OXNARD, Calif. – After two weeks of training in cool Southern California, the Dallas Cowboys are headed back to Texas to find out whether it was time well spent.
The Cowboys wrapped up practices at their unofficial West Coast base with a walkthrough Friday morning. Leaving the field for the final time, players started at the far end of the field and walked along a fence slapping hands with fans. Then the club headed to Houston to play the Texans on Saturday night in what will be their final meaningful test of the preseason.
Tony Romo and the offense could play into the third quarter, "depending on how they're playing," coach Wade Phillips said. While Dallas isn't preparing for this like it's a regular-season game — especially not since the teams meet again in Week 3 — coaches and players are counting on a better showing than they've had the first three games.
Starters have played a total of seven drives. Their only touchdown came on a drive that started at the opponent's 8-yard line.
"That's part of the preseason, the learning curve of people making mistakes," Romo said. "So, for us, it'll be important to execute and move the ball and have confidence."
The Cowboys have offered up all sorts of plausible explanations for their sluggishness. But they'd like to taste some success, too, and this is probably their last chance before the opener Sept. 12 at Washington. Starters are expected to sit out the preseason finale Thursday night against Miami.
"I think it'll be good," Romo said. "We're starting to execute pretty good and that's a good sign. Usually, how you practice has a little bit of an effect on how you play in the game. If that is the case, then we'll be ready to go. ... You want to have confidence coming out of the game, but it doesn't do anybody any good to go out there and have the greatest preseason ever and don't do anything in the regular season."
Phillips said the preseason so far has been about learning what each player can do. That's about to change.
"Now it's more of getting our team together, playing well together as a team, those sorts of things," he said.
The higher-stakes rematch a month away also has "a slight effect" on this meeting, Phillips said.
"It's one-on-one, who whips who, who tackles who, who blocks who — those things are going to come out. Scheme, certainly not," he said. "We're not going to show everything we think we can do against them."
For Phillips, the trip to Houston is always nice. He grew up in the area while his father, Bum Phillips, coached the Oilers, and started his NFL career on his dad's staff after going to college at the University of Houston. His mom and three sisters still live in the area.
"I've got 50 tickets I've got to buy," he said. "The last count was 50, but we haven't gotten to the game yet so it might be more."
Dallas was the first team to open training camp and is among the last to end it. Over the last five weeks, the Cowboys have worked out inside the Alamodome in San Antonio, at home for a few days then in the wonderfully mild climate of Oxnard, an hour north of Los Angeles.
It's been a grind, of course, but nothing compared to the 16 games in 17 weeks that awaits.
"I expect them to be tired some," Phillips said. "You need to play tired and practice tired to get into football shape. That's all part of it."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has enjoyed the time out West as much as ever. This is the third time in five years Dallas has used this facility, and he's thinking about splitting camp between San Antonio and Oxnard every year. The club is certainly popular in both places: about 75,000 fans attended the workouts in Oxnard, just over 200,000 in San Antonio and another 21,000 watched an open practice at home during the week in between.
"I really like it," Jones said. "I wanted to see how it worked and make that assessment after we've finished out here. Where we are right now, it's a good way to go."
Jones added that it's still just an idea. The possibility of a lockout next season, and of an 18-game regular season the following year, makes it difficult to plan anything.