America's team, meet America's Question. Last week Barry Switzer, of all people, asked it on behalf of infuriated Dallas Cowboy fans confounded by the March 29 resignation of coach Jimmy Johnson. "One thing," Switzer said to team owner Jerry Jones several days before Jones offered Switzer the job. "Would you or Jimmy please explain to me how two guys could be on top of the world and win two straight Super Bowls and not be able to get along with each other?"
Everyone from Laredo to Little Rock knew that Johnson and Jones were on the outs, but how could it have come to this? How could Jerry have pushed Jimmy overboard, with a loaded team trying for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl win?
The answer begins with a story Johnson told to a table of Dallas staff alumni, including Arizona Cardinal assistant general manager Bob Ackles, Chicago Bear coach Dave Wannstedt, Washington Redskin coach Norv Turner and their spouses, at a party during the NFL meetings in Orlando on March 21. In the midst of Johnson's narrative, Jones approached the group, drink in hand, to offer a toast.
Johnson's story was this: The day before the 1992 NFL draft, the Dallas brain-trust—Johnson, Jones and Ackles—formulated a trade to offer the Cleveland Browns. Late that day, after Jones had left the office, Cleveland coach Bill Belichick called back to say he would do the deal, and the Cowboys announced it. On draft day Jones came to the office upset that he hadn't been called when the deal was confirmed, and he asked to see Johnson. Their meeting droned on until, with only five minutes left before the start of the draft, Jones told Johnson, "You know the ESPN camera is in the draft room today. So whenever we're about to make a pick, you look at me, like we're talking about it." In other words, Make me look as if I'm a big player here, even though we all know I'm not making the picks.
April 10, 1994
Johnson burst from his meeting with Jones and walked not to the draft room but to his office. When Wannstedt went to tell him to hurry to the draft room, Johnson snapped sarcastically, "Let Jerry handle the draft. He knows all about it." Johnson relented, but he stewed about Jones all day.
Last week Jones said that he doesn't remember having made the remark about ESPN. "But if that's the story they were telling when I approached their table," he said, "now I know why they all looked so sheepish." When Jones made his toast, the group, which included two people whom Jones had fired, reacted coolly, and Jones was not invited to join the table. The snub led to Jones's widely reported remark later that night that he might get Switzer to coach his team.
Jones claimed last week that for two or three years he had had a list of replacements in mind for Johnson. Worn down by his deteriorating relationship with Jones, Johnson said that he had all but vowed to quit after this past season but had changed his mind over the winter. And even though the events in Orlando pushed both men to the breaking point, Johnson and Jones came close on the morning of their divorce to agreeing that Johnson would coach one final season.
In the end, though, Johnson got what he wanted—an escape from the man he had grown to dread, a voiding of the last five years of his contract, and a $2 million golden parachute to boot. "Jimmy orchestrated the thing brilliantly," says quarterback Troy Aikman. "He wanted out, he saw a crack, and he took it. He got a ton of money, and he got everyone to feel sorry for him."
Indeed, Johnson had been goading Jones since late last season. Four days before Dallas played the New York Giants for the NFC East title. Johnson told ESPN that he might consider an offer to coach the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. Jones, upset at Johnson's ill-timed remark, told the press that Jones and only Jones would decide Johnson's coaching future. This made the strong-willed Johnson furious. On the team's charter flight home after the win over the Giants, Johnson walked up to Jones and said, "By the way, I'm the one who's going to decide how long I coach here."
"In retrospect," says Jones, "it was those things that started me thinking about a change. My reaction to that, my lack of enthusiasm about [patching things up] told me where our relationship was headed."
As for Johnson, much of the joy of coaching the Cowboys had departed during the last year along with buddies Wannstedt, Turner and offensive line coach Tony Wise, who's now with the Bears. Gone were the Friday-evening beer-and-nachos outings. Johnson seemed like a man thinking seriously of quitting. But, he recalled last week, "I softened a bit. I was thinking we could make it happen one more year." His friends thought that he would surely coach this season.
However, when Johnson was told in Orlando that Jones was threatening to fire him and replace him with Switzer, everything began to unravel. Johnson and Jones exchanged volleys in the press and then met on March 28 to sort out their future. "We came up with five options," says Johnson. "Number one, fire me, which we eliminated. Number two, I quit, which we eliminated. Number three, I continue to work under my existing contract, which we eliminated. Number four was to settle the contract and part. The fifth was to put all our efforts into one year. I even said I'd change the language in my contract, [which specifies] that I have sole control of all personnel moves. Then after one year I'd be free to go where I wanted."
That night Johnson went home to think about the final two options. He talked to Aikman, who urged him to stay. The next morning, before leaving for the office, Johnson was leaning toward giving the thing one more try. Once in the office, though, Johnson saw the front page of the Forth Worth Star-Telegram. The headline read, JERRY TO JIMMY: COMMIT OR QUIT. Johnson was livid. He regarded the paper as Jones's mouthpiece, and the headline did not convey the tenor of the meeting he had had with Jones, not by a long shot. "I said to myself, I'm so tired of this," says Johnson.
He walked into Jones's office and told him, "It's time." Jones agreed, and they worked out a deal whereby Jones would rip up the last five years of the contract. Johnson was a free man, with a bonus.
"I want to thank you for everything you've done for the Cowboys," Jones told him. "How does $2 million sound?"
"Jerry," Johnson said, "you don't have to do that."
"Hey, I want to do it," Jones said. "You deserve it."
Johnson was thrilled with the deal. "I didn't want to be like Joe Gibbs, who still doesn't know if he can get out of his Washington contract," he says. "And I didn't really want a financial settlement. I just wanted to be a free agent."
Jones was vilified in Dallas. At midweek his black sedan was parked on the grass near his office window, instead of in his regular parking space, because he had received death threats.
While there may be gloom in Dallas, executives around the NFL are trying hard to stifle grins. "This is the best thing that could have happened to the rest of the league," says one AFC general manager. "I can't wait until Jones and Switzer start looking at the waiver wire together."
"Remember, in 1989, when I bought this team, the same kind of things were said," Jones says in reply. "The system is still in place, and Barry Switzer, believe me, knows a football player when he sees one."
Perhaps, but Jones has clearly taken a risk in hiring Switzer. "People can say I've positioned myself for a fall, that if we don't go to the Super Bowl, I'm going to get the blame," says Jones. "Fine. What we have is a challenge we didn't have before. Maybe that challenge is just the thing we need for a third straight Super Bowl victory."
So Johnson rides off into the Florida Keys sunset, certain to return as someone's coach in 1995. And Jones has his chance to be the football brains of the Cowboys—he waived tight end Alfredo Roberts last Thursday without telling Switzer—but he'll be severely tested in this new era of free agency. For Jones the moral of this story is: It's your team, and you can do what you want. But if the Cowboys don't win big, the dunce cap will be yours too.