rob Pettiti re-shaped his body in the weight room and was hailed as a threat to win that position on a permanent basis. Pettiti didn't make it through the ensuing training camp before getting cut, but he was a late-round draft choice who wasn't expected to make a major impact. Carter was selected by the Cowboys in the second round, in part because they viewed him as a first-round talent.
Owner Jerry Jones said recently the "window was closing" on the team accomplishing something special with players such as DeMarcus Ware, Tony Romo and Jason Witten. But with players such as Lee, Carter and last year's third-round pick, DeMarco Murray, there's a chance the window for the organization could stay open a lot longer. Even the famously buttoned-down tweed coat himself, Jason Garrett, couldn't hide his enthusiasm for Carter on Wednesday.
"Over the course of the first nine OTAs, he's been impressive," said Garrett. "He's one of those guys who is growing every day, and you can see it. He's becoming more and more comfortable."
It's too early to say whether the Cowboys hit on Carter, but they certainly feel a lot better about him than they did in March. This fascination with injured players may pay off after all.