ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' coaches don't just announce drills during training camp practices, hollering out "9-on-7s!" as the horn blows and players shift from one field to the other. They're calling out situations. Two minutes to go, one timeout left, second-and-6 on your own 35. The players either huddle or hustle between plays, depending on what the called-out situation calls for. While these are drills only, they're intended to simulate game conditions as closely as they possibly can.
"Will we ever be able to completely re-create a game situation? No," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "But we're going to try our best in practice, and I think all these situational periods had been really good for us. Not only have we created initial situations, but stuff comes up that isn't scripted, and I think our team has handled those well also."
What strikes you when you spend a few days in Cowboys camp is how normal things seem, how businesslike. Sure, they were in San Antonio for a while and now are splitting practice time between the steamy outdoor fields at Valley Ranch and the air-conditioned luxury of Cowboys Stadium. But it's nothing like last year, when they spent August bouncing between those places as well as Canton and California, brimming with the highest possible expectations, proclaiming with confidence the goal of being the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
A 6-10 record and a new coach can humble you, for sure, after a summer like that, and there's no doubt these Cowboys are humbled by the way things went in 2010. But if the end result is the atmosphere Garrett has created in his first training camp as head coach, there are worse things.
"We certainly want an atmosphere where guys like to coach and play football, but we absolutely want to be organized and prepared," Garrett said after Friday morning's workout at the stadium. "We want it to be businesslike when we're out there doing our work, out there on the field and also in the meeting rooms. We want to create a nice, professional atmosphere where we feel like we can function the best."
Garrett exudes both confidence and competence. He has waited his whole life for this chance, but he doesn't seem over-eager or phony about the way he's putting his long-held ideas about how to be a head coach into practice. He is smart, knowledgeable and self-assured, and it's emanating throughout the building. Around a team that often, throughout its history, has been known for something of a circus atmosphere, the mentality this August is straight lunch pail.
"Everybody here knows, whatever we get, we're going to have to work for it," right guard Kyle Kosier said. "Whether it's your spot on the roster or in the starting lineup or a Week 1 win or a playoff spot, it's about putting in this time right here and working. And that's all that's on anybody's mind right now."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can the defense learn Rob Ryan's scheme in time? The Cowboys brought in Ryan to be their new defensive coordinator. And while they signed free-agent safety Abram Elam and free-agent defensive end Kenyon Coleman -- both played under Ryan in Cleveland the past two seasons -- the group they're bringing back on defense is otherwise the same as the one that allowed the second-most points in the league last season. Ryan is charged with fixing that, but of course the lockout denied him the opportunity to use spring minicamps and organized team activities as part of his installation process. The defense is trying to cram a whole offseason's worth of learning into one month, and there's a lot to learn. Ryan's defense is based on multiple and ever-changing looks, and a complexity designed to make things as confusing as possible for opposing offenses. But Garrett said he has faith in the quality of his defensive personnel and the ability of his flamboyant new coordinator to teach.
"It's difficult. There are a lot of looks," Garrett admitted. "But the other part to that, too, is that I think he grew up in very fundamentally sound system in the NFL -- linebacker coach for New England for four years during their Super Bowl era in the early 2000s. So he has a very good feel for base defensive football, and then he has an ability to evolve in different situations and make it more difficult for opposing offenses. So we feel excited about that, and we're excited to see our players play within this system."
2. Can they put together an offensive line? There are some new and inexperienced pieces here. Rookie Tyron Smith, the ninth overall pick in this past draft, will start at right tackle. Every day Smith gets an extra tutoring session with offensive line coach Hudson Houck and a series of rotating instructors that has included Kosier, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, left tackle Doug Free and others. Smith is ultra-talented but needs work on his footwork and learning the schemes. And as with the players learning the new defense, he has to cram. The Cowboys moved Kosier from left guard to right so he could work more closely with the rookie, but now they need a left guard. And while that still has a good chance to be Montrae Holland or Phil Costa, later-round rookies David Arkin and Bill Nagy have been getting first-team reps lately and one of them could end up starting Week 1.
3. Who is the No. 3 wide receiver? One of the first things the Cowboys did when the lockout ended and free agency began was cut receiver Roy Williams to help create cap room. That also created a vacancy at the No. 3 wide receiver spot behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Kevin Ogletree appears first in line to grab the opportunity, though Raymond Radway and Dwayne Harris have shown flashes. Some have suggested the Cowboys need to go out and get a veteran to fill the spot, but with tight end Jason Witten a near-lock for 90-plus catches, running backs Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray potential factors in the passing game and depth at both of those positions, the Cowboys feel as though the No. 3 wide receiver might be the No. 5 target for Tony Romo for most of the season.
THE BUTLER CAN DO IT
Third-year linebacker Victor Butler has been an eye-opener in camp, and some have suggested he might be a threat to Anthony Spencer's starting spot on the side opposite Ware. More likely, he's a guy to add to the pass-rush mix and give them depth and the ability to vary those looks even more. If anything, the camp Butler is having could serve to motivate Spencer to return to his 2009 form after a disappointing 2010.
"You can never have too many pass-rushers on one team," Ware said. "When the Giants won against the Patriots, they had several really great pass-rushers. Pressure is what gets things going. So to be able to develop another third-down guy will really help us out a lot."
TURNING UP A CORNER
The Cowboys did not sign free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, though they tried, and they'll go with Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman as starting cornerbacks again. The problem is, injuries have kept both Jenkins and Newman sidelined so far in camp, and Newman is out until at least the regular-season opener. This is a spot where the Cowboys struggled mightily in 2010, and they're not going to have their defense the way they want it until they get Jenkins and Newman back on the field. The one positive to come out of this is that backup corner Orlando Scandrick has looked very good in a starter's role so far in camp, so maybe they have some quality depth there that they didn't know they had.
The Cowboys might have more at defensive end than we thought immediately post-free agency. Coleman looks as if he's poised to steal Igor Olshansky's starting spot from him, and Jason Hatcher has looked rejuvenated and been an asset in the pass rush. Letting Stephen Bowen go to the Redskins felt like a loss at first, but re-signing Marcus Spears and Hatcher and bringing in Coleman might have made them deeper than they'd have been if they'd stayed pat.
The kicking competition looks miserable, with neither David Buehler nor Dan Bailey having seized the opportunity and Kai Forbath unable to get on the field because of injury. Don't rule out the possibility that the kicker the Cowboys go with this season isn't on the roster yet.
Jones and Romo aren't new or exciting names around here, but they look as good as anyone in camp on offense. When I watched them practice against the Chargers on Thursday, the Cowboys were using Jones around end a lot, and he looks like he has great burst. The offensive linemen I spoke with all hope he gets a chance at full-time carries, because they believe he and Bryant can be "spark plug" guys.
Elam was a critical signing, as he'll be responsible for the secondary calls and has been vitally important in helping the holdover players understand the language Ryan is speaking. I'm interested to see if the secondary looks more organized Sunday night having had an additional week-plus practicing with Elam.
The Cowboys are serious about Nagy, who was a seventh-round pick after not playing much in his senior season at Wisconsin. He was seriously hurt in a moped accident as a junior and then was passed on the depth chart by a few other guys, so much of the action he saw as a senior was actually at tight end. But the Cowboys love his athleticism and maturity. They could start him at guard early in the season, and there are some who think he could eventually start at center for them down the road.