Actually, truth be told, they hired one quite some time ago – and I’m NOT talking about Jerry Jones. Jerry takes most of the heat and all of the credit as the prominent figurehead at the top of the Dallas Cowboys, “America’s Team”. And, it’s no secret Jerry never met a camera he didn’t want to be in front of. But, last week’s draft made it all too clear who the General Manager really is. Stephen Jones may not have that exact title – although it may be simply because he can’t fit another one on his business card. The younger Jones is the Chief Executive Officer/Executive Vice President/Director of Player Personnel for the Dallas Cowboys according to his bio on the team website. Jerry Jones is still listed as Owner/President/General Manager, but I’m not sure that title within the Cowboys’ organization means what it does in most other NFL front offices. Of course, ultimately, it means whatever Jerry wants it to mean. He is the man in charge. But, it became painfully obvious during the press conference after the first round of last week’s NFL draft that a torch of sorts has been passed.
As every NFL fan knows by now, the Cowboys made a somewhat controversial trade down in the first round trading their #18 overall pick to San Francisco for the 49ers 31st pick in the first round and their first pick in the third round (#74 overall). With the 31st pick, the Cowboys drafted center Travis Frederick out of Wisconsin – widely regarded as the “best center in the draft”, but also projected to be drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round, not the first. Initial reactions were not favorable and left many scratching their heads at the move. The team was immediately put on the defensive. If you have not had a chance to see the press conference Thursday night, I highly recommend you take a minute to watch it here.
Jerry did not make an opening statement but just opened it up to questions and then stammered and struggled to respond. And, he passed all questions about how the trade developed to Stephen – who was clearly uncomfortable with the fact that anyone was questioning the move. He’s not used to anyone questioning what he thinks is best. What was clear is that the talking points had been carefully crafted:
1. The Cowboys got good value for the trade according to “their charts”.
2. Frederick was the best player left on their board when pick #31 came up.
3. The 19 players they had given a first round grade were all gone.
4. Interior line was identified as their #1 need.
5. They didn’t think Frederick would be there at pick #47 in the second round.
(Side note: Apparently, defensive line is an “area of strength” for the Cowboys according to Jerry and Stephen explaining why they passed on Shariff Floyd who fell into their lap. So, a roster that consists of oft-injured Jay Ratliff who will be 32 on opening day, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, Ben Bass, Josh Brent (won’t play in ’13 if ever again), Brian Price, Tyrone Crawford, Rob Calloway, and a host of even more unfamiliar names is an area of strength. Hmmm. Good to know.)
I’m not going to judge the trade or the pick here as that has been and will be dissected the rest of the off season and for years to come. I will say however that it was widely reported that Stephen Jones was seen on the war room camera in what appeared to be a fairly heated discussion with Tom Ciskowski, Director of Scouting prior to the trade down. Ciskowski is the “football guy” in the room and the man largely given credit for creating the one part of the organization that has seemed to excel the last several years – the scouting department. Once Jones was on the phone finalizing the trade, Jason Garrett could be seen looking rather despondent with his head in his hands. Interpret that however you want. But, there is little doubt that Stephen was calling a lot of the shots at this particular draft – more so than in years past from the outside looking in.
So, who is our future owner/GM? Stephen Jones was born July 21, 1964. That makes him 48 years old. He did play football and was an all-state quarterback and 3-year starter at Catholic High School in Little Rock before attending his father’s alma mater in Fayetteville. He played linebacker for the Razorbacks and was a “special teams standout”. He started in the 1987 Orange Bowl game that Arkansas lost to Oklahoma 42-8. In 1988, at the age of 24 he graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and went to work for his father’s company (JMC Exploration, Inc.) as an engineer. However, Jerral “Jerry” Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys in February of 1989 and Junior was installed as a 24-year old Vice President in the new Cowboys organization. To no one’s surprise, it is very good to be the son of a billionaire. He’s been there ever since – 24 years and counting.
Today, he is responsible primarily for personnel decisions, negotiating player contracts, and managing the salary cap. As with any other executive at that level, it is more than fair to judge his performance by the results. Although he was there in the 90′s, there is little doubt that Jimmy Johnson ran the show then and is largely responsible for putting together the team that ended up winning 3 Super Bowls in the span of 4 years – a power struggle ensued that eventually forced Jimmy out. While Stephen certainly could have learned a thing or two at the elbow of Jimmy and his staff, I have to wonder how motivated he was knowing that “Daddy” is the owner and the team would eventually be his. So, what has happened since Jimmy and the talent he brought in has departed?
Well, how about since 1996 – 16 seasons – the Cowboys have 7 seasons above .500, 6 total playoff appearances, 1 playoff win and zero Super Bowls appearances. For an organization and fan base with a proud history, that has been hard to swallow. As Stephen has risen to power, the Cowboys have been fairly abysmal on the field. Can it all be blamed on Stephen Jones? Of course not! But, can you imagine the culture within the organization where everyone knows who your daddy is? Stephen’s ego is Jerry-sized as well and I can imagine him “pea cocking” about his 24 years of NFL experience as he holds the ultimate trump card in any argument: “My daddy owns the team and I will own it one day”.
How about salary cap management? Not much better. The Cowboys were one of two teams to be fined by the NFL for abusing the non salary cap year and front loading Miles Austin’s new contract. If you believe the title on his business card, Jerry may sign the checks, but that was Stephen’s area of responsibility. The Cowboys continue to rework contracts to get under the salary cap. That isn’t “management”, that is putting out fires and it creates more downstream problems than it solves. This season isn’t totally worked out yet either with draft picks still to sign. Stephen would be at least partially if not totally responsible for a seemingly generous contract extension for Tony Romo and for the ridiculous contract given Doug Free several years back that haunts them now. There are plenty of other examples.
Watching this year’s draft, I am reminded sadly of the movie Tommy Boy where the son of a successful businessman tries to run his dad’s company and almost runs it into the ground. A funny movie but none of the Cowboys fans are laughing at this one and it doesn’t seem to be heading toward the happy ending that the movie ultimately did. This isn’t Hollywood.
To be fair, the true gauge of any draft isn’t known until several years later. It may turn out that Shariff Floyd, Matt Elam, or Brian Schwenke (the next center taken in the draft judged by many to be just as good as Travis Frederick – drafted by Tennessee in the 4th round) don’t have stellar NFL careers. Travis Frederick could turn out to be a hall of fame lineman. But, today, it feels a lot like when the Cowboys passed on Stephen Jackson and selected Julius Jones instead. Only time will tell.
Maybe it is time for Cowboys fans to heed the advice noted on the cover of the Tommy Boy movie: “If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards”. God speed Travis Frederick! I’ve already started growing my Frederick beard in a sign of solidarity – not cutting it until the Cowboys win another Super Bowl or Travis makes the Pro Bowl! Go Cowboys!