OXNARD, Calif. — A year removed from having both his hips replaced, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is as spry as ever. The 73-year-old shows no signs of backing away from the dream life he has built. When Jones was in college, he wrote his thesis on doing sales under the umbrella of a football team.
By his mid-20s, Jones was already trying to buy the San Diego Chargers. It took another 25 years for him to achieve his goal of owning a franchise, but he has turned a $140 million investment in 1989 into a $4 billion empire, according to Forbes. The Cowboys are the most valuable team in the NFL and quite possibly the crown jewel of sports the world over.
For his part, Jones has parlayed his expertise into becoming one of the most powerful owners in the league. USA Today recently named him the most influential person in the NFL, and there is little evidence to dispute that point. At the same time, Jones is craving another Super Bowl title after more than 20 years without one. He recently sat down with Bleacher Report to talk about the state of both his team and the league.
Bleacher Report: You're moving a lot better than a year ago at this time when I saw you after the first hip-replacement surgery.
Jerry Jones: Oh, that was a piece of cake. Really, it's an amazing thing. You have the procedure, and after 45 minutes, you're up and moving around, and it goes from pain to no pain just like that. I never went to sleep. The doctor said I talked to him all the way through the surgery. I don't want to take up your time talking about this, but in both times, I got into surgery at 7 [a.m.] and was walking around by that afternoon. The doctor came in and dismissed me the next day. It was amazing. Just amazing.
Have you been through Dallas since we opened The Star [the team's training facility in Frisco, Texas]?
B/R: No, I haven't seen it yet, but I plan to be there soon.
JJ: We've moved the whole operation out there now, and it's a city. That's the big thing—it's a city, and it's really about…the underlying thing it's highlighting is the high school. Frisco area, that's the boomingest place in the country. So when [Tony] Romo is walking off on Thursday or Friday, you'll see a high school team coming on and playing a game. It will look just like we're joined at the hip.
B/R: That's good for football.
JJ: That's the point. As much as anything, this was an opportunity to keep it while Texas football has something to say. But it's really about pro and amateur joined at the hip. We're building a hospital that adjoins the facility. We're building a wellness [center] that adjoins the facility. We'll have an emphasis on orthopedic safety, brain safety. Anyway, the bottom line is that it's got a lot to say, and it's pretty impressive, just the structures.
B/R: You made me think about something here. I understand the criticism that is directed at football. But people want to challenge themselves, and there is a glory in challenging themselves. I think sometimes in the frenzy to criticize football, we lose sight of the fact that challenges have danger. Whether it's climbing the face of El Capitan in Yosemite or stepping on a field to play football, I think we're losing sight of what it also means to chase that accomplishment.
JJ: I can tell you, I grew up with great coaching, and it had nothing to do with sports. I had great parents. I really got some great input from there. They were entrepreneurial, middle-class business people. Around that breakfast table, I got all kinds of that. In addition to that, they let me, encouraged me, and I wanted to be involved in sports. There's no question that the striving, the stuff that you got out of [sports]. The depending on someone right beside you. Sitting here and calling on yourself when you're tired or getting through something painful, watching your teammates do the same. Everybody feels good when you first walk out there.
I had a college coach that used to say, "Everybody is pretty good in the first quarter. Second quarter, you have a little bump or two on you coming into the half. By the time the third quarter comes around, you're tired, you're laboring. When you come to the fourth quarter, it calls on your character." We'd hold our fingers up to indicate it's the fourth quarter. Well, in life, that's true. You look at anything I've been a part of, it's when the laboring, the fatigue, when some of those things happen, that's what shows what you're going to be. That's real hard to get, and in most sports, you get that fatigue. But being there with that number of people and not letting them down, standing up and getting that feeling. I promise you that during my life, I was more concerned about not letting people down, about doing my part, than I was ever into what it did for me. That is one of the great things about sports, and frankly, football really does instill that.
It doesn't have to be just for the fraction of a fraction of people who get to go into pro ball or the fraction that go into college. But you get to experience that with the right type of people—and 99 percent are the right type of people, the coaches and influencers—you get to do that and it makes a contribution. We should always point that out. Now, anything above that is too high a price to pay. With that much on the line, with some painfulness that's involved, fighting through some fatigue or some physical things. More than that, that's war, and that's too high a price to pay to teach people something.
B/R: So there is a limit.
JJ: That's it. That's what I'm saying. That's war. So you talk about the [armed] service teaches you how to depend on each other, the service makes you aware of the common good and strips that down. Guys who go into service get to have that. But that's a high price to pay in this day and time with going into service.
B/R: So you're saying there is another place to get that.
JJ: There's another place to get that, and it's football. In my mind, and I don't think we should back up from that, and I don't think we are. We've all got to get on the same page. Fortunately, I get to sit on that National Football Foundation board and as a group of people who honor the student-athletes. But the whole point is that we should understand that. Jeff Immelt of General Electric has a great little piece he says. He stands up there and says, "I'm Jeff Immelt, I'm a football player," and then he goes into it. Of course, he's [the chief executive officer] of General Electric.
B/R: So before he identifies himself with GE, he identifies himself as a football player?
JJ: Yes, he says, "I'm Jeff Immelt, I'm a football player," and then he gets into what his background is and what he does. The idea being is that it does bring something meaningful. Is [football] for everybody? Of course not. But it is a meaningful contribution beyond, I think, other alternatives. You don't see young men walk out and say, "Hey, let's go knock the [stuff] out of each other." You say, "Let's hit some grounders. Let's play catch. Let's shoot some baskets."
But the part of football you don't see with all the buddies I ever had, we might have gone out and thrown some passes, but we never went out to knock the hell out of each other just to do it. You do that when the time comes to push the ball downfield or keep it from going down the field. That's why I think football has a great place. That's why it's a great example of what the NFL can be, vicariously, for some of those people who don't participate can see it. So I take a good feeling away from what football brings.
B/R: Along those lines, you have maintained an incredibly high work ethic over the years and taken a significant role in the NFL, such as in guiding the return of the Rams to Los Angeles. That's left the Raiders and the Chargers still trying to solve their situations. How will those two situations play out?
JJ: First of all, on the way to where we have gotten today, I gained a real and greater appreciation for how good the markets are of Oakland and San Diego. They are really top markets relative to the NFL. They have great futures, and so the point I'm going to make is that, first and foremost, I don't want to dismiss that both teams could find an alternate answer and ultimate answer by staying in their own markets. That's, to me, not to be dismissed, and certainly, because there are two, one of them could find that solution.
B/R: But it has been hard.
JJ: And it's always hard, and it's gut-wrenching. It creates serious considerations and, obviously, the idea of leaving behind a market as well as the consideration of the politics of looking at a new market, all those things have all kinds of sensitivities around them. And I completely am one of the most sensitive in that area as far as the NFL is concerned.
However, it also has shown us, by virtue of the Las Vegas opportunity, which is very viable under the right circumstances, there's the potential for one of those clubs to be in Los Angeles. But it is not inconceivable—and I know I'm not only talking out of both sides of my mouth; I'm talking about four ways out of both sides of my mouth—it is a very feasible possibility that we'll only have the Rams in Los Angeles by the time the dust settles.
The key thing was to have the very best opportunity to get it done the very best way to take advantage of not only what Los Angeles is, but what it can be, by totally maximizing every aspect of it. Totally maximizing not only the visibility of it, the aura of it, the entertainment capital of the world, the "wow" factor and then building wow on wow. That has that possibility, and it's even more there today than the day we took the vote or six months before we took the vote. You see it manifest in the initial ticket sales there.
B/R: And you have built "wow" with your stadium, so you understand the importance of that perception.
JJ: Only 7 percent of NFL fans have ever been inside an NFL stadium. Seven…have ever been inside. So the NFL is certainly about the Colosseum of Rome. It can't be a studio game. But even with that, 50 percent of what I spent on AT&T Stadium was for television, so that Al Michaels or back when John Madden was there or now Cris Collinsworth, so that they, in front of 25 million people—not just the 100,000 in the stands—so that they can say, "Folks, you ought to see this, you gotta be here, you can't believe it." To get them to say that, you have to put meat on the bone. It's got to be something where you made that kind of commitment.
[Businessman and casino magnate] Steve Wynn, when I asked him to tell my family after we ran into him on vacation, I said tell us how a bingo player went over to Las Vegas and made what you made happen at that little old downtown. He said, "Well, you made it happen at the stadium." If people have the ability to see it, and you spend the money to put the wow factor into it, they will reward that entity or that team or that business, and they will then say they appreciate me, they appreciate what I'm about, and they will support it. He said, "I saw that happen in downtown Las Vegas, and I can do that on the Strip with the Mirage." This was after we opened our stadium, and he said: "You did exactly the same thing with AT&T Stadium. You not only put in the wow factor, you put in the quality."
I could have easily built a stadium for the Cowboys for $800 million. But I spent $1.2 billion. The other $400 million was for—if you touched it or saw it—was for the quality and for the wow and for things that weren't necessarily there before in a stadium.
B/R: So you want the same feeling that people had in A.D. 80 when Romans walked up to the Colosseum.
JJ: The Colosseum in Rome—and I'm using that arm waving when I say it—as [former Cowboys general manager] Tex Schramm used to say, "This can't become a studio game." You can't present it in a studio with just a few people watching it. It's got to have the pageantry. It's got to have all the crowds. It's got to be the Colosseum in Rome. But at the end of the day, that still only represents approximately 7 percent of our fans and so [the people viewing] have to get it vicariously through the people who are commentating.
B/R: I assume you are aware of how people in St. Louis feel about you now.
JJ: I would say that not only was [Rams owner] Stan [Kroenke] a native of Missouri, but my mom and dad, for 50 years, they had a ranch and lived in Springfield, Missouri. And I, today, still have that ranch and lived in Springfield for years and worked and probably been in every wide spot in the road in the state of Missouri. But I'm aware, and I understand.
Anybody involved in sports in Missouri knows it's a great sports state. It is a great sports state, particularly in basketball and baseball. Particularly. Not to demean football, but it's a baseball state and a basketball state. But, on the other hand, I'm aware and I'm well-aware of the circumstances that caused the move with Stan, and I supported him, and he was almost the ideal qualified owner relative to his background, his interest in sports, his understanding of sports, his financial qualifications and his willingness to spend it.
There is a big difference there. There are a lot of people with money, but not with the passion to really go spend it. I know—I spent what I had made to buy the Dallas Cowboys. So he has that passion and plus, he's uniquely qualified because he is a longtime, talented developer. So he really knows how to put the show on when it comes to facilities. We all in the NFL will benefit from that in Los Angeles.
B/R: With London, I think the logistical issues make it tough for a team to be there permanently. What is your view of it?
JJ: I think it's hard for a team to be there in a place where you haven't had generations to grow up with that passionate support. I do not think the logistical side is the big hang-up. Not that it's not hard, but I think that can be overcome. But I do like where we are with London. Boy am I fired up about having London as an NFL city with that wow factor. I am fired up. I like what that says. I like that coupled up relative to where we were as recently as last year. I like that when I look at the 32 teams.
I would say that those logistical issues, while they are problematic issues of travel and operational issues, I think that pales in comparison to a lot of the things that happen in our own towns, the running around our players do and the hours they keep. Men between the ages of 20 and 30, they don't go home for a meal in a lot of cases. So it's just about being at that time of your life, and that's what they do. If you want to talk about a 60-year-old coach or administrator, that's different.
B/R: What about 54-year-old sports writers?
JJ: I know many of them that put pretty good wear and tear on themselves, too. Seriously, though, I think that's a consideration, the need to have to compete when you travel more. We've always worried that going to San Francisco is a good hike, but I balance it out with the fact that these athletes are in good shape, and it's a time in their lives when they are capable and their families are more considerate.
B/R: Cowboy-specific question. You've had an interesting offseason. You drafted running back Ezekiel Elliott, and fans are obviously excited by that based on the jersey sales. But you've also had DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Rolando McClain get suspended, and you've dealt with the aftermath of Greg Hardy. How concerned are you about the negatives? How optimistic are you about Elliott?
JJ: Well, the fact that he's a rookie—albeit an accomplished one—but getting him acclimated and having high expectations of his production has some iffiness to it. I'll be the first to admit that. On the other hand, his skills are outstanding. It's arguably the most impressive thing. The staff at Ohio State will tell you that. He's an outstanding running back. He's an instinctive receiver. He's as instinctive as you could imagine as a blocker.
It's like [former Cowboys fullback] Daryl Johnston. With Daryl, it wasn't the guy he was supposed to get, but it's the one that would appear when he wasn't supposed to. He had the instincts to pick up that guy first because if he took the guy he was supposed to get, that guy would have made the tackle. So there are instincts in blocking. [Elliott] has that, and he has real good instincts relative to route running. So those things could really add to [the team], but we're not just counting on him.
We've got [Darren] McFadden, who did exceed expectations for us [last season]. So with that, the kid we got from Washington [Alfred Morris], [Lance] Dunbar, that's a position of strength for us, and I say position as it relates to Ezekiel and the expectations for him. Now, does he have some skills that we see that are just exceptional in terms of running the ball? We think so. The running back thing, when I look at that, I see a group of players with Ezekiel, his talent being the juiciest unknown and a way to really add a level that his talent would allow you to have.
Gregory would have been a bonus. We were aware of Gregory's iffiness at the end of last season. I look at him as a bonus that is looking diminished right now. We didn't alter our approach in any way with him. There are issues you read about in the program that he has to address, and he has done that. So we can [draft] the Gregorys because of the core character base we have on our team. I've had teams where we certainly had some behavioral issues and won big. That wouldn't have worked if you had not had the overwhelming number of players on your team who had no issues relative to availability, as to suspension. We've had teams that could have a Charles Haley. You could have a player that gave you some iffiness but his talent would make a real contribution, but you had to have an overwhelming base of players so you know exactly what you had. That allows me and us to take risk, and we've had real success in taking risk with players.
So recognizing the risk involved and the reward that could come with a player of Gregory's talent, you deal with a player of Hardy's talent, you deal with others like that. But with Gregory and Hardy, we had too much at one position. That will give you a concern. If you had that two or possibly three and they were on different sides of the ball, at different position groups, that would lessen how this looks. We had an issue with [Joseph] Randle last year. We don't have him on the roster now, but since we had McFadden and other backs, we didn't have as big an issue with the position. That really can create some scrutiny and some critiquing and some second-guessing even on our part when it really happens at one position as it did last year with Gregory and Hardy as right ends, rush ends.
But therein lies why we took some risk, because of the value of the position. And really, our contract with Hardy last year was a thing of beauty relative to structuring to getting him at the values and getting him, period. I do recognize the criticism…was more than we expected because of the pictures and things like that, and his approach to things was more than we had anticipated. And don't misunderstand my statement. We abhor domestic violence and are in no way making a statement there, but what we are doing is trying to put a team together within the rules.
B/R: Looking back at it, should you have cut Hardy earlier in the season?
JJ: Well, if I had had a crystal ball and known we were not going to get [Tony] Romo back and only win four games…in hindsight, there's a lot to consider here. And I think it had a lot to do with the success Hardy had. Had we been a team that was contending, had we been a team that was in the Super Bowl hunt, you might have had a little more success with Hardy.
B/R: He's a little bit of a weather vane, it sounds like.
JJ: Well, certainly he has a lot of ability, but the results for our defense certainly exacerbated the criticism of the decision to bring him on.
B/R: When the collective bargaining agreement comes up in 2021, it appears that it's going to be a very interesting time in the television industry as it collides with the internet industry. I know you don't have a crystal ball, but where do you anticipate all of this going?
JJ: Well, your first statement is so right in that you don't have a crystal ball. What has borne out is that the thing no one saw was that when you had a proliferation of options on the TV screen or the TV itself, that the premium would go to live content, content that had to be, for all intents and purposes, had to be seen live or it was old, old, old content as opposed to reruns.
When I bought the Cowboys, I visited with—it was really fortunate that he would see me—but I had an hour with Dan Burke of CapCities. I went to see Dan because he was chairman of CapCities, which had ABC and ESPN. ESPN was fledgling, relatively speaking, in 1989. But I went into see him, and I had been involved in the NBC affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then sold my interest to go buy the Cowboys. But I went to see him to ask if he could share his thoughts about the future of football, the NFL and television at the time. I had an hour. I got there about 9 a.m., and I was still there at 11 that night. We had that much time. We had a great time, all day. That much time.
He told me three things. The NFL is in premium interest time, in the fourth quarter [of the business year] when you have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and that's when we try to get the most decision-makers in front of the television, in the fourth quarter. Other sports culminate at different times of the year, but the NFL is in the fourth quarter—that's where the money is. That was one. And the fourth quarter is the hottest time for advertising purchases.
Number two, sports that are continuous and never stop don't give us the opportunity to segment our messages. The huddle allows us to have the 30-second breaks, and if we tried to advertise continuously on a jersey or that was the way to go, it wouldn't be the same financially. So the game itself, it was as though it was designed for having messages during the contest.
Thirdly, and this was prophetic, I could hire every producer in Hollywood—2,000 producers, let's say—and they couldn't come up with all the soap operas, in season and out of season, that NFL programming gives television. He said worry about a lot of things, but don't worry about it being attractive content—and I didn't even know the word "content"; to me, that was popcorn and stuff like that—but those three things will keep you solid, and that's still alive and well today. It's the premium time, the fourth quarter. October, November, December and now, if you will, going over into the first quarter in January. But really, football, that's when the interest is in the game.
So I'm answering you with the same answer I got 28 years ago, and that is that I see nothing that has changed that. Mediums have changed. There are other ways to present it. The habits of the viewers have changed, but the content dynamics are still a part of that. That not only rules today, but by keying off of those things, we should be able to find creative ways for people to fill the need of that kind of interest at that time of year. We certainly, I do, have a great appreciation for some of the time when people can spend focusing in on the game. That's what Monday Night Football is about. That's what Thursday Night Football is about.
It's always been a thought about, hey, do you have too much? Can you have too much? As long as we have the limited amount of games that we actually have, I question whether there can ever be too much exposure of those limited number of games. We are still a limited-game game. We play 16 games, and then we have our playoffs as opposed to other sports having a lot more games than that. So when you look at that, and you look at the way we keep it as my city against your city, Cowboys against Redskins, Cowboys against San Francisco. When you keep it like that, one-on-one, keep it limited—which we will in terms of the numbers of games, that's assured in this day and time—then let's just see what the mediums are, what the technology is in terms of content following.
B/R: Roger Goodell has taken a lot of criticism for having too much power. Whether it's with Greg Hardy or Tom Brady or with the Saints or any number of issues. Do you think that needs to change, or is that a bargaining chip with the NFL Players Association?
JJ: It had always been an issue…labor. In any negotiation, his power has been discussed. On balance, his power has been a real asset to the game. On balance and the argument is, look where we are in terms of the game. Look at where we are and the power. Is that necessarily why we are where we are? Maybe not necessarily, but it certainly has been a major contribution.
I'm all for the power of the commissioner. It is up to the [NFLPA], it is up to the owners to basically look for the best way to do things. The very best way, which in and of itself is an arm-waving term. What's fair? That's an arm-waving term. We have long since moved away from some of the principles of law as to what is fair and equitable in the United States. We all see every day that's debatable, 50-50 in almost all cases.
So we see every day that our very laws have both sides of the fence. So there are big and good arguments on both sides. So we see there is value to having a czar at really key issues that are for the progression of our game, to have the ability of one person to make that decision. We've benefited from that. It isn't necessarily—and subject to criticism in America—when we look at a system that makes laws, debates them and then enforces them. I'm really getting mouthy here, but what I'm really trying to say is that I'm for the commissioner having the power.
B/R: Was Tom Brady's penalty fair?
JJ: Well, I think it has been aired pretty good, and it has had an equitable airing by independent people, and I can't argue with it. Who can argue with it? I mean, you can argue with it, but it's not that it hasn't had its day in court. It has and by virtue of looking at his right to decide. I am very privy to what facts are involved in it, and I'm also very privy to the arguments on both sides. Somebody had to make a decision on it, and they did.
Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.