OXNARD, Calif. – Training camp is officially winding down here in Oxnard as the fourth and final week is nearly completed.
The Dallas Cowboys have just one more full practice remaining today before they break camp tomorrow (Friday), head to Arizona and play their third preseason game Saturday afternoon against the Cardinals.
Obviously, the most important goal of training camp is for the Cowboys to come together and improve as a team – one unit.
But since that won’t be determined until the start of the regular season, the Dallas Cowboys website writers have ranked the Top-10 players from training camp only. This certainly isn’t the list of the 10 best players on the team, but rather the two best handfuls of players who have performed better than anyone else here on the practice fields.
Staff writers Bryan Broaddus, Rowan Kavner, Nick Eatman, and David Helman, along with online radio hosts Ed Cahill and Derek Eagleton all selected their Top 10 players. The list is a combination of performance and expectations heading into camp. Here are the results.
Dan Bailey / Sterling Moore
Dan Bailey nearly cracked the Top 10, but got left off a few lists because his practice regiment isn’t exactly the same as a position player. He’s been pretty steady this time around. Moore has been a nice surprise as a fourth corner with his physical play, especially against a competitor such as Dez Bryant.
10. DeMarco Murray – While it’s never easy to evaluate running backs in practice, Murray has been good with his reps, both as a runner and pass-catcher. Staying healthy in the regular season is his biggest factor for him but he certainly looks determined enough to prove his critics wrong about his durability.
9. Ernie Sims – His latest groin injury is bad timing for this veteran linebacker trying to make the most of his second chance. Sims was a guy the Cowboys weren’t sure would fit in the 4-3 scheme and he’s gone from a roster long shot to a possible starter, competing with Justin Durant. His physical play and ability to mix it up with the offense has been refreshing.
8. Doug Free – This pick has a lot to do with expectations of last year. Doug Free has taken advantage of two injuries. Jermey Parnell was supposed to compete with Free at right tackle but his hamstring injury has limited him all of camp. Free hasn’t had to face Anthony Spencer, who missed all but two days with a knee injury. All Free can control is his own situation and he’s done better than expected so far.
7. Lance Dunbar – He immediately established himself as the No. 2 back as Joseph Randle began to work his way back into camp from an offseason thumb injury. Dunbar’s demonstrated a little of everything he can do this camp, catching passes effortlessly, hitting the hole quickly and bringing a special elusiveness that the other backs don’t possess, while carrying all of his traits to the preseason games. He’s done everything he can to ensure he’ll be involved in the offense in some degree this year.
6. Orlando Scandrick – You can argue that he doesn’t always line up against Dez and Miles, but he gets his fare share of them in the team drills. Scandrick is another one on this list primarily because of expectations. But he’s been a fighter this whole camp. He’s battled in the one-on-one drills, showing he’s got some veteran savvy to his game, especially when facing bigger receivers. He’s made plays on the ball and rarely gets out of position at all. A really strong camp for the Cowboys third corner.
5. Jason Witten – You won’t find many Top 10 lists that exclude Witten, regardless of the category. He’s never flashy, but always good. And that’s been Witten’s training camp from start to finish. In fact, it’s evident the Cowboys are making a point to get Witten more involved in the red zone offense and they’ve done that in the team drills and red-zone situations. If camp is any indication, Witten’s touchdowns should go up this season.
4. Sean Lee – There aren’t many players on this team, maybe even in the league that absolutely love the training camp grind like Lee. The passion he plays with on Sundays in the regular season is matched both in practice and even in the morning walk-through sessions. That intensity is infectious and trickles down to his teammates. But let’s not forget his play either. He looks to be a perfect fit in the middle of this 4-3 scheme with his instincts to get to the ball and his ability to drop into coverage and make plays on the ball. If he stays healthy, Lee will easily compete for a Pro Bowl spot.
3. Jason Hatcher – Here’s a surprise to the list, especially this high up. But Hatcher has been short of dominant here in practice, which can sometimes be tricky to evaluate without pads and teams going all out. Still, Hatcher has been hard to block in both individual and team drills. While some might say the Cowboys are lacking at the guard position, part of it could be the fact they’re going up against Hatcher, whose quickness of the ball has been impressive for the recently-turned 31-year-old.
2. Dez Bryant – It was a close race for first but the wide receiver gets a close second. Still, what Dez brings to the table every day is so important to this team. The intensity for this camp is at an all-time high and Dez is the main reason for it. He competes on every single snap and wants the ball thrown his way every time. If he doesn’t come up with the catch, Bryant will get upset with himself and vows to improve on the next play. That has to make the younger receivers around him better. Bryant has been the best player at camp every year since he got into the league and he hasn’t dropped off any. His expectations coming off of last year probably hurt him slightly.
1. DeMarcus Ware – The reason Ware gets the nod of Bryant is simple – he’s been dominant on just about every play of camp. When it comes to one-on-one battles, Ware hasn’t really lost one. It’s gotten to the point where Tyron Smith’s ability has been questioned some, just because Ware has beaten him regularly. Two things appear evident about Ware: He looks completely healthy this year after a handful of injuries in 2012, and this 4-3 scheme will be a great fit for him. Ware looks as good in this camp as he has in any other camp of his career. For a future Hall of Famer, that’s good enough to land the top spot on this list.
RELATED: Analyst/Scout Bryan Broaddus Training Camp 2013 Top-10
With no practice tape to break down from Wednesday, lets take this opportunity to go through the list of players voted for in the writers poll of top ten players of training camp 2013.
- DeMarcus Ware – This was a no brainer for several reasons. He has been the most dominate player in the camp. He works daily against the best offensive linemen on the squad and is rarely defeated or put in a bad situation. His health and fitness level are at an all time high and the scheme really plays to his strengths.
- Dez Bryant – Bryant has once again showed up to camp with a purpose in mind and that was to improve to become a more complete receiver. We all understand his skill level, but where he really has improved his overall game is on the mental side and as a blocker. What Bryant has shown is when he understands what his responsibilities are, he can be an even more dominate player. He is also understanding of how to use his big body to cause problems for defensive backs off the edge. For him, it’s all about being that complete player.
- Sean Lee – If there was a player on this squad that was built for this Monte Kiffin 4-3 scheme, it is Sean Lee. His ability to read and react to what he sees is rare. To play Mike linebacker in this scheme, you have to be able to tackle in space and on the move. Lee is also outstanding when it comes to understanding pass coverage. He is rarely out of position and he has been physical enough to handle a guy like Jason Witten down after down. He really has shown to be a complete player.
- Jason Witten – I really like what I have seen from Witten in this zone scheme as a blocker. He has the understand of how to position himself to secure the block but he is also crafty enough to know how to put his hands inside to also control his man. His route running has been on point and his hands in the red zone have been clutch. Father Time might be knocking on some players doors around the league but not this guy.
- Jason Hatcher – This has been a real surprise for me in camp because I really wasn’t sure how well he would consistently hold up inside. He has been playing the under tackle but will shift to nose when Jay Ratliff returns to the lineup. Hatcher has been consistent in his approach and he has developed some extra pass rush moves. He has played with power which is something that I questioned coming into camp. I will be interested if he can continue this positive trend but in this camp, he is starting to erase my doubts.
- DeMarco Murray – The most complete back on this squad is DeMarco Murray. We have not had a chance to see it in these preseason games but in observing these practices day-after-day, you can see him playing at a high level. He has shown a physical toughness and desire to prove those wrong that believed he couldn’t stay healthy. He has run the ball with a nasty streak, been consistent catching the ball and been solid on his blitz pickups. His preparation for this season has clearly shown.
- Orlando Scandrick – There are those of you reading this I am sure are saying that we have seen this before from Orlando Scandrick only to be disappointed in the end. Scandrick has a different look about him this season and its just not the mental side of the game which he has always excelled. Where Scandrick has been different in my view is in the physical side of the game. He is finishing more plays, he is making it tough for receivers to catch the ball on him. He is fighting down the field better. There were times where you would see him clutch and grab which would result in fouls but we are seeing a lot less of that. His game overall, just has a different feel.
- Lance Dunbar – For Lance Dunbar, his rise up to this level started all the way back in OTA’s and minicamps. Dunbar has always been quick but he appears to have taken that to a whole new level. He has been explosive and with the ball in his hands, has been a nightmare for tacklers to deal with in the open field. He has an outstanding feel for how to get the ball to the edge or make the cut inside. He is catching the ball well and with soft hands but where he has improved is as a pass blocker. His height limits what he can accomplish but the heart and desire make up for that. He is not afraid to step up and his technique is clearly better. Coaches are gaining more confidence in him each practice.
- Ernie Sims – If there are players that are playing with chips on their shoulders, Sims is the leader of that group. I honestly gave him little shot at this 53 man roster with some of the young players that were added to this group, but he once again proved me wrong. Sims has a real shot to not only make this roster but to start. You can just see in his body language that he is clearly on a mission. Between plays, you don’t see him standing around the other linebackers, he is off on his own. He has no friends on this team, at this point. Matter of fact the only time I have seen him smile was when he young son was running around on the field after practice. Sims has been everywhere on the field. When watching tape, you don’t have to ask what number he is wearing. It has been a shame that he is missing practice time with this groin injury but until then, he has been outstanding.
- Sterling Moore – When I observe Sterling Moore down-after-down, I am not surprised that he is playing the way he is. He has been physical both run and pass but he has also shown the ability to both play on the outside and in the slot. I really have been impressed with him in coverage. He doesn’t give receivers much room in route and when the ball is in the air, he really does a nice job of finishing the play. The way he is playing, it is going to allow this staff to be patient with B.W. Webb and his development as a corner. Moore gives this squad a great deal of flexibility and if they have to match team’s this season with multiple wide receivers, they should be a good shape.
Football is a game of competing minds. The Dallas Cowboys’ coaches must not only figure out what their players do best, but they need to determine how they can play to their players’ strengths while knowing that the opposing coaches are trying to limit the effectiveness of those strengths. In many situations, that can lead to counterintuitive thinking; the Patriots, for example, do such a great job of taking away an opponent’s best option that, in many situations, it’s optimal to build the game plan around “sub-optimal” players. Quite the paradox.
The study of this sort of decision-making – the type that’s governed by rational minds, often in a zero-sum game (just like football) – is known as game theory. The best way to make sense of the concepts behind game theory is with an example.
The Cowboys have historically had the most success running to the weak side and from spread formations, i.e. where they have the fewest blockers. It’s not inherently advantageous to run where there aren’t any blockers, of course, but since defenses typically have fewer defenders in those areas, the net effect is positive.
So why don’t the Cowboys just run to the weak side all the time? Well, that would obviously be a problem since defenses would catch on quite quickly, negating the advantage the Cowboys once possessed. So NFL offenses need to find some sort of balance, running optimal plays as much as they can before defenses defend them differently. The point that will maximize overall efficiency is known as the Nash equilibrium. In regards to run location, that point is where the efficiency of weak-side runs matches that of strong-side runs. And since NFL teams are still much more successful when running to the weak side, it follows that they should be doing it more often.
NFL coaches obviously don’t need to concern themselves with the specifics of equilibriums and complex decision theory, but they should be doing two things: 1) calling the “unexpected” in an effort to remain one step ahead of the opponent, and 2) determining when it’s best to play to your strengths and when you should be focused on exploiting opponent weaknesses (or, preferably, both).
Expect the Unexpected
Thus far through two preseason games, we’ve already seen a change in the Cowboys’ play-calls. Although they’ve expectedly stayed “vanilla,” the ’Boys have still run the ball way more often to the perimeter and thrown more screen passes than what we saw in 2012. Those play-types suggest that Callahan is at least taking opponents’ actions into account when picking plays – a rudimentary form of game theory.
So without further ado, here are the “unexpected” play-types, the plays that might be sub-optimal in a vacuum but most beneficial in practice, that the Cowboys should consider running more often in 2013.
There’s no single type of play that I’d like to see more in 2013 than the counter. Counters take a long time to develop and there’s a bigger opportunity for negative yardage than on a dive or other quick-hitting run, but there’s also a (much) larger probability of hitting a home run. From 2009 to 2011, Dallas averaged over 7.0 yards per carry (YPC) on counters! They ran only six of them last year, however, likely due to concerns about the offensive line.
And as mentioned, weak-side runs are usually best. The Cowboys have actually increased their rate of weak side runs, which was as low as 19.5 percent, every year since 2009. In 2012, it was nearly double that.
Everyone seems to believe that the Cowboys need to run the ball more often to take pressure off of Tony Romo (which is a form of game theory itself), but why not run more screens? Screens are high-percentage passes that can hold back pass-rushers, generating the same effect you’d want from a handoff (risk minimization), but with higher upside.
Dallas ran only 24 screens in all of 2012, and 16 of those were to receivers. Those aren’t the screen passes I’m talking about (although they can be useful at times). Rather, the Cowboys look like they’re going to run more running back screens under Callahan, which shouldn’t be difficult considering they called an average of one every two games last season. With exceptional pass-catching backs, there’s no reason that we shouldn’t see more screens in 2013.
- Spread Runs and Tight Passes
One of the great things about having versatile tight ends is that you can split them out wide and utilize spread formations with heavy personnel. That allows you to keep your best blockers on the field when you want to run, yet still spread out the defense. And that sort of strategy works.
The Cowboys have always been most successful when calling a play that is “unexpected” based on the formation. Again, it might be best to run from tight formations in theory, but in practice, it’s typically most beneficial to run from spread formations (and pass from tight ones) due to the defense’s preconceptions and actions.
- Play-action passes
Play-action passes are underutilized by just about every NFL team. Of the 27 quarterbacks who took at least half of their team’s snaps in 2012, only five of them had a lower yards per attempt (YPA) on play-action passes than straight dropbacks.
And Tony Romo was one of the league’s best. He completed 66.2 percent of his play-action looks, averaging 8.6 YPA and generating a 109.1 passer rating. He recorded a passer rating of 88.3 on all other passes.
Despite that, the Cowboys had the lowest play-action pass rate in the NFL, by far. Romo attempted a play-action pass on just 10 percent of his dropbacks. The difference between Romo and the second-lowest quarterback, Eli Manning, was larger than the difference between Manning and the next 11 quarterbacks!
And I know it’s popular to argue that you can’t run play-action passes without an effective running game, but that’s just not true. Defenses play situations, not necessarily past rushing efficiency, so defenders typically bite up on play-action passes based on the down-and-distance, not whether you’re averaging 5.0 YPC or 3.5 YPC.
We saw Romo have success on play-action without a running game, and the same was true for passers like Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, all of whom ranked in the top 10 in play-action passer rating with rushing offenses ranked 20th or worse in efficiency. Actually, of the 10 most successful play-action passers in 2012, only two, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, played on offenses that ranked in the top 10 in rushing efficiency (and that’s really just because of their own rushing prowess).
So the Cowboys’ rate of play-action passes should really increase in 2013, regardless of whether or not the rushing game improves.
OXNARD, Calif. – The Dallas Cowboys’ problems at the guard position have taken another hit.
Second-year pro Ron Leary is expected to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Friday, a procedure that will put his chances of playing the Sept. 8 opener against the Giants at AT&T Stadium in jeopardy.
Leary sat out of Wednesday’s walk-through practice in Oxnard, which put David Arkin running with the first-team again at left guard.
Leary had been working with the starters since he returned from a hamstring injury two weeks ago. Leary took every snap of the Aug. 5 game with the Dolphins in Canton, and also played into the second half against Oakland last week.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, the injury is to his right knee and not the left knee that scared off many teams from drafting Leary in 2012.
This injury further raises the question about the Cowboys’ interest in veteran Brian Waters. The club has reached out to the 36-year old veteran who hasn’t played since 2011. Waters, a five-time Pro Bowler apparently has interest in playing again, but doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to join a training camp.
The Cowboys tried to sign veteran Brandon Moore last week but the former New York Jet standout decided not to reunite with coach Bill Callahan and chose to stay retired.
Don’t forget about veteran Nate Livings, who also had a knee scope two weeks ago and has a shot to be ready by the start of the season.
For Saturday’s game in Arizona, the Cowboys are expected to start Arkin at left guard and Mackenzy Bernadeau on the right side.
FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys formally announced Tuesday they are moving their headquarters from suburban Irving to suburban Frisco after winning overwhelming approval for a $115 million development that includes an indoor stadium for practice and use by area prep teams.
Accompanied by cheerleaders and city officials, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son, executive vice president Stephen Jones, made a quick trip home from training camp in Oxnard, Calif., to celebrate Frisco officials. The multi-use sports facilities, which will be shared with Frisco Independent School District’s sports teams, are expected to open in 2016.
“Frisco is a city (that) they think big and they act bold. They have a vision and they act on it,” Stephen Jones said. “It gives us great comfort to do business with people who think like this.”
The stadium will be paid for mostly through a city sales tax, with the school district funding part of the construction. The deal, which was approved late Monday, calls for the Cowboys to manage the facilities and pay operating costs.
School district officials said they already were planning on building a football stadium before singing onto this private-public deal.
“We could in no way duplicate a stadium of this caliber on our own, spending the same amount for construction,” said Jeremy Lyon, Frisco ISD’s superintendent.
Lyon said the partnership will save taxpayers money in the long run by splitting costs after the stadium is open.
Frisco is already the home of the FC Dallas of Major League Soccer, a minor league affiliate of baseball’s Texas Rangers and the training facility for hockey’s Dallas Stars. It is about 30 miles north of Dallas and about 45 miles from AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
John Classe, a board member with the city who voted for the deal, said FC Dallas had a similar deal to what the Cowboys are getting, with the city funding its stadium but leaving leasing and management costs to the team.
“Just like that deal, it’s anticipated that the Cowboys will put more money into the facility above and beyond the city’s commitment,” Classe said. “Therefore we will end up with a nicer facility.”
The 91-acre development includes 25 acres for the Cowboys’ facilities, while the remaining 66 acres will be used for stores, restaurants and a luxury hotel. According to city officials, the development will generate $1.26 billion in tax revenue with an estimated economic impact of $23.4 billion over the next 30 years.
This deal ends a four-decade relationship between the Cowboys and the City of Irving.