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NFL Execs: The Cowboys Under Stephen Jones Are Turning into a 'Scary' Contender

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMay 6, 2016

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (right) with his son Stephen, the team's executive vice president.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (right) with his son Stephen, the team's executive vice president.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFC general manager says something that hasn't been heard in a long time, maybe since the 1990s, when Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin wrecked the NFL with multiple Super Bowl wins.

"The Cowboys," he says, "are starting to scare me."

Why?

"You could always count on Jerry Jones f--king things up," he says. "That isn't happening any longer. That's a Super Bowl-caliber team now."

Hold on. What?

Another front-office executive, this one in the AFC, says something similar.

"Health is obviously the key for them," the executive says. "If [Tony] Romo can stay healthy, that's an 11-win team."

In the 12 games Tony Romo missed during the 2015 season, the Cowboys went 1-11.
In the 12 games Tony Romo missed during the 2015 season, the Cowboys went 1-11.Brandon Wade/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

This is real life, correct? Not the Matrix? Not an alternate universe?

It does make sense. The Cowboys, once again, are a legitimate threat. And there's a simple reason: They are making smart decisions. Tons of them. This is something that hasn't happened in many years.

The personnel men I've spoken to over the past few days believe the Cowboys are neatly positioned to win the division and within a year or two—maybe even this season—make a strong Super Bowl run. All of this seems a bit fast for me, but I've continued to hear after the draft how impressed the rest of the league is with the Cowboys and what they're doing.

The main thing these teams see is a different philosophical bent. They point to the growing influence of Stephen Jones—Jerry's son and the Cowboys' chief operating officer, executive vice president and director of player personnel—on the football product.

Stephen Jones' impact on the organization isn't something that's new this offseason. In 2015, he told the Associated Press' Schuyler Dixon:

I think probably the biggest way things have changed is that he probably has more confidence in me. Although he might not want to say that he didn't have confidence in me 20 years ago, because I think he did. I think he listened to me a lot. But did he listen as much? Maybe not.

But he's a good listener. And I mean he listens more. In the past, he might not have had the confidence in me to listen as much, or [to] someone in the room.

But the continuation of that influence is what's made a difference, many people around the league believe.

They believe Stephen is now a legitimate, smart personnel man. This wasn't always the view of him.

"He was seen by a lot of people in football as a trust fund baby masquerading as a football guy," the NFC general manager says. "Now he's just an excellent football guy."

"Bottom line, without getting into it a lot, Stephen has absolute, tremendous influence on these decisions that are ultimately made in this organization and everything we do," Jerry told Dixon in 2015. "It would be madness for two people to work as hard as [Stephen and coach Jason Garrett] do, not to...be influenced by what they are telling you."

What's interesting is Stephen has a track record that can be followed, and that record elevates his credibility. First, as Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei relayed recently, Stephen convinced Jerry not to select Johnny Manziel. That was one of the smartest moves the Cowboys never made. Manziel has already washed out of the NFL and is being indicted on a misdemeanor assault charge, while the player they picked instead of him, guard Zack Martin, has made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons.

Instead of taking Johnny Manziel, the Cowboys selected Zack Martin with the 16th pick of the 2014 NFL draft.
Instead of taking Johnny Manziel, the Cowboys selected Zack Martin with the 16th pick of the 2014 NFL draft.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Second, in this past draft, according to the MMQB's Peter King, Jerry wanted to overpay in a trade to get quarterback Paxton Lynch, but Stephen talked him out of it.

The Cowboys used the picks they could have traded for Lynch to draft Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith and Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins. That was the smarter move.

The massive misstep the Cowboys made was bringing in woman-beating turd Greg Hardy, but they rectified that one by not bringing him back.

I've known Jerry Jones for decades, and he's a genius—just not always in football matters. I always thought he was more concerned about turning the team into an ATM than building a great football legacy. Either I was always wrong about that (and I don't think I was), or all of those 8-8 seasons and watching the Super Bowl without the Cowboys in it has opened his mind some to letting others have greater influence.

This isn't to say he didn't try before to turn things over to football minds. He hired Bill Parcells, but Parcells was always a better coach than he was a personnel man.

The Cowboys haven't been a formidable franchise in a long time. Not since Johnson ran them, suckered the Vikings into the worst trade of all time and built the team with an army of picks.

No, these aren't those Cowboys. Not even close. But this is a different Cowboys team than the one Jerry Jones was running post-Jimmy Johnson. Thanks to Stephen Jones.

A different franchise. A better franchise. One that is starting to scare some people.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @mikefreemanNFL.

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