OXNARD, Calif. -- The first day of training camp, the first official day of football for the Dallas Cowboys. After seven months, and honestly longer as last season was a forgone conclusion in November, of feeding our football junkie minds with endless chatter of the draft, free agency, suspensions and how the third-string defensive tackle looked coming off the ball at mini-camp, it's the real deal.
Every day the remainder of the calendar year there's going to be football to discuss, actual games, wins and losses, injuries, strategy, second-guessing.
No more hypotheticals. Football is such a different animal in our world of sports. The overwhelming majority of our conversation doesn't involve the games since there are only 16 of them, which comes out to be about one every 23 days of the year. Baseball is 162 games, the NBA and NHL play 82 and soccer seemingly runs on an endless loop of matches.
Heck, we are so desperate there are fans who actually work themselves into a tizzy about the final preseason game, which features approximately 87 guys who will never again play in an NFL contest. Still, television ratings are higher than the Stanley Cup Finals or most regular-season NBA games and Twitter is blowing up over the undrafted free agent with two second-half sacks.
The hunger, the thirst for football is real, and never more so for the Dallas Cowboys. The reason for this isn't the 24/7 news cycle and social media, although that certainly doesn't hurt the cause, and it's not entirely because they have never been more popular.
And oh my word how head shaking is it that a 4-12 team coming off the most disappointing season in franchise history had four of the top-five players for officially-licensed NFL player merchandise sales in the first quarter of 2016. Dez Bryant landed the top spot, the first non-quarterback to do so since they starting tracking quarterly sales four years ago. Of course, Dez is coming off the most disappointing campaign of his pro career, with just 31 catches and three touchdowns after an offseason of heated contract negotiations. Have to imagine the sale numbers would have been record shattering if say he led the Cowboys in touchdowns like Cole Beasley did with five.
Wait, what? I mean, I know he did. I know I must have written about it at the end of last season. Maybe I eliminated it from my memory. A 5-foot-8 slot receiver – who plays his you-know-what off every down, not knocking him here -- led what was supposed to be one of the greatest teams in franchise history with five touchdowns. Some 13 players in NFL history have scored five touchdowns in a single game and Gale Sayers once scored six. Imagine that, Sayers scored more touchdowns in one afternoon than any Cowboys player could in 16 games. That kind of sums up the miserableness that was last season.
What were we talking about? Oh yeah, why the thirst for football has never been more so for the Cowboys. The reason for this is that everyone, from Jerry Jones to the coaching staff to the players to the fans thought they were headed somewhere, down the Yellow Brick Road of the NFL. And then the Wicked Witch of the West made a surprise visit and Tony Romo broke his collarbone and it just spiraled from there.
Hope, though, as the poem says, does not breed eternal misery. On this makeshift football field, the picturesque weather with the mountains in the background that only Southern California can offer, hope springs eternal. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in *An Essay on Man *in 1734, "people always hope for the best, even in the face of adversity."
And that's where we are with the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. Hopeful and optimistic that the nightmare that was last season was simply an aberration, just one of those years, and beginning today, the continuation of what began on this very field two years. We all thought we were headed for a solid three- or four-year run of success, playoff wins, and maybe, just maybe the sixth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. And that can still be the case. That's the mindset right now for the majority. That really has to be the mindset. Any player, coach and or really fan who are sitting around without optimism in late-July, honestly, it's time to find something else to do. This isn't your gig. This is why sports are fun, this is why we love them, this is why we watch, why we care, because we all hope that this is the year.
Sitting here, minutes after the first walk through of camp, Jason Garrett giving his press conference behind me, there is a genuine sense of optimism. There are no dragon slayers in the NFC East, so there's no reason the Cowboys shouldn't win the division. There's no reason Romo can't stay healthy and start 15 games, which he did for four straight seasons before last season. There's no reason Dez Bryant shouldn't return to being an All-Pro caliber wide out. There's no reason Ezekiel Elliott shouldn't win Offensive Rookie of the Year running behind the league's premier blocks of granite. Heck, even Jaylon Smith looked good doing resistance work associate athletic trainer Britt Brown, the rookie linebacker was shuffling and back pedaling much like Anthony Spencer was here two years ago and the latter played by Week 4 (this is probably ridiculously overly optimistic, but it's the theme of the column, leave me be).
Know what else cause for optimism is. Team unity, team chemistry, call it whatever you wish. Without delving into specifics (forgive me, off the record is off the record), there were certain negative influences on this football team that are no longer here. One in particular gave black cloud a new meaning. And while winning can almost always overcome such issues, seven-game losing streaks tend to implode black clouds into mushroom clouds. Such was the case.
The first day of training camp, filled with hope and optimism … and you know what, there's this: There is no possible way the next five months can be any worse than what took place last year. So there's that.