ARLINGTON, Texas — Four years ago, the Pro Football Writers of America voted Jerry Jones as executive of the year. His Dallas Cowboys had gone 12-4, won the NFC East and made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
Maybe he deserved it, though the honor seemed more like a lifetime achievement award than anything else. After all, he had to be stopped—almost physically—from drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round of that year’s draft.
Yes, Jerry has been a meddler for years in Cowboys’ personnel decisions. It’s difficult to say whether some of his terrible trades were worse than some of his terrible free-agent acquisitions. But while everyone has joked about Jerry Jones the executive, he (and those he employs to help him in these decisions) has quietly put together a home-grown winner in the 2018 Dallas Cowboys.
In last week’s 24-22 wild-card win over the Seahawks, Dallas started 17 players on either side of the ball that were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by the Cowboys. Just three of the 22 starters had been acquired in free agency; two had been traded for.
And then there’s the head coach, the one Jerry has stuck with through all the mediocrity and the one who seemed destined for unemployment midway through the season when the Cowboys were 3-5 and preparing to miss the playoffs for the sixth time in his eight years.
“The Cowboys have a history of having some average records, let’s say, in the past and have come on and have had really fine teams. It’s just a journey. It’s been described as a marathon,” Jones said Saturday night before breaking into one of his more incredible analogies.
“Like the old wagon train guys said, ‘We’re going to burn some of these wagons on the way out to California, break them down and float the Mississippi River. A lot of people are gonna be born, a lot of people die. But I’m going to make it to California. I hope you’re on the train with me.’ Well that’s kind of the way you look at a football team. We’ve got a lot of guys that can get to California, I think.”
There has been the bad with Jerry Jones, roster builder. He once traded two first-round picks for Joey Galloway. He sent a first and three other picks for Roy Williams. Those famously blew up in his face. He signed Greg Hardy a year after he abused his girlfriend, in what was an objectively bad move at the time and has only gotten worse with each time Hardy has opened his mouth.
He has also clearly lucked into some picks. Avoiding Manziel led to the Cowboys drafting All-Pro guard Zack Martin. Dak Prescott, the team’s franchise quarterback who Jones can’t wait to sign to an extension, is in Dallas only because Jones was sniped on Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook in the 2016 draft.
There were also the high-risk moves, like 2015, when the Cowboys drafted Randy Gregory despite a history of failed drug tests and signed La’el Collins after he went undrafted while the murder of his ex-girlfriend was being investigated. After trade-up efforts for Lynch failed in 2016, the Cowboys took Jaylon Smith, his future unclear due to nerve damage suffered when he tore knee ligaments in his final college game. Or taking Leighton Vander Esch with the No. 19 overall pick in April’s draft with Sean Lee coming off the best season of his career and the team desperately needing a receiver. Or cutting the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history in Dan Bailey and keeping Brett Maher. Gregory has become a key contributor in the pass rush, Collins is a quality right tackle, Smith and Vander Esch are budding stars who were crucial to the team’s success when Lee injured both hamstrings this season, and Maher’s six makes from 50-plus yards this season equals Bailey’s makes from that distance in 2016 and ’17 combined.
And remember when we all panned Jerry for trading a first-round pick to Oakland in exchange for Amari Cooper? Well, that pick has now turned into No. 25 at worst for the Cowboys. Cooper has three 100-yard games and Dallas is 8-2 with him in the lineup. His presence opened up the running game for Ezekiel Elliott and, despite missing all of training camp and half a season’s worth of work with Prescott, Cooper has fit in immediately with the group.
“He’s a great receiver who gets separation, simple as that. He makes my job easy when he runs routes like he does, when he studies opponents like he does,” Prescott said after Cooper’s seven-catch, 106-yard playoff performance. “He gets open as you saw tonight. The majority of catches he had, he was open because of the way he ran his route. Credit to that guy for making that transition easy, giving us momentum, and helping this offense.”
Jerry can’t get all the credit here, though. Two days before that trade, Jones huddled with his son, Stephen, and Cowboys VP of player personnel Will McClay in the visitor’s locker room following Dallas’s 20-17 loss to Washington. The need for a true No. 1 receiver had been evident all season, and the three men were ready to give Jon Gruden and Reggie McKenzie what they demanded for Cooper.
McClay has arguably been Jones’s biggest crutch when it comes to player evaluation. He has spearheaded the Cowboys’ drafts since 2014 and Jones has made it difficult for him to leave. Last year he declined an interview for the vacant Houston general manager job and received a two-year contract extension before the start of free agency.
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To keep Garrett, Jones has shown patience. To retain McClay, he’s shown him the money. And when both of those options fail—as they may when coaching searches around the league turn to defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard—Jones isn’t above resorting to kidnapping.
“I’ve got a house out between the Oklahoma line and here. You handcuff him, you tie him up and you don’t let him out until right before the game,” Jones joked to reporters. “That will work. I’ve done things like that before.”
If they win Saturday’s divisional round game against the Rams in L.A., the Cowboys would be as deep in the playoffs as they’ve been since winning Super Bowl XXX, following the 1995 season. While it’s not easy for everyone to admit, it is Jones’s moves that got them here.
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