Jerry Jones opened his 25th training camp as owner of the Dallas Cowboys.
Now, just like many times in the past, Jones did so with unbridled excitement and optimism of making the playoffs and possibly reaching the Super Bowl.
It all sounds good at the start of training camp, but for a franchise that has missed the playoffs each of the past three years, the talk rings hollow to an increasingly frustrated fan base that has witnessed just two playoff victories since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl title in 1995.
The big question facing the Cowboys is: What makes this year different?
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On Saturday, Jones pointed to a return to health of several injured players from a year ago. He also cited an uncomfortable off-season of change that included the overhauling of the staff, highlighted by 73-year-old Monte Kiffin replacing fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3 scheme.
Jones also pointed to the changes on offense, namely coach Jason Garrett turning over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan and more input in game-planning for quarterback Tony Romo, who was signed to a six-year, $108 million contract extension.
“This off-season has been filled with a lot of talk,” Jones said. “It’s been more than talk from within the organization. It’s now time to get down to business, though. We like our team. We like our coaching staff. We have, and I have, great confidence in our head coach and the direction of the team. All those things get me excited.”
Jones was admittedly disappointed in his team’s past failures. But he said he had “burned those boats” and was moving forward with the resolve to get it right this year.
“I think all it’s done for right now, for right here, is inspire me on a personal basis and us to do everything we can possibly do ...to start winning some games, put those in place, win more games than we did last year,” Jones said. “Then, maybe some good things will happen to us in the playoffs, and if that should happen, maybe some other good things.”
That statement in itself implies that Jones believes the Cowboys are good enough to make the playoffs in 2013. It begs the question of what happens if they don’t — especially with Garrett, who is 21-19 as a head coach since taking over from Wade Phillips midway through the 2010 season and has no playoff appearances.
Jones said the perception that Garrett faces a “win-or-else” season is inaccurate.
“It’s a mistake. That’s not right,” Jones said. “Everything I’m thinking about is not only about how to beat the Giants when we open up but also about what our future is in a plus manner or in a positive way with Jason.
“I look to the future with Jason and not just through his contract that we’re sitting here with right now. I think he’s got a couple of years left on his contract. That’s not a thought. But it is not what is implied when you say, ‘Well, this is an Armageddon year for him.’ It is not that with me.”
Jones said he’s invested in Garrett as much as any coach he’s had, including Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, with whom he had lon-standing personal relationships back to Jones’ college days at Arkansas. Of course, both ended up leaving under duress.
To his point, Jones said Garrett is important to the team’s success this year and believes the Cowboys have been building something with him over the past few years that should finally bear fruit.
It was Jones who initially pointed out that only 17 of the 90 players on the team’s roster were with the Cowboys when Garrett took over in 2010.
It’s a point that Garrett returned to when asked why he thought they would finally win this year after back-to-back 8-8 seasons. He said the Cowboys were in a rebuilding phase and had to tear the roster down to build it back up.
“There has been a lot of turnover,” Garrett said. “I think we’ve done a good job as an organization getting younger. We had to get younger. Sometimes as an organization you get to the point where you feel like you are close and you make some individual decisions that you think can help you get over the top. We had done that and we had gotten close. But then we had to bring it all back down.
“We feel good about the decisions we made from a personnel standpoint the last couple of years. We have the right kind of guys on our football team. We all have visions and aspirations of being part of a Super Bowl. But what we’re focused on is today, making Day One great. We’re excited about the opportunity in front of us.”
Which poses another question: How will it end?