SAN ANTONIO -- The Dallas Cowboys' first training camp practice was scheduled to begin at 2:15 p.m. local time, but first-round pick Dez Bryant took the field 45 minutes early to the delight of fans and I'm sure his coaches. As he's done since his first rookie camp, Bryant stole the show with an array of acrobatic catches. He spiced up even the most routine warm-up drill by reaching up and snagging the corner of the football with his left hand as if it were a Nerf.
At least one reporter (from the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate) was already asking folks to lay odds on when Bryant would replace Roy Williams in the starting lineup. Imagine what we'll be saying after Bryant's second practice, which is scheduled for Sunday. The former Oklahoma State wide receiver was just thrilled to be playing football again. After Bryant made a remarkable catch along the sideline, Wade Phillips' legendary father, Bum, cut off his conversation with Jerry Jones and began clapping like a fan. Believe it or not, though, there were other players on the field Saturday. Let's get to the observation deck:
The loudest cheers of the day were reserved for quarterback Tony Romo, who ran a warm-up lap as he took the field at 2:29 p.m. local time. A few minutes earlier, Miles Austin walked onto the field to a large ovation and acknowledged the crowd with an exaggerated wave of his arm. I had a long visit with Austin after practice about how his life has changed over the past year. It appears that he and Bryant will have a spirited competition to see who can make the toughest catches in practice. Austin told me that he's looking forward to a preseason matchup with the Dolphins because he wants to catch up with the man who gave him a chance in the league, Bill Parcells.
It didn't take long to realize that someone was missing from the tight ends group. Martellus Bennett, who has a lot to prove after a disappointing 2009 season, is on the non-football injury list with an ankle sprain. Bennett suffered the injury while running some routes at Valley Ranch on his own last week, but the Cowboys don't seem overly concerned. The athletic training staff had already set up shop in San Antonio, so the tight end wasn't able to get the same type of treatment that he normally would have received. He'll be day-to-day, and quite honestly, he's not in position to miss any days based on his tepid performance during the past season. It's odd that Phillips failed to mention Bennett's injury during Friday's opening news conference...
Second-year tight end John Phillips had an impressive first practice. He caught a couple of passes across the middle and he outperformed the other tight ends on a blocking sled. He's added some muscle and he looked dominant in blocking drills.
It's only the first practice, but Patrick Crayton had a bad drop on an inside route during drills. It will be an interesting battle for the fourth receiver spot between Crayton and Kevin Ogletree. Another possible candidate, Sam Hurd, missed practice because his wife had a child Friday. And since Phillips became a grandfather six days ago, I'm thinking he'll cut Hurd some slack.
Had a good conversation with right tackle Marc Colombo. He's obviously in much better condition than the last time we saw him in a regular-season game against the Vikings. Colombo told me that he'd lost 12 pounds. "I decided to get in shape and kick some [expletive]," said the right tackle/heavy metal guitarist.
I don't want you to be too alarmed, but linebacker Curtis Johnson blew by left tackle Doug Free on a speed rush during team drills. But on some inside running plays, Free did an excellent job of getting leverage and shielding his defender. This is not going to go smoothly at times, but Romo seems to have plenty of confidence in Free -- until Trent Cole takes his head off.
It's obvious that defensive coordinator Phillips is going to put more emphasis on causing turnovers this season. During one drill, he had the defensive ends reach up and try to bat down volleyballs while other defenders were trying to scoop up actual footballs. I was intrigued by this drill until a former colleague scolded me for recognizing it from the Parcells era. I apologized profusely and returned my focus to the offense.
On the first official play of training camp (if there is such a thing), Romo fired a deep ball to Austin. The ball sailed over Austin's head as he and the defender went up together.
I'm sure you're not surprised to hear that the defense appeared to be ahead of the offense on Day 1. I was particularly impressed with the safeties. The forgotten Pat Watkins came racing across the field to break up a deep ball from Romo at the last second. It was a very nice play, and it prompted Jones to deliver an awkward fist pump. Later in practice, Romo attempted to dial up Williams on a fly pattern down the left sideline. Second-year safety Michael Hamlin arrived just in time to knock the pass away. Linebacker Keith Brooking told me recently that Hamlin will provide some stiff competition for Alan Ball. He's been very impressed with both players.
Tough first day for rookie free-agent cornerback Bryan McCann from SMU. The player obviously has some talent, but he was victimized by both Bryant and Ogletree. He appeared to be in decent position on both plays, but he didn't get a hand up in time.
Stop me if you've heard this one, but Roy Williams insisted to me that he and Romo developed some excellent chemistry during organized team activities. I asked him what he thought about Phillips telling us that the coaching staff had watched all of his snaps with the Lions, and he didn't seem particularly excited. "We just have to get on the same page as the quarterback," said Williams. He said that he was "excited" when the Cowboys selected Bryant and that he would be available if the rookie had any questions. "If he needs me, I'm not going to turn my back on him," said Williams. The former Texas Longhorn said the Cowboys were "paper champions" heading into 2010, but he knows that won't get them to the Super Bowl.
Linebacker Victor Butler raced to his right and snagged an interception across the middle. He and former Texas Tech star Brandon Williams will compete for playing time at outside linebacker. But on Day 1, Butler had the better day. He's quick off the ball and I think he could be an effective pass-rushing specialist.