OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Jerry Jones opened his 25th training camp as owner of the Dallas Cowboys sounding as if coach Jason Garrett would be around for 25 more.
The first vote of confidence came even before someone could ask Saturday in the annual “State of the Cowboys” address that Jones gives on the eve of camp.
The words got stronger after the questions started. Jones said it was a “mistake” to consider this a make-or-break year for Garrett, who missed the playoffs with 8-8 records in each of his two full seasons. Both ended with losses in finales to NFC East rivals with a playoff berth on the line.
The owner and his coach shared a concert-like stage for nearly 40 minutes in what has become something of a summer tradition for Jones since he bought the team in 1989. Garrett had to duck out for the first team meeting of camp, and as he was walking off the stage, Jones was asked if it was fair to say Garrett’s job was on the line.
Jones leaned into the microphone, said “no” in several ways and even suggested that he was looking beyond the two years remaining on Garrett’s contract.
“I look to the future with Jason and not just through his contract that we’re sitting here with right now,” Jones said. “But it is not what is implied when you say, ‘Well, this is an Armageddon year for him.’ It is not that with me.”
The questions started as soon as the Cowboys overhauled their defensive staff a few weeks into the offseason, and not long after Jones said he was going to make things “uncomfortable” at team headquarters.
Fueled by the comment, speculation centered on Garrett being a rubber stamp for the firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the hiring of replacement Monte Kiffin and the decision to move play-calling duties from Garrett to Bill Callahan.
Kiffin might not have helped things when he said his first phone calls were from the owner and his son, executive vice president Stephen Jones.
Garrett had a stock answer for the “hot seat” issue all offseason: Everyone in the NFL is on it. The question for him Saturday was getting out of his personal .500 rut — and the team’s. The Cowboys are 128-128 going back to the start of the 1997 season.
“We are what we are to this point,” Garrett said. “But at some point in your life, you have to let the past go, whether it’s been great, good, mediocre or not so good. And you focus on learning from those experiences and getting better and take advantage of the opportunity in front of you.”
Garrett and Jones think the Cowboys are better because they’re healthier than they were after a 28-18 loss to Washington that kept them out of the playoffs.
The optimism has mostly to do with a defense that was missing six key players by the end of the season: linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, linemen Jay Ratliff and Kenyon Coleman, safety Barry Church and cornerback Orlando Scandrick.
DeMarcus Ware didn’t miss any games but had offseason surgery on a shoulder that limited him late in the year.
Tony Romo has been cleared for Sunday’s opening practice after missing offseason workouts to have a cyst removed from his back.
“That was a pretty tough hand,” Jones said of last season’s injury issues on defense. “I said the other day that we are a better team. I probably should have said the better team now than when we finished up last year. We had a healthy Romo, but apart from that, we were pretty banged up.”
The newcomers with the strongest chance to start are first-round pick Travis Frederick, who will get most of his work at center, and 10-year veteran Will Allen at safety. Second-year player Matt Johnson, who missed last season with a hamstring injury, is competing with Allen.
“I like how we worked in the offseason,” Garrett said. “I like our personnel. I like how our staff has come together. I think we’ve done a good job as an organization getting younger. We feel good about the decisions we made from a personnel standpoint the last couple of years.”
And as Jones reiterated Saturday, he feels good about his head coach.