NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Ian Rapoport details his visit with the Dallas Cowboys. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
America's team hits the road during training camp to make sure a different part of the country sees it ... while also avoiding the brutal Dallas heat. In Oxnard, Calif., it's 70 and sunny with a light breeze; that's better than 100 in Texas. The weather's not just aesthetically pleasing, as it also allows the players to work more freely. The scene is quite the circus, though, with sponsors' blow-up displays on one side, floats and booths on the other, and thousands of autograph-hunting fans lining the field. For Cowboys crazies seeking access, it's a perfect spot. (Although one might argue that having three skydivers ring in the opening of practice is a bit much.)
1. Leadership isn't an issue with the Cowboys. One theme of the offseason has been that team leadership is no longer a question. That has indeed played out on the field. During practice, veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick pulled aside rookie Morris Claiborne between whistles to teach him proper technique. Dallas is counting on that kind of help from Scandrick. Later, I was having a post-practice conversation with coach Jason Garrett when he stopped and said, "Look at that." Pro Bowl pass rusher DeMarcus Ware was walking off the field, taking rookie defensive end Tyrone Crawford through some technique. "He's the best in the world at what he does, and he's teaching a rookie," Garrett said. All that talk about improved leadership was not merely lip service.
2. Dez Bryant's issues are most certainly not on the field. All offseason, plenty of attention has been paid to Bryant and his lack of maturity. None of that has translated to the field. It's no stretch to say the receiver has been the team's most electric player early in camp. He's torching cornerbacks (especially Claiborne), catching nearly everything thrown his way, and has shown off his knack for keeping his feet when he's off-balance. Owner Jerry Jones described Bryant's work as "very impressive. He's practicing lights out." While Bryant has had his problems, the Cowboys have stood behind him. The Cowboys would like to know him better off the field, but they seem to be making headway in that regard in camp. His potential is so immense, and Bryant is ridden hard when he makes a rare mistake. It's easy to see why the Cowboys stick with him.
3. Receivers should expect in-your-face coverage. Optimism is high regarding the Cowboys' defense in Year 2 of the Rob Ryan regime, and one reason is their new crop of cornerbacks. Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, has been thrown into the fire, while free-agent pickup Brandon Carr is a savvy veteran. The best thing? Both can play press coverage. Carr has been all over receivers early, getting physical, which was Claiborne's specialty at LSU, too. "It allows me to play my game," Carr said. "I like to get up and challenge receivers, get my hands on them." Ryan added that if you don't have corners who can press without drawing penalties or giving up first downs, "it takes half your playbook away."
4. Plan on a quieter, gentler Cowboys team (seriously). Few coaches boast more than Ryan ... and the defensive coordinator has decided he's not going to boast this year. "I'm going to keep my mouth shut and work," Ryan said. After a year of working in the intense media environment around the Cowboys, Ryan's idea is to avoid the backlash that can come from casually delivered comments. There has always been talk around the Cowboys in the past, but there have been so few results. This year? Less noise from everyone. "Really, your actions got to speak louder than your words," tight end Jason Witten said. "None of y'all are believers, and why should you be? That's the approach we're taking. We want to be the team, and we're capable of it. But we got to show it."
5. DeMarco Murray is healthy, and he needs to stay that way. Cowboys rookie DeMarco Murray burst onto the scene with a 253-yard performance against the St. Louis Rams in Week 7. But he finished 2011 with just two touchdowns, and the team had a total of just five on the ground. "Definitely unacceptable," Murray said. For that number to improve, and for this team to run the ball in the physical NFC East, Murray needs to make it happen. The Cowboys have plenty of offensive skill players, with three marquee threats in Witten, Bryant and receiver Miles Austin. If they can get the run game going, everyone will improve. The NFL is a passing league, but the Cowboys undoubtedly are committed to running the ball better.
THE NEW GUYS
Claiborne: The Cowboys traded up to select the LSU cornerback in April's draft, claiming they'd given him their best grade for a defensive prospect since Deion Sanders. They aren't wasting any time putting him out there. Claiborne worked with the first team during the opening practice, which is something he'll continue to do. He'll be challenged throughout camp by the Cowboys' receivers, and he'll make mistakes. (Bryant has been making life difficult for him.) When it comes to handling Claiborne, Ryan is leaning on his previous experience as defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. When Browns cornerback Joe Haden was a rookie in 2010, "we didn't start him in the first four games and we didn't have any success," Ryan said. "Finally, (we) put the kid in, and he grew quick. He took off." Don't expect the Cowboys to hold back on utilizing Claiborne.
Dan Connor: Given that the Cowboys used a second-round draft pick on inside linebacker Bruce Carter in 2011, signing Connor, a former starter with the Carolina Panthers, was a slightly curious move. Connor is smart and experienced. But to give him a $2.7 million signing bonus? That means the Cowboys expect him to play. Carter has been fighting to get on the field after a knee injury marred his rookie year. But is he ready? The battle is on between Connor and Carter. "He's got a lot of experience that's going to help," linebacker Sean Lee said of his fellow Penn State alum. Don't be surprised if Connor ends up playing alongside Lee for the majority of the time, giving the defense a more secure feel.
Mackenzy Bernadeau: Nothing is more important than protecting the quarterback, and the Cowboys believed they were doing exactly that when they signed the guard in March. Adding Bernadeau was not a sexy move, but it could really pay dividends if it allows Romo to relax in the pocket. Bernadeau has turned out to be slightly damaged goods, however, undergoing hip surgery in May. He hasn't been on the field yet, creating an open competition at his spot. Consequently, undrafted rookie free-agent Ronald Leary has taken some snaps with the first-team offense. Bernadeau has time to heal, but he is missing a valuable opportunity to build cohesiveness. The offensive line could be leakier than anyone wants it to be when the Cowboys start the season.
"I'll be dammed if I let this opportunity slip away and not come away with a championship. It's been a heck of a run, but it's time to grab it. It goes for all of us, this core group. That's what Coach Garrett's talked about. This group trying to go do it. I think we got the right type of guys to do that. We gotta put in the work to give ourselves a chance."
1. Putting teams away in the fourth quarter is a focus. "We just had way too many games come down to one possession," Romo said. The Cowboys will try to apply pressure early.
2. Two under-the-radar players to keep an eye on, based on the two days of practice I saw: linebacker Orie Lemon and safety Barry Church. Both backups demonstrated they are playmakers with solid instincts, always showing up around the ball.
3. Garrett is comfortable in his own skin. Heading into his second full season as the man in charge, he's been relaxed, funny and expansive. Perhaps he's finally reached a point where he feels at home as a head coach.
The atmosphere around the Cowboys is business-like, especially compared to the way it's been in past years. The hoopla around the "opening ceremonies" aside, the emphasis has been on camp competition and finishing games. For instance, the Cowboys have ended practices with intense sprints, harping on the message that players need to get things done even when they're tired. Window-closing comments or no, the Cowboys feel the urgency of the moment. The NFC East is wide open and should be hotly contested. There is no reason the Cowboys can't be looking at a 9-7 or 10-6 record to finish the regular season, with a chance to get on a roll in the playoffs.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.