Happy Birthday to Jerry Jones. He turned 70 years old last week.
Jerry Jones owns the Dallas Cowboys. That is to say that he owns part of me, my childhood–my very soul. Too dramatic? Perhaps. A real Cowboys fan will relate.
I am 50 years old. I was 8 when I became a Cowboys fan. Roger Staubach was the hero of my youth. My other sports heroes had feet of clay but not Roger.
I dressed my two oldest sons in Aikman and Emmitt jerseys. My youngest son, too. He even got to meet the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
The Cowboys are like the New York Yankees–loved or hated. If you love them–like I do–you think the rest of the world hates them. If you are a hater, you’re convinced you’re the only one and everyone else loves them. The reality is that few football fans are neutral about them. We Cowboy fans love that. Cowboys haters hate it.
Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Too Tall Jones, Tony Dorsett, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin–all football fans know these names. Cowboys fans know names like Clint Longley (aka The Mad Bomber), D.D. Lewis, Ralph Neely, Jim Jeffcoat, Efren Herrera, Gary Hogeboom, and many, many others.
Everyone knows that Jerry Jones owns the Cowboys. Everyone. We Cowboys fans know that Clint Murchison owned them, too. So did Bum Bright. We curse Bum Bright for his financial distress which caused him to sell the Cowboys to–you guessed it–Jerry Jones!
Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry. I’ll say that slowly. Fired. Tom. Landry. I’ll admit that Coach Landry was at the nadir of his coaching career at the time. But you don’t fire Tom Landry. Jerry did.
Jerry hired Jimmy Johnson as coach. Johnson was Jones’s college teammate at Arkansas and a successful college coach at Oklahoma State and the University of Miami. Through free agency and the infamous Herschel Walker trade, Jerry and Jimmy stockpiled players. They also inherited a young roster with such players as Michael Irvin already in place. Add to that the drafting of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, and the turnaround was quick and dramatic. Johnson’s first year was a disastrous 1-15. Two seasons later, Jerry and Jimmy hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
Jerry and Jimmy weren’t geniuses. Yes, they took Troy Aikman with the first pick in the draft. Good move. They also picked Steve Walsh and Russell Maryland No. 1. Walsh, a quarterback from the University of Miami was picked in the Supplemental Draft in 1989, the same year Aikman was picked, making the Cowboys the first team to ever use consecutive No. 1 picks on quarterbacks. They did salvage that pick by trading Walsh to the Saints for draft picks. Piling up draft picks and players rebuilt the Cowboys.
Alas, it is part of Cowboy lore that Jerry and Jimmy couldn’t stand success–at least not together. After winning a second Superbowl, they parted company. Neither was better for the parting.
Somehow, some way, Jerry is now bigger than the Cowboys. How the hell could that happen? Simple. He pushed them to permanent mediocrity. He is the Show. For example, the new Cowboys Stadium is, by most accounts, the most fabulous football stadium on the planet. What do they call it? Jerry World. It’s Jerry’s world, and we just live in it.
To be fair, Jerry had success in Dallas. Great success. Unparalleled success. It only took him six years to win three Super Bowls-more than in the entire history of the franchise. What went wrong? Jerry’s success was the start of his decline:
- Jerry is a successful man. Wildly successful. His business judgment is usually spot on. He trusts himself. He applies this to football just as he does to drilling oil. His ideas are the best. Folks like him don’t have much experience with being wrong, and they have a hard time recognizing it when it happens.
- The Cowboys’ early success under his ownership convinced Jerry that they were his creation. He famously declared that 500 men could win a Super Bowl with the Cowboys. In the two decades since uttered that famous line, he’s done his best to try to prove that anyone can coach a football team.
- Jerry and Jimmy couldn’t co-exist. As men of substantial ego, neither could give the other credit. Each believed himself responsible for the team’s success to the exclusion of the other. That neither had the same success after they parted company shows how wrong they both were.
- Barry Switzer: As if to prove that anyone could win with the Cowboys, Jerry hired Barry Switzer to replace Johnson. Switzer was out of football after a long, successful–if controversial–career at the University of Oklahoma and zero professional football experience. In his first two seasons, Switzer took the Cowboys to the NFC Championship game and won a Super Bowl. Unlike most Cowboys fans, I’m not a Switzer detractor. He won a Super Bowl, which is quite an accomplishment. Besides, if I trash Switzer, then I’m agreeing with Jerry that anyone could have won with that team. I will not do that. Also, there is something likable about him. I just liked him. Jerry still holds to the notion that if he builds the right team, anyone can be the coach. Barry proved that.
- Plan B: There used to be something called “Plan B” free agency in the NFL. Oddly, but as far as I know, there was never a Plan A. Regardless, when Jerry bought the Cowboys, there was no salary cap and teams could, through Plan B, stockpile players. That’s what the Cowboys did. I’m not sure Jerry ever realized that was the key to their success.
- Deion Sanders: Deion was Jerry’s free agent prize. He signed Deion, and Deion shined. The Cowboys won their fifth–and last–Super Bowl. Jerry seemed to take this a validation of his generalship. If he ever doubted his abilities, he didn’t after that. Of course, you could point out that signing the greatest defensive back of his era didn’t require any football acumen. You could point that out, but it would be lost on Jerry.
In no area was Jerry’s lack of football genius more apparent than his never-ending quest for a quarterback after Troy Aikman retired:
- Rather than retain Randall Cunningham, Jerry reached in the draft to take University of Georgia quarterback Quincy Carter in the second round. No one in the league was going to take Carter that high. He had been inconsistent in his college career and rumors about off-field problems swirled around him.
- The Pitchers: Jerry signed not one, but two, baseball players: Drew Henson and Chad Hutchinson. (Actually, it’s three: Carter also played minor league baseball).
- Ryan Leaf: After Leaf cemented himself as the worst draft choice in history, where did he end up? Dallas, of course.
We expected a decline under Switzer, and that’s what we got. Undaunted, Jerry hired Chan Gailey and then long-time assistant Dave Campo without success. Desperate again, he hired Bill Parcells who righted the ship with good personnel decisions. Under Parcells, the Cowboys acquired serviceable veteran quarterbacks, Vinnie Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe. It was Parcells who identified undrafted players Tony Romo and Miles Austin. On the other hand, Jerry signed Terrell Owens. Parcells brought the Cowboys back to respectability. Then, as we all knew he would, Parcells quit.
Jerry was sure he’d done it again, this time with Bill Parcells starring as Jimmy Johnson. Anyone could coach the team Parcells put together. To prove that point, Jerry replaced Parcells with Wade Phillips, an affable fellow well-known as an outstanding defensive coordinator and mediocre head coach. The Cowboys were his third head coaching job. He had never won a playoff game as head coach. In Jerry’s world, Jason Garrett would be the offensive coordinator, and good old Wade would take care of the defense. Since Phillips’ hiring in 2008, the Cowboys have gone from 13-3 to a .500 team. Of course, they have played .500 football since they last won the Super Bowl in 1995, so one can reasonably argue that Phillips’s one successful season was just an anomaly.
When Jerry finally gave up on Wade–well after the fans and team had done so–he hired Jason Garrett as head coach. Cowboys fans had expected this move for some time. Jerry is smitten with Garrett. Garrett was a Dallas back up quarterback, best known for a spectacular Thanksgiving Day performance against Green Bay in place of an injured Troy Aikman. More importantly, he’s Jerry’s creation. If he’s a success, he’ll be Jerry’s success.
Garrett was the perfect choice for Jerry. Garrett could be the coach, but Jerry would hire the assistants and find the players. Jerry would be the Man. All Jason had to do is show up and coach. What Garrett got is a team cobbled together by Jerry which does its best to win half its games.
Jerry has achieved one thing that no one in Cowboys’ history could do before. Not Coach Landry when he dumped Danny White in favor of Gary Hogeboom. Not Roger Staubach’s surprise retirement. Not Michael Irvin’s career-ending neck injury. Nor Jackie Smith’s heartbreaking dropped pass in the Superbowl. Not Dwight Clark’s famous catch in 1981 NFC Championship. Not the arrests and scandals during the 1990’s. Now, I just don’t care anymore. Nope. I don’t. I watch the games, but I rarely get excited or even a little agitated. I expect mediocrity and that’s what I get. Week in, week out, every season.
How did Jerry accomplish this? It’s been gradual torture:
- The coaching carousel. From Switzer to Gailey to Campo to Parcells to Phillips to Garrett, the Cowboys have no stability on the field. There is no chance to build anything.
- Drafting: Jerry the GM has done a horrible job in the draft. He consistently reaches for picks or trades down for no particular reason. Occasionally, they will hit the mark with a Demarco Murray, but that’s countered with Martellus Bennett, Felix Jones, Shontae Carver, Dez Bryant and countless other misses. While other teams draft starters in the late rounds, Jerry fills out the practice squad.
- Team building: Like a fantasy football owner, Jerry looks for playmakers. Unfortunately, more mundane positions like offensive and defensive line are ignored. The offensive line now would embarrass a good college team. The defensive line is still made up of players brought in under Parcells. Every season, there is a glaring weakness, unaddressed in either the draft or through free agency.
- From Alonzo Spellman to Tank Johnson to Pacman Jones to Terrell Owens, the Cowboys have become a half-way house for troubled players, without regard to team chemistry or productivity.
- Jerry seems intent on wanting all the team success to be his. A general manager or strong coach will take that away. That won’t ever change.
Don’t take any of the above to mean that I don’t think Jerry has his strengths. His life story is one of phenomenal success. He is passionate about the Cowboys and will spend any amount of money for their success. He isn’t an owner crippling his team by penny-pinching. He also is one of the leaders of the NFL owners, helping lead the league to unprecedented success. I don’t hate the man. I’m too old now to hate on people over sports. Besides, if I were the owner, I’d act just like him.
Many sports pundits have observed that the best NFL teams have the least intrusive owners. Certainly, that’s true of the Giants, Steelers and Patriots, the three most successful franchises in recent years. Teams like the Raiders, Bengals and Cowboys don’t get over the top. The Cowboys, sadly, have become a glamorous version of the Cincinnati Bengals with their key football decisions made by an ownership with little clue about what needs to be done next. Indeed, Jerry and the Bengals’ Mike Brown are the only owners who also act as their own general managers. Their results are not coincidence.
Jerry turned 70 on October 13, 2012, less than a week ago as a I write this. He’s in the homestretch now of his ownership. I truly believe he will do whatever he thinks it takes to bring a another Super Bowl Trophy to Dallas. His problem is that he is takes advice only from Jerry.
This is Jerry’s last ride, his last crusade. Some Cowboys fans hang all the current woes around Tony Romo’s neck. Be carefully what you ask for. Remember what we had at QB when Jerry was doing to the picking. Does anyone else envision Tim Tebow or Michael Vick wearing the Star?
I suspect that Jerry will tire of Jason Garrett and move on after this season. Never, ever could there be a problem with upper management. The hope–the only hope–for Cowboys fans is that Jerry will go to well once last time for a real coach. Not likely, but we can hope, can’t we?
For me, the question is whether I can regain my old fervor for The Star. Maybe. Then again, I suffered through the decade of the ’80’s without reaching this point, so maybe not. I hope so, but I’ve come to believe that my fandom is just nostalgia now. I also believe in what I call the Curse of the Fedora. Since Tom Landry was fired in 1989, the Cowboys have one exactly one playoff game with a team that didn’t include at least one player who played for Coach Landry. One. Between that and Jerry being Jerry, there is little reason for optimism.
Lest we Cowboys fans think that Jerry will ease into retirement soon, I don’t see that happening. I think he’ll stay right where he is until he can’t function. Besides, he has three children. And they all work for the Cowboys.