OXNARD, Calif. – The Cowboys are closing in on their return to Texas after their California summer vacation (aka training camp), but there are plenty of things to wonder about -- and not just the heat back home.
For the third time in training camp, we bring you Five Wonders:
** LB Sean Lee was credited with a sack and a forced fumble by the stats crew Friday in Oakland, but after looking at the replay, it looked like Jason Hatcher poked the ball free from Matt Flynn before the big hit from Lee. In his first three years, Lee has filled every defensive category but sacks. In 35 games, Lee has yet to record a sack. But I don’t wonder whether Lee will get a sack this year, I wonder how many he will get. Brian Urlacher had eight as a rookie in this scheme, but in five of his last seven years in Chicago, he did not have a sack. He had four in 2010. Monte Kiffin was aggressive in preseason game No. 2 against the Raiders, and Lee has a knack for timing. Seattle’s Bobby Wagner had two sacks last year in this scheme playing the Mike spot. I can see Lee getting about three this year if Kiffin keeps up with his aggressiveness.
** Before camp, when we wondered about position battles, I don’t think we had strongside linebacker on the list. We had free-agent pickup Justin Durant as the guy. Heck, I wasn’t sure Ernie Sims would make the team. But I wonder if the coaches have opened this starting spot without any of us noticing until recently. And with Sims suffering a groin injury Sunday, I wonder how long the competition will last. The Cowboys hope Sims can play in the fourth preseason game against Cincinnati, but who knows whether he will be back. Before Sunday, Durant had worked all camp -- save for one vet day -- as the starting Sam linebacker with Sims as his backup. In the Hall of Fame Game against Miami, Durant was the only regular to play. In the second preseason game against Oakland, Durant started but Sims was on the field in the second series with the starters. Durant really has not done anything to lose a job that we all thought was his entering camp, but Sims has had an impactful camp. He has been around the football and has created turnovers in practice. The groin injury, however, might change all of this.
** In two preseason games, the Cowboys have had 58 pass plays. So far, tight ends Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, Dante Rosario, Colin Cochart and Andre Smith have been targeted nine times. Given how much we have talked about “12 personnel” and how much the Cowboys have used “12 personnel” in practice, I wonder if the team is just keeping most of it under wraps in the preseason. Against Miami in the Hall of Fame Game, the Cowboys used the two-tight end package a bunch and ran the ball more than they threw it. Against Oakland, the starters were in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) more. There is no need to tip teams to what will be your base formation when the regular season begins.
** Last year, the Cowboys kept safety Matt Johnson around essentially for the season even though he hardly practiced because of hamstring and back injuries. Johnson earned a scholarship year in part because he was a fourth-round draft pick and teams don’t want to give up on draft picks. Offensive tackle Demetress Bell is not a draft pick and the team does not have a financial commitment to him, but I wonder if the Cowboys will keep him around even though he hasn't done much of anything in camp. After signing, he needed extensive conditioning work when the team got to Oxnard, Calif., and the Cowboys did not want to put him at risk. He’s in better condition now and the Cowboys’ backup tackle situation is not good. Jermey Parnell is the third guy but a hamstring injury has slowed him through the first three weeks. The other backups, Darrion Weems and Edawn Coughman, have not impressed, either. Even if the Cowboys sign Brian Waters, they could keep nine or 10 linemen on the 53-man roster. Bell might not have to do much to be one of those guys.
** I wonder if people realize how out of date the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch complex is. There is no doubt it is serviceable, but most of the BCS college programs have better facilities than the Cowboys. You think of Valley Ranch as this magical place because of the history of the franchise, but it is just not as functional as it needs to be, which is a big reason why we will see the team move its practice facility to Frisco, Texas. It’s not just the lack of an indoor facility, though that is a big part of it. They don’t have a place to cook their own food, they need more space for rehab programs, and the player lounge is hardly even a room. We make too much of these things when it comes to free agency because money speaks the most, but there’s a reason why the Cowboys have taken their high-prized free agents to Cowboys Stadium first on their visits. When the team moves to Frisco in the future, the facility will match the stadium.