IRVING, Texas — Jerry Jones senses a shrinking window of opportunity for his Dallas Cowboys to contend for a championship with core players Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware in their prime.
At the same time, the vivacious owner who himself turns 70 this fall knows Jason Garrett has only taken "just the first few steps" as coach.
For the Cowboys, who have been distinctly average over a long period of time, that seems to present an interesting contradiction: Jones wanting to win now, yet with the Ivy League-educated former backup quarterback going into only his second full season as a head coach at any level.
"With his intellect and with his passion and his temperament, he's an overachiever, but a smart one," Jones said. "No question he's learning on the job, but we don't have the luxury of paying too high a price for that. ... He's got the right stuff to effectively learn as he goes, at the same time coach at a level that can get us where we want to go this year."
The Cowboys are back in California this summer for training camp. Their first practice is next Monday.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 season when Dallas won the first of three Super Bowls in a four-year span early in Jones' ownership. Garrett backed up Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman for the latter two of those titles.
Over the past 15 seasons and six coaches, though, the Cowboys have a 120-120 record in regular-season games. Their only postseason victory in that span was 2009, the last time they got in the playoffs.
Garrett, 13-11 since moving up from offensive coordinator to head coach midway through the 2010 season, understands Jones' sense of urgency.
"The urgent word is an important word to us in this organization for a lot of different reasons," Garrett said. "The word urgent means to make it important. The people who are really good at what they do in life make what they're doing important. That's something we emphasize around here regardless of anyone's age, any window that we have."
Dallas was 8-8 last season, losing four of its last five games in what Jones has called probably his most disappointing and frustrating season since buying the team in 1989. Especially since Romo, who was in the 2003 rookie class with tight end Jason Witten, had one of his best overall years (4,184 yards passing with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions).
Despite their late-season slide, the Cowboys still could have won the NFC East. But they lost the season finale at the New York Giants, who clinched the division title at 9-7 and went on to win their second Super Bowl in five years.
"I expect us to learn from that and improve," Jones said. "We've been trying to address the areas personnel-wise, be attentive to what happened to us last year, but we've got to also keep in mind, when you win nine games you can be world champion."
The Cowboys were quite defensive this offseason, acquiring cornerback Brandon Carr, safety Brodney Pool and linebacker Dan Connor in free agency. They then used five of their seven draft picks on players for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, even trading up eight spots to sixth overall and giving up their second-round pick to get All-American cornerback Morris Claiborne from LSU.
When Ryan took over last year, he had to install his schemes during training camp without the benefit of any offseason workouts because of the NFL lockout. The Cowboys were still improved, and perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Ware, who turns 30 at the end of July, had 19 1/2 sacks in his seventh season.
Laurent Robinson left in free agency after a breakthrough season with 11 touchdown catches, so the Cowboys need to find a third receiver behind Miles Austin, who missed six games last year with separate hamstring issues, and Dez Bryant.
That was complicated even more when Bryant was charged with family violence after being accused of attacking his mother during an argument July 14. It was unclear if Bryant would face any discipline from the NFL or the Cowboys.
Bryant had 63 catches for 928 yards and nine TDs last season after his injury-shortened rookie year in 2010. Until his arrest, Bryant had kept the focus on football, seemingly absorbing himself in the playbook, watching film and working on his conditioning.
DeMarco Murray is healthy after missing the final three games of his rookie season with a broken right ankle, but still leading the team with 897 yards rushing. The Cowboys also still have former first-round pick Felix Jones, a big-play threat.
Even with the returning offensive linemen, there will be a different look with the tackles switching sides.
Tyron Smith moves to the left as Romo's blindside protector after starting all 16 games as a rookie last season on the right side, where Doug Free returns. Free-agent veteran guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings got multiyear deals to be starters.
The Cowboys open this season where they ended the last one. They are in the NFL's prime-time kickoff game, at the Giants on Wednesday, Sept. 5.
"I'm excited about having the opportunity to go back to that position to play the team that obviously ended up winning the Super Bowl," Romo said. "There is motivation to have a great season this year, there is motivation to accomplish certain goals that you set out that you haven't yet. Each time you step out here that is what you are thinking about."
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