The Rise and Fall of Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys

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The Rise and Fall of Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys
USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Jones is now in his 25th year as owner of America's most popular and most valuable sports team. It's easy to reflect on nearly a quarter-century in office for the NFL's most prominent lightning rod, because his time with the Dallas Cowboys can be split into two distinct, crystal-clear chapters. 

The successful chapter and the unsuccessful chapter. 

The story of how Jones helped (the wording there is important: helped) build the 'Boys from rock bottom into a dynasty and then became a victim of his own ego as that dynasty collapsed can really be told by remembering what went down on no more than 10 specific dates. 

 

1. Feb. 25, 1989

The day a 46-year-old Jones bought the Cowboys from Bum Bright, whose fortune had dwindled during the 1980's savings and loan crisis. The bar had been lowered immensely for Jones, because the 'Boys were mired in what would end up being their longest playoff drought in team history (five years). They were coming off a 3-13 season (their worst since their inaugural 1960 campaign) and were on the brink of posting a 1-15 record in '89. 

Jones immediately ruffled feathers by firing legendary head coach Tom Landry and Hall of Fame general manager Tex Schramm. With those two powerful figures gone, the avenue had been paved for him to eventually become the Dear Leader of Dallas Football.  

Jones naturally took plenty of criticism for canning such iconic and adored members of the Cowboys fraternity, but at least he wasn't afraid to take chances and try fresh approaches as the organization looked to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in over a decade. 

 

2. April 23, 1989

 

George Rose/Getty Images

The day Jones and new head coach Jimmy Johnson drafted UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman with the No. 1 overall pick. Not exactly rocket science, considering that Dallas was in desperate need of a quarterback and that the now-Hall-of-Famer was the nation's best college pivot in 1988. Aikman was also the only quarterback with a high-first-round projection. 

Regardless, credit goes to Jones for not over-thinking by drafting Tony Mandarich or trading the pick entirely. The first pick of the Jones/Johnson era was the most important one of all, and it set the wheels in motion as the 'Boys rebuilt themselves into a powerhouse. 

 

3. Oct. 13, 1989

Still in his first year as owner, Jones pulled the trigger on a trade that would greatly increase the speed at which those wheels of progress were rotating. The now-famous deal with the Minnesota Vikings—famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page—gave the Cowboys five new players and eight new draft picks in exchange for running back Herschel Walker and four picks. 

They'd replace Walker with the very first of those picks (more on that in a moment) while also grabbing key components such as Darren Woodson and Alvin Harper with draft selections they acquired from Minnesota. The trade invigorated a shallow roster.

 

4. April 22, 1990

 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Of course, that didn't happen overnight, and Jones and Co. still had to actually find the right players with those picks. Nearly one year after Aikman became the first top pick of the Jones era, another eventual Hall of Famer, Emmitt Smith, became the second.

Smith certainly didn't blow anyone away with his size or speed, which makes it all the more impressive that the 'Boys traded up four spots to select him in the No. 17 spot of the first round. Fellow backs Darrell Thompson, Steve Broussard, Rodney Hampton and Dexter Carter went off the board soon after that happened. Had the Cowboys settled for any of those guys, they might not have gone on to win three Super Bowls in the next six seasons.

In that same window, Jones added Pro Bowlers Daryl "Moose" Johnston, Russell Maryland, Leon Lett, Mark Stepnoski, Erik Williams and Jay Novacek. 

Nate Newton and Michael Irvin were leftover parts from the previous regime, but there's no doubt that Jones and Johnson made some colossally superb moves as Dallas transitioned from bottom-feeder to front-runner in a very short period of time.

 

5. March 29, 1994

 

Allen Steele/Getty Images
Jerry and Jimmy had a tumultuous relationship.

The day Jimmy Johnson "resigned" after his tumultuous relationship with Jones had reached a boiling point and also the beginning of the end of the the Cowboys' dynasty. At this point, powered by Aikman, Smith, Irvin and the rest of those new components, they'd won back-to-back Super Bowls, and Jones seemed ready to pull a John Lennon

It seemed his head had swelled, and there was no longer enough room at Valley Ranch for both his ego and Johnson's. 

Now, there was more to it than that. Johnson hadn't exactly been a model employee in Dallas, making life a little more difficult than most bosses would prefer. One example, courtesy of Sports Illustrated: "On the team's charter flight home after the win over the Giants, Johnson walked up to Jones and said, 'By the way, I'm the one who's going to decide how long I coach here.'"

So they clashed. It happens. Jones isn't entirely responsible for how things ended between the two, but the reality if that while the Cowboys did capture one more Lombardi Trophy with Barry Switzer at the helm two years later, this was the first sign that "America's Team" was fallible under Jones' tutelage. 

When Jones famously claimed that "any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls," he was explicitly taking credit for what had been built in Dallas, but the slow decline that the team experienced in the years to come indicates otherwise. 

Maybe, any one of 500 owners could have won those Super Bowls. Maybe it was Jones who lucked out. Randy Galloway covered the team then, and he wrote last year in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that it was Jimmy, not Jerry, running the show:

Jerry and his ego both know the truth.

Jimmy was in charge of all things football from the day Jerry and Jimmy took over the franchise in 1989. Anyone in the local media who was around in those days knows this is the truth, and we know it because Jerry repeatedly told us it was the truth.

And anything involving football, from a low-end roster move to the trade of Herschel Walker, no one was asking Jerry for a football opinion.

 

6. April 24, 1994

The day Jones, in his first draft sans Johnson, traded a first- and second-round pick to San Francisco in order to move up five spots for Arizona State defensive end Shante Carver, who had 11.5 sacks in his four seasons with the Cowboys.

There's Jerry, on his own, taking a chance that backfired. It was also the first major sign that he was going to become a man who would stop at nothing to get his hands on players he became infatuated with, often at the expense of the rest of the team. 

 

7. April 22, 1995

 

On the five-year anniversary of the day he and Johnson capitalized on the Walker trade to pick Smith, Jones, again on his own, made another trade that didn't work. This time, he dealt away a top pick to Tampa Bay (which the Buccaneers used on eventual nine-time All-Pro Derrick Brooks), winding up with Sherman Williams, Shane Hannah and Eric Bjornson in exchange for that pick.

After hitting so many home runs early in his reign, Jones was beginning to strike out immediately after he cut ties with Johnson and gained full autonomy. 

The 1995, 1996 and 1997 drafts would provide the Cowboys with only a single future Pro Bowler (linebacker Dexter Coakley). In 1997, he essentially spent a first-, third- and fifth-round pick on tight end David LaFleur, whom Aikman reportedly preferred to Tony Gonzalez. LafLeur lasted only four seasons, catching just 85 passes. 

 

8. April 18, 1998

The term "glory days" is only used in the past tense. And it was around this time—with the "triplets" all in or on the verge of their 30s—that it became clear the Cowboys would have to replenish the roster in order to avoid the glory days label regarding the three titles they won in a four-year span earlier that decade. 

Passing on Randy Moss in the first round of the 1998 draft certainly didn't help. Moss, of course, became a legend and a Cowboy killer after sliding to the Vikings later that round. In the No. 8 spot, Dallas took the formidable Greg Ellis instead. Not a bad pick, but no Randy Moss. 

Twelve years later, Jones apologized for not taking Moss.

 

9. Feb. 12, 2000 

Two silly, regrettable trades have defined the Cowboys this century. The first took place only 43 days after the new millenium began, when Jones traded not one but two first-round picks for 28-year-old wide receiver Joey Galloway. 

Galloway, who had become disgruntled in Seattle, had some quality seasons under his belt, but he had never been to a Pro Bowl and had never hit the 75-catch mark or the 1,100-yard mark. He'd fail to do so in his four disappointing seasons in Dallas, registering no more than 61 catches, 908 yards and six touchdowns after fighting back from an ACL injury.

It's certainly difficult for Cowboys fans to imagine what their team could have done with those top-10 picks in 2001 and 2002. And it certainly didn't help that Jones used his two second-round picks that upcoming year on Quincy Carter and Tony Dixon.

The poor picks would pile up for the remainder of what was a generally stagnant decade of Cowboys football. Robert Brewster, Bobby Carpenter, Jacob Rogers, Felix Jones, James Marten, Al Johnson. Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike. No wonder things became so stale in the football capital of the world.

 

10. Oct. 14, 2008

 

It's not as though Jones became a particularly terrible general manager. Everyone misses on picks, and Jones still found Tony Romo—the league's only current starting quarterback who wasn't drafted—while hitting the nail on the head with draft picks like Roy Williams (safety), Andre Gurode, Terence Newman, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Julius Jones, Marion Barber and, more recently, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith (jury's still out on Morris Claiborne). 

But then there was that other Roy Williams, the one who played a starring role in the other trade that negatively defined the 21st century for the Cowboys. It was in October 2008 when Jones sent a first-, a third- and a sixth-round pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for wide receiver Roy Williams, who had put together only one fantastic season while being plagued by injuries for much of his time in the NFC North. 

In two-and-a-half years with the Cowboys, Williams was oftentimes a ghost. He had fewer than 40 catches and 600 yards in both of his full seasons with the team before being released in 2011. 

It's now June 13, 2013, and the Cowboys are locked in their longest playoff drought since the one that Jones revived them from 25 years ago. Looking at what's gone wrong, it seems his gambles simply stopped paying off at the same rate they were early in his reign, which—coincidentally or not—came with Jimmy Johnson by his side. 

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In recent years, the frustration has mounted to breaking points for a lot of fans. FireJerryJones.com came into existence in 2009, while fans petitioned the White House in 2012 to remove their team's owner from his job.

Can you blame them for wondering if the early success the 'Boys experienced under Jones actually had little or nothing to do with Jones himself? Maybe, he just bought the right team at the right time. Picking Aikman wasn't rocket science and luck factors into borderline-crapshoot drafts. 

It's hard not to admire Jones' all-or-nothing mentality and spirit, but all of the "all" came in those first few years and it feels as though it's been nothing but "nothing" since.

Time hasn't been nice to Jerry Jones. It has exposed him as a mediocre football executive, which probably shouldn't surprise anyone considering that his previous business experience had nothing to do with football and everything to do with oil. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As a result, for the first time, um, ever, it's not unconscionable to feel sorry for Cowboys fans. Yes, they were spoiled in the 1970s and the 1990s, but that only heightened their expectations. Now, their once-dominant team has become perpetually average. 

The now-70-year-old Jones won't change, though. He won't cede personnel control. He won't likely hire another head coach with a backbone. He's content, and so are his sons, who will take over when he dies. That's because the Joneses are businessmen first, and the Cowboys brand remains strong.

Jerry Jones the businessman is still winning in spite of the fact his self-pride has interfered with his ability to win football games. 

The result: Your team is just normal now, Cowboys fans, and there's a good chance things will remain that way for many, many years to come. 

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