The one thing we can be sure of is that Jones will not fire himself: He will remain the central decision-maker, in his silver gray suits and aviator shades, propped up by nothing more than his own money and belief in his own judgment. “There’s no way that I would be involved here and not be the final decision-maker on something as important as players, and that is a key area,” Jones said in November during his weekly radio show. “That’s never been anybody’s misunderstanding. It’s been a debated thing, but it’s just not going to happen.”
The trouble is, the Cowboys aren’t bad enough for Jones to remove himself. In fact, they’re pretty good. If Jones deserves blame for the busts — the Cowboys have won just two playoff games since their last Super Bowl in 1995, and his drafts have been inconsistent, with just five players remaining on the roster from the 2009 and 2010 classes — give him credit for the boons. For all of Jones’s seeming missteps the Cowboys have had six winning seasons in the past nine years, and are annually in the playoff hunt in the final game of the season, even if they don’t always make it.
He also deserves credit for the fact that in the past two seasons he has completely remade a team that in 2010 was tied for the oldest in the NFL, and turned it into a viscerally younger and more powerful outfit that seems very much on the verge of being terrific. By the start of this season the Cowboys had collected 23 players under the age of 24, with only five older than 30. One of the latter is the 32-year-old Romo, who has clearly benefited from the infusion of new weapons. Since the Cowboys’ loss to Atlanta Nov. 4, he has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions.
If there is one thing that keeps Jones from becoming a caricature of an interfering tycoon, it’s that his ego is earned with real accomplishments. No other owner save Carolina’s Jerry Richardson, who spent a brief time playing for the Colts, has the genuine football credentials of Jones, a member of a national championship team as an offensive lineman at Arkansas. He had the smarts to make his old college teammate Jimmy Johnson his head coach, even if they couldn’t sustain their partnership, and few owners have three Super Bowl rings.
And perhaps no other owner can claim to be so entirely self-made. Jones is not some inheritor of his wealth, nor did he get lucky rich with one gas strike. His building of the franchise from a $150 million entity when he bought it in 1989 to the NFL’s most valuable property at $2.3 billion was accomplished with fearless and forward-looking business moves. Whatever you may think of Cowboys Stadium, it is a masterpiece of business acumen, but also a stadium in which every pleasure and comfort of the ticket buyer was considered. And Jones knocks himself out to give fans as much bang for their buck as possible.
But in the end, the final referendum on whether Jones is as good a manager as he is an owner lies with his handpicked players. The success or failure of Jones’s leadership comes down to this question: Is there is something fundamentally dysfunctional about a man in the locker room whose livelihood is not on the line? Can a team can develop heart when the owner consistently tries to make himself its heartbeat?
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.