Following the stumbling and bumbling of the Dallas Cowboys this past summer, I began obsessing on Jerry Jones’s goofy grin. The grin is a Jones trademark and an enigma that has puzzled many an unsmiling and frustrated Cowboy devotee. Blackie Sherrod, the incomparable Dallas newspaper columnist, long ago identified the expression and labeled the Cowboys’ owner and general manager “Smiley Jones,” a moniker not without irony. But what are we to make of this dippy turn of the mouth? At a glance it seems pleasant enough, the sweet innocence of a baby with gas. It implies a generous helping of ego, self-satisfaction, and arrogance. Some see it as the smirk of a cobra, ruthless and deadly. Or maybe it’s merely the smile of a fool. As I watched the Cowboys during training camp and the preseason, lurching about like left-footed geese, regressing into what is sure to be a milestone season of despair, I reached a discomforting conclusion. It’s all of the above.
The news from Valley Ranch is bad, my friends, worse than any of us dared imagine. The 58-year-old Jones has lost it—if indeed he ever had it—and it ain’t coming back. The mystique and majesty that permitted this franchise to win five Super Bowls while posing as America’s Team are history, at least as long as Jones rules. Meet the new chumps of pro football, America’s Losers. How did a football club that dominated the NFL for the first half of the nineties take such an abysmal dive? Was it the advent of the salary cap? Or free agency? Or a series of injuries that shortened the careers of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek, and other quality players? Certainly these are factors. But this team has rotted from the top down. Blame the man behind the grin. Blame his dictatorial arrogance, his obsessive need to prove that he too is a real football guy, his stubborn refusal to hire the real article to run this operation. As veteran NFL writer Frank Luksa observed recently in the Dallas Morning News, Jones suffers from “delusions of adequacy.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
This team has been on a one-way trip to oblivion since the winter of 1994, when Jones—fortified by alcohol and burning with spite—fired Jimmy Johnson. He compounded the blunder by hiring Barry Switzer, the one coach in America Aikman despised. Aikman was diplomatic, of course, describing his former coach at Oklahoma as a great “motivator,” not bothering to mention that Switzer had motivated Aikman to finish college at UCLA. True, Switzer won a Super Bowl title in 1995. This is the least we might have expected, though, given Jones’s claim that any number of coaches (including himself, presumably) could win with the kind of talent the Cowboys had. In retrospect, you might say that that additional Super Bowl trophy cost him $35 million, the price for signing Deion Sanders to a long-term contract. Sanders was a supremely gifted athlete, one of the great cornerbacks ever to play the game, but he was also typical of the emerging image of the Cowboy—totally self-centered, blissfully unaware that the sun did not rise and set according to the moods of Neon Deion. By 1997 the Cowboys had slipped to a miserable 6-10, failing to make the playoffs. Leon Lett, you may recall, spent most of that season suspended for drug violations. Erik Williams never played up to his potential after wrecking his knee while driving home from a party. Michael Irvin was arrested on a drug charge, and his habit of pushing off in games would later inspire referees to change the way they call offensive pass interference. Switzer had completely lost control of the team, mainly because Jones set the standards, or rather dismissed them. In Switzer’s four seasons, the Cowboys went from a highly disciplined, uniquely prepared and motivated team to a bunch of thugs and prima donnas.
It got worse. Jones replaced Switzer in 1998 with Chan Gailey, the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gailey was a most curious choice. The Steelers were noted for their defense, not their offense. The plan of attack that Gailey brought to Dallas called for Aikman to hand off to his running backs and throw to the flat, often for negative yardage. To a chorus of boos from the Texas Stadium faithful, the deep pass virtually vanished from the playbook. Gailey’s 1998 team won its division but was humiliated by the Arizona Cardinals—the Cardinals!—in the NFC wild card game. A year later the Cowboys stumbled to 8-8. A sure sign that America’s Team had lost its allure was a Christmas Eve game in New Orleans in which the Cowboys played before less than a sellout crowd, something that hadn’t happened for 160 consecutive games, an NFL-record. A few weeks later Gailey was looking for work. Dave Campo, the defensive coordinator, was promoted to head coach, the third man to hold the position in four seasons. The coaching change was hardly a testimony to organizational stability or foresight, and during Campo’s maiden season, the Cowboys went 5-11, in keeping with this team’s downward spiral.
As in all professional sports, NFL teams are by nature cyclical beasts. Nobody gets to the top and stays there. This is especially true in the era of the salary cap and free agency, when players move with the flow of the market. But Jones’s decisions have made the Cowboys’ descent much faster than it should have been, and I fear that their time in the cellar will be much darker. There is a deeply neurotic pattern to his management style, one that speaks of biblical plagues, famine, and pestilence. Each new coach is more subservient than his predecessor, less likely to take risks or rail against the tyranny of his boss. Coaching for Jones is like directing public relations for the Third Reich—no matter how attractive the perks, you know it will end badly.
Confession: I’ve been a Cowboys addict for forty years. As a