OXNARD, Calif. – Being that these are Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys and that Jerry Jones does not do subtle well, it should surprise no one that the team has erected a press conference stage for training camp that seems practically the size of the Hollywood Bowl.
The stage looms above the Residence Inn here like a two-story altar to team sponsor Ford – complete with a television set podium shaped like a truck's grille – and leaves the clear impression that the subjects of the press conference are driving a big, grumbling, steel rebar-haulin' Ford truck.
So when the Cowboys owner sat for the team's first training camp press conference on Saturday, he took a spot on the dais' left. Head coach Jason Garrett dropped beside him. And it looked for all the world like Jerry Jones was driving this big ol' Cowboys truck while his coach sat passively in the passenger seat – just along for the ride.
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Or as long as the driver would allow him to sit in his cab.
Which may not have been a subtle message at all.
"We burned our ships," Jones declared from the driver's seat.
It was unclear whether he was referring to this offseason or every Cowboys offseason. Not that it matters much. His winters have always involved pouring a few gallons of kerosene from bow to stern. And after an offseason of adding a defensive coordinator, taking the play-calling from Garrett and deciding that Tony Romo – despite repeated mistakes in critical games – should have more say in the team's offense, the bigger surprise is that he didn't torch Garrett's ship as well.
Maybe it was fitting that Garrett left his passenger seat in Jones' press conference to run a team meeting just as Jones was asked if the coach has a future in Dallas should he not take the team to the playoffs this year. If Garrett had stopped to listen to his boss rather than clap hellos to security guards on his way to the meeting rooms, he would have heard Jones say he had a very important future with the team … as Romo's safety net.
In fact, Jones used the term at least two times on Saturday.
"He's been directly involved in the coaching of Romo for six years," Jones said. "When he got here, Romo never had the same guy two years in a row. We've got to take advantage of that. His safety-net presence for what we're doing [not only as a team] but on offense is a big part of the plan. He gives us a real advantage.
"Romo has [shown] the kind of skills [to] everyone who has ever been around him to do what we are asking him to do," Jones continued. "But I don't mind telling you that it would be tough to go there if you didn't have Jason who is the safety net."
Chances are, Robert Kraft never vouched for the job security of Bill Belichick by calling him Tom Brady's safety net. Maybe it was best Garrett scurried to the meeting lest the praise from his owner be any more damning.
Garrett is 21-19 and has never made the playoffs in his 2 ½ years as Jones' coach, a fact that might have less to do with his abilities than the fickle nature of a team that doesn't quite fit together. Jones himself acknowledged that when he said less than 20 players remain from the team Garrett inherited. But Jones has made it clear that this is Romo's team, both with the six-year, $108 million contract he bestowed on his quarterback with exactly one playoff victory, and the means to which he has gone to make the offense Romo's.
On Saturday, Garrett tried to spin the decision to hand the play-calling to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan as something he had been considering since he took over as coach halfway through the 2010 season. He said the best head coaches he was ever around were men who were not only focused on play calls but on offense, defense and special teams. He sold the change as a good thing. But head coaches who call their own plays hate giving up that control lest they feel less like the driver of their team and more like a passenger in somebody else's truck.
He also shrugged away the recent revelation that Romo will be heavily involved in the formation of the offense, saying that's the kind of thing starting quarterbacks need to do, was something he had been wanting to do for 2 ½ years and that it was the kind of power Troy Aikman had when he was the Dallas quarterback. Of course, Aikman also won three Super Bowls.
Still, Jones sat in the driver's seat of his virtual truck and said repeatedly that Romo's safety net had job security, even going as far as to say this is not "an Armageddon year" for the coach.
"One of the neatest things about not only this year but a positive about this year [is seeing] how Jason is responding to obviously unsatisfactory times," Jones said. "I can tell you that's impressive and so I like that in terms of looking ahead to the future. It's very good."
By then Garrett was gone, off to the meeting, off to address the team that may or not truly be his. So chances are he never got to hear one last declaration of faith from his boss.
"I look to the future with Jason and not just through his contract that we're sitting here with now," Jones added. "That is not a thought."
Maybe if the Cowboys use their new Ford podium again they will install seat belts. Because being the safety net for a veteran quarterback with one playoff victory doesn't sound very secure.
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