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Has Jerry Jones Bid Adieu To "Risk" As The Cowboys' Key Organizational Principle?

For two decades, Jerry Jones has hailed "risk" as a key operating strategy. Although this has often paid off, it has too often failed to result in better on-field performance. Is risk still a critical aspect of the team's "process"? Evidence suggests that it isn't.

Yesterday afternoon, O.C.C. cranked out a piece on Jerry Jones and his cadre of ancient advisers, that I found to be unusually compelling and spot on (and impeccably written). One of the many salient points he makes in the article is that Jones' often inscrutable efforts at team-building are actually fairly legible and tend to follow a clear template: the way he built the 90s Cowboys.

I'll allow The Cool One to explain:

To understand Jerry Jones, you have to understand where he's coming from: In 1989, Jerry Jones bought a football team that had just finished 3-13 (and would finish 1-15 in his first year of ownership). Seven years later, Jones' Dallas Cowboys had won three Super Bowl rings.

And in some ways, that's a problem.

Because for Jerry Jones, that success in the 90s has defined a template, or a business model if you will, of how to be successful in the NFL. Many of the decisions Jones takes, the way he runs the organization, even the people he listens to, is defined by that halcyon period in the 90s when the Cowboys and their maverick owner ruled the NFL.

As Cool writes later in the piece, Jerry Jones is a short-term thinker when it comes to football-related decisions (on the other hand, in his league business dealings and development of Cowboys/ AT&T Stadium, O.C.C. sagely notes, Jones has shown that he can be a long-term strategic thinker). This short-term thinking, Cool speculates, may well be the "result of his early socialization into the NFL where he took a 1-15 team and turned it into a 3-time Super Bowl winner. Which is why," he concludes, "Jones remains convinced to this day that winning can be a short-term thing."

This got me thinking about one of Jerry's primary watchwords: risk. Over the years, in numerous interviews, Jerry has uttered that word - as a positive - when asked what his strengths as a GM are, why he prefers a streamlined chain of command, or about his decision making methodology. I have long felt that Jerry believes he was successful because, for whatever reason, he didn't blink when a high-risk, high-reward proposition was on the table. This appears to be a carryover from his oil wildcatting days, and it was a key feature of his early years in the NFL. Consider some of the high-risk decisions he had made during his first five years in the league:

-Hiring Jimmy Johnson, a "college coach."
-Trading away RB Herschel Walker, the team's only star player.
-Trading for DE Charles Haley, a bipolar locker room cancer.
-A dizzying array of draft-day trades.

Jerry helped Jimmy to build the best football team the league had ever seen by having the, shall we say, cojones grandes required to pull the trigger on the innumerable trades the team made from 1989-92. The "high risk, high reward" coin fell on "high reward" with a frequency previously unheard of in league circles. Indeed, this happened often enough to narrow the aperture on Jerry's perception: risk-taking (and not Jimmy Johnson) was the common denominator among the decisions that made the team so wildly successful.

This changed after Jimmy left, of course. But it didn't stop Jerry from employing what he had determined was the common denominator; with his perceptual aperture narrowed, Jerry began to deploy "risk" as a guiding principle. To wit:

-Trading two first round picks for All-Pro WR Joey Galloway.
-Acquiring WR Terrell Owens, another notorious locker room cancer.
-Trading first- and third-rounders for for WR Roy Williams.
-Continued draft day wheeling and dealing.

As this list suggests, most of the post-Jimmy risks failed to land on the "high reward" side of the coin - certainly too frequently to pay dividends as an organizational strategy. As Cowboys fans, we have seen how unstable this is as a guiding philosophy; while the best teams were making sober judgements, the Cowboys were, as Jerruh likes to say, "cuttin' and shootin'." This lead observers to think that risk was actually a substitute for any coherent, cohesive, long-term plan. As Warren Buffett says regarding investments, "Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing."

Allow me to offer a "risk continuum" with calculated risk on one pole and "pure" risk - risk for risk's sake - on the other. A calculated risk (especially when much of the calculating was being done by Jimmy, who had a rare eye for talent) is a vastly different animal from a "purer" risk the team seemed to embrace as a strategic lynchpin in the late 90s and into the Parcells years. I'm not arguing that Jerry Jones operates in the "pure" risk side of the spectrum, nor that the decisions made by other teams don't involve risk. Rather, what I'm arguing is that Jerry is more comfortable living further from the calculated risk pole than are other teams (let's say he likes "marginally calculated" risk), and has set up shop there ever since Jimmy left.

But wait. Moving trucks have been spotted outside this tattered old shop. It looks like Jerry may be relocating - and I'm not the only one who has noticed. Back in February, in a retrospective piece on Jones' first 25 years as the Cowboys' owner, Keith Whitmire wrote that Jerruh is no longer willing to take risks, which he characterizes as a bad thing:

Most of all, the Jerry Jones of 2014 has forgotten the biggest strength of the Jerry Jones of 1989: his brashness. The old Jerry, the one who took over the Cowboys, was a risk-taker and dealmaker.

Firing Landry, bringing in a college coach in Jimmy Johnson, making the Herschel Walker trade -- I'm not sure the Jerry Jones of today has the stomach to make those kinds of deals to improve the team. Modern-day Jerry Jones is keenly aware of the value of P.R. His biggest risks lately have been funding the stadium and trying to squeeze every dollar out of it.

While I agree with the basic thesis Whitmire draws from the available evidence, I must disagree with his conclusions that this represents a bad thing. Quite the opposite, I think the slow fading of risk from the owner's vernacular is a critical step in the right direction.

As O.C.C. pointed out in the article that began this, "Jones is a good listener, and if he likes what he's hearing from his head coach and his staff, he'll start parroting many of the themes and strategies that head coach espouses." As someone who historically has adopted the vision and language of the smartest person in the room (in the case of Switzer, Gailey, Campo and Phillips, that was, unfortunately, Jerry), the elder Jones no longer seems to be relying on risk as the foremost organizational principle. As many of us have noted, Garrett's nomenclature has crept into Jones' press conferences. Just as important, however, is what has crept out: risk is spoken about much less frequently - and certainly less reverentially.

Cool argued that Jerry needs to listen to the 40-year-olds in the organization moreso than the 70-year-olds who ruled the NFL roost when he initially bought the team. For years, the oldsters have allowed Jones to make risky decisions, often jeopardizing the team's long-term future in various attempts to "win now." On the other hand, the 40-year-olds (Stephen Jones, Jason Garrett, Will McClay) to whom O.C.C. says Jones ought to listen don't think much of marginally calculated risk. Frankly, they are the new NFL, Dallas' version of Paraag Marathe, guys who are much more likely to use analytics than they are to use their ample guts to "cut and shoot."

It's a new era. To his credit, Jones seems to be adapting to it, even if it's a lot less fun.

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