NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — The start of training camp for the Dallas Cowboys kicked off today in Oxnard, California with owner Jerry Jones, head Coach Mike McCarthy and COO Stephen Jones holding their annual press conference.

A recurring theme during the press conference was the team’s stance regarding COVID-19 and the vaccine.

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While Jerry Jones said this year’s training camp provides “more challenges than ever before,” he said 2020 prepared the team for protocols this year. And while not all players and coaches are fully vaccinated, Cowboys officials say the team is “in the pipeline” to have 85% of the organization guarded against the coronavirus.

“We are right there with the same spot with other teams, ready to compete,” Jones said. “We can stand up with any team and compete, relative to all the issues regarding the vaccine.”

Coach Mike McCarthy admitted he was hesitant about getting the vaccine but after ‘many discussions and research,’ he changed his mind and decided to get the shot.

The team was underachieving during McCarthy’s first year. And he dumped his most important hire, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, after the Cowboys gave up a franchise-record 473 points (29.6 per game).

Last year also saw quarterback Dak Prescott go down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. Things looked dismal for a while but a three-game winning streak late kept the team in the playoff race until the final weekend in the weak NFC East.

The returning quarterback signed a $160 million, four-year contract in March.

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Speaking of Dak, McCarthy said, “He’s the same man every day. He’s been in the facility every single day since the injury. “Unless something comes out of the medical meetings and we’ll see how it goes. But we kept him out of the team drills, but he’ll participate in the team drills.”

The experts say training camp this year will focus on what new coordinator Dan Quinn is doing to fix a defense that appeared beyond repair at times a year ago. The Cowboys drafted their most defensive players (eight) in the seven-round era, so camp could go a long way toward determining how many will have an impact as rookies.

If healthy, the offense is the known commodity with Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and a trio of receivers in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. The top three offensive linemen — RG Zack Martin, LT Tyron Smith and RT La’el Collins — are returning from injuries.

In terms of expectations, there are a lot!

There’s no doubt the heat will be on Coach McCarthy if the Cowboys start off slow again for his second season.

And while the front office is at least three years into believing the franchise has the pieces to end a 25-year stretch without even appearing in an NFC championship game since its fifth Super Bowl title, some question how long they can dream.

The offense has proven it is among the best in the NFL with a healthy Prescott — but a merely mediocre defense might be good enough.

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(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

CBSDFW.com Staff