ATLANTA — Before the game, Jerry Jones waited. The Dallas Cowboys owner likes to talk, enjoys a get-together, and not far away on the field was Arthur Blank, who owns the Atlanta Falcons.
When it comes to etiquette among billionaires, it is customary for the owner of the home team to greet and wish good fortune to his visiting owner. And so on the field Sunday afternoon, Jones waited.
Blank never approached. No greetings, no good fortune, no get-together.
Hours later, Jones seemed more surprised than miffed.
"That's rare," he said after his Cowboys were walloped, 27-7, by Blank's Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the NFL's most lavish stadium since Jones opened AT&T Stadium in 2009. "I've had games where I didn't visit for whatever reason, but it's rare."
Jones seemed surprised by Blank's cold shoulder, but he shouldn't have been. In the past few months, Jones has staged an uprising to halt a new contract extension for Commissioner Roger Goodell, forced his way onto the league's compensation committee as an ad hoc member, threatened to sue the very league in which he owns one of 32 franchises, effectively been fired from that ad hoc committee position and had his attorney suggest in writing that Blank — the Falcons owner is chairman of the compensation committee and the man who recently jettisoned Jones — had "unquestionably misled" NFL owners about Goodell's new contract.
So Jones has fired any number of shots at his business partners, and Blank escalated on Sunday what is becoming a cold war among some of professional sports' richest and most powerful figures.
Jones, loquacious as he often is, didn't have much to say Sunday about his one-man offensive. He wouldn't answer definitively when asked whether Goodell deserved to be commissioner, saying only that this was an opportunity to improve the NFL.
"I want to do everything we can," he said. "Times like these are when you can really assess, look, get better, and I look at the NFL that way. I've been here many years and seen the times when you need to adjust. And sometimes we do a good job with that, and this is one of those times."
This was hours after ESPN reported Sunday morning that Goodell, whose incentives-heavy contract is set to expire following the 2018 season, proposed in August that he be offered a new deal that included a $49.5 million annual salary, use of a private jet and health insurance for the rest of his life. A league spokesman adamantly denied that any such proposal came from Goodell or the league office.
And so it advances, leaks to media and breaches in custom, during perhaps the most tumultuous period for the league since the 2011 lockout of players. At least then owners came together and appeared unified, but for now those days seem finished.
Now some owners are reportedly preparing to push forward a new contract for Goodell while Jones, who during the spring was among the owners who unanimously voted to begin drafting a new contract for the commissioner, works behind the scenes.
Many of his colleagues believe Jones is merely being a showman and calling attention to himself and his unhappiness that Goodell suspended his star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, whose six-game ban began Sunday.
"He feels like going to the Hall of Fame [and] he hasn't gotten what he deserves in terms of attention," one high-ranking official with another NFL team said recently of Jones. "This is the way you do it, by trying to bring the commissioner down."
Elliott, who before a series of court appearances was suspended by Goodell for violating the league's domestic violence policy, reportedly is leaving the country until at least the end of November. He has a court date scheduled for Dec. 1 to continue challenging the suspension.
Jones, whom associates believe is open to a new deal for the commissioner as long as his salary is based on incentives and not guarantees, said he was unconcerned with Elliott's absence or his offense's adjustment to moving into the season's home stretch without him.
"We're in good shape with our running backs," Jones said of an offense that rushed for 107 yards and fumbled five times in the loss to the Falcons. "Tonight, I really want to give [Atlanta] a lot of credit for really completely compromising everything we did offensively by creating breakdowns in our blocking, and so that's the way I'd like to answer that question."
He did answer questions, though, and this was a return to custom for Jones, who typically holds court after games. Blank did not speak with reporters.
"I think Mr. Blank got the upper hand tonight," Jones said, and a moment later he said if he did run into the Falcons owner — which he did not before leaving the stadium and climbing into a limousine — he would have a simple message for his opponent, suddenly on and off the field. "Attaboy," Jones said he'd tell him.
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