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Jerry Jones: The GM Who Really Isn't?

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The owner of the Cowboys takes a lot of criticism for also keeping the job of general manager, rather than hiring a full time subordinate to do the job. But is he actually a full time GM himself, or is that just an illusion?

The power trio of the Dallas Cowboys
The power trio of the Dallas Cowboys
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When I first started writing about the Dallas Cowboys as a fan poster here at Blogging The Boys, my favorite topic was the unique role of Jerry Jones as both owner and general manager of the team, and how he interacted with Jason Garrett, his new head coach at the time, as well as his son Stephen. I thought it was a fascinating and interesting dynamic. Primarily, it was a lot more complex and nuanced than the popular image most people had of Jerry as autocrat, making all the decisions from his desk, based mostly on impulse and guesswork.

A lot has changed about the Cowboys since then, but the way the organization works is still just as fascinating. It is also one that can be speculated on endlessly, since Jerry still retains the general manager title, but now the team is enjoying a marked improvement in the results. And the actual inner workings of the team are very much kept out of the public eye.

That is why this question and response from a discussion with Bob Sturm, a regular feature since he joined the Dallas Morning News, caught my eye.

Question: Does this season squash #JTONTFJTGM?

Bob Sturm: I don't believe it did, but then again, I don't believe Jerry Jones is actually the General Manager. I think he is the owner and from that perspective he had a great year. And he has placed others in command and they did well. There is nothing wrong with that. But a general manager does general manager duties and he never has done those things. So, technically, no.

First off, for those who haven't seen it or don't venture into the anarchy of the Twitterverse, JTONTFJTGM stands for "Jerry the owner needs to fire Jerry the general manager". It is a hashtag used by some in the Dallas media when slamming Jerry for what are perceived to be his blunders as GM.

As to what Sturm said, it was a brilliantly concise way of saying something I have been trying to articulate all along. Jerry holds the title and the ultimate responsibility for all the major decisions that fall under the general manager duties, but he has never done the day-to-day work that is seen as the normal duty of the general manager. For the Cowboys, the general manager position is unique in that Jerry also has the ultimate power that resides in ownership, something no one at any of the other franchises has. But he also has all the rest of the Dallas Cowboys empire to handle, including the ownership responsibilities he has to fulfill for the NFL, the highly profitable operation of AT&T Stadium, and the marketing arm of the organization. That marketing is another unique thing about his team, since Dallas is the only team that retains all of its own merchandise revenue rather than pooling it with the rest of the league.

There are two options for anyone, no matter how good they are, who has such broad and diverse operations under his purview. Either he (or she) delegates to good people, or fails.

The recent past has clear examples of when Jerry wound up doing the latter. From the end of the Jimmy Johnson years until the advent of Jason Garrett, the talent acquisition by the Cowboys was, shall we say, spotty at best. Here is a list of all the first round draft picks taken since 1994, which was the first of the post-Johnson drafts:

Year Player Year Player
1994 Shante Carver 2005 DeMarcus Ware/Marcus Spears
1995 No pick 2006 Bobby Carpenter
1996 No pick 2007 Anthony Spencer
1997 David LaFleur 2008 Felix Jones/Mike Jenkins
1998 Greg Ellis 2009 No pick
1999 Ebenezer Ekuban 2010 Dez Bryant
2000 No pick Jason Garrett hired
2001 No pick 2011 Tyron Smith
2002 Roy Williams (safety) 2012 Morris Claiborne
2003 Terence Newman 2013 Travis Frederick
2004 No pick 2014 Zack Martin

Notice how bad the results are for the first ten years after the Jerry/Jimmy divorce. No only were there several clear misses, but the team did not pick in the first round five times. The best tool an NFL team has for getting talent was not used, because Jerry and his staff were trading the picks away.

Also notice the clear change after Garrett came on board. For the first time under Jerry, the team was going for decidedly unsexy but ultimately very productive offensive linemen. The team is still trading, but at least has clearly hit on 75% of the picks.

Although the head coach is not in charge of the draft, he should be in charge of the blueprint for the team overall. And if Garrett is good at anything, it is making, communicating, and executing a plan. He calls it the "process", but that is what he does. His promotion to the top coaching job coincides with the growing influence of a couple of other key pieces, Stephen Jones and Will McClay. They have bought into Garrett's long-term vision for the team, and are also very good at what they do. Since Johnson left, there was only one other head coach who had both a clear vision for the team and the ability to sell it to Jerry, Bill Parcells. And it is certainly arguable that he never got the owner as convinced of what he wanted to do as Garrett has.

Parcells also was probably not as good as Garrett is at working with other key members of the staff. One of the amazing things about Garrett is that he has absolutely no interest in who gets credit for anything. He does not care about what anyone else thinks, because he has no need for anyone to validate him. He believes fully in what himself and what he is doing.

Because of his unique position, Jerry is always going to be just as good as the advice he gets, and that is also influenced by how much he trusts the people giving him that advice. All appearances are that he now has as much faith in his three key advisers, Garrett, Stephen, and McClay, as he has ever had in any subordinates.

In essence, Stephen and McClay appear to be doing the main work that is normally done by a general manager in many other teams, and Jerry just has to step in when there is a difficult judgement call to make or some difference in opinion has to be resolved. He is more of an executive and overseer than other GMs are, but now that the right team is in place to support him, he is doing very well at it.

And in reality, no two general managers in the league do things the same or have exactly the same authority. There are many owners who insert themselves into decisions, they just do so behind the scenes rather than out in the open like Jerry. Other teams have coaches who are more involved in the GM side of things, as appears to be happening with the Philadelphia Eagles, where Chip Kelly seems to be consolidating power over personnel decisions.

It has taken the better part of two decades, but Jerry Jones is finally in a situation that plays to his unique strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. He has shown a rare ability for someone who has been in his position so long to adapt and change. And he has to be given credit, because he has either hired or placed the subordinates in their positions (and Stephen deserves some praise too for showing he has his job based on far more than nepotism). As Sturm said, Jerry is not really a GM, as most of the NFL understands the term. He is the GM of the Dallas Cowboys, a one-of-a-kind position that is finally starting to work well.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB