ARLINGTON, Tex. — The Dallas Cowboys’ home locker room after a game is suffused by a bright halo of light from a wall of TV cameras encircling the central figure in the room. It’s not Tony Romo,DeMarcus Ware or some other critical player bathed in all that false sun, but owner Jerry Jones, who beats his own team to the microphones just minutes after it comes off the field. Which is when it becomes apparent that the largest column-free structure in the world is not Cowboys Stadium, but rather the self-sustaining ego of the man who built it.
Most NFL owners exist more in the abstract than in our vision. We glimpse them sitting deep in the shadows of their skyboxes, surrounded by retainers, or traveling by black-windowed limo to a private tarmac, seldom obvious unless they hire or fire a head coach. Then there is Jones, who is so indelibly ever-present, sometimes standing on the sideline late in a game in his titan pose, arms folded in judgment, or milling about the locker room amid players stripping off sweaty gear, as if he too just played the game. He is always available for his close-up, and for his weekly radio show, the main actor in the psychodrama that is the Dallas Cowboys.
No other owner, no matter how meddling, is such an up-front, vociferous factor on his team. Make no mistake: Jones is potentially a difference maker when the Cowboys meet the Washington Redskins on Sunday with the NFC East title at stake. Among the things we will see is whether the Cowboys can ever succeed with an owner who leans on them so heavily, and insists on being not just their general manager, but their principal face, in-house critic, motivator and backseat driver. The Cowboys have talent, and they are all his creatures, from his anointed coaching prodigy Jason Garrett, to his star wide receiver Dez Bryant, for whom he has been a famously patriarchal babysitter. If the Cowboys win the NFC East they will be a team on a roll with a meaty roster packed with superstars cleverly amassed by the proactive owner. If they lose, they are yet another shiny but underachieving rich man’s plaything — and it will be interesting to see just how many others the owner holds responsible for his own decisions and disappointments.
Jobs do not seem to be on the line — yet. Last Sunday, when the Cowboys lost to the New Orleans Saints to fall to 8-7, Jones was suave and restrained seeming, with a low polite drawl as he spoke to the cameras and microphones. But his well-chosen words were so non-specific they could also be heard as ominous.
It’s obvious that Jones is discontented by the Cowboys’ record and their situation, that he believes the roster he personally built is monstrously talented, and he’s not entirely happy that they should be in danger of missing the playoffs. Nor is he willing to accept injuries as an excuse, though the Cowboys have lost five of their best run defenders and are somewhat patchwork on the defensive side of the ball.
Jones claims, “We’ve got what everybody wants.” What’s unclear is the extent to which Jones will blame his coaches if the Cowboys don’t make the playoffs. Is Garrett too pass-happy as a head coach and under-using the running game? Is his defensive coordinator Rob Ryan too much of a bloviator?
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.