Next week Cowboys fans mourn the passing of Dallas great and dynasty builder Jimmy Johnson, who 20 years ago on March 29 “mutually decided” with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to step down as head coach of a team that had just won back-to-back Superbowl titles. Remember the awkward phrasing? No one could tell if he was resigning or getting fired. Twenty years have hardly dulled the weirdness of the moment.
Today’s conventional wisdom on the matter states Jerry forced Jimmy out of Dallas. Jerry’s ego got in the way. Jerry made it impossible for Jimmy to stay. Jerry Jones: The incompetent, talentless meddler who destroyed a dynasty. Blame it all on football’s Yoko Ono.
But perhaps time and confabulation have made Jimmy out to be something he isn’t – an innocent party. Odds are there’s plenty of blame to go around in this 20-year-old dust up, but untangling it without access to the principles would be an act of futility. So let’s tackle it from another angle.
Some believe the compulsion to assign blame is evolutionary – a survival instinct developed from early humanity’s need to identify and isolate threats. The theory goes that early humans with a natural predisposition to forgive and forget didn’t get the opportunity to mingle the gene pool so much as those who, right or wrong, assigned blame swiftly and acted on it.
Ohio University psychologist Mark Alicke has studied the psychology of blame for more than 20 years, and believes a primal impulse to assign blame affects rational assessment. Alicke believes this impulse causes humans to subconsciously assign blame in an instant, then mold facts as they come in to fit that preconceived attribution. Sound like anyone you know, Typical Cowboys Fan?
In one of Alicke’s research studies, he describes a car accident. One group of participants is told the driver was speeding home to hide an anniversary gift; the other group is told the driver was speeding home to hide a stash of cocaine. Though the circumstances of the accident were described identically to each group, participants assigned blame more readily to the drug user.
Alicke described his conclusions to Ohio University in 2011: “Negative evaluations of the driver whose motive was to hide cocaine induced participants to skew the evidence to support their desire to blame him.”
Perhaps it’s not hard to see why Jerry has shouldered 20 years of blame for the NFL’s most celebrated split. The dispute pitted a charismatic coach who improbably turned the NFL’s worst team into a world champion, versus a carpet-bagging Arkansas wildcatter whose first act as Dallas Cowboys owner was to brashly dismiss two Texas legends in Tom Landry and Tex Schramm.
It’s time to at least explore the notion that our brains assigned blame to the less sympathetic party, and skewed the evidence to give Jimmy a pass. For us to believe that Jerry forced Jimmy out of Dallas, we have to ignore very clear behavior patterns prevalent throughout Jimmy’s 19-year head coaching career. Those patterns suggest Jimmy was looking for a way out of Dallas, and his deteriorating relationship with Jerry had little to do with it.