Once upon a time, the NFL world tended to laugh at Jerry Jones. He is always colorful and frequently throws his weight around as one of the most influential owners in the league, but the humor was mostly directed at him also taking the job of general manager of his team. He was seen as being in over his head and frequently blundering in coaching hires and roster building.
That laughter has pretty much died down, except among a few curmudgeons who focus more on the past than what is going on now. Jones made more than his share of missteps, but since he didn’t have to worry about being fired, he was able to grow into his job. Now, the Cowboys are looking suspiciously like a well run team with an exciting future.
This comes to mind as a couple of the new targets for derision have filled the headlines with some strange decisions of late. Specifically, the two teams from New York/New Jersey have made some very strange moves this year. Our beloved division rivals the Giants, under the benevolent, kindhearted ownership headed by John Mara, are still riding with Eli Manning while trading away his most potent target, Odell Beckham Jr. They did address the future quarterback succession by drafting Daniel Jones from Duke with the sixth overall pick, but most have a Jedi-like belief that he is not the QB they are looking for. Meanwhile, the Jets have recently fired Mike Maccagnan, giving head coach Adam Gase the GM responsibilities in the interim, which he quickly exercised by trading away LB Darron Lee, their 2016 first-round pick. At least he drove a hard bargain, getting a sixth-round pick in return from the Kansas City Chiefs. Oh, wait.
Say what you will about Jerry Jones, he and his staff have avoided making highly questionable moves in recent years. The worst thing that can be brought up is the lack of production from former first-round selection Taco Charlton. Most of their moves, like taking Leighton Vander Esch in the first last year and the trade for Amari Cooper, have had an immediate favorable impact that exceeded a lot of expectations.
Part of the success of late grows out of something that is masked by the often hilarious or befuddling utterances of Jones when he is drawn to microphones like a moth to a flame. He is a shrewd and smart businessman who brings more acumen to his GM role than some admit. Part of that is his ability to select subordinates that he is able to trust and work with and delegate to appropriately. A bit paradoxically, holding the real power in the organization frees him to use his lieutenants more effectively by sharing more authority than most of his GM peers.
No one is more important to his operation than his son, executive VP Stephen Jones, who is at the least a co-GM, and in many ways carries most of the day-to-day load of the job. It is Stephen who does the real work in contract negotiations. The Cowboys have some big extensions to sort out in the near term, with Dak Prescott, Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott seen as the top priorities. All three players have made some calming comments about not worrying about the negotiations while they focus on getting ready for the season. It is a refreshing change from the apparent acrimony that was reported during the DeMarcus Lawrence haggling. But that worked out, and as happens when a player has his financial future secured, old grievances were quickly left behind. Things are in good hands with the younger Jones.
Then there is the not-so-secret weapon, Will McClay. The head of scouting has done a superb job finding future contributors in the draft, with some true success stories in Prescott, Elliott, Vander Esch, and Lawrence. Some lesser but still significant finds have come in the later rounds in players like Xavier Woods and Anthony Brown. And McClay undoubtedly had a role in the trades for Cooper and Robert Quinn. The latter is one that still has to be proven on the field, but it looks like a likely win for the team, and also marked a departure of sorts from recent years when the team was seen as too conservative in going after veteran help.
That is another under-reported trait of Jerry. He is more flexible in his thinking than many other GMs. He often does not behave like the septuagenarian he is. Part of that is probably the influence of Stephen, but it is still a remarkable amount of ability to move on from old ideas and try something new. Many much younger GMs are less willing to take a chance. Job security plays a significant role, of course. Jerry only has to answer to himself, and that is a rare freedom for the GM position. Among non-owners, only Bill Belichick has something like the that, and even he could have to answer to Robert Kraft.
There is a fourth member of the brain trust for the Cowboys, head coach Jason Garrett. While he is in the final year of his contract and widely seen to be coaching for his job, there are still many indications that the owner still has a lot of faith in him. The staff has certainly done a lot to give him a deep and talented roster heading into camp, and early this year finally excised the problem that was Scott Linehan. It remains to be seen if Kellen Moore will be the answer there, but optimism abounds about his fresh ideas, especially as it relates to play calling and the use of motion and formations to confuse and manipulate the defense.
What is undeniable is that Garrett has brought a stability to the head coaching job. He has also instilled a viable and positive culture that echoes almost every time a player speaks to the media. The opportunity to do that stems in large part from the patience that the owner has had with him, which seems to reflect a belief in what Garrett is doing. He is now the sixth longest tenured coach in the league. That has some real benefits, although he still has to deliver on the one real requirement for all head coaches, playoff success.
But when chaos is engulfing some other franchises, the Cowboys remain calm in their approach. That calm starts with Jerry Jones. He doesn’t get enough credit for it from some. Past mistakes loom large for many of his detractors. He made plenty of those, but he undeniably learned some valuable lessons. He is the second-longest-serving GM in the league. Somewhat surprisingly, Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals, who also is the owner there, has been their de facto GM for three years longer than Jerry Jones in Dallas, but there is no real way to argue he has been as effective.
Of course, the senior Jones will not be judged to be truly successful until his team gets to the promised land again. He has done some very positive things in recent years to do that, however. And if it finally pays off, it will be largely because of his performance.