It's Off to Camp Chaos for the Cowboys

With the NFL lockout finally over, the Cowboys embark on an unprecedented training camp and an unpredictable 2011 season.

You think the NFL lockout made you crazy? I submit to you the mind-set of Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler, who last week was so discombobulated that he inexplicably claimed to go eight hours without checking his phone for lockout updates, said he'd almost forgotten his July 29 birthday and developed a very fuzzy memory of a certain legendary rock 'n' roll group.

Asked during a wide-ranging interview about his opinion of Led Zeppelin, the 24-year-old Butler responded: "I can't think of any songs, but sure, I know who he is."

Welcome to the 2011 NFL season. Music to our ears, even if we're not exactly sure who's playing it.

Less talk, more chalk: NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell and NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith agree to go away. Finally.
TJ Root/Southcreek Global/
Less talk, more chalk: NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell and NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith agree to go away. Finally.

In the wake of the craziest off-season in pro football history, I would say football is back, better late than never. But, fittingly, after the longest-ever NFL work stoppage, the Cowboys wound up starting training camp in San Antonio earlier than originally planned. The pre-lockout schedule called for a state-of-the-team press conference on July 28, with the first practice of camp the following day. Instead, after 136 days of sometimes intense but mostly meandering labor negotiations, owner Jerry Jones addressed the media at The Alamodome Wednesday, and on Thursday morning the team was on the field for full-scale preparations for the season.

Well, not exactly the full team. And only about half-scale work. Ugh — this is going to take some getting used to.

But whatever: With players and owners agreeing Monday on a collective bargaining agreement that will bring the NFL 10 years of labor peace, we can now forget NFL Players Association boss DeMaurice Smith and start analyzing Cowboys No. 1 draft pick Tyron Smith. The transition will not be simple. After an off-season of frustration, the NFL is now burning rubber toward an unprecedented frenzy. Basically, five months of transactions have to be squeezed into five days.

End result? The Cowboys may re-sign Doug Free as their left tackle of the present and right tackle of the future, but he won't be in uniform as the team takes the field for the first practice of 2011. Further mucking the mess, the Cowboys — like all teams — will literally have new players arriving in San Antonio every day as they scramble to sign free agents and draft choices and potentially make trades. As for practice? Because of the lack of organized off-season team activities, the first three days will not be in pads. And gone are the two-a-days that Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson loved and that your father still waxes about, with new NFL rules mandating only one "padded" practice per day.

The daily practice schedule in San Antonio: 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. in pads, accessorized by a 10 to 11 a.m. walk-through in shorts. Once the season starts the new NFL permits teams to practice in pads only 14 times, once a week the first 11 weeks and just three times over the final seven weeks. In the playoffs, teams can hold a full-pads, full-contact practice just once.

Don't look now, but the NFL just validated former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips as being ahead of his time. History will treat this year's NFL training camps as the most difficult to evaluate, but the easiest to endure.

"It's just not football training camp without hitting, in full pads," said former Cowboys safety Charlie Waters, who starred with the team in the '70s and '80s. "You can do a lot of things in camp. You can learn all day long. But there's no such thing as simulating full-speed hitting. You either do it or you don't. We didn't like two-a-days, but I can't imagine trying to go into a season without them. They get your body and your mind in shape. Without them I'm wondering what type of football we're really going to see."

We'll find out soon enough. The Cowboys' first full-pads practice is scheduled for Sunday in San Antonio, and their preseason opener is August 11 against the Denver Broncos at Cowboys Stadium. Another testament that this summer will be like no other: The Cowboys will spend only two weeks in San Antonio before holding the second half of training camp in Arlington. Ready or not, the season opener looms Sunday night, September 11, in New York against the Jets.

"It's going to be different, probably going to be tough," said Cowboys Pro Bowl tight end and union rep Jason Witten. "These circumstances as far as the way training camp is going to start and all the players signing so fast, it's a situation we've never seen before and we'll hopefully never see again. It's been a long off-season. And after the way last season went for us, getting back on the field and getting back to football can't get here fast enough."

Oh yeah. Football.

Despite organized team activities and individual workouts at Valley Ranch being nixed by the lockout, the Cowboys managed to survive and maintain some semblance of a team over the summer. Veteran leaders Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Marc Colombo, Terence Newman, Keith Brooking and Witten organized workouts that attracted as many as 45 players to various Metroplex locations throughout May and into June.

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Are we in some kind of weird time warp? The date on this article is Thursday, July 28th, and you ask if Doug Free will be signed (it happened already) and if Marion Barber will be cut (ditto).

Or maybe did you write this in Monday and just submit on your way out the door today?

"Mailing it in" meet "the next level"