Go Fire Yourself!
An open letter to Jerry Jones.
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So what’s the plan this time? You don’t have a clue, do you? First you let Bill Parcells take a two-week nap before showing him the door. Then you signal that Captain Queeg is back at the helm by hiring former backup quarterback Jason Garrett for a coaching position to be named later. Finally, for no apparent reason, you hire Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator of the Chargers, as your new head coach—does this have something to do with that missing quart of strawberries? You’ve bumbled along with four different head coaches since 1993, the year you fired Jimmy Johnson, the only decent one you ever had. In all that time you’ve accomplished exactly one thing: You’ve transformed America’s Team into America’s Joke. Not the kind of stuff that gets a fellow into the Hall of Fame, though if justice has a sense of humor, someone will organize a Hall of Fools so that the ages may celebrate the likes of you and Donald Trump.
Since the Cowboys last visited the Super Bowl, in 1996, sixteen NFL teams have made it, including such perennial doormats as Oakland and Atlanta, while your team hasn’t even gotten close. That’s half the clubs in the league. Every year, previously dreadful franchises reinvent themselves, the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints being the most recent examples, while the Cowboys keep setting new benchmarks for mediocrity.
Those three Super Bowl rings bulging from your fingers must feel heavy as lead. Face it, those were Jimmy’s teams, even the 1996 version supervised by Barry Switzer, which, as you reminded us, any of five hundred dunces could have coached (you included yourself apparently). You had a winning combination for a time, Jimmy building the team and you paying the bills, but you couldn’t tolerate a situation where someone else monopolized the spotlight.
I am straining to remember one smart move you made in the past dozen or so years. Oh, right, Bill Parcells! That worked out well, didn’t it? Nearly $20 million for a four-year record of 34-32, including two playoff embarrassments. Somebody else can do the math, but, to paraphrase Abe Lemons, Bill won two more games than a dead man. It must have been a living hell, watching him hog center stage, though I couldn’t help but notice that when Parcells announced his retirement, he did it over e-mail, and you were nowhere to be found. You canned the old fart, didn’t you? Good for you. I take back what I said about no smart moves.
I admit that like a lot of other armchair experts, I believed back in 2003 that Parcells might turn it around for the Cowboys. He had done it three times before, with the Giants, the Patriots, and the Jets. But we were wrong, all of us. The difference is that it didn’t take most of us four years to admit it. In a perverted way, Parcells did turn things around for you. He supplied what you never could have mustered on your own: the credibility to sell voters in Arlington on a plan to build a $1 billion stadium. “JerryWorld,” as people in Dallas are calling it, will be ready for the Cowboys in 2009. It will most certainly be the site of a future Super Bowl, though I’m betting the Cowboys will have to buy tickets.
The rest of the Parcells move didn’t work so well. After somehow winning ten games his first season, five more than his predecessor, Dave Campo, had managed in any of his three years, Parcells, let us say, leveled off. Bombed would be more accurate. The one constant during his reign was the December collapse. He did improve the talent, largely because the Cowboys finally caught up with the salary cap, paying off those wildly bloated contracts that you dished out to Deion Sanders and other fading stars. Parcells had an eye for talent; you don’t win two Super Bowls without one. He discovered prospects that other coaches overlooked, players like Tony Romo, who may be the Cowboys’ quarterback of the future. The team he constructed in the two most recent drafts and free-agent seasons is solid and capable.
All of which makes 2006 even more frustrating. This was a team capable of winning its division and maybe even the Super Bowl, if only the coaching hadn’t been so sorry. Watching the Cowboys’ December swoon was a low point. They didn’t merely lose to the Saints, the Eagles, and the Detroit Lions— the Detroit Lions! —they were totally dominated. They were outcoached. Remember the Eagles game in Dallas, the conference title on the line, second and goal for the Cowboys? On three consecutive snaps, your brilliant coach ran the play that everyone in the known universe saw coming, a give to running back Marion Barber, who three consecutive times was set upon like a marshmallow in an ant bed. Essentially, the season ended right there, though the Cowboys had already qualified for the playoffs. In their first-round playoff loss, to Seattle, Parcells insisted that the team play old-style power football instead of throwing against the Seahawks’ crippled secondary. Dallas’s defense should have been one of the best in the league, but toward the end of the season it was so predictable that the Sisters of Infinite Mercy could have manhandled it.
I don’t blame the assistants, most of whom have already gone on to better jobs with other franchises. They were so hamstrung by Parcells’s bullying that they couldn’t even speak to the media, much less have original thoughts. If Parcells didn’t actually call the plays, he set the tone and established the parameters, which were narrow to the point of suffocation. The Cowboys operated the most simplistic offense and defense in the league. The assistants had no choice, Jean-Jacques Taylor wrote in the Dallas Morning News, “because the more complicated the schemes, the less Mr. Parcells understood them. And if he didn’t understand them, then he couldn’t adequately second-guess the calls. … And if he couldn’t second-guess them, then he couldn’t properly assign blame.” Sure he could—simple as looking in the mirror. Parcells arrived with the reputation of a hard-nosed disciplinarian, a master of the essentials, but under him your Cowboys were one of the sloppiest and most penalized teams in the NFL.
Hard to say when old-school philosophers like Parcells and Joe Gibbs lost it. It probably slipped away during their all-too-brief retirements. It’s a cliché, but the most valuable asset in football is knowing when to quit, and when deep-pocket hotshots like you and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder wave obscene stacks of money under old coaches’ noses, “quit” is not a word that comes readily to mind. As veteran sportswriter Rick Gosselin pointed out, these geezers made their marks before the salary cap, back when teams willing to spend the money kept older players on their rosters, even as backups. It’s a faster game today. Successful coaches like the Colts’ Tony Dungy and the Bears’ Lovie Smith find a steady supply of young players every season and allow them to develop on the field, not the bench. Parcells, by contrast, kept his younger players on ice while giving the ball to weary-legged, shell-shocked veterans like Drew Bledsoe. Eleven players in their thirties started for the Cowboys at one time or another last season.
Watching Parcells was like watching a snowman melt. He worked hard to maintain his famous growl, but you could almost see the smugness and anger dissolving into puddles of confusion. He looked spent, beat, out of gas. Frustration eroded his face until it could have passed for ten miles of bad Mexican highway. Players sensed that his focus was gone and maybe his will to win. On the sidelines during the early season game against the Redskins, he looked so pale and weak that I wondered if his ancient heart was giving out; he said later it was just dehydration. After the October 23 loss to the Giants, he apologized to the team for his flagging energy level. Men who had played under him ten and twenty years ago saw that the old intensity had vanished. Obviously, he had lost control of the team. When Terrell Owens made a jackass of himself, which he did several times every game, Parcells couldn’t even work up a decent tirade. The best he could muster was feeble sarcasm, addressing T.O. as “your highness.”
But let’s get back to you, Jerry. You’re the constant who has come to symbolize the hopelessness of this franchise. One reason I welcomed Parcells four years ago was my belief that he could control or at least limit your Queeg-like impulses. It worked for a while. You kept your mouth more or less shut and let Bill call the shots, at least where the team was concerned. There were no more draft day debacles like Quincy Carter, your hapless candidate for quarterback of the future. But you just couldn’t sit still. Four days after the Eagles admitted to the world that Terrell Owens was a malignant disease and gave him his walking papers, you signed him to a three-year, $25 million contract. It was the equivalent of slapping a “Kick me” sign on Parcells’s rump. Has it not occurred to you in all this time that lepers like Owens, no matter how gifted, always do more harm than good? Yes, T.O. was once a talented receiver, but he is well past his prime, this year leading the league in dropped passes and disrupting every aspect of the organization with his selfishness and adolescent ego. It is my impression that the other players would rather share the locker room with a rabid goose. Parcells had the stature to ignore T.O., but your new staff doesn’t, and won’t for years. Here’s a prediction: Before the end of the 2007 season, T.O. will be (choose one or more) suspended, murdered, or a suicide. It will cost you $5 million to find out which.
I am no longer surprised by the range and depth of your incompetence. It is delusional to believe that the new coaching staff will improve on the record of the last one, or the one before that, or the one before that. You can’t keep making the same mistakes and hope for better results. The Cowboys’ problem isn’t the coaches they hire, it’s who does the hiring. There is only one way you can make a truly positive contribution to this franchise: Fire yourself. Hire a real general manager. Turn the presidency over to your son Stephen. From what I’ve seen he inherited your head for business without the encumbrance of your octopus of an ego. Go enjoy your autumn years. Go back to the oil patch and make another fortune. Take up chess.
Come on, Jer, surprise me.