Cowboys aim to open stadium with biggest NFL crowd

After all the years of dreaming and scheming to build Cowboys Stadium, Jerry Jones is ready to see his $1.15 billion masterpiece in all its glory.

On Sunday afternoon, fans will gather in outdoor plazas on both ends of the football-shaped building, peeking in through giant glass windows. Those windows will slide open like patio doors, welcoming everyone inside, two hours before kickoff.

About 75,000 folks will head to their seats and another 30,000 will scramble for the best spots to stand and watch, either on the humongous video boards hanging over the field or directly down on the turf. By game time, one of the largest crowds ever to see an NFL game should be in place for a doozy of a matchup: the Dallas Cowboys against the New York Giants, their top rival of late and Jones' hand-picked foe for this extravagant night. A nationally televised showdown between 1-0 teams looking to grab an early edge in what's expected to be a tight NFC East race.

“It's going to have some atmosphere,” Jones said. “And it's going to be loud.”

Although the building already has hosted several A-list concerts and other sports events, those were really just opening acts, test runs for this debut.

Jones has held back on many of the finishing touches — such as nostalgic Texas Stadium carry-overs: the star logo at midfield; banners; a statue of Tom Landry; and the Ring of Honor — to make their unveiling part of this night. The retractable doors haven't been used since the ribbon-cutting ceremony in May, and the retractable roof was opened only for part of the George Strait concert in June that was the stadium's very first event. Weather will determine if the roof is open this time.

Beyond the bells and whistles (and Jones is promising some surprises), the big intrigue is how this place sounds and feels with a packed house. Emphasis on “packed” because the Cowboys are aiming for several attendance records.

The largest crowd for an NFL regular-season game was 103,467 for Arizona-San Francisco in Mexico City in 2005. The record for a game in the United States is 103,985 for the Super Bowl between Steelers and Rams at the Rose Bowl in January 1980. The record for any NFL game is 112,376 for a preseason game between the Cowboys and Houston Oilers in Mexico City in 1994; that'll probably hold until the Super Bowl comes to this building in February 2011.

Jones is especially counting on the standing-room-only people to set the mood. He called those $29 tickets a “Party Pass” for a reason and he built three levels of decks for them to have plenty of room to hang out instead of putting in tens of thousands more seats. The roaming room includes the main concourse, which spills out onto the plaza when the sliding doors are open, making for a great place for mixing and mingling during halftime and any other breaks in the action.

Jones keeps saying the new surroundings will bring out the best in his club. There is a precedent for that.

When the Cowboys moved into Texas Stadium in 1971, they won every game there on the way to winning their first Super Bowl title. Dallas already was a strong team, having lost the previous Super Bowl, and Landry's decision to make Roger Staubach his permanent starting quarterback had to be a more significant reason for the breakthrough. Still, players recall the boost that came with moving into the fanciest field in the league.

“When we got into Texas Stadium, it felt like, 'This is our new home. We've got to make the most out of it,'” said Cliff Harris, a starting safety then who is now a member of the Ring of Honor. “Hopefully this group of Cowboys is going to have that same feeling, that we've got to match the spectacular nature of this stadium and get to the Super Bowl.”

The video boards are this stadium's signature item, stretching 60 yards long and 24 yards high. There are two, one facing each sideline, and they're the world's largest high-definition televisions.

“We like to say the only screen in the world comparable to the one you're looking at is the one on the other side of it,” Jones said.

The screens also are the greatest source of debate thus far because they hang “only” 90 feet above the field and were hit by a punt in the preseason opener. If it happens again, it's a dead ball and a do-over. If it happens often, the league likely will force the Cowboys to raise them before next season.

Another innovative wrinkle is the field-level bar the team walks through to and from the locker room. It was all fun and smiles in there during the preseason, but it remains to be seen what happens when fans are drunk and angry.

“I think it's going to put more pressure on them to perform,” said former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who attended the Strait concert with Jones. Johnson returned last month to film commercials about drinking responsibly and about a fan code of conduct that will be shown for the first time during this game.

A popular topic in the Cowboys' locker room this week is who will score the first touchdown. Receiver Roy Williams said if he has the honor, he'll keep the ball, something he rarely does. He won't even give it to the Hall of Fame.

What if Jones asks?

“That's negotiable,” Williams said, smiling.

The Giants, meanwhile, are talking about playing spoiler. Running back Brandon Jacobs suggested Jones should've picked a patsy to open against, not the reigning division champs who knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs when they were division champs the year before.

“You don't want to ever lose a divisional game whether the stadium was built in 1909 or one that was built today,” Jacobs said. “Dallas doesn't like us and a couple of guys on their team made that pretty clear earlier in the week. We have guys in this locker room who are going to make that clear as well.”

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