OXNARD, Calif. -- Twice per practice, Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett will call out two players' names -- one on offense, one on defense -- to put them in front of the rest of their teammates.
It could be a receiver against a cornerback, a safety against a tight end, a linebacker against a running back, a tackle against an end, a guard against a tackle. They will have one chance in a drill to earn their respective side of the ball a point on a fictitious scoreboard.
After those names are called out, the players will scream encouragement to their guy before the snap. You can sense the level of intensity rising from the sideline. Their games on Sundays are played in front of tens of thousands of people and millions watching on television, but there is something different about having 88 peers paying close attention.
"We believe you have to compete against each other at a very high level on the practice field," Garrett said. "Sometimes you need to get everyone away and create a stage for these guys to go against each other. See how they respond."
Assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett remembers watching Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders going after each other in practice in his playing days. He remembers the receivers watching the offensive and defensive linemen in pass-rush drills.
"It seemed like we were on the big stage because everyone was watching," Lett said.
Heading into Tuesday's afternoon practice, the offense has an unofficial 9-5 lead. In the dining room, the players know the score. In the meeting rooms, the players know the score. In the chance meetings in the halls outside their rooms, they know the score.
"I believe it's trying to raise the competition level and put the ones against the ones, the two best against each other and see what you get," cornerback Morris Claiborne said. "It's going to be a fight. It's going to be a battle. I feel like the team is going to feed off that as well."
Garrett is judge and jury. He has an idea of who he will pick before practice starts, but if he sees something before in the session he reserves the right to change his mind. Players have lobbied to overturn Garrett's on-field decision. Coaches even sent him video evidence when Orlando Scandrick was ruled the winner in his battle with Dez Bryant even though he ended up on the ground before the pass from Tony Romo was incomplete.
"There's an initial decision that's final and then we typically show them in the team meetings at night," Garrett said. "And that decision is typically validated because the same guy who made the decision is making the decision again in the team meeting."
To the tape they went confirmation.
"I leaned over and I kind of tapped at him (on film)," Garrett said. "This is all video evidence at night. So DeMarco told me he wasn't sure where I was relative to the rusher. He needed to be on the inside half of Bruce Carter, so he said that with a lot of confidence. And then sure enough we showed it in the meeting and it was pretty clear where I was. He's chomping at the bit for another opportunity."
And that's what Garrett wants. He wants players to prove themselves each day whether they won or lost their one-on-one battle. When Jason Witten beat Barry Church on a route, Witten quickly turned back to yell to Garrett, "Hey, coach, that's a first down."
"I think there's a lot of individual pride, but it's also representing the group," center Travis Frederick said. "There's certain a bit of pressure there knowing that your offensive line is really counting on you and the entire offense is counting on you and the team is counting on you. I think it's a good simulation for a true game when you're out there every single play. It's pride on the line."