OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Jason Witten has let it be known that things have to be different this time.
Only minutes after the Dallas Cowboys’ plane landed in California for training camp, the seven-time Pro Bowl tight end said this year “can’t be the same old story.”
Going into his 10th season, matching him with quarterback Tony Romo as the longest-tenured Cowboys, Witten knows there might not be too many more chances for him to be part of an NFL champion.
“It goes fast and I will be damned if I let this opportunity slip away and not come away with a championship,” Witten said this week, expanding on his initial comments. “It has been a heck of a run. But it’s time we grab it. That goes for all of us, the core group of us. That is what coach (Jason) Garrett has talked about. This group is trying to do it.”
Dallas (No. 15 in the AP Pro32) had its weekly day off Thursday, a day after the first practice in pads.
The Cowboys are a five-time Super Bowl champion, but Witten and his good friend Romo have been in the playoffs only three times. Their only postseason victory came in 2009, 13 years after the team had last won a playoff game, and they have missed the playoffs the two seasons since then.
Last season, the Cowboys lost four of their last five games and finished 8-8. That included the regular season finale that determined the NFC East title. The New York Giants beat Dallas 31-14 on New Year’s Day, clinched the division title at 9-7 and went on to win their second Super Bowl in five years.
In little more than a month, the Cowboys open their new season against those same Giants.
“Our actions have to speak louder than our words. None of y’all are believing it. Why should you be?” Witten said. “The approach we are taking is if we are going to be the team we think we can we have to go show it. What a great opportunity we got coming up Sept. 5. So that’s the focus of this team.”
Garrett thinks it is good for young players to hear things like that from a leader like Witten who understands how close the Cowboys have been at different times without getting the job done.
Dallas goes on the road for four of its first six games before playing the Giants again at home Oct. 28. New York is 3-0 at Cowboys Stadium since it opened in 2009.
“I believe in the men we have. I believe we work the right way,” Witten said. “But ultimately we didn’t make the playoffs last year. That is what I was trying to say. That is what our message has been so far. … We have to go earn it. Nobody is going to give us anything. That is the approach that we are taking.”
That break-even record last season came after the Cowboys blew leads in the fourth quarter five times.
Part of the team’s message during camp is to finish strong. There are even reminders of that with sprints at the end of practice, including Garrett calling for a do-over during one session when he didn’t like what he saw.
“He called us back,” Witten said. “We didn’t finish enough games where we had a chance to win, we let them slip. This is just one area. These are long practices, a lot of running, but you have to be able to gut it out. That is what the fourth quarter is going to be line. A lot of that is physical, but it is also mental.”
Witten said the sprints after an exhausting practice are a great way for the Cowboys to work together and have the kind of shared commitment they talk about.
“Hopefully it will pay off for us come the fourth quarter,” Witten said.
There is only one player on the Cowboys roster that has been in the NFL longer than Romo and Witten. Defensive tackle Kenyon Coleman, who is going into his 11th season, returned last year to Dallas, where he had also played from 2003-06.
When six-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware turned 30 this week, he became only the seventh Dallas player in his 30s.
“It’s amazing how turnover takes shape in the NFL from year to year. I don’t even want to think about two or three years in the amount of guys that move on,” Romo said. “You just have to not take it for granted. … We have had some great relationships with a lot of great guys, me and Jason Witten. We don’t take that for granted. We were lucky enough to play with some great players. It’s disappointing we didn’t accomplish our ultimate goal.”
Now is another chance to change how the story ends.