FRISCO, Texas – Time for a quick math exercise with Jerry Jones. The lightning rod of a Dallas Cowboys owner can certainly work the numbers. He bought the Cowboys in 1989 for $150 million, and now it is valued by Forbes at $8 billion – the most valuable sports franchise on the planet.
And for all that value, there is the immense popularity. On Thanksgiving, with a so-so matchup that pitted the Cowboys against the New York Giants, 42 million viewers tuned in to Fox to make it the most-watched regular-season game in NFL history. Big numbers.
Yet the math here, on a mid-December afternoon as Jones sat in his office overlooking the practice field at the glitzy team headquarters dubbed “The Star,” was all about bottom-line results on the field.
How long can the Cowboys sustain the crazy popularity with zero Super Bowls since …
Jones stopped the question in mid-sentence.
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“Since 1995-96,” he began, alluding to the 1995 season that ended with a Super Bowl XXX triumph against the Pittsburgh Steelers that marked the third crown in four years. “You add ‘em up and that’s four and 23 is 27.”
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Yes, it is going on 27 years since the Cowboys last won a Super Bowl – several years before current linebacker sensation Micah Parsons was born and back to a period when marquee running back Ezekiel Elliott was in diapers.
Been a long time, Jerry.
“I’m sick about it,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports. “I really beat myself up over not getting a Super Bowl with (Tony) Romo here. And we had Bill (Parcells) here. Excellent coach and an exceptional quarterback. To not have gotten it done during those years really tears me up.”
It’s not just failing to win The Big One. The so-called “America’s Team” hasn’t even advanced to the NFC title game since the four in a row during the first half of the ‘90s. Since 1996, the Cowboys are 4-11 in the playoffs – including two setbacks (2007, 2016 seasons) when they were upset in their playoff opener as the No. 1 seed.
“I can tell you the story of every one of those disappointing years,” Jones said. “I can go back and pick about four of those years that we had the goods to be there, but for whatever reason, we weren’t. The motivation is here and we created the motivation in what we do in presenting the Cowboys. We write a check with our mouth that our butt has to cover. Or should cover.”
With the Cowboys (12-5) facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a wild-card matchup on Monday night in Tampa (more numbers: Tom Brady is 7-0 lifetime against Dallas), another opportunity – or intense fallout – looms for a team coached by Mike McCarthy and quarterbacked by Dak Prescott.
Of course, with Jones, the storylines typically go far beyond the travails of his football team.
In October, an investigative report by ESPN.com, citing an unnamed source, maintained that embattled Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder told a fellow NFL owner that he “has dirt on Jerry Jones” that theoretically he would use to take down others while fighting to keep his franchise.
In November, The Washington Post published a 1957 photo of a then-14-year-old Jones at the horrific scene where several white students stood at the steps and blocked the entrance of six Black students attempting to integrate North Little Rock High School, which Jones attended – days after nine Black students were prevented from integrating at Little Rock Central.
Although Jones was not depicted as engaging directly with the Black students – he is shown in the background and maintains that he was a curious observer that day – the photo unleashed a torrent of backlash for a man who was heavily criticized for his hard-line stance against players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustices during the movement inspired in 2016 by since-exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
During an expansive interview with USA TODAY Sports, Jones discussed the controversies – the latest in a series of headline-making events that have coincided with his tenure as Cowboys owner.
‘I don’t believe it’ about Dan Snyder
The ESPN.com report contended that Snyder has used private investigators to track other NFL owners and that Snyder, a longtime confidant of Jones, claimed to “have a file” on Jones.
“First of all, I don’t believe it,” Jones said. “The idea of being surveyed – I’d rather use that word than being followed, being tailed – that is not a new one in my life. And it began, really, when I first got to the Cowboys. I thought it was Tex (Schramm, former Cowboys president), but it wasn’t Tex. We had some disgruntled limited partners … they were trying to find out if there were any gaping holes in how I got involved with the Cowboys, or my credentials financially, if I was a ‘Paper Tiger,’ or what was I?
“The FBI came and also told me, ‘Jerry, you need to get a full-time person watching your airplane,’ ” Jones added, reflecting on 1989 as he wove to his point on Snyder. “ ‘We’ve had enough smoke around here about people being mad at you. You need to have your plane watched.’
“So, when I think about somebody looking at you, I’ve been molded … I’ve gotten used to that. Just don’t walk in a place and sit over there and think somebody might not be taking a little picture of you. Or, if you’re in some other part of the country, somebody might say that you’re there, and distinguishing that between it actually being somebody on the hunt for Red October pursuing you, or just a fan doing social media.
“I really haven’t felt like Dan would do that or go that far, relative to me, because we are friends. But by the same token, I know Dan is his own worst enemy, his very own worst enemy.”
Jones also makes a bottom-line point about Snyder, who has enlisted BofA Securities to explore the possibility of selling the Commanders against the backdrop of speculation that other NFL owners, as permitted by league bylaws, could vote to oust him: “I’ve seen nothing in terms of tangible evidence that would rise to the level of him being voted out,” Jones said.
On 1957 North Little Rock photo
While Jones seemed to easily brush off any elements of the Snyder drama that could involve him, he was much more emotional about the Little Rock flashback and recent firestorm.
“I’ve been thinking about this,” Jones said. “The way I grew up – and that (Washington Post) article touched on the way I grew up a little bit – and the way that picture portrayed, I have always been sensitive about the inequities that were involved in those times. I was there. With sensitivity. At that time. I respect what those students stood for and what they were trying to do (in attempting to integrate the school).”
While North Little Rock High School remained all-white for another decade, “The Little Rock Nine” ultimately integrated Central High School in late September 1957 after President Dwight Eisenhower provided an escort from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne unit.
Interestingly, Jones said that despite the major national story and historical footprint that unfolded, he was unaware of events at Little Rock Central (where years later, his daughter, Charlotte, now the Cowboys’ executive vice president and chief brand officer, would attend).
“Be that as it may, I didn’t even read a newspaper,” Jones said. “I sure didn’t look at television.”
The way Jones remembers it, the Little Rock Central saga wasn’t mentioned in his circles. That seems suspect, given that Jones and his high school football teammates were warned by their coach not to show up at the front of their school on the day the integration attempt occurred.
So, what happened after that picture was taken?
“It was a long time ago,” Jones said. “It was one more example for me. One of a thousand examples that created a sensitivity of minority disadvantage. One of a thousand. It was an important one.”
Craving a Super Bowl
Leave it to Jones to try putting a positive spin on that chapter of his journey. That’s his nature, a characteristic that has made him arguably the NFL’s best salesman.
I mean, ask him about his football team.
“This foundation of skill and youth arguably is as good as we’ve had since those Super Bowl years,” said Jones, who serves as his own GM.
Translation: The talent is in place.
He also insists that despite the inconsistency, the team’s resolve was strengthened as it stayed afloat after Prescott suffered a fractured finger during the season-opening loss, 19-3, against the Bucs and missed five games following surgery.
“I must admit: I saw the Grim Reaper out there when we lost Dak,” Jones reflected. “Two years ago, we had Andy Dalton (as backup quarterback). I knew if he had to play for a period of time that we could maintain at a level. I didn’t know that about Cooper Rush. So, to his credit, he did have that. We’re sounder having gone through that.
“A part of what I’m excited about this team, apart from our good health, is the fact that we went through that. That helped us grow. That gave us confidence.”
Naturally, given the Texas-sized pressure that comes with the intense spotlight, there’s increasing buzz about whether McCarthy, in his third season as Cowboys coach, would survive if Dallas fizzles again in the playoffs. McCarthy is Jones’ seventh coach since the infamous split with his first one, Jimmy Johnson, a few weeks after Dallas won a repeat Super Bowl crown in January 1994.
On his radio show on 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday, Jones shot down the suggestion that McCarthy will be coaching for his job on Monday night.
“No, I don’t even want to … No,” Jones said, according to ESPN.com. “That’s it. I don’t need to go into all the plusses or minuses. I’ve got a lot more to evaluate Mike McCarthy on than this playoff game.”
Still, as he pointed out during the December interview that he broke a mold and hired a coach whom he didn’t previously have a relationship, Jones didn’t mince words when reflecting on what attracted him to McCarthy.
“There was a Super Bowl aspect to that,” Jones said.
McCarthy led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl XLV crown that capped the 2010 season. But last season, the McCarthy-coached Cowboys lost their playoff opener at AT&T Stadium (aka “JerryWorld”) against the San Francisco 49ers when they bungled the clock in crunch time and time expired on a would-be game-winning drive.
Jones pointed out his age, 80, as it relates to his patience and desire.
“I’m asking for the Cowboys to do one of the hardest things there is, and that’s win a Super Bowl,” he said. “I know that I’ve had a hard time doing it again after all these years. But it still makes you want to do it. I’ve always said this: We would all be amazed and it would be ridiculous the size check I would write if I knew it would get me a Super Bowl.
“If I thought there was one person that can get you a Super Bowl, it would be ridiculous what I’d pay. But there’s not one, on or off the field.”
Then again, Jones has a way of creating history. You can never say never.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.