One of the more obvious qualities of the Cowboys’ practices is their increased pace. Yesterday I remarked on LB coach Paul Pasqualoni’s brisk position drills. It’s clear today that the entire team is working faster than they did last year. In ‘05, I attended for all of week three. I can say that this year’s overall pace is faster, though today marks the end of week one. The Cowboys again wore full pads and had what we might call a medium-hitting practice, where the offensive and defensive linemen got to pound on each other, though tackling of backs and wide receivers was not allowed. The drills were more unit-oriented this morning, after Thursdays worked on individual positions. There were no notable personnel changes. Patrick Crayton continues to start in place of Terrell Owens, who worked his sore hammy on an exercise bike for the second consecutive day. Marc Columbo got the lion’s share of reps at first team RT, though Rob Petitti got some as well. The offensive line worked on traps and counters. Based on what I’ve seen, we’ll see a lot more movement from the Cowboys linemen. All the Cowboys’ guards worked on leading running backs across the formation and Dallas even used some of its more agile tackles to trap as well. Marc Columbo got some surprise calls. The offensive and defensive linemen worked on passing plays, first five on five and then three on three, with a center and one side of the line working against stunts. If Tony Sparano’s demeanor is any indication, the line is well ahead of last year. Sparano has a reputation for being salty and loud, but today he was far quieter, though just as intense. He made minor adjustments but ran his units through plays as rapidly as possible. Rookie Pat McQuistan and backup G Corey Proctor got some encouragement for their work. The passing drills on the far field offered more evidence that Tony Romo has the second spot locked up. He was sharp and consistent on a range of throws. If you want a barometer on Romo vs. Henson, consider this. Romo’s outs consistently his his receivers in the hands and led them out of bounds. Henson’s were regularly on the inside armpit. That two to two and a half feet is the difference between a completion and a deflection. Then the team went 11-on-11, the drills stressed red-zone execution. In the first, Dallas put the ball at the 20 and faced third and eight, with no time outs at the end of a half. If the play went for less then eight yards the kicking team would have to run onto the field and get off the kick in the fastest possible time. If the play went for more than eight yards, the offense would rush to the line of scrimmage, set and then spike the ball. The kicking team would have more time but was still expected to execute the kick as briskly as possible. Parcells then put the ball at the goalline and let his team go full speed, full contact. The starting goalline package today had three tight ends and fullback Lousaka Polite in the backfield. Polite gets the first call as the lead blocker in short yardage and goalline packages, suggesting that he may again stick around past the final cutdowns. The hitting was intense and the plays were roughly split. The offense scored about half the time but the inches were hard to come by. The backs just barely managed to score when they did. The longest sequence of the day, the one that ended practice, had the offense start at its own 20, trying to move the ball as far down the field as possible. The plays run were called in from the sideline by radio, as they would be during the regular season and followed a script the coaches put together ahead of time. Parcells kept time and called out the yardage and sitation after each play. For example, after a run on second and three, Parcells estimated that Marion Barber gained a yard and a half after he was touched by Kenyon Coleman and yelled out, “third and one and a half” to the sidelines. The brain trust, led by Tony Sparano and Todd Haley, then consulted their play sheet and called in a play appropriate to the situation. Other assistants called out the formation packages specific to the play and made sure the substitutions worked smoothly. The drill was intended to make sure the coaches could handle game pace as well as the players. Parcells constantly questioned his coaches calls, signals and committment to the plays. “What play was that, Tony?” “What does that signal mean, Todd?” he would ask. The drill suggested that Parcells may let Sparano handle play calling duties early in the season. The first unit moved the ball efficiently and ended its drive inside the defense’s fifteen. Drew Bledsoe’s squad effectively converted its third down plays while marching down the field. One play of interest came on third and one and a half just shy of mid-field. The offense went to a two tight end, two back, one WR set. It put Jason Witten outside of Anthony Fasano, who in turn set next to RT. FB Lousaka Polite lined up in an offset I, also to the right, giving Dallas a heavy overload to that side. At the snap, LG Kyle Kosier pulled right, adding to Marion Barber’s beefy convoy. Barber gained an easy four yards. If the Cowboys can find a short yardage play like this that works regularly, their offense will be miles ahead of the on-again, off-again short yardage grabbag we’ve seen the past few years. The Cowboys finished their work 20 minutes early, leaving the field at 10:42. Their faster pace got them through the tightly scripted work chart sooner than expected. But then, unlike ‘05, this appears to be a team in a hurry. That squad was unsure of what it had, force feeding lots of rookies and free agents. This team seems more concerned with what it can do. Overheard today – “That number 99 [Chris Canty] he’s what a five technique is supposed to look like.” — unknown Cowboys official observing the d-linemen’s drills “You’re way too touchy-feely. Use your hands!” — o-line coach Tony Sparano to his men during a five-on-five pass rushing/blocking drills “Hey, it’d be good if you guys tried to score once in a while.” — Bill Parcells to Sparano and the other offensive coaches, objecting to a draw play call when Dallas’ offense was inside the fifteen.” Notes: – Patrick Crayton continues to take advantage of T.O.’s injury. He’s catching everything in sight. Parcells’ quip that he’s “on fire” was not confined to that practice. – The Cowboys spent a lot of time working on punt blocking today, with everybody on the defensive line of scrimmage taking a run at the punter. – I don’t know if it’s the cool weather, the fact that Dallas will leave Oxnard next year, T.O. or higher expectations for ‘06, but the crowds are two to three times what they were last year. – Eau de Oxnard: one thing I won’t miss are the water trucks that make regular passes over the dirt parking lots just outside the practice fields. I don’t know where they get the water, but it sends the scent of stockyards wafting over practice.