25 years of the Jones Boys: Bad to great to 8-8
Jerry Jones speaks at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock in 2009.
FORT WORTH, Texas - Feb. 25, 1989, was the day it all changed for the Dallas Cowboys.
That was the day Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in a deal sealed with a John Hancock-sized signature and served notice that a new sheriff - not to mention, quite the character - had arrived in town.
After all, who else could fire the coach much of the fan base viewed with reverence reserved on a scale just below Jesus Christ but one notch ahead of John the Baptist?
Then he ran off Tex Schramm, the team’s only general manager who was a master marketer and who not only made the Cowboys “America’s Team” but also put the game of football on the forefront of American pop culture.
Who exactly did this oil wildcatter from Arkansas with the big boots think he was?
What it was, said former team owner Bum Bright, was a “a new generation of coaches and ownership.”
“This must evolve,” Bright said. “It happens in every business.”
It became obvious immediately that Jones would live true to his word with his hands in every facet of the organization, including the “jocks and socks.”
Twenty-five years later, it’s difficult to argue with the totality of the results, even if today the most devoted Cowboys fans want to ship the “general manager” part of him back to the Ozarks.
The Cowboys are one of only three franchises in the past 25 years with three Super Bowl championships, joining the New England Patriots and NFC East Division rival New York Giants.
The only problem is that the Cowboys today are nowhere in the same network of today’s NFL dynasties on the playing field.
The Dallas Cowboys are setting new standards in mediocrity with Jones as the team’s general manager and overseer of player personnel. The 2013 season marked the fourth consecutive time the Cowboys have missed the playoffs, the past three ending with 8-8 records.
Yet there is a lot of value in being 8-8 year after year.
Forbes rated the Cowboys the most valuable NFL franchise last year, worth an estimated $2.3 billion, putting them among the most valuable sports franchises in the world, behind only soccer’s Real Madrid, Manchester United and FC Barcelona and about even with the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball.
Forbes estimated that the team had $539 million in revenue in 2012 and $250.7 million in operating income. Even the most clumsy bean counter can recognize that as success at any level of the big-business world.
Not a bad return on a team he purchased from Bright for $140 million - $255 million at today’s rate.
To see a complete return on his investment, he’d have to sell the team, which he’s made clear will happen only over his dead body.
A look at the first generation of the Jones Empire reveals 25 years of an emotional roller-coaster for the Cowboys fan. A choice between rubber-necking a train wreck or the Cowboys is an easy one. No soap or reality TV drama can rival the spectacle continuously on display at Valley Ranch and AT&T Stadium.
There is only one place to start when examining the Jones era, and for many it’s still a kick in the gut.
OUT WITH THE OLD
Tom Landry’s future as coach of the Cowboys had been a source of speculation for a few years before Jerry Jones arrived in Texas.
Team owner Bum Bright reportedly had wanted to fire Landry during the team’s decline that ended with non-playoff seasons of 7-9, 7-8 and 3-13 in 1986-1988. Only Tex Schramm, the team’s general manager, kept the guillotine from falling.
The Cowboys missed the playoffs in four of Landry’s last five seasons and hadn’t won a playoff game in six years.
Nonetheless, not many were ready to hear that Jones’ first order of business was to fire the only coach of the Dallas Cowboys and replace him with University of Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson, Jones’ former teammate at the University of Arkansas.
The entire affair was a public relations disaster for the new owner when news leaked that Johnson had been hired before Landry’s actual dismissal.
Schramm and Jones flew to Austin to meet with Landry and formally break the news.
It was the end of one of the NFL’s best coaching careers, one that included two Super Bowl championships in five appearances, a record of 270-178-6 - including playoffs - in 29 years, a record 20 consecutive winning seasons and 10 NFC championship games from 1970-1982.
“Tom Landry is the Cowboys,” Jones said at a news conference formally announcing the sale. But Jones said he never gave any thought to retaining Landry for even one season, adding that he only wanted to buy the team if Johnson came with him.
Schramm was visibly distraught at the news gathering, and the writing was on the wall for him, too. This was now Jerry Jones’ team. There was no room for the Cowboys’ first and only president and general manager.
Schramm resigned in April.
Though the team of Landry and Schramm left with the organization in turmoil, in place were key components of the Cowboys’ 1990s Super Bowl teams: Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton and Kevin Gogan - all crucial pieces to one of the NFL’s greatest offensive lines - and wide receiver Michael Irvin, the team’s top draft choice in 1988.
Landry and Schramm also said they knew who they would take with the top overall pick in June’s draft, which turned out to be the same guy Jones and Johnson took. The Cowboys used the No. 1 pick in April’s draft to select UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, who signed a six-year contract for $11.2 million.
Aikman - along with Daryl Johnston (second round), center Mark Stepnoski (third) and Tony Tolbert (fourth) - turned out to be worth every dime even after the Cowboys gave up their first pick in the 1990 draft to select quarterback Steve Walsh in July’s supplemental draft.
That pick would have been near the top after a 1-15 season in 1989.
The first game in the Jones era was a 28-0 loss at New Orleans on Sept. 10. Aikman completed 17 of 35 passes for 180 yards with 2 interceptions. Herschel Walker had 10 yards on eight carries.
Aikman finished his season 0-11 as a starter and passed for just 1,749 yards and nine touchdowns.
IN WITH THE NEW
Clearly the best play the Cowboys ran that first season was the trade of running back Herschel Walker in October 1989.
The Cowboys traded Walker and four draft picks to Minnesota for linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard, cornerback Issiac Holt, defensive end Alex Stewart and running back Darrin Nelson (who refused to report) and eight draft picks, including the Vikings’ first-round selection the next three years.
The Cowboys used the draft picks to select running back Emmitt Smith of Florida in 1990 with the 17th overall pick, defensive lineman Russell Maryland No. 1 overall the next season, cornerback Kevin Smith and safety Darren Woodson.
Emmitt Smith was the second running back selected in the 1990 draft, 15 picks behind Blair Thomas, but it was Smith who became one of two Hall of Famers from that draft - the other was Cortez Kennedy of Wilson - while also becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with more than 18,000 yards.
More importantly for the Cowboys, he turned out to be the final piece of the team’s famed “Triplets,” which included Aikman and Michael Irvin. All four, including Holt, became Super Bowl mainstays.
Jones and Johnson would ultimately make 46 trades between 1989 and the first Super Bowl after the 1992 season.
A GOOD RUN
President Bill Clinton, only11 days into the first of his two terms, called his Arkansas brethren on the occasion of the Cowboys’ first Super Bowl victory under Jerry Jones - and the franchise’s third - only four seasons removed from the 1-15 season, a 52-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
“I think you understand how much we put into this thing,” Jimmy Johnson told the president. “You know a little bit about perseverance yourself, so I know you understand.”
Aikman was the game’s MVP after completing 22 passes on 30 attempts for 273 yards and 4 touchdowns, including two to Irvin. Smith had 108 yards.
Emmitt Smith sat out the first two games of the 1993 season while in a contract dispute with Jones, who said he wouldn’t pay his star running back the more than $10 million he was demanding.
That was all before the Cowboys started 0-2. By Week 3, Smith had a four-year contract worth $13.5 million.
By February, he was the Super Bowl XXVIII MVP after the Cowboys won a second consecutive NFL title, topping the Bills again, 30-13, in Atlanta. Aikman played despite a serious concussion suffered in the NFC Championship Game victory over San Francisco at Texas Stadium.
Jones and Johnson had built a dynasty that was evident for all to see, and the core was young. Aikman was 27, Smith 24 and Irvin 28. Aikman, too, was locked up contractually that December, signing the then-biggest contract in NFL history, $50 million over eight years, including $11 million guaranteed.
All appeared rosy, but in reality the party was nearing its end.
It should have been obvious that a clash of personalities was inevitable between Jones and Johnson.
The relationship between the two became increasingly strained throughout the 1993 season, and it all came to a head at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla., when Jones stopped by a table to offer a toast to Johnson and several former Cowboys coaches and officials who were gossiping about the boss.
The table mostly blew off Jones, sending the owner into a rage.
According to the coach, he was telling the table the now well-documented story about the 1992 draft when Jones asked Johnson to play to the cameras and make it appear that the owner was a big player in the draft war room.
That, as history has explained, was merely one of a number of close confrontations.
Jones was said to be enraged when Johnson suggested during the 1993 season that he would be receptive about talking to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars about their coaching job. In turn, Jones told the news media that only he - the owner - had the power to decide Johnson’s coaching future. Johnson reportedly told Jones that that was hardly the case.
“Any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls,” Jones told reporters after the encounter in Florida.
Jones and Johnson met in March to resolve what troubled them. They mutually agreed that a firing and a decision to simply quit were not viable options, and neither was continuing to work under his existing contract.
So it was either settle the contract and quit or go for it one more year. Johnson said he’d even be willing to “change the language in the contract that specified that he had control over all personnel.”
After that year, Johnson would be free to leave.
The two settled on divorce. The remaining five years of his contract were torn up, and he received a $2 million parting gift.
“In retrospect, it was those things that started me thinking about a change,” Jones said at the time, recalling the Jaguars situation. “My reaction to that, my lack of enthusiasm about [patching things up] told me where our relationship was headed.”
Among those 500 coaches who could have led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl, Jones said, was Barry Switzer. And the owner sent NFL observers into a frenzy when he brought in the former University of Oklahoma coach to replace Johnson.
An unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory proved elusive when the Cowboys fell behind 21-0 in the first seven minutes of the 1995 NFC Championship Game, but Switzer won a Super Bowl the next season, 27-17 over the Steelers.
“We did it our way, baby,” Switzer shouted to Jones during the Super Bowl XXX trophy presentation in Tempe, Ariz.
He wanted to quit afterward, he admitted later, saying the pressure of proving Jones right was draining, but Switzer stayed on and was at the helm as the dynasty went into decline.
Switzer resigned after the 1997 season, having compiled a 45-26 record, including three NFC East Division championships. His 40-15 victory over Minnesota in the 1996 NFC wild-card round was the Cowboys’ last in the postseason until 2009.
Switzer’s dismissal also began a trend of instability at the head coaching position.
After only two coaches in the team’s first 34 years, Jones has brought on six coaches since hiring Jimmy Johnson in 1989.
The list of those since Switzer includes:
Chan Gailey (1998-1999) who went 18-16 and won one NFC East title and lost two wild-card games.
Dave Campo (2000-2002), the longtime Cowboys assistant who was promoted from defensive coordinator only to go 5-11 three consecutive seasons.
Bill Parcells (2003-2006), who was talked into returning to the sidelines and left the team better than he found it although he never won a division title and lost two wildcard games while going 34-32.
Wade Phillips (2007-2010), who won two division crowns after seasons of 13-3 and 11-5 but went 1-2 in the playoffs and was fired after starting the 2010 season 1-7.
Jason Garrett (2010-present), who is 29-27 with three consecutive 8-8 seasons and no playoff appearances.
Jones always believed that the NFL’s most prestigious franchise should play in a palace fit for kings.
In addition to the three Super Bowl championships, Jerry Jones’ crowning achievement through the past 25 years is construction of AT&T Stadium, a $1.3 billion enterprise with more than 25,000 square feet of bigger-than-life video screens.
It has become perhaps the world’s most visible sports and entertainment venue, hosting Super Bowl XLV, the NBA All-Star Game with the NCAA Final Four coming in April and the College Football Playoff championship game set for January 2015.
Irving turned down Jones’ proposal to renovate Texas Stadium, and Dallas rejected overtures to help pay for a new stadium and return professional football to that city.
Instead, Arlington said yes. Voters approved supplementing construction of the 80,000-seat stadium with $325 million in bonds.
More than 105,000 attended the regular-season opener, a 33-31 loss to the New York Giants on Sept. 21, 2009.
The NFL’s biggest game came to the stadium in 2011. Green Bay upset Pittsburgh 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV.
Sports, Pages 19 on 02/26/2014