Zeke who? It was a joke — just a joke, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones swears — but as Muhammad Ali once told the great scribe Hunter S. Thompson: “Jokes? There are no jokes. The truth is the funniest joke of all.”

Zeke who? Of course, Jones wants star running back Ezekiel Elliott to play his remaining best years in Dallas. But Jones rejects the notion that he needs Elliott. Or anyone. He’d rather leave this game without a fourth Super Bowl, without his long-desired proof that he could build a champion completely his way, than be considered needy. So behind the humor of “Zeke who?” there is the hidden truth that, on Jerry’s team, in Jerry’s world, there can be no acknowledgment of a star who threatens to transcend the owner in importance.

Zeke, the gifted but troubled player who is eternally grateful to Jones for his guidance and willingness to fight even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to try to keep him on the field, is welcome to return to the Cowboys at a price that helps the Cowboys reward all of their core young players. Zeke, the holdout whose agent called Jones’s joke disrespectful and who wants a paycheck reflecting his irreplaceable impact on the Cowboys’ offense, should consider himself persona non grata.

“I’ve earned the right, with Zeke, to joke,” Jones told reporters. “Period.”

Jerry Jones may have ‘earned the right’ to joke, but Ezekiel Elliott isn’t laughing

And in case he wasn’t heard the first time, Jones added: “Let me be real clear about it. I’ve earned that right to joke.”

After those words, the business negotiation is starting to feel personal.

For Jones, it’s always a little personal. It’s always about more than the money. Control and power are his addictions; his billions guarantee he’ll never run low on either. For as affable as Jones can be, for as essential as he is to NFL journalism because he often inserts a foot in his Hall of Fame mouth, he is an old-school owner. You can call him Jerry and think there are no walls. But the relationship only works if all parties, especially his players, stay in what he considers their place.

You saw it two years ago in the rigid manner that he dealt with his team during the league’s protest controversy, sticking out his chest and announcing that he would refuse to play anyone who made a demonstration during the national anthem. You saw it in his fight with Goodell over Elliott’s six-game suspension in 2017, a situation that turned so ugly that Jones attempted mutiny against Goodell and held up the commissioner’s contract extension. You saw it 25 years ago when Jones ousted Jimmy Johnson, who had just won back-to-back Super Bowls, partly because he thought the coach received too much credit for Dallas’s success.

For Elliott, the challenge isn’t just to make a persuasive case that the value of his extraordinary talent and production exceeds the diminishing appreciation for NFL running backs. The challenge isn’t just to quantify his worth. Unless he wants to force his way out of Dallas — and that would be foolish given all the franchise has done to feature him on the field and assist him off it — Elliott also must accept that his star power is limited in Jones’s franchise. As long as Jones is the owner, it will be his team.

There’s a reason the Cowboys rarely have had players who could steal the spotlight from Jones since the glory days of the 1990s. There’s a reason Bill Parcells lasted just four years while Jason Garrett has been the coach for nine. Garrett survived three straight 8-8 seasons at the start of his tenure. He’s not particularly charismatic, and he has won just two playoff games, but he’s pliable. Jones can do it his way. Garrett will fall in line.

Under Jones, the Cowboys have continued their solid track record for finding market inefficiencies during the draft. They still take more character risks than most teams could stomach. They take injured players, such as linebacker Jaylon Smith and watch them become stars. Their past two franchise quarterbacks, Dak Prescott and Tony Romo, were overlooked gems.

An 18-game season is a non-starter for NFL players, but these ideas might not be

It’s not that Jones or the Cowboys are anti-star. They’ve made plenty of investments that show otherwise. But there is ample evidence to suggest that Jones loves a good find, and he appreciates players who feel indebted to the Cowboys for believing in them. Many of those misfits are exceedingly loyal. They are low-key treasures on Jerry’s team.

Jones is an unapologetic owner. He might be the last of his kind. There’s a movement in sports right now to eliminate the word “owner” in describing the big boss of a franchise. It’s an especially sensitive subject for players, many of whom don’t like the thought of being owned. Governor has become a more politically correct title.

Let me be clear: Jones doesn’t govern. He owns. All is cool until you challenge him.

Elliott can negotiate a good deal with Jones. He probably can’t win a deal, however, not with two years remaining on his contract, not with the franchise tag available to use after that, not with the Cowboys needing to squeeze extensions for so many gifted young players into their salary cap.

Smith got his money this week: $35.5 million guaranteed on a five-year contract. That leaves Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper and Elliott all hoping to get paid. In announcing Smith’s deal, the Cowboys sent a statement to the others. Jones mentioned it outright: With the Smith extension, there is “less pie left” for his teammates. The Cowboys have the flexibility and desire to do lucrative deals with the remaining three players. But if Prescott, Cooper or Elliott have any designs on resetting the market at their positions, it’s unlikely Jones will play ball.

This is all typical team posturing. No situation, not even Elliott’s, seems dire. But Jones is 76, growing even more set in his ways and starting to believe the Cowboys have a system that is greater than any single individual. And in the Cowboys’ grandiose state, constant speculation makes these contract disputes feel bigger and crazier than most.

It can’t just be Elliott holding out for more money. It has to be Elliott boldly trying to skip the payday line amid a perfect storm in which the Cowboys are due to reward multiple members of their young core. It can’t be Jones trying to make an intricate decision about the value of his running back. It has to be Jones adding his own brand of drama to a complicated and sensitive negotiation.

Managing Antonio Brown is essential to relaunching Jon Gruden’s coaching career

The defining moment was a joke, literally. Years from now, no matter the outcome, we will remember that the contract dispute between Elliott and the Cowboys turned on a corny two-word quip.

Jones meant for “Zeke who?” to be an innocuous and lighthearted interaction with longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Clarence Hill. He even laughed, looked at the television cameras and said afterward, “We’re just having fun.” He then went on to give a nuanced answer about how rookie running back/Zeke stand-in Tony Pollard could make a nice complementary contribution to an Elliott-led backfield.

The funniest joke of all is that Jones, at least in his mind, truly isn’t negotiating with Zeke. This is much more of an internal question for the owner. Does Jones want to get his way? Or is he willing to make concessions, admit how essential Elliott is to these Cowboys and pay a little more to avoid a messy situation?

This preseason holdout may seem like Elliott’s power play. In reality, he doesn’t have that much leverage because the Cowboys have the ability to possess his rights for 2-4 more years, which minimizes Elliott’s leverage.

Zeke who? Jones has the control and power, as usual. You just don’t know whether he wants to use them to boost his ego or his team.