It's Off to Camp Chaos for the Cowboys

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.

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.

"The commitment level from each guy on our team was exciting from my perspective," Romo said. "As the quarterback, that's what I wanted to see. The guys came out, and our team will be ready to go when this thing starts."

Added Witten: "It'll be a big benefit to us. Without those workouts we'd be totally lost."

Coming off the most disappointing season in franchise history, the Cowboys are attempting to bury a 6-10 year that got Phillips fired. Jason Garrett took over at midseason and guided the team to a 5-3 record down the stretch. During camp he will continue to change a Cowboys culture that eroded into a soft, sketchy mush under Phillips. Most of the Cowboys' work will come on defense, where new coordinator Rob Ryan will try to re-shape a unit that surrendered a franchise-record 436 points in 2010.

While Romo is back and healthy (and married) after missing 10 games with a broken collarbone, there are seemingly endless Cowboys questions. Will they be able to sign emerging offensive line star Doug Free? Can budding star receiver Dez Bryant stay physically healthy and mentally focused? Can Smith get on the field as a rookie offensive lineman? Will running back Marion Barber be cut? Can they trim enough fat to get under the new salary cap and be competitive in free-agent bidding? Can linebacker Anthony Spencer play a lick? Can linebacker Sean Lee beat out Brooking? Can they upgrade in the secondary by acquiring safety Michael Huff, or even primo cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha? Can David Buehler make a field goal when it counts?

In the end, the NFL canceled its annual Hall of Fame game, scrapped HBO's behind-the-scenes series Hard Knocks and likely lost a few fans. But now the machine is humming again. Rosters are being formed. Plays are being re-learned. Pads are poppin', if perhaps a little less frequently. And fantasy football drafts are being scheduled.

The Cowboys are back, and we're all anxious to see if the 2011 road proves a path to Super Bowl XLVI or perhaps a "Stairway to Heaven."

Right, Victor?

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt