Cowboys hoping California can bring focus back to football

OXNARD, Calif. — There wasn’t a cloud in the sky Saturday when the Dallas Cowboys arrived at Point Mugu Naval Air Station for the start of training camp.

For 45 minutes, players signed autographs, took photos, shook hands and talked with hundreds of families who call the military base home. All was right in the Cowboys’ world as they started a process they hope leads to Super Bowl XLII.

By finally getting to California, they put the drama — real or perceived, big or small — that surrounded them in Dallas in the final weeks of their offseason behind them.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott‘s status with the NFL continues to be a major question, as the league closes an investigation into an alleged domestic violence incident a year ago in Columbus, Ohio, that could lead to a suspension. Dallas police have suspended an investigation into an alleged assault incident in which Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016, was involved in a week ago because they can’t locate the victim and no witnesses have stepped forward.

Wide receiver Dez Bryant was late to reporting day Friday in Frisco, Texas. While not a major issue, a veteran not showing up on time is not a good look.

Defensive end David Irving missed the reporting date altogether and could be subject to a $40,000 fine although he was in California early. Running back Darren McFadden was not on the charter flight with the team Saturday, but he won’t face a penalty unless he does not report by 5 p.m. ET Sunday. The only cost to him will be the plane ticket and ride from Los Angeles to Oxnard.

Add that to the legal entanglements of linebacker Damien Wilson, who was arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, and cornerback Nolan Carroll, who was arrested in May on suspicion of DWI, and the Cowboys look like a team that has not digested coach Jason Garrett’s messages of accountability, commitment and focus.

Tight end Jason Witten, the Cowboys’ soul in a lot of ways, said the issues have been addressed by all involved.

“First off, as a leader of the team and the other leaders, we have to do a better job,” Witten said about the Cowboys’ off-the-field woes. “We have great guys. The core is really strong with this football team. Everybody inside that building has worked really hard to get the right type of guys together. I believe that. We have to work through situations, but certainly we have to be better there.

“We have to understand our platform, and what we have to do is eliminate those distractions so we can go out and play football. All those guys are a huge part of our team. They’re good football players and good people and good friends and brothers of mine that I’ve had a lot of success and adversity with them. They’ll work through it. We’re there to support them, but certainly the standard stays really high and we have to understand that and we have to embrace it and we have to handle it.”

Once practices start Monday, the players will have little choice but to focus on football. The Cowboys love the River Ridge Residence Inn setup because of the cool California temperatures and the proximity of the practice fields, which are just a short walk from the hotel.

“Anytime you can focus on ball, that’s what this team is about,” safety Byron Jones said. “We just want to play ball and win games.”

The Cowboys enter training camp as one of the NFC’s favorites to reach the Super Bowl. They have one of the best offenses in the NFL, led by quarterback Dak Prescott, Bryant, Witten and Elliott, but if the running back misses time, that will have a great effect. They have a defense with questions lingering all around that will be affected by Irving’s suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. It could also be affected by the potential losses of Wilson and Carroll because of suspension.

There could be answers to those questions soon. For now, the Cowboys are just glad to be back to football.

“The stomach’s always turning the last couple of nights,” said Witten, a 15-year veteran. “It’s a mix of excitement and you’re also excited to prepare for what’s taking place. I love this part of it. To me, one of the best parts about the season is getting the team together and going off training camp. I feel like in a lot of ways it’s 2003 and it’s my rookie season all over again.

“But there is a buzz to our team and I feel that. I think a lot of our guys on our team have made us all feel young again. Look, I know what lies ahead and I’m excited for the challenge.”