There is unease and concern pulsing through the fan base of the Dallas Cowboys as a result of a report that the team may move on from WR Amari Cooper and DE DeMarcus Lawrence. As the team faces a large number of potential free agent departures, this seems a strange and counterproductive approach. It should, because that is exactly what it is. Unfortunately, it is also exactly what we should expect each season. This is patented Stephen Jones behavior. It is also a clear example of a dysfunctional approach to managing the roster.
This is almost an annual thing, especially the pronouncements from Jones about how some highly-paid players are forcing his hand because of the stringent restrictions of the NFL salary cap. Here is this year’s version.
If some of that seems familiar, look at what he was saying last year about Dak Prescott’s contract negotiations.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on @ProFootballTalk on contract talks with Dak Prescott: “There’s all sorts of analytics out there that show if your QB takes up too big a percentage of your salary cap that it decreases your chances to win. We’re just trying to figure out the right fit.” pic.twitter.com/ZHWap10JAU— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 9, 2020
Do you see the common thread of how the salary cap ties his hands? This has become boilerplate for Jones as the team approaches contract decisions. He is basically trying to use the media to put pressure on players and to justify his own decisions while blaming it on a salary cap that he has repeatedly manipulated to do whatever he decides to do, or feels he is forced into to keep players that he decides are must haves.
This is a major problem for the Cowboys. Jones is the main architect of the approach to the salary cap. And he approaches it as a profit and loss spreadsheet, not as a way to build the best roster for success on the field. He is a bean counter at heart.
This has been evident, albeit circumstantially, in the usage of the running backs last season. Tony Pollard was more effective and explosive, but Ezekiel Elliott consistently received the most touches. It points to interference from the ownership with the coaching decisions. Elliott, as he should have, fought to get the biggest contract he could, and he eventually won in a huge way. Now the Cowboys are saddled with his big cap hit and the way he and Pollard were used certainly appears to be a case of justifying that mistake. It cost the team.
The way a roster should be built is for the coaches to put together who they want to fit their plans. Then the GM, or in the unique structure in Dallas, Jones should figure out how to give them as much as possible while making the cap work. Things are done pretty much the opposite at the Star, where Jones figures out how to spend his family’s money and then lets the coaches try and kluge everything together on the field. Aggravating things is that Jones, despite his self-image of a tough negotiator, repeatedly gets backed down or just makes puzzling commitments like the Jaylon Smith second contract.
That is paradoxically a reason we should not put too much into this posturing from Jones. We have seen it before, and as the huge deal Prescott wrested from them after also cashing in on the franchise tag shows, there is certainly a real chance that Jones will be forced to find a way to keep players like Cooper and Lawrence to avoid taking a serious step back in talent. It is, however, no guarantee.
There also is the question of how this affects the players. Jones is indirectly running down their value. It seems a completely avoidable way to go about conducting business. But speaking out in the media is a family trait. Jones is both more direct and less colorful and entertaining in his remarks than his father. His hollow attempts to come across as hard-nosed in negotiations just add a regrettable level of animosity to the proceedings.
Nothing indicates this is going to change. Jones is the heir apparent to the GM title, and has already taken over most of the day-to-day decision making of the position. He can be expected to be running things for years, even decades. That means we are likely to see this unfortunate pattern persist. He seems convinced he knows best and no one can force him to change.
Drama results. That would seem to most a negative consequence, but with drama comes attention. The Cowboys brand is focused more on being the most visible and discussed franchise in the NFL, more so than being a successful team on the field. The more the media and fans discuss all these machinations, the more Dallas hogs the spotlight. It is a feedback loop that just keeps intensifying.
The financial power of the Cowboys makes the Jones family one of the most powerful ownerships in the league. So does the way viewers flock to watch the team whether it is winning or losing. That drives ratings, which creates profits. Profits are not just king in the NFL. They are the very reason the league exists.
As the fortune of the Jones family continues to grow, it just gives them more and more reason to keep doing what they are doing. Future outcomes are likely to resemble the treadmill of futility the franchise is stuck on. We anguish over the way seasons keep ending. But we are stuck on this ride as long as we are fans. And despite how poorly things turn out year after year, the fan base continues to be one of the largest and most involved in the NFL.
It is not an encouraging picture.