The following paper is my Senior Independent Project (SIP) from my senior year in my school’s Humanities and Arts program. The paper focuses on the career and impact of Dallas Cowboys’ general manager and owner Jerry Jones and was awarded the meritorious designation by the H&A judges/panel. Given the nature of this project as a 20-page research paper, this assignment stretched me as a writer and as a sports journalist, but I greatly enjoyed the topic and compiling and integrating sources. Enjoy!
At last, Jerry Jones stood at the podium in Canton, Ohio, adorned in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s coveted gold jacket and a navy blue tie. He beamed proudly, then opened his speech with a question that he already knew the answer to: “I hope there’s some Cowboys fans here?”
This was Jones’ moment, the culmination of almost 30 years of working as the general manager, president and owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Having never played a down or coached a game in the NFL, Jones was inducted under a special category: contributor. It was Jones’ contributions to the league’s financial structure, from revolutionizing advertising and marketing to building state-of-the-art facilities to influencing entire franchise relocations, that made the case for Jones’ induction crystal clear. But Jones had contributed more to the NFL than just his eye for a profit.
Skip Bayless, an ESPN sports talk personality and former Dallas Times Herald columnist, calls Jones “the most interesting human I ever interviewed or attempted to analyze in print” (Curtis, 2017). The superlative is one of many attributed to the Cowboys owner. Jones stands out as the league’s only owner with general managing duties. He is also the most vocal owner in the league, making headlines for his opinions on topics ranging from kneeling during the national anthem to coaching decisions to rule changes. His power among owners is unrivaled, with some analysts even considering him the most powerful man in professional sports.
Jones is also the most paradoxical figure in the NFL. Despite the financial success that paved his way to Canton and his own love for the bottom line, Jones holds all of that as secondary to his ultimate goal:
I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want to win the next Super Bowl. You wouldn’t want to see the size of the check that I would write if it would for sure get the Dallas Cowboys a Super Bowl (Van Natta, 2014).
In this paper, I will argue that Jerry Jones’ business acumen has transformed and elevated the financial standing and practices of the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys, while at the same time, his desire for control has been detrimental to his team’s chase for a championship and to the league’s social standing. First, I will cover Jones’ backstory and 1989 purchase of the Dallas Cowboys, and then I will explore his contributions to the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL in his three major roles of general manager, owner, and league executive. I will conclude by discussing his future in these roles and analyzing how his tenure affects the league moving forward.
Before his purchase of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones was well-versed in the football world. Jones played at the collegiate level, suiting up at the fullback and offensive guard positions for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Though he did not play professionally, he became interested in other avenues to pursue football – as an owner. A 23-year-old Jones pursued the opportunity to buy the San Diego Chargers in 1966, with financial backing from a group of investors. Ultimately, Jones withdrew his $5.8 million offer at the advice of his father, but the initial disappointment of the retracted bid did not deter Jones from considering ownership again in the future (Patoski, 2013, pp. 494-496).
For all of Jones’ talent on the football field as a young man, it was dwarfed by his aptitude as a businessman. After the retracted Chargers bid and a stint in the insurance field, Jones found incredible success in another endeavor – the oil business. In oil fields across the Southwest, Jones amassed his fortune, and his success positioned him to sell his Arkoma Production Company for $140 million. That sale, along with Jones’ investments in real estate and banking, provided him the financial backing necessary to be a viable candidate for an NFL ownership spot (Van Natta, 2014).
When the Dallas Cowboys, long known as “America’s Team,” were put up for sale by owner H.R. “Bum” Bright, Jones pounced on the opportunity. The investment in a professional football franchise was hardly risk-free; the Cowboys, and the NFL as a whole, were in the midst of a financial downturn, and prominent business figures such as future President Donald Trump backed away from the opportunity. The team was bleeding over $10 million a year, and its 3-13 record in 1988 reflected a team far from its glory days in the 1970s (Archer, 2017). Though Jones considered his decision carefully, he ultimately approached Bright about purchasing the team and on February 25, 1989, Jones’ $140 million purchase of the Cowboys was finalized (Horn, 2017). Right after the deal was completed, Jones declined an offer by an investor who wanted to pay an additional $10 million for the team. According to Jones’ friend Sheffield Nelson, “I don’t think Jerry would have sold the Cowboys for $100 million more” (Van Natta, 2014). At age 46, Jerry Jones had realized his dream of owning an NFL franchise. In the decades that followed, Jones would transform the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, and the sports world in ways no one, even himself, might have imagined.
First Role- General Manager
Jerry Jones set to work making an imprint on the Dallas Cowboys’ organization by shaking up the team’s long-standing hierarchy. Jones fired head coach Tom Landry on his first day as owner, and general manager Tex Schramm was out two months later (Patoski, 2013, pp. 518). Both men had directed the team to a pair of Super Bowl victories and were later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and their swift removals by a newcomer to the NFL outraged fans and drew the ire of analysts (Magee, 2008, pp. 30). While Jones’ hiring of college teammate and former University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson stirred up another firestorm, it was Jones’ assumption of general manager duties that was most impactful, setting the precedent for his tenure as the league’s most hands-on owner. Jones called the opportunity to manage a team one of the main reasons behind his purchase of the franchise:
Having the ability to manage the team is why I bought the team. It was always unique. When you look at other teams and other ownerships, you can never recall that when someone buys a team that he also says — as I did — that he intends to make a career change and become manager of his football team (Mortensen, 2001).
Working alongside Johnson (to whom Jones also delegated power in the personnel department), Jones built a roster that emerged as the league’s dynasty of the 1990’s. In the duo’s boldest move, the Cowboys sent their franchise star, running back Herschel Walker, along with three draft picks, to the Vikings for a package of five veteran players and three draft picks in a trade Johnson deemed “the great train robbery,” (Wulf, 2014). After the Cowboys cut those veterans and received compensatory draft picks, the team had a wealth of draft capital that allowed them unprecedented opportunity to build a championship core (Magee, 2013, pp. 44, 53). Among the players selected with those picks were future Pro Bowl selections Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, and Russell Maryland. In the 1992, 1993, and 1995 seasons, Dallas won Super Bowl championships.
After the team’s second Super Bowl victory, Jones and Johnson clashed publicly. Both men wanted credit for lifting the team to the two Super Bowl victories, and on March 29, 1994, Johnson announced his resignation as head coach of the Cowboys (Patoski, 2013, p. 570). Now, Jones was in full control. He no longer shared personnel power with the team’s coach, meaning every decision regarding the Cowboys needed to go through him.
With former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer at the helm and the championship core still intact, the Cowboys won their third title in four years during the 1995 season. In the following seasons, however, the roster unraveled and the Cowboys fell from their position atop the league. An aging core, complacent players, and a lack of successful draft picks plagued Dallas, and in the 1997 season, the team missed the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade (Patoski, 2013, pp. 615). By the turn of the century, the Cowboys plummeted to the bottom of the NFL with three consecutive 5-11 seasons from 2000-2002. Since winning the Super Bowl in the 1995 season, the Cowboys have failed to reach their conference championship game, let alone win another Super Bowl, and Jones in his role as general manager has become a major scapegoat (Belson, 2015). Jeff Pearlman, whose 2010 book Boys Will Be Boys chronicled the Cowboys in the 1990s, believes that Jones’ ego and decision-making have factored into his team’s on-field struggles:
I think he’s been awful. Truly dreadful. The best general managers don’t need to be in the spotlight. Jerry West [the former general manager of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers], best of my lifetime, isn’t doing it for ego feed. He desperately wants to win. That’s all. But Jones needs the cameras, the spotlight. It’s awful, and he also makes some truly poor decisions, especially in regard to bad eggs.
In a league characterized by specialization, Jerry Jones has been a maverick in his role as general manager. With the recent passing of the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, another prominent owner who took control over his team’s personnel decisions (Gutierrez, 2018), Jones now stands as the only man in the NFL to serve as both general manager and owner. In an ESPN feature written by Don Van Natta, Jones “estimates he spends 80 percent of his time working as a GM and the rest managing the team’s business affairs and his personal investments” (Van Natta, 2014).
This combination of general manager and owner duties has led to waves of criticism from league executives and commentators, especially since Jones, coming from a business background, had no experience in any type of personnel evaluation position prior to purchasing the team. That lack of credentials, along with the team’s lack of success in the post-Jimmy Johnson era, have caused critics to question Jones’ aptitude as a general manager (Cowlishaw, 2018). Additionally, Jones’ craving for exciting players has led to personnel decisions that have prioritized entertainment value over winning and undercut the team’s ability to field the best team possible, and Jones even said that “football is show business” and that “you can’t forget it is entertainment” (Patoski, 2013, pp. 637). Jones remains adamant that his assumption of general manager duties are in the best interest of the team, despite the team’s recent disappointments:
I’d give a C [to my performance as general manager]. If we had won a half a game more a year, we would be in the top five winningest teams in the NFL. … We’ve been in a rut. Now, that stops with me. But the best person to get us out of the rut is me (Van Natta, 2014).
Another key component of Jones’ tenure as general manager has been his inclination to gamble on high-risk, high-reward players with legal or character issues. Since he is both the owner and general manager of the Cowboys, Jones is free to make risky acquisitions without the fear of being fired, which has opened him up to gamble on players that other general managers have avoided (Watkins, 2012). The Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams featured one player, defensive end Charles Haley, who was unwanted in the San Francisco 49ers’ locker room, yet made a profound impact on the Dallas’ defense and played in all three Super Bowl victories. Jones’ recent acquisitions have continued this trend, including the team’s 2015 signing of defensive end Greg Hardy, who was embroiled in severe domestic violence allegations at the time, and 2015 draft selection of defensive end Randy Gregory, who has failed four drug tests over a span of three years (Archer, 2018). Through these decisions, Jones has rationalized the players’ past behavior with their on-field potential and the hope that they can behave themselves off the gridiron. According to former Cowboys guard and Pro Bowler Nate Newton,
It’s (Jones’) nature. He’s always done that. It don’t always work, but I think he looks at it like, ‘OK, what’s the downside?’ and he always sees a bigger upside. That’s just his nature. He knows he’s taking a chance (Archer, 2018).
Second Role- Owner
From the moment that Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys, the franchise became his life’s focus. In his opening press conference as owner, Jones declared that he would take charge of everything about the Cowboys, even the “jocks and socks” (Magee, 2008, pp. 31).
Over Jones’ tenure as owner, the Cowboys have transformed from a successful team in financial decline to an international brand and a major money-making machine. Currently, the Cowboys are the most lucrative franchise in professional sports according to Forbes, with a net worth of $4.8 billion and annual revenue of $840 million (Badenhausen, 2018). The figure places them almost $700 million over second place Manchester United and $1.1 billion over the next NFL team, the New England Patriots. To put the Cowboys’ place among the other 31 NFL teams into perspective, “one out of every four items of NFL merchandise sold since 1975 had the Cowboys logo affixed to it” (Patoski, 2013, pp. 681). According to Pearlman, “They were America’s Team before him, now they’re America’s Team on steroids.”
The Cowboys franchise did not turn around its fortunes in a day, and it took decades of ingenious (and occasionally rebellious) deals and decisions for Jones to elevate Dallas into a giant in the sports world. In the opening months of his tenure, Jones shocked the NFL landscape by completely overhauling the Cowboys’ organization, including firing over a hundred employees (Magee, 2008, pp. 35). After stripping down the organization, Jones instituted new policies intended to increase revenue, such as adding in-stadium corporate advertising that previous management had viewed as “beneath the dignity of the franchise” (Patoski, 2013, pp. 511), acquiring an alcohol license for the stadium, expanding the capacity of Texas Stadium by 5,000, and moving the training camp to Austin. Jones’ style was in stark contrast to the team’s previous management, and former general manager Tex Schramm was quick to criticize Jones:
You could tell right from the beginning that he didn’t give a damn about history. You could tell this man has absolutely no feeling for the past. You almost expected him to take the stars off the helmets (Patoski, 2013, pp. 512).
Jones’ takeover of the Cowboys made a splash in NFL circles, but it was his work in the 1990s that turned the NFL’s financial practices upside down and skyrocketed his franchise’s financial outlook from broke to booming. In 1995, Jones closed a ten-year marketing deal with Pepsi, despite the NFL’s long-standing and supposedly exclusive advertisement contract with Coca-Cola (Horn, 2017). The NFL sued, but Jones, who organized the sponsorship through Texas Stadium and not the team itself, came out on top. The deal opened up an avenue for independent marketing for teams, and Jones followed with contracts with American Express and Nike (Gosselin, 2017).
Jones also found ways to capitalize on television contracts and licensing, benefitting both his franchise and the league as a whole. In 1994, he brought Fox into contract talks when the previous stations, ABC and CBS, proposed plans that would reduce the NFL’s revenue stream. The competition resulted in a four-year, $4.4 billion contract with the networks that dwarfed the three-year, $1.4 billion contract signed in 1987 and provided owners a much-needed influx of revenue (Horn, 2017).
Jones also saw financial opportunity in the apparel sales of the Cowboys after their Super Bowl victories, as “Jones saw his team accounting for as much as a third of now very large sales” and “was unwilling to settle for his 3 or 4 percent of $90 million in annual profit,” (Oriard, 2007, pp. 151). Through developing the Cowboys’ identity independent of the league, Jones has marketed the Cowboys as an international, if infamous, brand:
And if we’re not the most popular team, we’re always the most hated team. Is being the most hated team the second-best thing to being the most popular team? I think I’d trade second-most popular for … the most hated (Van Natta, 2014).
The crown jewel of Jones’ projects as owner is AT&T Stadium. Construction of the $1.2 billion home of the Cowboys was completed in 2009 amidst a major recession in the country, and it was the most expensive NFL stadium when it opened. With most of the financing for the stadium coming out of his own pocket, Jones aimed for the stadium to have “the wow factor” and be “one of the most visible buildings in the country,” (Sandomir, 2009). The stadium includes video boards that hang over the field and measure 72 feet by 160 feet, a retractable roof and two retractable end zone panels, and a capacity of over 90,000. The luxurious stadium takes after its owner, according to SB Nation writer David Halprin:
Of all the names, JerryWorld is probably the most appropriate. The stadium is, without a doubt, an extension of Jerry Jones’ personality. It had to be huge; this is Texas where everything must be bigger. It had to match the personality and ego of its creator, it had to make people take notice whether they wanted to or not (Halprin, 2011).
Aside from the wow factor, AT&T Stadium has helped the Cowboys franchise to triple in value over the past decade (“Sports Money”, 2018). The stadium has served as the host venue for NCAA football and basketball championship games, concerts, conferences, the NFL Draft, and in 2011, a Super Bowl (Belson, 2015). Jones has also cashed in through the stadium’s 200 sponsorships, including a $500 million naming rights deal with AT&T in 2013 and 347 luxury suites (Van Natta, 2014). And despite the traditionally-held view of home field advantages, Jones has welcomed the trend of opposing fans populating his stadium as an indication of his stadium’s wide appeal (Hill, 2014).
Even with the opening of AT&T Stadium, Jones continued to look for ways to expand the Dallas Cowboys franchise. In 2017, the Cowboys relocated their headquarters from Valley Ranch, their practice facility since before Jones owned the team, to the newly-built Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas. The Star includes team offices, two outdoor fields, and a 12,000-seat indoor stadium for both the team and local high school teams to use, plus a hotel and shopping areas (Haislop, 2017). The Star also corrects one of the issues Jones has long had with the Valley Ranch property – the inability for fans to watch practices. Now, fans willing to spend $350 a month can buy a membership that gives them a view of the Cowboys’ practices and access to the training facilities (Taylor, 2016). The Star has been yet another way Jones has innovated in the business aspects of running a franchise, turning the traditional concept of a practice facility into an entire business district.
General managing duties aside, Jones’ position as owner provides him another avenue to exert control over the Cowboys’ on-field product – head coaching decisions. When he took over the Cowboys in 1989, only one man, Tom Landry, had coached the Cowboys in the franchise’s 29-year existence (Magee, 2008, pp. 28). Since then, the Cowboys have had seven head coaches, and their relationships with Jones have ranged from amicable to tense. Jones nearly assumed the head coaching position himself, but he felt that “his other duties running the business would not allow him to operate at the peak performance level” (Patoski, 2013, pp. 616). Jones’ desire for control and credit deteriorated his relationships with two Super Bowl-winning coaches, Jimmy Johnson in 1993 and Bill Parcells in 2006, and in the case of Johnson, Jones made headlines by brazenly declaring that “there are 500 coaches who could have won the Super Bowl with our team,” (Horn, 2018). Some critics attribute the longevity of current coach Jason Garrett, the longest-tenured head coach since Landry, to his ability to handle Jones’ demands (Peter, 2018).
The head coaching hires that Jones has made over the years follow notable trends. Many of the coaches have had previous ties with Jones, from Johnson, his college roommate, to Barry Switzer, an assistant during Jones’ Arkansas days, to Garrett, who played quarterback for the Cowboys in the 1990s (Van Natta, 2014). The absence of minority head coaches under Jones’ tenure is also striking, especially given Jones’ past efforts to circumvent the league’s Rooney Rule. 2003 was the first year that the league implemented the Rooney Rule, a policy requiring all teams to interview at least one minority candidate for an open coaching job with the goal of more diverse coaching staffs (Stites, 2018). At the time, Jones was courting Bill Parcells, who had two Super Bowls under his belt. Though he already planned to hire Parcells, Jones placed a short call to Denny Green, who was one of the few black head coaches from over the past decade, with the intent of satisfying the rule rather than conducting a serious interview (Duru, 2011).
Many other owners have built palaces for sports stadiums and have raised eyebrows regarding their relationships with coaches. However, there is no owner across the sporting landscape who rivals Jones’ relationship with the media or his prominent public presence. According to Bryan Curtis of the sports and culture website The Ringer, Jones’ post-game press conferences give him the distinction of being “the only owner in the NFL, if not sports, who regularly speaks after games,” (Curtis, 2017). In contrast to the majority of soft-spoken coaches and players around the league, Jones is quick to share his opinions and is immensely quotable, his speech characterized by rampant optimism and memorable “Jerryisms” (SportsDayDFW, 2017). His availability to the media continues even outside of the locker room. In 1994, he told reporters sitting in a bar that he was planning to fire Jimmy Johnson, which he advertised to them as “the story of the year” (Patoski, 2013, pp. 569). Jones is also rare in his acceptance of the waves of criticism directed at him, even going as far as telling one columnist to blame him for a criticized draft pick instead of a scout director (Curtis, 2017). As Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times puts it, “In some ways, the league has bled of color. [Jones] stands in contrast to the corporate monolith that the NFL has become,” (Curtis, 2017).
Having such a visible owner has had drawbacks for the Cowboys that other franchises simply don’t have to worry about. Jones has second-guessed coaching decisions in some of his post-game press conferences, including criticizing Garrett’s reluctance to attempt a fourth-down conversion during overtime in a 2018 game against the Houston Texans by saying. “It’s time for risks at that particular time” (Peter, 2018). In 2009, Jones made headlines for the wrong reasons when suggestive photos of him with women in a bathroom surfaced on the internet (Curtis, 2017). Jeff Pearlman’s bestselling book Boys Will Be Boys reported that the team had a “White House” with drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes that Jones knew about (Pearlman, 2010, pp. 310).
Recently, Jones has found himself near the center of the firestorm over the national anthem protests. Before a 2016 preseason game, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”, with the intent of raising awareness of social injustices to minorities in the country. The protest became not only a football or sports issue, but a national one as well, with President Donald Trump referring to a black player who knelt for the anthem as a “son of a b—h,” (Graham, 2017). Jones established his team’s position during July of 2018, when he indicated that “our policy is that you stand for the anthem, toe on the line” (Archer, 2018). Jones received backlash from players around the league, including 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman telling a reporter that Jones has “a plantation mentality” (Archer, 2018). Jones’ motives have also come into question. Max Kellerman, a contributor on ESPN’s First Take sports debate show, sees Jones’ stance as driven by financial motives in reaction to the league’s drop in ratings during the protests:
Money is very important, don’t let anyone tell you it’s not, it is. But you don’t become enslaved by it. Jerry Jones to me seems as though he is a slave to the bottom line. And if he believes that this is hurting his business as you pointed out, he’s going to want to do whatever he has to to protect his money. And that’s what it seems this is and I don’t like it (ESPN, 2018).
Third Role- League Executive
Across the NFL landscape, Jerry Jones is seen as more than just an owner. He has become one of the most powerful men, if not the most powerful, in the league. In the same way Jones has maximized his franchise’s financial opportunities, he found that “teams were leaving considerable revenue potential untapped” (Magee, 2008, pp. 89) and went on to reform the way the league makes money. Jones’ business acumen has manifested itself not only in television and advertising contracts, but also in aiding with franchise relocations, stadium construction, and individual team finances (Freeman, 2017). These moves, which have boosted the league’s revenue and capitalized on opportunity, have in turn given Jones unrivaled power among owners. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman weighed in on Jones’ accumulation of power, writing:
The story of what Jones is doing comes down to one simple fact: In sports, as in life, financial power equates to real power, and Jones is accumulating both in ways we have rarely, if ever, seen before… Jones has long been a powerful force in the NFL, but through his role over these last few weeks and years, we may be watching Jones, quite possibly, become the most powerful man in all of sports (Freeman, 2017).
The recent relocations of the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders show Jones at the peak of his powers as a league executive. From 1994 until 2016, Los Angeles did not host an NFL team, despite being the United States’ second-most populous city and having enormous economic potential (Farmer, 2016). However, with the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, and San Diego Chargers all searching for stadium solutions and eyeing the opportunity to relocate to Los Angeles, a race for Los Angeles began that divided the league. Support was split between a joint proposal by the Chargers and Raiders in Carson, California, while Rams owner Stan Kroenke presented a proposal for a stadium in Inglewood, California (Wickersham, 2016). With the league’s future in one of the country’s prime market up for grabs, Jones emerged as a central figure.
The way Jones saw it, Los Angeles presented the league a tantalizing combination of location and resources and, like he aimed for in his own AT&T Stadium, the wow factor. Amidst what Jones described as “some degree of ownership pitted against each other,” he chose to back Kroenke’s proposal, which Jones claimed would be “lifting the Cowboys, as well as every other team in the league,” (Farmer, 2016). Jones then helped turn the tide in favor of Kroenke’s proposal, giving an impassioned eight-minute speech at an owners’ meeting to decide the winning proposal and urging Kroenke to add in the option of a second team, the Chargers, joining the Rams in Los Angeles. Despite the NFL’s Los Angeles committee initially favoring the Carson proposal 5-1, the final vote of all NFL owners was a resounding 30-2 victory for the Rams (Wickersham, 2016). Jones was ecstatic over the approved Rams’ relocation (Wickersham, 2016):
For the NFL, the neatest, best thing that we could have done was to have Stan Kroenke lead the Rams back to the Los Angeles Rams, and all that great tradition. With absolutely the greatest plan that has ever been conceived in sports (Thomas, 2016).
With the Rams in Los Angeles and the Chargers later exercising their one-year option to relocate north and join the Rams, the spotlight shifted to the third team in the relocation mix, the Oakland Raiders. The team was rumored to be interested in Las Vegas, which had never hosted an NFL team and was viewed as a risk due to the NFL’s strict stance on gambling (Disis, 2017). The proposal gained traction, but was at risk of being derailed when investor Sheldon Adelson backed out and left the project without an investor (Drummond, 2017). Jones, who had already convinced several owners hesitant about the gambling issue on the financial merits of the deal (Freeman, 2017), organized a $650 million loan with Bank of America that saved the project (Drummond, 2017). Now with financial backing, the Las Vegas proposal was approved by a 31-1 vote. The move marked the third relocation in a two-year span, each one with Jones at the center.
In addition to benefiting from the influx of money generated from moving teams from Oakland, San Diego, and St. Louis into the lucrative markets of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Jones stands to benefit from these stadiums through a company he co-owns, Legends (Drummond, 2017). The hospitality and marketing company has sold suites at the 49ers’ Levi Stadium as well as the future Los Angeles and Las Vegas stadiums. Legends, with an estimated value of $150 million, has been extremely successful and has benefited Jones financially and politically (Freeman, 2017). According to Bleacher Report columnist Mike Freeman:
Jones, of course, doesn’t run any of those franchises, but he’s masterfully maneuvered himself into position to have a say in how they manage some of their revenue streams. It’s like a next-door neighbor managing a chunk of your household’s finances because the neighbor thinks they can do it better than you… Jones, in some ways, has pulled the NFL’s version of a Jedi mind trick. Other teams are using him to run big parts of their business, and he, in turn, has gained a significant influence on the finances of those teams, according to league officials familiar with the matter (Freeman, 2017).
Through these maneuvers, Jones has flexed his entrepreneurial muscle and shaped the NFL landscape, and the result is a widespread perception that he is one of the most powerful men in the NFL. From his pushes for reform of the league’s marketing in his first years as owner to his role in promoting the relocations, Jones has worked beyond the responsibilities of a typical owner and built a remarkable and unrivaled amount of influence. Freeman goes as far as calling Jones “possibly… the most powerful man in all of sports,” citing Jones’ recent moves as an indicator that he’s at “the peak of his power” (Freeman, 2017). K.D. Drummond of USA Today also sees Jones at the top of the NFL food chain:
It might pain fans of rival organizations to admit this, but there’s a very good case to be made Jerry Jones is really in charge of the NFL… With the 31-1 owner approval of the Raiders move to Las Vegas from Oakland, a series of musical chairs is coming to an end, and Jones seems to be the one in control of the boombox. It hasn’t resulted in championships for his Dallas Cowboys, but the more people look into the details of the moves made by other franchises in recent years, the more it becomes clear to them (Drummond, 2017).
Given Jones’ perception as the league’s foremost power player, it is no surprise that he has clashed with the man technically in charge of the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell. Though Jones successfully advocated for Goodell to be elected commissioner in 2006, Goodell has come down against the Cowboys on multiple occasions (Van Natta & Wickersham, 2017). In 2009, Jones received a $100,000 fine for telling reporters he saw revenue sharing between owners as “on its way out”, and in 2012 Goodell docked the Cowboys millions of dollars for violating salary cap rules (Belson, 2015). However, these cases pale in comparison to the tense power struggle over the suspension of Cowboys’ running back Ezekiel Elliott in 2017.
On August 9, 2017, just days after Jones’ Hall of Fame induction, Goodell called Jones and informed him that the league was instating a six-game suspension for Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ superstar running back who in his rookie year had won the rushing title. Jones was furious, both because a few months earlier Goodell had told him that there was not enough evidence for Elliott to receive a suspension and because Jones believed the punishment was “an overreaction” for a case in which the court system did not find Elliott guilty of domestic violence (Wickersham & Van Natta, 2017). He responded to Goodell by telling the commissioner that he was “going to come at you with everything [he had]” (Wickersham, 2017). In the following months, Jones and Goodell battled through the levels of the court system, until Elliott’s suspension was ultimately upheld on November 9, and Jones was fined over $2 million for “conduct detrimental to the league” (Robinson, 2018).
The Ezekiel Elliott case was the last straw for Jones, and the Cowboys owner resorted to an attempt to block Goodell’s contract extension (Wickersham & Van Natta, 2017). The combination of the Elliott suspension, Goodell’s reactions to the recent public relations fiascos that stemmed from the league’s domestic violence scandals, and Goodell’s $42 million annual salary motivated Jones to push back against the proposed contract (Schefter & Mortensen, 2017). With arguably the league’s two most powerful men pitted against each other, the NFL appeared to be “teetering on an all-out, unprecedented civil war” (Wickersham & Van Natta, 2017). Though Jones was able to delay the contract from being approved by a couple months, Goodell ultimately won out with a $200 million contract worth close to $40 million annually (Wickersham, 2017). Despite Goodell’s victory, Jones succeeded in making a statement to the league and its owners that he could and would stand up to anyone, even the entire NFL, if they opposed his beliefs. According to one league executive:
Jerry’s message to Roger was ‘I run this league. You better get with it.’ This is about power and control, not the contract. That’s all white noise (Wickersham & Van Natta, 2017).
Thirty years into his tenure as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones remains adamant that he will be the team’s general manager, president, and owner for the foreseeable future. Regardless, he has started to delegate power over the personnel and franchise to his children in recent years, and as David Moore of The Dallas Morning News put it, Jones “acknowledges an obligation to invest his children with the authority necessary to build a bridge to the future,” (Moore, 2018). Jones’ son Stephen, now 54, has worked in the personnel department since the early 1990s (Patoski, 2013, pp. 545) and has become a major player in the franchise’s personnel decisions (Van Natta, 2014). The elder Jones has even deferred to his son and other front office executives on major decisions. In the 2014 NFL Draft, Jones allowed Stephen to draft the player the front office preferred, offensive guard Zack Martin, over Jones’ favorite, the flashy quarterback Johnny Manziel (Moore, 2018). The instance “represented a crossroads for the organization, a tangible sign that the father was willing to put aside his personnel convictions and defer to his son” (Moore, 2018). Additionally, Jones’ daughter Charlotte serves as the chief brand officer and his other son Jerry Jr. is the team’s executive vice president (Van Natta, 2014).
In his league executive role, Jones has not backed off and figures to be a key player in the league’s upcoming labor negotiations in 2020. The negotiations are a prime opportunity for Jones to make a significant imprint on the direction of the NFL (Schefter & Mortensen, 2017). According to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports:
As the labor negotiations move closer, those close to Jones believe his sense of personal manifest destiny will lead him to push harder on fellow owners to be the lead in every major decision. They also believe Jones could be an owner who extends some kind of olive branch to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, as a means of “rebooting” the relationship between the league office and the union (Robinson, 2018).
Historians mark February 25, 1989, the date of Jerry Jones’ purchase of the Dallas Cowboys, as one of the most pivotal events in NFL history. Jones’ purchase divides two distinct eras of the NFL, and there is no figure who represents what the NFL has become over the past three decades better than Jerry Jones himself. The league has embraced the money-maximizing tactics through marketing that Jones introduced in the early 1990s, as the majority of recent NFL decisions show commitment to the financial bottom line. Similar to Jones’ immediate reconstruction of the Cowboys brand that caused Tex Schramm to wonder if Jones would “take the stars off the helmets”, the NFL has prioritized the dollar over tradition and loyalty in its recent relocations. Both Jones and the NFL treasure relevance, with the NFL rising to the top of television rating charts and the Cowboys being established as a global brand. And the essential quality of Jones, his desire for control, is exhibited regularly by league officials and has gotten the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell into its fair share of public relations disasters in the past few years on issues such as player discipline and the anthem protests.
However, there is a major difference between Jones and the NFL that makes this comparison an incomplete one. With ratings at all-time highs and concussion and injury concerns clouding the future of professional football, the NFL must take a long-term view with their decisions. Jones, on the other hand, has one ultimate goal that is either achieved or denied every year: a fourth Super Bowl ring.
Jerry Jones’ talent as a businessman is unparalleled across professional sports. But that same desire for control that has empowered him to pull off some of the most brilliant moves the league has seen does not translate to the on-field success that Jones covets. Football is a team game, and no single person, not even Jones, can carry the franchise to the sport’s pinnacle. The Cowboys’ glory days in the 1970s and 1990s were possible because the franchise relied on the diverse, world-class talents of a whole cast of individuals, not just one star. The price for Jerry Jones to win a Super Bowl is not monetary; it is the controlling nature that has defined his past three decades. Only Jones can determine whether that is a price he is willing to pay.