June 12, 2015

IRVING, Texas (AP) Stephen Jones chuckles at the memory of being mediator between his dad -yeah, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones - and headstrong former coach Bill Parcells.

''It was tough, tough, tough,'' the No. 2 man in Dallas' front office says. ''But it was worth it.''

And it helped shape the chief operating officer/executive vice president/director of player personnel into what he is today: the person widely perceived to be calling the shots for the Cowboys.

They've picked foundation over flash in recent drafts and decided not to stress the salary cap with a big contract for DeMarco Murray after he led the NFL in rushing for a playoff team. Stephen Jones was front and center in those decisions.

The 50-year-old Jones finds talk of his leading role ''interesting.'' He believes little has changed in 26 years of Jerry Jones as owner, general manager and ultimate arbiter of the Cowboys, for better or worse. But he doesn't completely squash the notion.

''I think probably the biggest way things have changed is that he probably has more confidence in me,'' Jones says. ''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.''

The younger Jones was a 24-year-old chemical engineering graduate of Arkansas - where he and his dad played football - when Jerry Jones bought America's Team in 1989, fired coach Tom Landry and brought instant notoriety to a family that quietly made its fortune in oil and gas.

Admittedly ''green behind the ears'' as he found himself making decisions alongside then-coach Jimmy Johnson, Stephen Jones was confident in his football background.

Looking back now, Jones figures a healthy part of his growth came in the four years Parcells was with the Cowboys. His flamboyant father and a Super Bowl-winning coach who famously clashed with front offices on personnel issues elsewhere didn't want any ''confrontational disagreement,'' as the younger Jones put it. So he got to play middle man.

''It helped me in a lot of ways,'' Jones said. ''Because I had to have some real heated, heated visits with both Jerry and Bill.''

And he wasn't afraid of them, says Jeff Ireland, the Cowboys' director of scouting in those days. Ireland remembers the Cowboys deciding to do something different in the draft room and needing to tell Parcells, who Stephen Jones says was the architect of several changes that made Dallas better.

''Stephen didn't wait for his dad,'' Ireland said. ''He said, `Hey, look, Jeff, we're going to go and do this and it's not going to be a real happy time for us.' He knows how to handle people. And he knows how to do it without disrespecting them either.''

Jones says his dad still has the final decision. That included last year when he resisted his headline-grabbing urge during the draft and passed on Johnny Manziel for Zack Martin, a quiet workhorse offensive lineman who became the club's first rookie All-Pro since Calvin Hill in 1969.

The more relevant draft room drama, Stephen Jones says, is the buildup to each pick. Jones has tried to make his voice heard when his dad gets anxious about moving up.

''We're going to be good here, I think,'' Stephen Jones might say.

''Can you assure me one of these guys ...'' his dad might counter.

''I can't assure you of anything. I don't know what these people ...'' son might shout back.

''Well then we need to go get `em,'' father might say.

''So it's a little fun dynamic in there when he and I are visiting,'' Stephen Jones adds, smiling. ''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.''

Jerry Jones said as much before this year's draft, when the Cowboys pushed aside their needs at running back and went with Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones in the first round.

''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,'' says Jerry Jones, also noting the input of coach Jason Garrett. ''It would be madness for two people to work as hard as these guys do, not to ... be influenced by what they are telling you.''

Since winning three Super Bowls in four years in the 1990s, the Cowboys at times trashed the salary cap trying to keep the core of those teams together, and had plenty of draft busts.

But Morris Claiborne (2012) is the only first-round pick from 2010-14 that hasn't made a Pro Bowl. And the Cowboys came away from this year's draft feeling like they had three first-rounders in Jones, defensive end Randy Gregory, and lineman La'el Collins.

Gregory, a projected top 10 pick, fell to the end of the second round over off-field issues, and Collins picked Dallas as a free agent when he went undrafted after he was named in a police investigation in which he isn't a suspect.

Stephen Jones believes the Cowboys are benefiting from the continuity of five-plus years with Garrett as head coach. They haven't had that since Johnson left in a messy split with Jerry Jones after winning a second straight championship in 1993.

Through all the coaching changes, Jerry Jones, 72, had one constant at the top - his son.

''I know he looks and treats the franchise as a legacy,'' Stephen Jones said. ''The big joy comes in working with him and working as a family.''

And if people want to say Stephen Jones is the leading voice, so be it.

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

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