The Dallas Cowboys are finishing yet another season where they don’t live up to expectations. Of course with every disaster, there is plenty of blame to go around. Coach Jason Garrett has proven his ability to match the old Seinfeld joke. Like Jerry once claimed about himself, Jason Garrett is “Even Stephen” – if he wins one game, he loses the next. If his team goes 12-4, that means a 4-12 is around the corner. It’s easy to focus on Jason Garrett as being the problem holding the Cowboys back from success, but he’s just one aspect. Everyone witnessed the drop off in production during the last six games of Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott. Many complain about the players not producing, not having enough “heart” or not giving enough effort. In the end, these are all just symptoms of the real issue. Who hires the head coaches? Who drafts the players? Who signs free agents or makes trades?
The rot that afflicts and weakens the Cowboys clearly goes higher than the players and coaches. The real problem is that Jerry Jones doesn’t have the ability to be a successful NFL General Manager (GM). There is no doubt that Jerry is an owner who wants to win. Jerry spends money to make his franchise relevant. When it comes to investing in the Cowboys, Jerry doesn’t just walk the walk, he talks the talk. The issue is GM Jerry has too many weaknesses to allow Owner Jerry to hoist up the Super Bowl trophy without the overwhelming talent that was on his early 90s juggernaut. This was a dynasty largely built with the Vikings trade and great draft picks made in tandem with Jimmy Johnson. Over the last 24 years, we have seen GM Jerry has no idea how to consistently pay his players in a way that avoids dead cap money. GM Jerry has had inconsistent success in selecting players during the annual NFL draft. Most importantly, GM Jerry has proven to be incompetent at hiring head coaches for his football team.
If you doubt me, let’s go back in time almost 24 years to the date of the last Super Bowl victory, January 28, 1996. This championship featured the defeat of the hated Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. For perspective in how long ago this really was, let’s take a quick look at what was going on in the world at that time:
Bill Clinton was President.
The minimum wage was $5.15 an hour.
The cost of a gallon of gas was $1.22.
Tupac Shakur was still alive.
Jay Z hadn’t even released his first album yet.
NBC’s sitcom Friends was in its second season.
The first Harry Potter book was almost a year and half away from being published.
Michael Jordan only had three NBA championship rings.
Tiger Woods was winning titles, in college at Stanford.
Tom Brady was in the middle of his senior year, in high school.
George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have become President.
Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have been impeached.
The Patriots have won six Super Bowl championships, passing up the Cowboys who had a five title lead in 1996.
The Spurs have won five NBA championships.
Star Wars has angered fans with both its prequels (3 films) and sequels (3 more films).
The USA was attacked on 911 and spent 18 years battling terrorism in the Middle East.
Enough of “real life perspective”, let’s talk football. The Cowboys franchise has been through a lot since the 1995 season, but almost none of it involves success in the playoffs. The Dallas Cowboys have had six head coaches since the last Super Bowl appearance. Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett have sat in the seat of what was once the premier head coaching position in the NFL. Collectively, these men have won 201 games, lost 180 games for a .527 winning percentage with a mere 3 post season wins over 24 seasons. Only fired head coach Dave Campo had a lower winning percentage than Jerry Jones has managed as a GM. Gailey, Phillips, and probably Garrett were fired for performance better than their GM could manage.
There are two ways to evaluate the ability of a GM to hire coaches.
What degree of success the coaches have with the team they are hired to coach. We can see above that the Cowboys have sunk to a mediocre team that epitomizes the “Even Stephen” label I earlier applied to Jason Garrett to describe his decade of coaching.
What the coaches have later in their careers after coaching for the GM who hired them. To date, no Jerry Jones head coaching hire has been successful in a head coaching stint after their Cowboy tenure. As a Fighting Illini fan, this is where Jerry only slightly betters the dismal history of bad football coaching hires that the Fighting Illini have had since roughly the same time period.
Let's look at the coaches Jerry has hired since the last Super Bowl victory and what they've done after their Cowboy tenure:
Barry Switzer retired, but only after having wounded his excellent collegiate coaching legacy, despite winning a Super Bowl (which critics largely credit to Jimmy Johnson).
Chan Gailey was able to be the head coach of both Georgia Tech (NCAA) and Buffalo (NFL). He was fired from both jobs and his Buffalo tenure was particularly weak.
Dave Campo has never come close to becoming a head coach at any level of football.
Bill Parcells retired and has not returned to the NFL sidelines. He did run the football operations for the Dolphins after his Cowboys tenure.
Wade Phillips returned to his long standing position as defensive coordinator and has only returned to the sidelines as an NFL head coach on an interim basis.
It has to be noted that the two great coaches that Jerry hired were essentially chased away by Jerry’s tendency to interfere in player relations. Men as accomplished in leading teams as Parcells and Johnson don’t need interference from an Owner/GM trying to…well no one knows exactly what he’s trying to do at times, when it comes to player relations. Weaker coaches (yes, I realize they shouldn’t have been hired) can’t withstand being “depowered” in the eyes of their players. Allowing players to go directly to the owner in order to short circuit the head coach is nearly fatal in today’s NFL. Jerry needs to wake up, this is a behavior identical to kids trying set mom against dad when asking for this or that and Jerry rewards it.
In fairness, it has to be said that while Jones as an GM has been largely a failure, Jerry Jones as an owner has been hugely successful from a financial standpoint. Jones purchased the Cowboys for $140 million in February 1989. Jones has demonstrated excellent business entrepreneurship while owning the Cowboys. He innovated stadium sponsorships, moved to an independent team merchandise model instead of the league-wide model, and has marketed all things Cowboys to a public that seems to have an unlimited demand. Recently, Forbes estimated the Cowboys to be worth more than any franchise in any sport on the whole planet! The Cowboys are estimated to be worth a whopping $5 billion. That’s quite a return on a $140 million purchase. In 2019, the Cowboys generated approximately $950 million dollars of revenue according to Statista.com. To give some additional perspective to this number, The Patriots and Giants were the only other two NFL teams generating over $500 million in annual revenue with $600 million and $519 million dollars respectively. There is no doubt that Jerry Jones has been a successful owner when it comes to selling the Dallas Cowboys to an adoring public.
As a GM, Jerry leaves much to be desired. Objectively, the Cowboys don’t win enough. The team is mired in mediocrity and has been for 24 years. Personal accountability means little to nothing in the Cowboys organization. Coaches are fired for poor performance – though some would argue Jason Garrett was allowed to retain his job for too many years. Yet, it’s clear that any coach that is successful requires talent. Head coaches are held accountable for their on-the-field results, but Owner Jerry has no accountability in place for GM Jerry. This 30 year experiment seems to be more of a way to provide Jerry the illusion of being a GM without the accountability for results that every other GM in the NFL faces (with the exception of the Bengals who are under a similar set of circumstances).
Talent comes to the team in terms of drafting players, signing undrafted free agents and signing free agents from other teams. The Cowboys have been hit and miss in the draft under Jones’ tenure. It’s hard to consistently build your team when first round picks are wasted and even entire draft classes are misses. To make matters worse, the Cowboys have also been a fixture on the top of the league’s dead salary cap money list. This means the team has players whose salary counts against the annual salary cap that are no longer playing for the Cowboys. This is the result of poor personnel choices, particularly extending players too far into the future (dangerous in the injury prone world of the NFL) or signing older players to contracts for too much money as their skills erode with age. The NFL player has a very short career window and a GM has to be almost “heartless” when it comes to dealing with older players.
Without the salary cap, the Cowboys could doubtless use their huge revenue advantage to sign free agents. The challenge arises that with the salary cap, free agent signings are very dangerous because this is the most expensive way to acquire talent because it’s essentially a bidding war. There is no path in the NFL to becoming the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball. The salary cap protects small market teams from a big market team like the Cowboys from outspending the rest of the league. A salary cap forces a GM to make solid personnel choices. Paying for players who don’t play well or aren’t on the field is a team killer. Dallas has done this numerous times. In the NFL, a GM’s poor personnel choices effectively lower the team’s total salary cap, and Jerry’s poor decisions have made his coaches work harder than their peers. This may not be so bad if Jones had a history of hiring excellent coaches, but the men Jerry has hired aren’t good enough to overcome his poor GM decisions. Clearly, Jones hasn’t distinguished himself in any area of GM performance.
While I don’t see Jerry stepping aside as a GM, it would be interesting to see him take a different approach. The salary cap prevents a franchise from stockpiling player talent despite the financial success of any one particular franchise. You’re not going to cheat that. The NFL strives to make everything equal in the NFL – there is a salary cap, the worst team picks first in the draft, the strongest teams get the hardest schedules. There is one area that a team like the Cowboys could use their revenue stream to their advantage but I’m not surprised they have ignored it. Coaching is where you could pay top dollar and super charge your staff in order to provide a huge advantage to your franchise.
My strategy would be to pay for the best coaches. To provide an example, acquire a coach that is truly excellent such as a Mike Tomlin (what he’s done in the 2019 season for the Steelers is amazing). Look through the league and find the best position coaches out there and work with your new head coach to select the very best to man the Offensive and Defensive Coordinator slots. Actively pay more, recruit, and sign the best position coaches. Create a culture of coaching excellence. And once this staff if in place, stay out of the way. The Cowboys could attract the best staff and this model could be self-sustaining. High performing coaches could sign with the Cowboys, move up to the Cowboys coordinator positions, and possibly on to the head coaching positions throughout the league. This would also provide plenty of future Cowboy head coaching candidates whenever the “Mother Ship” needs a new head coach. At the same time, you might find out that you have developed the next big thing in your own organization when the need arises. Either way, you're winning.
The NFL is all about understanding what are the key variables to winning and then having a head coach and staff that can control the specific variables that are able to be controlled. By having fantastic coaches at each position on the staff, the variables that are controllable can be maximized. By doing this, a GM can greatly improve his franchise’s chances to win. By paying more than other teams, coaches may decide another pathway towards achieving the goals of becoming a head coach is to become a coach in the Cowboys organization. Get paid well, work with a successful organization and be surrounded by other excellent coaches. Wow! This sounds like what coaches do in the NCAA when they go to Alabama to work for Nick Saban and then secure their own head coaching job after their “apprenticeship” with the Crimson Tide.
If Jerry wants to play GM, that’s fine – though coupling a "Cowboys will be the coaching gold standard of the NFL" strategy with a great GM would make the Cowboys…the Patriots? Even if Jerry insisted on playing GM, you’d have a staff that would handle the lack of competency that the GM provides. Or Jerry could lose his mind and hire a GM. That would mean Cowboy fans could go back to being hated by all other NFL fans. That would be much better than being the object of pity and sympathy that Cowboy fans have become in today’s NFL environment.