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For Jerry Jones, making the Hall of Fame may just be the beginning of his glory years

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Unlike most inductees, Jones is still in the thick of his career.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp
Still a lot of fight left in old Jerruh.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Hall of Fame is considered the greatest honor anyone associated with pro football can attain. For the vast majority, it is a recognition of achievements that are in the past, decades for some of the veteran selections. In many ways, it is a chance for them to have the odd experience of finding out what their eulogy may sound like one day. Almost all are long gone from the game, except as broadcasters and such.

Almost. Jerry Jones, inducted this year as a contributor for his role as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in turning the NFL into the media and revenue monster it is, has always done things a bit differently. And his arrival in Canton is just as unusual. Rather than coming from his retirement life to give his acceptance speech, he is having to take time off from the same thing he has done every August since 1989: Getting the Cowboys ready for another season. And while his legacy as a builder and innovator for the NFL is well established, his career as a general manager just may be about to enter the best time ever. For the first time, he is going into a season with a young, talent heavy team that he has built, under a head coach that is a perfect fit for Jones. His legacy as a GM may be founded more on what is yet to come rather than what he has already done.

Jones of course already has three Lombardi Trophies in his tenure as owner, but there is a bit of an asterisk on those. The bulk of the credit for building those championship teams is given to Jimmy Johnson, who assembled most of the rosters that won three Super Bowls in four years as well as coached the first two. The now well-known divorce between Jerry and Jimmy saw the team enter a fallow period, when the talent level fell off and the team struggled under a series of coaches who were often selected more for their ability to let Jerry run the show than their skill in preparing for and executing game plans. The Cowboys went through the tenures of Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, and Dave Campo while things steadily declined. From a business point of view, Jones was thriving, making more and more money while the fortunes of the team floundered.

Things began to turn around somewhat when Jones brought in Bill Parcells, but even his time as head coach was marred by disagreements with his owner and GM over personnel decisions, leading to Parcells retiring and replaced by Wade Phillips. That led to another period of decline, again mostly due to the failure to find adequate talent for the roster outside of a few real stars like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, and Dez Bryant.

But along the way, Jones did something completely remarkable for a man of his age: He learned from his own mistakes, and made changes in how things worked for Dallas. First, and perhaps most importantly, he began letting his son Stephen take on more and more of the day-to-day work of assembling the roster and managing the salary cap. Then he made two key moves regarding his top staff: He promoted Jason Garrett to head coach and made Will McClay the head of his scouting department.

Garrett turned out to be the perfect head coach for Jones. While Jerry never met a microphone he did not want to speak into (often at length, and always with his unique and entertaining style), Garrett is of the Bill Belichick school of information withholding. He is perfectly content to let Jones remain the very public face of the team while he focuses on building a culture and spreading a philosophy. Moreover, he is able to do that while not letting Jones overshadow him with the players. When players are interviewed, you don’t hear them using a lot of “Jerryspeak”. But you often could swear Garrett was whispering exactly what to say in their ear. They repeat his various mantras verbatim, and almost never stray from the Garrett line.

McClay has done a remarkable job over the past few years. He has made sure that the coaching and scouting staffs hammer out all their differences well before the draft, and has found affordable but useful players in free agency. The 2016 draft class is shaping up to be one of the best in team history, and there is a lot of hope for this year’s group, early as it is.

Together with Stephen Jones, Garrett and McClay have formed a trio of advisers that Jerry has placed great faith and trust in. The clearest example came in the 2014 draft, when it was clear that Jerry wanted to draft Johnny Manziel, but his brain trust stood firm in wanting to go with Zack Martin. The Cowboys wound up with a three-time Pro Bowler who is one of the best guards in the league rather than one of the greatest first-round trade wrecks, and Jerry gained even more faith in what they told him.

Now, thanks to an incredible bit of luck known as Dak Prescott, the Cowboys have one of the brightest futures in the league. Dallas has made the most difficult transition a team is faced with, moving from one franchise quarterback to the next. They did it almost by accident, but nonetheless, they have apparently done it successfully.

With a very young roster (again, largely influenced by Garrett, McClay, and Stephen Jones), the Cowboys have the potential to be a post-season contender for years to come. If they break through and get another Super Bowl win, or even more than one, those will be titles that do not come with the shadow of Jimmy Johnson looming over them. They will be all Jerry’s. He may depend heavily on his key lieutenants, but they are all three men he selected for their roles, and gave the authority to get the job done.

Whatever success comes for the Cowboys in the next few years will be the true legacy of Jerry Jones as a general manager. It took him more than two decades after Johnson left to get it figured out, but he had the unique security of being his own boss. That gave him the time to finally learn how to do things right.

For Jerry Jones, getting his bust enshrined in Canton may really be just the beginning of his glory days.