There’s a hypothetical question that sometimes pops up in NFL media. It goes something like, “If it was possible to make a deal with the devil or whatever, would you take winning a Super Bowl if it meant that you would face a decade or more of losing seasons?”
You have to forgive fans of the Dallas Cowboys for wondering if that is exactly what Jerry Jones did. After the dynasty of the 1990s, it has now been nearly three decades of the Cowboys never accomplishing more than an early exit from the playoffs, with many years they sat out the postseason completely.
Back in 1995, when the team had just come off winning their third Lombardi Trophy in four seasons, many of us smugly congratulated ourselves for backing the most successful team in the NFL. Most, although certainly not all of us, managed to get over the rather heartless way Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry, and then the breakup with Jimmy Johnson. The team was so strong it managed to get back to the mountaintop with Barry Switzer at the helm.
A cruel reality soon dawned on us. Johnson had captured lightning in a bottle, rapidly building a roster in a way that is no longer possible in the salary cap era, and coaching them superbly in ways that are also not possible under the restrictions of the CBA and the many rule changes that are meant to protect the health of players. Those limitations are not bad, given things like the excessive punishment players like Troy Aikman and Nate Newton suffered. The cap was even a bit of a self-imposed restriction, as Jones was instrumental in creating that to control his own free-spending impulses.
We lament the lack of success since the Johnson days. It makes a lot of sense that blame is laid at Jones’ feet for the way he has run the team after the divorce. Jones certainly has been instrumental in all the struggles. Serving as his own general manager has removed a level of accountability that exists in most other franchises. No matter how badly things go, he cannot be fired.
Part of this is ego. Jones took a huge gamble in buying the Cowboys. The team was hemorrhaging money under former owner Bum Bright, who had bought them from the original ownership. He was looking to get out of the bad investment. An honest appraisal shows that Landry had to go, as the rest of the league had caught up to and then passed his once innovative coaching. Jones brought a brilliance for building a brand and a business. What he had to add was someone to fix the football side of things. In retrospect, it was a long shot that he would be able to find the right man to dig Dallas out of the hole it was in. The odds just got longer when he turned to an old friend who had been very successful in the college ranks. It was another case of the cronyism that still is rampant in a league run by a bunch of billionaires who all think that making money is a sign of football acumen.
When you get down to the truth of the matter, Jones just got incredibly lucky with his choice of Johnson. The former Miami Hurricanes head coach had no NFL experience. It really should not have worked. But it did.
While both played their part in the breakup between owner and head coach, there was undoubtedly a clash of egos involved. Johnson rightfully got the limelight as he was serving as his own general manager, controlling all aspects of the operation similarly to the way Bill Belichick did during his long run of dominance. Jones chafed at that. He certainly wants to be the center of attention. While there is evidence Johnson did not want to stay with the team for an extended period and was more than ready to move on, the problem was that Jones made the decision to take the general manager job for himself. He saw that as a way to get the credit for the success of the team.
However, the evidence is clear that he has not been that good, and instead is constantly criticized for his mistakes. From some really bad coaching hires, starting with Switzer, to struggles with roster building, he has hampered things, probably more than he has helped. It is certainly arguable that he is a drag on the team as they try to get back to the top of the league. He has refused to hire a true GM. The player acquisition has improved as Will McClay has gained more control over that aspect, but Jones has retained control of the rest of the organization, with the only change the increasing influence and responsibilities of his son, Stephen, who handles most of the day-to-day GM duties now. Jerry retains control over the major decisions, though, including who he hires as head coach. He has continued to do a magnificent job in making Dallas the flagship of the NFL despite their record, becoming a billionaire in the process. But that success has come despite the failures on the field, and that financial success keeps him securely in his comfort zone. Sometimes effective change can only come when you get outside of that, and it seems highly unlikely that is ever going to happen.
That means he is not going to bring in someone who will have anything close to the authority Johnson once held. In turn, it will prevent any change in the culture in Dallas, which many suspect is part of the problem. With all the glitz and glamour surrounding the team, the perception is that the players are a bit coddled or entitled. That is not what you want from a football team. That springs from the ownership. It makes it very hard for a coach to establish the culture he wants. It can be done, but with Mike McCarthy and Jason Garrett before him, it took a few seasons to basically win Jones over. And their success in that was only partial, as the team continues to be reflective of the owner in many ways.
Further, there is the type of head coach that Jerry Jones is comfortable with. He wants experienced ones or someone that is already on the staff, and prefers to know them personally before he hires them. It stifles innovation and means things are just likely to keep on going the way they are.
We can complain all we want about the way Jones runs his team. But it is his team and will pass to his children one day, so nothing is going to change much for the foreseeable future. We have seen a long cycle of futility for the Cowboys. With McCarthy now going into the last year of his contract with no extension, this year is setting up to be more of the same.
Jones brought a dynasty to Dallas. But that was the result of his initial partnership with Johnson. We wound up with only one of them staying for the long haul, and it wasn’t the one that could keep the winning going. It has been a heavy price to pay for those three championships, and it looks like we aren’t done paying.