Back in the day, I was the NFL editor at Sports Illustrated for the better part of 10 years. As I settled into the beat, one of the annual rites of spring was hosting a handful of Cowboys executives for lunch at the Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan. One year my boss, a couple of our NFL writers, and I huddled around a conference-room table, Jerry Jones holding court. He offered his perspective on the league, the state of his franchise, what the Cowboys might do in the looming NFL draft—nothing earth-shattering, but nevertheless a productive and entertaining hour.
The meeting was winding down when I brazenly decided to throw out one last question to Jerry: had he contemplated hiring a general manager?
The room went silent. Jerry stared daggers in my direction before finally offering a diplomatic response, reminding me that he was the GM and would continue to be the GM.
As we said our goodbyes, Rich Dalrymple, the team’s media relations director, pulled me aside and said I was nuts to pose such a question. I replied that I thought it was fair game, that it was an answer every NFL journalist and Cowboys fan wanted to know. I can’t pinpoint the year, but it was sometime around 2002. Dallas hadn’t won the Super Bowl since the 1995 season and had racked up exactly one playoff victory since. One!
There would be no next meeting—not with Jerry, anyway.
Now here we sit more than two decades later, Jones still in search of that ever-elusive next Lombardi Trophy, trying to piece together what led to arguably the most embarrassing and shocking postseason loss in franchise history—a 48-32 home beatdown inflicted by one of the youngest teams in the league. But never mind the Super Bowl. Since its last title run, the franchise that once prided itself on deep postseason runs is 5-13 when it matters most. The 1995 season also happens to be the last time the Cowboys played in a conference championship game. It is as staggering as the Detroit Lions ending their playoff futility is exhilarating.
The one constant during this dubious streak: general manager Jerry Jones.
Let’s go back in time even further. I was working at the Associated Press on the unseasonably warm Saturday night in February 1989 when Jones announced he had bought the Cowboys. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were all crammed into the media room at Valley Ranch for a 9 p.m. press conference. Denne Freeman, the legendary sports editor of the AP in Texas, would handle the lead. I was tasked with writing about something that captured the scene. My eyes locked in on Tex Schramm, one of the architects of the expansion-era Cowboys and the man who coined “America’s Team.” As Denne liked to say, “If you can’t write this one, you need to get out of the business.” Schramm stood slumped against a wall, knowing the end was nigh.
That became obvious when Jones started talking. “I want to know everything there is to know,” he famously said, “from player contracts to socks and jocks and television contracts.” He was a spry 46. He was giddy with excitement.
Cowboys fans, not so much. Their reaction was overwhelmingly negative. But then Jerry’s new sidekick saved the day. The worst-kept secret around town was that Jimmy Johnson would become the second head coach in the history of the franchise, and not 48 hours later, we were all back at Valley Ranch for another press conference. Johnson’s message was perfectly on point: He hailed from Port Arthur, so he knew what the Cowboys meant to the people of Texas. He knew how adored Tom Landry was. (It was time for Landry to go.) And he implored fans to give Jerry and him a chance. If they failed, fine. Have at them.
Jerry and Jimmy didn’t fail, of course, going from 1-15 in their first season to back-to-back Super Bowl champions in 1992 and ’93. But then Jerry popped off that 500 coaches could have won those titles with that roster, and the two shockingly parted ways. That roster was built to win four or five Super Bowls in a row, and although the Cowboys won it all again under Barry Switzer in 1995, they lost their edge. Jimmy said as much after the 49ers beat Dallas in the regular season in 1994, noting the Cowboys should’ve treated that meeting like a playoff game. Sure enough, San Francisco gained home-field advantage and prevailed in the NFC championship game.
Although he admitted years later that he should have shown more patience with the equally brash Johnson, the pettiness continued until last month, when Jimmy was finally inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor. It was a night of celebration. It was also an event that should have happened a couple of decades ago.
An hour or so later the Cowboys won a game they probably had no business winning. The thought crossed my mind: perhaps the football gods were throwing Jerry a bone for finally doing the right thing. The cynic in me wondered how many Lombardi Trophies might be residing at The Star had he relented in, say, 2004.
Then things started to fall into place. The Cowboys somehow won the NFC East and secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Home bullies that they were, they would surely beat up the Packers in the wild-card round, just as they had done in the ’90s. They would handle whomever in the divisional round—another home game—and win the NFC championship game in San Francisco. How ’bout these Cowboys!
And then reality hit. For months I said this was a flawed defense, a unit built on forcing turnovers and getting sacks. The Cowboys got neither against the Packers, who on their first 47 snaps amassed 407 yards (8.6 yards a pop!) behind a quarterback making his first postseason start. Dak Prescott had a phenomenal regular season, and although no quarterback likes pressure, he showed what happens in the playoffs when you make him a little uneasy in the pocket. The Cowboys got, in a word, exposed. For all the world to see.
Now the weary 81-year-old general manager is left to ponder his next move. The 1990s and the thought of winning five or four or even a never-accomplished three straight titles are such a distant memory. How eager will Jerry be to shake things up once again for even one more Lombardi Trophy? I say it’s time to part ways with Mike McCarthy, who for all of his success in the regular season has been a failure in the playoffs—a 1-3 record featuring a couple of inexcusable home defeats. Because the Cowboys are about more than simply getting to the playoffs, aren’t they? It is still about winning the Super Bowl, right?
There has been plenty of chatter about Bill Belichick, but it’s hard to imagine a guy who had total control for almost a quarter century walking into this situation, or Jones surrendering enough control to make that environment more amenable for him. On the other hand, I’d venture a guess that Belichick has grown weary of hearing how he won all of those Super Bowls in New England because of Tom Brady. What if he were the guy who got Dak over the hump and got Jerry his fourth Lombardi Trophy? What would the skeptics say then?
This much we do know: Come the April draft, Cowboys executives will huddle in their war room at The Star, cameras trained on the proceedings as they ponder their first-round selection. The general manager will have the final say, then instruct a colleague to phone in the pick. There will be high-fives all around. Video will be dissected. We will hear how a key piece has been added to a 2024 Super Bowl contender.
And Jerry Jones will flash that familiar smile. Business as usual.