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OXNARD, Calif. — The blocking dummies are inflated, a larger-than-life star is canvassing an observation tower and the grass fields are manicured in preparation for the Dallas Cowboys to again hold training camp out west.
To launch their 42nd training camp in Southern California, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, executive vice president Stephen Jones and head coach Mike McCarthy held an introductory news conference on Wednesday.
The trio issued remarks and answered questions for just over an hour on the tennis courts at the Residence Inn Oxnard River Ridge, where the team is living for the next three weeks.
The 78-year-old owner opened remarks expressing his delight at returning to Oxnard after COVID-19 restrictions prohibited the trek last season.
“I’m well aware and sensitive to the COVID situation and recent uptick,” Jerry Jones said, “but it meant everything for us to show up here, to be here in California.
“We’re back. Here we are. We’re back to business.”
The Joneses and McCarthy addressed offensive and defensive personnel, playoff outlook, league-wide trends and much more in the hour that followed. Here are USA TODAY Sports’ top five takeaways from the press conference:
1. The biggest question
No doubt, the Cowboys’ key cog on and off the field is quarterback Dak Prescott. After 73 straight games as Dallas’ starter, he suffered a season-ending ankle fracture and dislocation in Week 5 of the 2020 season. By spring, Prescott had ditched his boot and crutches, returning to full-speed running and football moves without favoring either leg. He participated fully in May and June offseason practices with the exception of team drills and live tackling. McCarthy expects Prescott to integrate into that final segment soon.
“Unless something comes out of the medical meeting, I see for him to be a full participant,” McCarthy said. “It’s a projection and we will see how it goes. We will watch him. … But he will participate in the team drills.”
McCarthy and the Joneses each expressed high expectations from Prescott’s leadership after the franchise awarded him a four-year, $160 million with $126 million guaranteed in March. McCarthy said Prescott’s responsibility will increase with the new financial vote of confidence. Coach expects quarterback to embrace the challenge.
“To me, that’s part of the contract,” McCarthy said. “When players receive big contracts, I view it, this is my opinion, that obviously they’re being rewarded and recognized for what they do on Sundays. But the responsibility that they have Monday through Saturday greatly increases. And nobody emulates that more than Dak Prescott.
“He’s an outstanding quarterback that has great days in front of him.”
2. The extra set(s) of eyes
Coaches, management, media and staff filled socially distant assigned seats during Wednesday’s news conference. Flanking either side of those folding chairs were crew members for HBO’s reality TV show, Hard Knocks. The Cowboys were selected as the featured team for the third time in the series’ 20 seasons. Jerry Jones said the opportunity to welcome more eyes to his club was a “quick decision.” McCarthy, meanwhile, was less eager for what could serve as a distraction to a team looking to rebound from the coach’s disastrous 6-10 inaugural season.
“I am just going to be honest,” McCarthy said. “I almost wrecked my truck when Jerry called me, driving through a rainstorm. But once I got back on the road, I am all in.”
McCarthy said his message from the Hard Knocks crew was simply “be yourself.” That didn’t stop Jerry Jones from handing his coach Jamie Foxx-designed sunglasses as they approached the news conference podium so McCarthy would be TV-ready. Shades or not, McCarthy said “establishing a winning culture” remains his focus.
“Let them do their jobs and we are going to do ours,” McCarthy said. “We are all just excited to get on the field and get going and start building what we know we can accomplish. At the end of the day, it’s about winning a world championship. Nothing else really matters.
“It’s a long ways away.”
3. ‘Head in the sand’
How far away is a Cowboys championship realistically? McCarthy and the Joneses considered the question on Wednesday. They agreed that 2020’s shortcomings couldn’t be blamed completely on injuries but that it would be disingenuous not to factor in how the bevy of sidelined starters impacted last year’s results.
“I think you’re sticking your head into the sand if you don’t say it’s both,” Stephen Jones said.
With the return of injured players like Prescott and Pro Bowl linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, Jerry Jones said he gives his squad “an arrow up.”
“Go back to the early part of the season last year when we were really jelling offensively,” Jerry Jones said. “Defensively, I would think it's going to be a different ballgame. We've got a lot of the kind of thing that you could make good defenses out of. We got size, we got speed. We've got people that know how to (coach) inexperience.
“I think we got a way to make it work big for this season. You put those two things together and I think we got a chance to be a really good team.”
4. Defending the defense
Despite Jones’ optimism – and he did acknowledge his penchant for naivete – the Cowboys defense has its work cut out this training camp. Ex-Falcons coach Dan Quinn is tasked with turning around a unit that allowed 29.6 points per game (28th) and 386.4 yards (23rd) last season. Run defense remains the biggest question.
McCarthy said he thinks long, tall defensive linemen the Cowboys drafted and acquired in free agency now more closely emulate the mold of the touted offensive line they have invested in for years. The Cowboys drafted 6-4, 360-pound defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna and signed veteran defensive linemen Carlos Watkins (6-3, 305) and Brett Urban (6-7, 295). Dallas’ draft skewed heavily defensive, the team investing eight of its 11 picks on that side of the ball beginning with versatile linebacker Micah Parsons at 12th overall.
“I felt like we had a productive offseason,” said Stephen Jones, who’s heavily involved with personnel. “Obviously it’s about bringing everybody together, obviously bringing in Coach Quinn to really help that process along.”
5. What’s next?
The Cowboys are scheduled to hold their first offseason practice Thursday at 11 a.m. local time and their first padded practice next Wednesday. In all, they have scheduled nine practices before their Aug. 4 trip to Canton, Ohio. A joint practice with the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 7 will kick off their final four practices in California. The team will hold late-August camp at headquarters in North Texas.
McCarthy said players will review the eight-part scheme installation from the offseason program but he also plans for more and earlier situational work than in previous camps. Sure, McCarthy said, his staff has scripted its initial 12 practices. But they expect to tailor their plans as needed.
“We did more two-minute drills last year than I ever have [which] is a reflection of the game and the rule changes,” McCarthy said. “All those things factor in on how these games are being played compared to how they were played 10 years ago. Situational football has always been important, but how much time do you put into the up-tempo offenses when obviously you have to get your defense ready?
“I’ve never been one to just white out the date from the year before. I think you get your ass in trouble that way.”
Bonus: Philosophy lesson from Jerry
Jerry Jones said he knows his belief that this Cowboys squad is capable of reaching the Super Bowl isn’t widely shared. He insisted he blends pragmatism into his approach but that he’s seen underdogs triumph too many times to let deficiencies on paper stifle his belief.
“There's a pony in here somewhere,” Jones said. “I've had a lot of people tell me, 'You're naive" or say, ‘He's naive.’ Well, it's a beautiful world.”
Jones paused, his eyes watering as he choked up.
“It's a better world to be naive than to be skeptical and be negative all the time,” he continued. “I do my best work, I think, when it's more positive. I need it to be promising. I need us to have a way to go that causes me to do stupid things, or it causes me excessive things that sometimes really work.
"That's been the way I've played the cards."
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys, Dak Prescott prepare as training camp opens