The Dallas Cowboys recently topped Forbes magazine’s annual list of most valuable franchises in the National Football League, weighing in at an estimated $2.1 billion. That astronomical figure represents about $1 billion for each of the Cowboys’ two playoff victories since the 1996-97 season, underscoring the chasm between winning and cash flow for professional football’s most recognized brand.
In “The Dallas Cowboys,” Joe Nick Patoski views the franchise against the political and socioeconomic backdrop of its home town and examines its tradition of championships mixed with the often boorish behavior of its owners, coaches and players. Patoski, who has written for Texas Monthly, Rolling Stone and other publications, portrays not only the central figures responsible for the birth and evolution of the most polarizing team in American professional sports but also the many journalists who covered the exploits. He relives the accomplishments of Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, indispensable members the 1990s Cowboys, which became the first team in league history to win three Super Bowls in four seasons. While Aikman became the disciplined quarterback who was as unlikely to engage in self-promotion as he was to throw an interception, Irvin embraced the excesses of victory that in many ways typified “America’s Team.”
Few wide receivers can claim as many clutch receptions as Irvin, but no other player in team history generated as many headlines for off-field escapades. In one infamous drug bust in March 1996, a little more than a month after winning a third Super Bowl ring, Irvin asked the arresting officer, “Can I tell you who I am?”
Narcissism also seems to be hard-wired in Jerry Jones, the current Cowboys owner, who purchased the franchise for $140 million from H.R. “Bum” Bright in 1989, installed himself as general manager and in later years flirted with coaching. The season before Jones became the third owner in team history, the Cowboys lost $9 million and finished 3-13 in what turned out to be the final season under late legendary coach Tom Landry.
Jones fired Landry, the Cowboys’ only coach since the NFL awarded Dallas a franchise in 1960, and hired Jimmy Johnson. Jones also devised aggressive measures to make the organization profitable again, among them opening additional luxury suites and selling personal seat licenses at Texas Stadium, the team’s home in Irving, Tex., until Cowboys Stadium was completed in 2009 in neighboring Arlington.
For all his savvy marketing and knack for turning a buck, Jones has had notable failures, including his evaluation of player talent. In 1993, for instance, he initially spurned running back Emmitt Smith’s overtures for a higher salary, deeming him“a luxury, not a necessity.” Smith, who signed a contract for the 1993 season after missing the first two games, wound up leading the league in rushing and being named MVP of that season’s Super Bowl. Then in March 1994, Jones and Johnson parted ways after the Cowboys’ consecutive championships prompted the owner to surmise that practically any coach could reach those heights given the talent on the roster. Patoski details an infamous, alcohol-fueled confrontation in which Jones cursed Johnson for declining to participate in a toast “to the people who made it possible to win two Super Bowls.” Jones felt he belonged in that company; Johnson thought otherwise.
Jones’s perceived meddling was in stark contrast to the approach of the late Clint Murchison Jr., the first owner of the Cowboys, who preferred to stay out of the talent-evaluation business. Murchison left those duties to pioneering general manager Tex Schramm and scout Gil Brandt, who were with the franchise in its infancy. Schramm was the first to use computers to assess talent and began drafting players from obscure colleges. Among his best finds were tackle Rayfield Wright (Fort Valley State), who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006; linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson (Langston); and safety Cliff Harris (Ouachita Baptist).
Schramm shared Jones’s flair for marketing, particularly when it came to the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Appearing in their own television special in 1979 and selling posters at a rate second only to Farrah Fawcett during the 1970s, when the Cowboys won a pair of Super Bowls, the cheerleaders became almost as symbolic of the organization as early quarterbacks Don Meredith and Roger Staubach.
These days, moving merchandise, hawking spots on the party deck at the new digs known as “Jerry World” and leaning on past glories keep the Cowboys relevant on the balance sheet, if not in the win column. As Patoski writes, “The swagger had never left, even if their record no longer justified the confident arrogance that defined Dallas the team and Dallas the people.”
THE DALLAS COWBOYS
The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America
By Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown. 8o5 pp. 29.99