Arash Markazi
Wednesday August 20th, 2008

Jerry Jones is media-friendly. This much is apparent as the Dallas Cowboys owner stands in the center of SkyBar, the infamously exclusive poolside lounge tucked away in the Mondrian hotel overlooking Hollywood. Jones has rented out the area for the evening for a media party, waving in beat writers that have been brought down from the team's training camp site an hour north in Oxnard. While scantily clad women and Hollywood high-rollers attempt to sweet talk their way past the velvet ropes, Jones is making scribes from the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram feel like A-listers, at least for an evening.

Jones has never shied away from allowing the media into his world and into his team. He was the first to allow cameras and microphones into the Cowboys draft room, doing so after he bought the team in 1989. He gave NFL Films an unprecedented, all-access view into the Cowboys tumultuous 1995 season for a week -- the same week they signed Deion Sanders away from the rival 49ers to a then-record $35 million contract -- for a made-for-television special called Six Days to Sunday. He had allowed the same unparalleled access to SI the previous season as the team attempted to win its third Super Bowl in a row with first-year head coach Barry Switzer. And the Cowboys were one of the first subjects of Hard Knocks, the training camp reality show produced by NFL Films and HBO, which is going on its fourth season after taking a five-year break following the Cowboys' first run with the series in 2002.

"We've always viewed visibility and exposure as an opportunity to build the Dallas Cowboys," said Jones, who agreed to do Hard Knocks after NFL Films COO Howard Katz pitched the idea to him aboard his private jet shortly after the Super Bowl. "That's the way we've always operated and we love that we're the first to have a camera in the draft room. Media access means visibility for the club and more avenues to reach our fans. That's why I love having training camp in California because we can get a lot of fans out here."

So accessible is Jones that his office in Room 213 at the Residence Inn Marriott, where the Cowboys are calling home during training camp, is located right behind the two production trailers for Hard Knocks. Not that the on-site crew of 25 NFL Films staffers isn't already keeping tabs on the Cowboys owner at all times with a camera affixed to the wall of his office and wiretaps monitoring all his phone calls.

"You don't notice it," said Jones of the cameras and microphones. "After the initial talk, the players don't even notice it. You don't even know it's there. I'm in there talking about players, stadium issues, by the end of the day I can't even remember what I talked about, but I'm sure it's colorful."

With the Cowboys as the show's subject, that was never going to be a problem. Jones, however, is still like an eager screenwriter trying to sell a script as he talks about the wealth of storylines surrounding the team this season.

"Right off the bat, Pacman Jones, who's here under suspension to be reviewed, now think about that drama, he comes up to Terrell Owens every play and he says, 'You're mine, I'm on you.' You can't script that. It has to happen naturally," said Jones. "We also got a guy named Tank Johnson who came to us under suspension five games into last season and he's turned out to be one of the most outstanding leaders you've ever seen. Now think about that picture. Here's Adam Jones, here's Tank Johnson, here's Terrell Owens, guys that may have had problems in the past becoming leaders. What a story."

The only problem with the Cowboys is there may be too many stories to tell on a team that had a record 13 Pro Bowlers last season and enters this season as the favorite to win the Super Bowl. As the show's director, Rob Gehring must decide which stories to focus on each day as he takes a look at the "big board" pasted on the wall of one of the production trailers. The wall is full of headshots of players, coaches, front office personnel and even media members, broken up into categories with blue tape and subcategories for those who are wired. There are also outside "characters" such as Mrs. Price, a die-hard Cowboys fan who attends every practice and game and was featured in episode two.

"We plan as much as we can, but without speaking about other reality shows I think this is a pure reality show. It's a documentary series," said Gehring, walking around the trailer and reviewing upcoming interviews. "This is real."

HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg, who had answered countless questions about how the show would deal with a sighting of Tony Romo's girlfriend Jessica Simpson at camp before the show premiered, smiles as he recalls seeing Mrs. Price for the first time when he arrived at camp, proving you can never script what will be in the show from week to week.

"We showed up to camp and we see this Mrs. Price, and I'm standing next to Jerry Jones and I look at T.O. and they see her and smile, so an NFL Films camera is racing over to her while another NFL Films camera is on the sidelines as the players are yakking it up about the fact that Mrs. Price has arrived," said Greenburg. "You think we knew that story was going to happen? But it's good, fun television. You just never know when something's going to happen"

Hard Knocks may not be blatantly choreographed as other popular "reality" shows such as MTV's The Hills. You'll certainly never have an NFL Films crew ask Roy Williams to proclaim Wade Phillips as "the sexiest coach in the NFL" (as he did in the second episode) another time because they had a bad angle the first time. Yet there is a method to the madness behind sending 20-25 tapes a day to the NFL Films offices in Mt. Laurel, N.J., which comes out to about 200 hours of raw footage that must be transformed into one compelling hour of television each week.

"I talk to [producer] Kenny Rogers several times a day and he'll tell me we have a great story but I need a cutaway of this or a shot of that," said Gehring, who is one of only five people on the crew who will be with the team for the full 47 days of training camp. "I have an idea of what's happening but its tough."

The first episode of the show hadn't even aired yet before a handful of signs were posted inside and outside of both production trucks: "SHOW #2 THEME "FAMILY"

Another sign taped to the door of one of the production truck delivers an edict from the NFL Films offices: "We can throw a real softball in show one if we show Wade telling the coaches in a meeting to 'spend more time with the players in the locker room, getting to know them not just on the field. The players will appreciate it, and it's just more fun that way.' If we can get some shots, any shots of the assistant coaches in the locker room and/or interacting with players off the field, lunch, hallways, walking to practice, joking around, etc., that will make that meeting byte work well. And the player will love Wade even more (and he'll like us more -- keeping him from kicking our cameras out of huddles)."

The second episode stayed true to the edict as it focused on the family aspect of the team, highlighted by Phillips' similarity to his father's player-friendly style of dealing with his team and showing how much the team appreciates his approach. While that was certainly the objective heading into the episode, Gehring is quick to point out it was also an accurate depiction of a coach who has been misunderstood by outsiders, who perceive him as being a pushover.

"We go to Wade's meetings every night and Wade is great in those meetings," said Gehring. "Every night those team meetings are amazing. I mean people don't realize how much of a motivator and a good coach Wade is. You read and hear all these things about him and say what you will, but he knows how to talk to his players and he knows how to treat his players. He kind of reminds me of (NFL Films president) Steve Sabol to be honest with you. Steve is an inspirational guy and a motivator and Wade is the same way."

During a recent conference call between Jones and Sabol, Jones, who doesn't screen the episodes before they air, shows how much free reign he gives NFL Films, mentioning an upcoming visitor but stopping short of giving him any direction.

"Steve, Dennis Miller and his boys are coming out to practice tomorrow and that might add a unique perspective," said Jones. "I'm anxious to see how you'll handle that. I don't want to know. But I'll just be anxious to see how you handle it."

"Well, we have some great shots of you and your grandchildren," said Sabol, who used shots of Miller's visit and Jones' grandchildren in the second episode. "That's definitely going to be a storyline."

"That's great," said Jones. "I look forward to seeing that."

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