Ed. Note: We have borrowed quotes from this ESPN article, which is some of the finest reporting on the current NFL situation around. Since we borrow so much to create a coherent story, please click over and read the whole thing. They deserve the traffic for such an outstanding piece of journalism.
To say this has become a season when writing about the Dallas Cowboys, or the NFL in general, has lost some of its appeal is putting it mildly. The long, drawn-out, and bitter Ezekiel Elliott investigation and suspension, the controversy over the protests during the National Anthem and the connected allegations of “blackballing” Colin Kaepernick, and the now open warfare between Jerry Jones, Roger Goodell, and the compensation committee working on Goodell’s contract extension are depressing and exhausting. Add in how the product on the field is being affected by so many injuries to star players, an overall degeneration of the quality of games played, plus how the Cowboys are struggling, and this has become, as David Helman of the mothership put it, no fun at all.
Why would anyone who watches the Cowboys have a good feeling right now, when seemingly so little of the news about this season has been good?
It all seems so puzzling at times. And many of us, despite our frustrations, are trying to understand just how it all came to this.
Well, if you are still paying attention, ESPN has posted a long and detailed article by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham on the fight between Jones and the league. It is at times unflattering to just about everyone involved. Following are some of the highlights as they pertain to the overall situation and to Jones and the Cowboys in particular.
The flash point for everything, although there were precursors, was when Goodell called Jones to inform him that the six-game suspension was coming down.
The line went quiet. Seconds passed. Goodell's decision was an unconscionable violation of trust, Jones later told associates, because he believed that the commissioner had assured him this past spring that there would be no suspension. Jones saw in Elliott a genuine opportunity, a player so good that he had made Jones believe that this year he just might win a Super Bowl for the first time since 1996. His anger was palpable. Finally, according to sources with direct knowledge of the call, Jones broke the silence. He aimed his words not only at Goodell's decision but also at his role as judge, jury and executioner in the case.
The dynamite went off.
"I'm gonna come after you with everything I have," Jones said. Then he mentioned Deflategate. "If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I'm going to do."
With his decision on Elliott, Goodell severed a relationship that had been, up until that point, one of his most supportive and valuable.
While this battle is largely seen as Jones vs everyone else, the truth is that he is not the only one with concerns over Goodell’s performance. He is just the only one to take this public and threaten action.
As the league's TV ratings and favorability polls have drifted downward this autumn, a growing number of owners have expressed their dissatisfaction with Goodell's stewardship: He has not held many executives accountable despite a long line of mishandled crises; even with tens of millions of dollars invested in new executives and consultants, Goodell still has not managed to resolve high-profile cases of player discipline without embarrassing legal battles; behind closed doors, even perfunctory policy decisions, like the posting of game highlights on Twitter, have become bitter showdowns among owners and executives. At the same time, the league has been exposed to unprecedented pressure over player protests during the national anthem that have polarized fans and players while angering sponsors and TV network partners. Even more, throughout the past few months, the war for the future of the NFL has played out uncomfortably and publicly, often through competing leaks between owners, all of which has distracted fans from the actual games.
It is a turmoil that seems new but actually began years ago in a shadow war waged inside the cloistered world of NFL offices, owners' suites, private meetings and conference calls, rooted in very different visions, mostly by Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell, about what the NFL's future should be.
Jones was instrumental in Goodell becoming commissioner in the first place, but from the very beginning, there was a disconnect between what the two saw as the direction things should go.
To fulfill the vision of Jones and others, Goodell promised to increase revenue.
To fulfill his own vision, Goodell promised to defend the brand, in his words "to protect the shield."
Initially, no one saw those as being in real conflict. But Goodell’s term was plagued from the very beginning by various problems, such as the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal and the Ray Rice domestic violence case.
What troubled Jones more than the crises was the way Goodell had responded. In most cases, Goodell expanded the power of the league office and broadened its scope, adding executives, many of whom are paid seven-figure salaries and given generous operating budgets. Among others, Goodell named former lobbyist Jeff Miller to oversee the league's health and safety policy in response to head injuries; former Manhattan prosecutor Lisa Friel to investigate criminal allegations in the wake of Rice; longtime sports executive Tod Leiweke in 2015 as chief operating officer to manage the new cabinet; and in 2016, former White House spokesman and league consultant Joe Lockhart to run public relations and attempt to rehabilitate Goodell's image. Some owners, most notably Jones, quietly questioned the wisdom of such moves -- especially the hiring of Friel. Before her position was established, Jones argued to owners in a closed-door meeting that creating its own law enforcement arm might not solve the problems of the NFL and would, more likely, create a new set of them. As Steelers owner Art Rooney II says, "We've expanded staff in areas that 10 or 20 years ago I probably would have never dreamt."
Jones’ concerns about Friel in particular were eerily prophetic, as she was a key player in the Elliott investigation and decision. Moreover, increasing staff like that is usually a bad sign for organizations. The real impact is often to diffuse responsibility and muddle decision making. It can be a symptom of a wish to “cover their butt” rather than reach good solutions. The current state of affairs makes that seem applicable to what Goodell has done.
Things were only aggravated when the owners began to feel that they were being told what the league wanted them to hear, not the real state of affairs.
Last year, TV ratings declined and anxiety mounted. Many owners concluded that former Pepsi executive Dawn Hudson, whom Goodell hired as the league's chief marketing officer, was providing analysis that was too optimistic. At an October 2016 league meeting in Houston, Hudson and Lockhart presented a slide that showed different variables measuring the popularity of the major sports leagues. At the top was the NFL. Various others, including Major League Soccer, were labeled "up-and-coming." At the bottom, under the category of "eroding," was the NBA, which had just signed a $24 billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT and was coming off its most watched Finals since 1998.
"Do you buy this bulls--t?" one owner said to another.
And as is his style, Jones was at the forefront of owners who were unhappy.
The issues don’t just exist between the owners and the league. The NFL offices themselves are reported to be very dysfunctional.
But for all the league wide problems, there is little question that the match that lit the fuse was the Elliott case. In a confrontation during the league meetings in October of 2016, Jones ran into Friel. The Josh Brown case was in full bloom then, and Jones was already concerned about Elliott’s case becoming a kind of “make-up” call for the NFL over the serous issue of domestic violence.
On the first night of the meetings, Jones and a few other executives walked into the hotel bar shortly before midnight. Friel was there. In February and July 2016, Elliott's former girlfriend had claimed that he assaulted her on six separate days in Ohio and Florida; he had been neither arrested nor charged with any wrongdoing by the authorities in both states. Jones believed there was no case. At the bar, Friel explained to Jones that the Elliott investigation was open and would be indefinitely as she finished her job.
Jones' eyes widened, his brow furrowed. He raised his finger and wagged it in her face. "I'm saying this as an owner!" he yelled. "Your bread and butter is going to get both of us thrown out on the street!"
The bar got quiet. Everyone stared. After a minute or so, a Cowboys executive ushered Jones up to his room.
Jones was certainly out of line with his outburst, but he also was making no bones about how strongly he felt about the Elliott case.
Last summer, the NFL conducted a hearing with Elliott about the still not determined suspension. The various aspects of how that was handled have been well covered previously. Meanwhile, the compensation committee, which was proceeding with Jones’ approval (to that point) was working on Goodell’s extension. Then the moment of truth arrived - and the ESPN article points out that it was not just about the merits of the case.
For her part, Friel has privately told colleagues that despite the resources at her disposal -- the Elliott case has cost an estimated $2 million and counting -- she was hamstrung without subpoena power. Her worst fears, and Jones', were coming true. Still, Goodell gave considerable weight to the opinions of the panelists, who unanimously concluded that Elliott deserved to be punished.
Jones didn't know that Goodell was changing his mind. And he didn't know that Goodell was facing pressure, both from a handful of league executives who felt Elliott should be suspended and from owners wanting Jones to be humbled. Kraft had called Goodell in the summer and, referring to the Elliott case, told the commissioner, "My guy got four games for footballs and there's still nothing on this?"
These statements from other owners seem to conflate the Elliott case with their desire to bring Jones’ to heel. Jones, however, is hardly one to take something like that quietly. Almost immediately, he started questioning the process involved in negotiating Goodell’s contract extension.
Meanwhile, the negotiations have continued, and there is currently a difference between Goodell’s demands and what many in the league are willing to grant.
A long-held assumption has been that Goodell wants another long-term deal. Those who have discussed the contract situation with him have described him as "furious" and "emboldened" at the notion of accepting a deep pay cut after making the owners a lot of money over the years, watching their teams' valuations skyrocket and taking many bullets for them. ESPN has reported that he asked in August for a compensation package of about $49 million a year, if every incentive is met, plus use of a private jet for life and health care for life for his family. But most owners expect him to land in the range of $40 million a year. If owners decide to squeeze him too hard, he might walk away. He knows that there's no clear successor, which is both a failing on his part and a source of leverage.
Jones is renowned for his ability to sway other owners, but in this case, that may not be enough.
That's why, no matter how often some team executives say not to underestimate Jones, and no matter how frustrated many owners are with the state of the league, the support to remove Goodell doesn't seem to be there. Jones has the Redskins' Dan Snyder and a handful of other owners on his side; there are a dozen or so owners who just want to extend Goodell and get the story out of the headlines; and the rest don't approve of Goodell's performance, not because they agree with Jones but because they believe Goodell has empowered him to a fault, especially given the ugly situation with two relocated franchises drawing small crowds in Los Angeles.
That is where we are today, with Jones on one side, Goodell on the other, and the rest of the owners trying to figure out how to get through this mess and move on. Both Jones and Goodell have gotten their egos involved, which is seldom a good way to do business. Both have conducted themselves poorly, with Jones making some particularly objectionable statements.
This is sadly not going to be over soon. It may be the ultimate test of just how much power Goodell and Jones actually have in the NFL. Both seem dug in for a long and bitter fight. We probably aren’t going to enjoy it.