Okay, I’m going to just be mean to Jerry Jones for a bit here. I’m assuming everyone’s okay with that?
Of course, you are!
It’s not really a bold stance. Hating on Jerry Jones is a proud American tradition—including (particularly?) among Dallas Cowboys fans. In fact, outside of Roger Goodell, it’s difficult to imagine a face that’s both more recognizable and less beloved in all of football.
I think that’s just fine with Jerry because since purchasing the Cowboys in 1989, he hasn’t concerned himself with appearances too often. If he did, then his first move after purchasing the team wouldn’t have been firing beloved general manager Tex Schramm and legendary coach Tom Landry.
He hired Jimmy Johnson to take over for Landry, partially because of his success coaching the University of Miami, but likely much more because they both played together along the same offensive line at Arkansas. (Unrelated, but would love to see Jerry attempt a few snaps at guard in the modern NFL) And as for the general manager role, the new owner thought really hard about the best possible person for the job and landed on a candidate with zero experience or relevant credentials: Jerry Jones.
And it’s been kind of a wild ride since then.
Jerry’s hands-on approach to constructing the team yielded undeniable results early on—three Super Bowls in the 90s, multiple NFL Hall of Famers, and the now dubious nickname of “America’s Team.”
However, this early success might have also been a curse. Because in the decades since, Jerry has been desperately trying to push the Cowboys back to relevance and made some really, really bad, desperate decisions while trying to do so.
The NFL Draft is generally the perfect expression of why Jerry is unlikeable as an owner: He just doesn’t seem like he’s any smarter than the rest of us. I mean, the man adds salt to his McGriddles. Good football minds construct their rosters like a well-built house, focused on a strong foundation and building up from there. Jerry Jones teams often have the look of a Riverboat Casino: Pretty flashy at first glance, but give it some time and you’re going to experience plenty of losses and nausea.
Given their massive resources and gigantic fanbase, the Cowboys' failure to even advance to a conference championship game since their glory run in the 90s is almost impressive. But I’m here to tell you there’s a certain method to the madness that is building a Jerry Jones football team.
So how do you build an NFL team like Jerry Jones? It’s a three-step process.
When Jerry bought the team, Tom Landry was the only coach in Cowboys franchise history. In the years since Dallas has had 8 different coaches—most of whom had a lot of success elsewhere—who ultimately didn’t enjoy being a highly-paid puppet.
Just this week Jones said at press conference that “drafting is not out problem, coaching is.” This was while he was sitting next to his head coach Mike McCarthy, who appeared visibly dead inside.
The biggest example is actually how things turned out with his old college buddy Jimmy Johnson.
Their falling out is, in retrospect, one of the more pivotal moments in recent NFL history. The Cowboys by all accounts were on a roll, having just won two straight Super Bowls. But it still wasn’t enough to keep the family together because Jerry and Jimmy got so sick of each other. The bad blood initially stemmed from an incident leading up to the 1992 NFL Draft. As Sports Illustrated reported back in 1994:
Johnson ended up leaving the team to coach the Dolphins. The Cowboys would win one more Super Bowl with the roster Johnson had had a big hand in constructing in 1996, and they've been chasing its glory days ever since.
One might assume chasing off a former friend and great coach would teach the still relatively young NFL owner perhaps not to meddle as much and leave things to the experts… but that would imply learning from mistakes which really isn’t Jerry’s thing historically.
The main dig on Jerry’s style as a GM is he takes big swings. The hits are great but in the past few decades, there have been more misses.
It’s easy to point out the first-round busts like Morris Claiborne (who they traded up for and got burned more often than a kind soul on dating reality show), Taco Charlton (whose disappointing career was a waste of draft capital and incalculable marketing potential) and notable Arkansas homer pick Felix Jones (who had a decent career but could have probably been taken two rounds later).
But to get a better sense of Jerry’s instincts and biases, you have to look at the Cowboys' later-round picks. The most interesting trend to note is that Dallas has drafted only two players from non-FBS schools in the past 10 years. For comparison's sake, the Patriots drafted three players from non-FBS schools just in last year’s draft.
Jerry’s bias towards players with experience at major programs isn’t difficult to parse: Troy Aikman (UCLA), Michael Irving (Miami), and Emmitt Smith (Florida) all came out of big schools. And of course, Jerry himself played in the SEC at Arkansas. But the general lack of imagination and willingness to take chances on under-the-radar athletes who have yet to maximize is indicative of an outdated mode of thinking.
Also, it should be noted he was very, very close to drafting Johnny Manziel.
This is the most crucial aspect of building a Jerry Jones team.
Over the past few decades, the Cowboys has cycled through countless coaches, coordinators, and personnel. They’ve focused on their offensive line, then their defensive line, sometimes their passing game, and other times their running game. And to Jerry’s credit, he has drafted some players who have been outstanding in the NFL.
But, even when they do have great talent, the Cowboys generally aren’t a great team. And at some point, you have to start looking toward the top—the people sitting in the owner’s box.
Which is why this is all a long way of saying, I’m pretty sure Jerry Jones is going to fire his son Stephen if Dallas doesn’t win it all this year.
FWIW, the Cowboys are +1000 to draft Texas RB Bijan Robinson... which ranks fifth-lowest (AKA, the fifth-highest implied likelihood!) among NFL teams... which means we really could get Madden Jerry back in action once again in 2023. Time will tell!