Wednesday Opinions & Observations II

IRVING, Tex. - The Cowboys began working on a new nickel defense package, or at least unveiled it to the media for the first time.

Famous fan: To say the media throng thinned out between the Wednesday's morning and (much hotter) afternoon session would be a gross understatement. The afternoon attendance by the media probably was about 25 percent of the horde that showed up in the morning. But maybe having gone through training camp as a player helps in heat tolerance: among those slathering on sunscreen and enduring the afternoon in the Valley Ranch sauna was former Dallas defensive tackle Tony Casillas.

Just my five cents: The Cowboys began working on a new nickel defense package, or at least unveiled it to the media for the first time. With Ken Hamlin still absent while lobbying for a new deal, Patrick Watkins and Courtney Brown were in the safety spots, with Terence Newman, Anthony Henry and Mike Jenkins holding down the cornerback positions. Even after Hamlin returns, Brown might not be a bad choice in that position. The former college cornerback has excellent speed and longer arms than any Dallas defensive back other than Watkins, who at 6-foot-5 is the tallest defensive back in the NFL.

Catch of the day: OK, maybe it's the catch of the afternoon (didn't we do one of these this morning?) Early in the afternoon session, quarterback Tony Romo rolled out to his right and fired a high pass down the sideline to Isaiah Stanback, who went up — way up — over cornerback Alan Ball to snag the pass … and, for good measure, he landed with both feet in bounds and turned upfield to the end zone.

Drop of the day: A few plays after Stanback's acrobatic grab, Romo spotted wide receiver Sam Hurd crossing over the middle, albeit with two defensive backs chasing him from behind. Romo put the ball where only Hurd could reach it — out in front and low, but certainly not out of reach. Hurd got both hands on it, but wasn't able to pull it in.

Quote of the day: Pacman Jones spoke to the media for the first time Wednesday morning … sort of. Several reporters were huddled around rookie wide receiver Danny Amendola, whose locker is adjacent to Jones' locker. One reporter asked Jones if he would answer a few questions, to which Jones replied: "Nah, I ain't talking today. I'll talk tomorrow … after I get my hair done."

He sounded as if that really was his reasoning, too.

Catching on: Wade Phillips was asked Tuesday about Terry Glenn's absence, specifically to whom Phillips would turn as a passing target if Terrell Owens should get hurt. Phillips heaped praise on Hurd and Miles Austin, but then pointed out what already is obvious: tight end Jason Witten is the second target in the passing game. There's no question the team needs a speed receiver across from Owens to create separation downfield and force defenses to back up, but Witten is a big, tough target with great hands who runs excellent routes. He looked like he was in midseason form Wednesday, catching everything thrown in his direction, including one play on which he got spun around and looked over the wrong (left) shoulder … and still reached out to his right to haul in the pass.

Man of many talents: Punter Mat McBriar is a Pro Bowl punter, and with good reason. But he can do more than launch long, booming shots downfield. He also is among the best in the league at downing punts inside the 20-yard line or even the 10. Most punters try to pin the ball deep in enemy territory by kicking a punt with a perfect spiral, with the ball "turning over" in mid-flight … so the front end of the ball is pointed down when it hits the ground. The idea is to create a corkscrew effect, with the spin hopefully causing the ball to come to a stop without getting to the goal line. McBriar can do that very well, but he also has experimented with a "flop" punt, which creates a backward end-over-end spin, much like a kickoff. The technique doesn't always work, but because of the backward spin on the ball, it was surprisingly effective. Whether he'll unveil the technique in a game … remains to be seen.

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