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 young sports writer, I covered the team during its formative years, 1960 through 1967. Since then I’ve written many pieces about the Cowboys for this and other magazines and chronicled them in four Super Bowls. I was a friend of Clint Murchison, the original owner, and Tex Schramm, the founding general manager. I knew and respected Tom Landry. To my annoyance, I allowed myself to get emotionally involved with the Cowboys, at times losing my objectivity and sense of fair play. I wrote from the heart, living and dying with this team, in good years and bad, existing always for the start of another season.

So it was that when Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson hit Dallas in 1989 like a pack of wild dogs, I was among the skeptics, torn between my loyalty to the old guard and my desperate hope that the Cowboys could be salvaged. Bold and brazen, these onetime University of Arkansas teammates promised results, not manners. They brooked no sentiment and had no patience with history or institutional integrity. Landry had coached the franchise for 29 consecutive years, tying Curly Lambeau’s amazing record at Green Bay, but Jones dismissed him as casually as you would flick a bug off the sleeve of your coat. Schramm, the genius behind the image of America’s Team and the founder of the modern scouting system, was hustled out the side door without ceremony.

With mixed emotions, I watched the evolution of the Jimmy and Jerry Show, amazed by their gall but thrilled to see that they were turning this moribund organization around. Landry’s final season had been poor, 3-13 and last place in the NFC East. The pool of new talent was largely depleted, except for Irvin. What Landry and Schramm did bequeath the new regime were some high draft choices. The former head coach at the University of Miami, Johnson used his background in college football to dazzle everyone with his selections—Aikman, Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski, Tony Tolbert. This was before the days of free agency or salary caps, but they lured Novacek away from the Cardinals in what they called Plan B. Then, in a trade that shook the world of pro football, they gave superstar running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for enough draft choices to float a battleship. Over the next three years they drafted, among others, Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper, Dixon Edwards, Godfrey Myles, Kevin Smith, and Darren Woodson. Of course, Jimmy picked his share of clunkers. Remember Steve Walsh, Alexander Wright, and Robert Jones? But with so many choices, nobody cared. Jimmy got the credit, and Jerry got the bill.

In the early nineties no other team came close to duplicating Dallas’ success at the draft or on the field. This was one of the greatest assemblies of talent the league had ever witnessed—or likely ever will again. The Cowboys won back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993, and people talked seriously about the Cowboys winning four or five straight. It could have happened—it should have happened—except for what was going on backstage at the Jimmy and Jerry Show.

Some of Johnson’s act was smoke and mirrors, but he had luck and timing. He had talent too, a rare combination of Schramm’s gift for legerdemain and Landry’s genius for strategy. All Jones had was a big mouth, a bigger ego, and a bulging wallet that included $140 million he acquired from a sweetheart natural gas deal in Arkansas. The media loved Johnson and made fun of Jones, frequently with Johnson’s encouragement. Johnson dropped hints that his boss was a lightweight, a whiner, a hillbilly buffoon whose only talent was carrying the checkbook. After the 1990 season, Jones is said to have whined to his coach: “I want it to be Jerry and Jimmy . . . not just Jimmy.”

But Jimmy let it be known that he, not Jerry, made all the football decisions. Johnson’s assistant coaches leaked funny asides to the media, designed to demean and embarrass Jones. During the 1992 draft, for example, Jones is said to have directed Johnson to pretend to be consulting with him any time the cameras turned their way. More enthusiastic than articulate, Jones stumbled through interviews, often leaving the impression that he was thinking of coaching the team himself. Nobody took him seriously, of course. Everyone understood that Johnson was the alpha of the Cowboys’ equation, the bedrock on which championship seasons were built. Losing face, Jones also lost his sense of humor. Firing Johnson was the ultimate act of petulance, but Jones got what he wanted. After that nobody ever doubted who was the boss of the Dallas Cowboys.

I have always loved training camp. The summer ritual that precedes a season symbolizes a new beginning, new challenges, a renewal of faith. It is living hell for the players but great fun for the sportswriters. Driving from Dallas’ Love Field to training camp in Wichita Falls this summer, I was surprised to feel not the customary elation or anticipation but a curious heaviness and despair. That’s when I knew my love affair with the Cowboys was over. It had ended with a whimper rather than a bang.It wasn’t just the procession of losing seasons. I’d lived through those before. I expected them, factored them into the equation. No, this was something else, something like a death in the family. The heartlessness, hopelessness, and haplessness of this present situation seemed permanent, irreconcilable. The Cowboys had lost their focus, their core, their substance, their relevancy. Even more surprising, I realized that I didn’t care, and I wasn’t sure anyone else did either.

My mission was to seek out Jerry Jones and demand to know why. As things developed, nailing him down was easier said than done. On my third day at camp, I was finally able to schedule a one-on-one with Jones. Cowboys publicity director Rich Dalrymple arranged the interview in the team dining room, and I would see Jones after he finished meeting with the scouts. I waited a full hour, but he never showed. I assumed that he wasn’t ignoring me, that he was preoccupied with the job of running the Cowboys.

Indeed, he was everywhere and nowhere, all over the place like a blob of mercury, impossible to pin down. You saw him striding across the practice field at Midwestern State University, cell phone at the ready, so full of himself he squeaked. You saw him on television, hurrying to or from meetings with the coaches, briefing reporters, using the pronouns “I” and “we” interchangeably to describe his team. You heard him making ridiculous assertions such as his prediction that the 2001 Cowboys could win ten games. Jones had so many irons in the fire I couldn’t keep up with them and doubted that he could either. Jones’s draft choices. Jones’s free agents. Jones’s trades. Jones’s proposal for a $1 billion entertainment center and 100,000-seat retractable-dome stadium that he expected some dim-witted suburb to build. Jones’s arena football team. Jones’s bid to slap the Cowboys’ logo on a NASCAR entry. This wasn’t a football team anymore; it was a marketing ploy.

One afternoon during practice there was the clash of large wet bodies, offense meeting defense, and as the coaches sorted through the pile, one player remained on the ground. Like a shot, Jones made himself the center of the action. The injured player was a rookie lineman, Jason Gamble. A few minutes later Jones wandered over to where I was standing and whispered knowingly, “Fractured tibia.” Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing worse than a sprained ankle, magnified by Jones’s need to appear omniscient. But there it was, that creepy smile. It seemed unnaturally tight, like it was taken off one of those boutique corpses on Six Feet Under, and it was so bright it made my teeth hurt. There were rumors of a face lift in the off-season to accessorize his 55-pound weight loss. For once Jones wasn’t talking, but his coyness only tantalized the media, causing some to speculate that the makeover symbolized a metaphorical rebirth for this football team. In Jones’s mind, it did. His prediction of ten wins was both a rallying cry and a warning to his coaches. This is a football team that Jerry Jones put together, and if he says they’re good enough to win ten games, then, by God, that’s how many he expects. Otherwise, heads will roll.

I finally got to sit down with Jones a few hours before the third preseason game, in a banquet room at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency where the players were finishing their pre-game meal. I had forgotten that he can be as charming as he is bombastic and impetuous. But I was about to be reminded.

It had been quite a week for Jones and for the Cowboys. The previous Saturday they had been battered by the Denver Broncos in front of a demoralized Texas Stadium. Though the official attendance was 37,127, some estimated a crowd as small as 20,000. Jones had hinted in a radio interview at halftime that he might shake things up. Three days later he delivered, stunning everyone in the organization by cutting Tony Banks, the journeyman quarterback signed for minimum wages as a transitional figure to replace the retired Aikman. At the same time, Jones announced that the new starter was Quincy Carter, a rookie drafted in the second round.

Talk about your jaw-dropper; this move was almost in the “Good-bye, Jimmy” category. With a couple of brief exceptions, the Cowboys’ quarterback position had been in capable hands for forty years. Now it was being handed over to the rawest of untested rookies. Since Jones had traded the team’s first-round picks in both 2000 and 2001 to the Seattle Seahawks for receiver Joey Galloway, the second-round pick this past April took on added significance. It represented, at least symbolically, the Cowboys’ future. Against the advice of most experts, Jones selected Carter, even though he had left the University of Georgia a year early after a poor, injury-marred junior season. Quarterback prospects are always risky in the NFL, especially those grabbed near the top of the draft. For every Aikman or Peyton Manning, there are three Cade McNowns. But the bomb rate for those who don’t play their senior year is staggering: Andre Ware, Heath Shuler, Tommy Maddox, and Ryan Leaf (whom, inexplicably, the Cowboys wanted to sign until he failed a physical) are among the many underclassmen who sank in a sea of premature expectations. But Jones knows that the trend today is big, mobile passers like Daunte Culpepper of the Vikings and Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles. Quincy Carter, who is six two and 232 pounds, is cast in that mold.

The most disturbing thing about the shake-up was that in one spastic move, Jones had wrecked months of planning. The idea was to give Carter a year or two to learn the position while Banks, who had failed with two other franchises but at least had game experience, carried the load. To accommodate Banks’ strong arm, offensive coordinator Jack Reilly had devised a system dependent on deep passes to the speedy wide receivers, Galloway and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. Jones had said at the time of the draft: “Quincy needs to benefit from working and learning behind a veteran like Tony Banks. I think we [read: Jimmy Johnson] made a mistake rushing Troy Aikman his rookie year, and we all paid a price for that.” Banks had disappointed Campo with his laid-back attitude, but all of the quarterback candidates had at times looked like frat boys tossing passes on the beach. Carter’s wobbly throws earned him the nickname “the Duck Hunter.” But Banks never had a chance. A few days after Jones cut him, he turned up on the Washington Redskins roster, looking forward, no doubt, to two games with the archrival Cowboys.

Seated at a back table in the hotel banquet room, Jones ate a steak while I fired questions, his smile amiable and relaxed. Why, I demanded, had he drafted an unproven talent like Carter with his top pick? And why, oh, why, after two preseason games, was Carter locked into the starter’s job?

The smile tightened as Jones rambled on about “the system,” how five- or ten-year plans were no longer possible in the NFL, how it was necessary to think and act fast, to play rookies, to stretch, to take risks. “I thought [drafting Carter] was the ideal situation to take a risk,” he told me. “It was cap friendly. And he might turn out to be a top quarterback. You cannot get to the Super Bowl by playing it safe. You’ve got to get ahead of the system, otherwise you’re doomed to stay in the middle of the pack.”

“With Carter as your starter,” I suggested, “you’re more likely to be at the bottom than in the middle. Why the sudden reversal?”

The smile popped like a flashbulb, indicating that Jones was way ahead of me. “I thought it was time to liven things up,” he said. “The minute I got the perspective that Banks was not our long-term quarterback, I wanted to make the change immediately.”

I reminded Jones what he had said about rushing Aikman as a rookie.

“This isn’t 1989,” he told me. “This is a much more experienced team. Also, Quincy can move. He has a level of maturity, great confidence, a hunger to learn. I’d be surprised if he takes the pounding that Troy took as a rookie.”

“Last year,” I said, “you were making noises about going back to the Super Bowl in 2000. What happened?”

“I really thought we had loaded the wagon last year,” he admitted. “We had the fastest receivers in the league. I had brought in Galloway. James McKnight was coming back, and we had Rocket Ismail. We had a great running game, a good, young offensive line, the best defensive line we’ve ever had. Then Aikman was knocked out in the first game. He was never the same after that.”

Galloway also went down with a season-ending knee injury in that first game, and Ismail was lost after game ten. In retrospect, I asked Jones, did he regret trading two number ones for Galloway?

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “But at the time, I had no way of knowing that Troy wasn’t part of our future.”

I reminded Jones that he had been one of the champions of the salary cap, which the owners got as a trade-off for free agency with the NFL Players Association. Now it was coming back to bite him in the ass. In his desperate attempt to win a Super Bowl while Jimmy Johnson’s body was still warm, he had lavished huge, long-term contracts on a few superstars. This strategy worked only to bankrupt the franchise, at least in terms of what is possible under the cap. More than $24 million—or one third of the current payroll—is dead money, which means it is dedicated to players no longer on the team. The absent recipients included not only recent Cowboys such as Aikman, Irvin, and Sanders but also long-vanished names like Novacek and Charles Haley.

“What some people don’t recognize,” he said, “is that we’re one of the best at operating the system. We took a hit this year, but next year we’ll be at or near the top.” Jones wheeled about in his chair and called across the room to his eldest son, Stephen, who was finishing his meal. Stephen is the club’s salary-cap expert. “Where will we be next year, cap-wise?” Stephen calculated that under an expanded cap of probably $71 million, the Cowboys would owe between $5 million and $10 million in dead money. “We’ll be second in the league,” he told Jerry.

I’d saved the hard one for last, and now I let him have it. “Since you dictate every detail in this organization, are you willing to accept blame for the team’s steady decline?”

The smile again, only slower, steadier, the smile of a man who has waited hours for this moment. “Are you giving me credit for three Super Bowls? Are you giving me credit for having the best team of the nineties with three different coaches? What you are seeing now are the constants in the system: guys on top losing players to free agency, drafting low, paying big salaries to keep star players. I know that we are exactly where we need to be, biting the bullet for a year, but I want our fans to know that too—to know that I know what I’m doing. So I’ll accept responsibility if it’s articulated where we are.”

Jones followed me out of the room and to the elevator, smiling all the way. Me! me! me! was echoing in my aching brain. The interview had been a roaring success from his point of view; despite the glut of me’s!, he couldn’t have been more gracious or forthcoming. He had ruined my day. I had arrived full of animosity and feelings of betrayal, ready to come after him with Old Testament ferocity, but he had disarmed me with kindness and patience. How could I rip him after this?

Watching Quincy Carter stumble about that night in the Super Dome, so dazed, so confused, so very far from home, I began to gather my wits and recover my trademark subjectivity. When the devil visits in the dead of night, or so I’ve been told, he doesn’t wear a red suit with a pointed tail and smell like Tabasco sauce. No, he comes with soft words and a goofy grin, the better to suck out your soul.

The most disheartening aspect of the way Jones runs his team is the way he treats his coaches. He controls them as if they were puppets. They parrot the party line, then watch in dismay as he undercuts them on a whim. As losses mounted last year, the staff practically imploded, nervous assistants pointing fingers at other assistants and bad-mouthing them to players. The situation got so bad that the assistants were sent to an off-season seminar with sports psychologists. Now they’re once again on the spot. It’s ridiculous to believe that a team that struggled to win five games last year can double that number. The Cowboys lost key veterans, they signed no free agents, and their off-the-rack draft choices are, to put it kindly, suspect. Jones carries on about the talent and the enthusiasm of the young players that he drafted, but we have only his word that this is true. We’ve heard this song before, particularly in the four years after Jimmy was canned. Jones gushed over top draft choices like Shante Carver, Sherman Williams, and Kavika Pittman—all distant memories. Of the 34 players selected by the Cowboys between 1994 and 1997 (people who should form the nucleus of the 2001 team), only guard Larry Allen and linebacker Dexter Coakley are still on the roster.

The financial crunch is one reason Jones has appeared so schizophrenic this season, bouncing from one wild scheme to another. He rushed Carter along because he needed to cover his investment. He wasn’t concerned about the reaction of the media or the fans, and he especially didn’t care what his coaches thought. He made the decision to cut Banks without bothering to consult with Wade Wilson, the quarterback coach, or Reilly, the offensive coordinator, who was left with the task of rethinking overnight an offense that had been months in preparation.

I’m not completely sure that Jones even bothered to consult head coach Dave Campo. Always the loyalist, Campo assured the media that cutting Banks was an “organizational decision.” But if Campo suspected the change was coming, he kept his poker face just a few days earlier when he told me, “I can tell you right now that Tony Banks is our starting quarterback, based on his abilities and experience.” Campo came here with Jimmy Johnson in 1989 and developed into one of the best defensive coaches in the league. The only reason his predecessor, Chan Gailey, had a winning record of 18-14 was that Campo’s imaginative defense kept the Cowboys respectable. The 54-year-old is just damn glad to be here. He’s a good and decent man, and he understands the tentative nature of working for Jerry Jones. “I wake up every morning thinking I’ve got the best job in the world,” he told me one day in the team cafeteria. “If the time comes when they don’t want me, I’ll hug Jerry and thank him for the chance he gave me.”

In 1994, after Jones fired Johnson, I wrote a story in this magazine supporting Jones, observing that only in a sport as narcissistic as pro football could a man be criticized for meddling with his own property. I take it back. I’ve come to understand that institutions have a life of their own, separate and apart from the person who might temporarily hold the deed. In the beginning the Cowboys were little more than a rich man’s hobby for Clint Murchison, but as the team grew in stature, he understood that he was only a caretaker. Murchison was a quiet man with an ironic smile, a first-rate brain, and a dark sense of humor. He left all the organizational decisions to Schramm and all the football decisions to Landry. As far as I know, he never even attended a league meeting, much less a team meeting. He was too busy being a captain of industry. Jerry Jones is a joke around the NFL, a laughingstock, but Murchison would have enjoyed him as a punch line. Enjoyed and then dismissed him.

Jones does not have the humility to be a caretaker. Or, apparently, the stability. I didn’t realize it back in 1994, but Jones is haunted almost to the point of neurosis by Jimmy Johnson’s ghost. Haunted men act out of desperation, and Jones is desperate to prove one thing: that he can win without Johnson. A man this bullheaded, this self-righteous and self-assured, will destroy the team if that’s what it takes. After all, in his view, this is his property.

I believe Jones when he says that he knows where he is and what he’s doing. That doesn’t mean he’s smart or right, only that he’s obstinate. He’s hardly the only bull in the china shop of professional sports, but he may be the only one not handicapped by introspection or programmed to duck when the bricks start flying. Compared with George Steinbrenner, Jones is a puppy chewing up the furniture. Steinbrenner has the diabolical complexity of a Dickens experiment run amok, a Scrooge, a Heep, and a Micawber rolled into one. His Yankees may win ugly, but they win big and often. Al Davis is the most hated owner in the NFL, moving the Raiders up and down the coast of California like a band of Hell’s Angels, but nobody snickers behind his back.

When Jones cut Tony Banks, he spoke of his need to “burn the bridges.” In his delusions he imagines that starting over is easy. Keep your head down and don’t look back. He must sense that Cowboys fans are restless, that they are losing patience, that to gain and keep their allegiance, the Cowboys have to do more than show up. In that respect, the big shakeup was probably his only move. It bought him time. The team would have gone nowhere with Banks. Carter? He’s an unknown, a prospect, a hope, however remote. “Also, if Quincy doesn’t pan out, we will have had a year to evaluate, with an eye on the 2002 draft,” Jones told me in the dining room at the Hyatt, flicking that shopworn smile.

And if that doesn’t work out, there’s always the year after, right? Don’t think so, Jerry. A lot of us are jumping off this train wreck.