On a relatively warm July Saturday in Oxnard, Mayor Tim Flynn stood next to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, during the opening ceremonies of the team’s training camp. As odd as it was to see the Cowboys’ cheerleaders performing on a field normally reserved for area high school teams, a California seaside city paired with the former Superbowl champions was even stranger for this Texas native.
The Dallas Cowboys arrived in Oxnard in July to begin their three-week camp leading up to kick off of the NFL regular season on Sept. 7. The camp ends today, Thursday, Aug. 14. Led by Tony Romo, the sometimes-maligned, sometimes-praised quarterback, the team made its way to the Marriott Residence Inn where practice began on the adjacent River Ridge Fields, home to the Cowboys’ training camp since 2004.
This year, however, attendance to the practice has dipped and the fate of the Cowboys’ presence in Oxnard is a bit up in the air.
In 2004, attendance for the camp hovered around 50,000 over a three-week period. Last year, 58,522 fans attended the camp over a four-week period. Up to this point in the 2014 camp, attendance is lagging.
“I’m worried about putting a good team on the field, not about the crowds,” Cowboys Chief Operating Officer Stephen Jones told ESPN Dallas.
It could be due in part to the Cowboys’ record. Since 2011, the team has gone eight and eight, the last winning year being 2009 when they lost in the playoffs to the Minnesota Vikings. This year, rather than drafting the crowd-favorite quarterback Johnny “Mr. Football” Manziel, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones drafted offensive lineman Zack Martin in the first round, signaling a turn away from flashy decision-making to more in-depth strategy, likely to protect the aging Romo coming off back surgery.
Expectations for a championship 2014/2015 season aren’t high despite a good showing from Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray on the River Ridge Fields.
A new, state-of-the-art training facility in Frisco, Texas, is near completion and the team is likely to divide time between it and Oxnard. The Cowboys signed on to a three-year contract in 2011 to extend practice at the Oxnard location. It expires this year. The question of whether or not the team will return still lingers. The Cowboys have a three-year extension option, but a decision has yet to be reached.
Oxnard City Councilman Bryan MacDonald, who has put a bid in to be elected mayor this November, says that there have been closed-door sessions to discuss the team and its future in Oxnard.
“There are a lot of issues to work out, like we don’t have full ownership of all the property,” said MacDonald. “There are a lot of irons in the fire right now to see if we can make this come to fruition.”
MacDonald says that the team brings in nearly $3 million in tourist revenue during practice.
The city of Oxnard owns a majority of the River Ridge Fields, including the practice fields and the workout facilities on the west end. Ten acres to the north of the golf course are also owned by the city. For the Cowboys’ practice this year, benches were brought in from Oxnard High School in preparation for the Oakland Raiders scrimmage this past Tuesday and Wednesday.
If the Cowboys appear to be weak in the upcoming season — or have a losing year — next year’s attendance might drop even lower. The good news for Cowboys fans are the promising rookies showing up at camp, and the elite offense.
Quarterback Romo sat out the last decisive game of the last season due to a back injury and underwent surgery to correct it over the break. In the early days of practice, Romo showed signs of struggle with throwing deep balls. This week, however, he has demonstrated that his arm is fine with a few completions downfield.
Star wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray are standouts for the Cowboys, but Murray especially has been plagued with injuries. If he manages to stay healthy, Murray could put up big numbers. Same for Bryant, who makes plays when necessary and sparks debate on who is the better receiver — Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson or himself.
The defense is another story. Last year’s lineup ranked 32nd (of 32 teams) and became the third-worst in NFL history for points and yards allowed. On one particularly infamous day, the defense gave up 51 points to the Denver Broncos, a task Romo and the offense couldn’t overcome with 48 points of their own.
But a few choice selections in free agency and at this year’s NFL draft may improve the situation.
“We went, from about three years ago, from being the second or third oldest team in the league to being the second- or third-youngest team in the league,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett at his first press conference in July. “I think we’ve done a really good job as an organization being disciplined to that philosophy and putting cornerstone players in place.”
But call it a curse — the team was plagued with injuries over the 2013/2014 season, and two weeks ago lost second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence, a defensive end, for eight to 10 weeks due to a broken foot two weeks ago at practice.
The upcoming season may or may not prove fruitful for the Cowboys, but the relationship the team has with Oxnard is good by all accounts. MacDonald says that the team would more than likely make a decision on whether or not to come back by September.
“They do very well for us and I hope we do very well for them,” said MacDonald.
The Dallas Cowboys will practice in Oxnard for the final time this season today, Thursday, Aug. 14, at 3:45 p.m. For more information on the camp, visit www.dallascowboys.com.