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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jerry's Team

It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed since a then-unknown Arkansas Oilman shook up the framework of the sports world and forever changed the history of one of the storied franchises in professional sports.

From their inception as an expansion franchise in 1960 through 1988, the Dallas Cowboys were the epitome of stability in the NFL. Under the triumvirate of General Manager Tex Schramm, Head Coach Tom Landry and Scouting Director Gil Brandt, the Cowboys created a culture of success that was unparalleled in NFL history. Beginning in 1966, the Cowboys registered 20 straight winning seasons, with 18 playoff appearances, five Super Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl Championships and 12 appearances in the NFL/NFC Championship Game.

However, by the time Jerry Jones purchased “America’s Team” in February 1989, the Cowboys had been on a downward slide for a number of years. They were coming off their third straight losing season and had not won a playoff game since 1982. Accustomed to winning, faithful Dallas fans were enthusiastic that the new owner might reinvigorate the franchise, but they had no idea what was ahead.

Determined to put his own stamp on his new purchase, Jones immediately fired the stoic Landry after 29 seasons and replaced him with Jimmy Johnson, a brash college coach who had been a college teammate of Jones. Within weeks, Schramm and Brandt were also gone and the future of the Cowboys was squarely on the shoulders of the two pro football newcomers.

When the 1989 season opened with Dallas losing eight straight games while also trading their best player, skeptics wondered if the “Boys from Arkansas” were in over their heads. In reality, Jones and Johnson were actually sly as a fox and following their plan to create a football dynasty.

Recognizing that the Cowboys they inherited didn’t have the talent to compete in 1989, or the near future, they were willing to sacrifice short-term success for long-term glory. The trade of Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and eight draft picks was the first of several deals that helped the Cowboys build a championship foundation.

Johnson, who coached the University of Miami to a national championship and a 52-9 record in five season, was well acquainted with the top collegiate talent and it was quickly apparent that Dallas was bringing in players capable of helping them regain their winning tradition.

After winning just one game in 1989, the Cowboys quickly began to show marked improvement. They won seven games in 1990 and in 1991 won 11 games and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The following year, Dallas won 13 games for the first time in franchise history and reached the NFC Championship Game for the first time in a decade.

Facing the San Francisco 49ers, a team poised to claim their fifth Super Bowl title in 12 years, Dallas was clearly a team on the upswing, but few believed that they were ready to take the torch of greatness from the 49ers. Displaying an outward bravado that was in complete contrast to the reserved confidence of championship Dallas teams from the past, the Cowboys didn’t just take the torch from the 49ers they ripped it out of their hands.

Dallas defeated the 49ers 30-20 and then completely dominated the Buffalo Bills to win Super Bowl XXVII 52-17. The following season, Dallas repeated the feat by again beating the 49ers in the NFC title game and then defeating Buffalo to win their second straight Super Bowl.

However, just as the Cowboys were beginning to look unstoppable, they began stopping themselves. Just weeks removed from their second straight Super Bowl win and only five years after coming together to rebuild the Cowboys, Jones and Johnson parted ways following a clash of egos. The future success of the Cowboys was now squarely on the shoulders of Jones.

Initially it didn’t look like the Cowboys would skip a beat. Led by their own triumvirate of future Hall of Famers, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, the Cowboys lost the NFC Championship to San Francisco following the 1994 season, but the next season rebounded to win their third Super Bowl in four years.

However, over time free agency, missteps in the draft and the NFL’s salary cap started to impact the quality of player on the field. The Cowboys finished 10-6 in 1996 and after defeating Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs they lost to the Carolina Panthers, a team in only their second NFL season, in the second round. Over the ensuing 12 seasons, Dallas has posted the same number of losing seasons, five, as they have playoff appearances and have not earned another playoff victory.

While Jones has served as the team’s general manager throughout this entire stretch, he has employed five different head coaches. The team has also received more recognition for some of the outrageous antics and legal issues of members of the team than they have for performance on the field.

Though the Cowboys have faltered on the field, Jones has been very successful in turning his franchise into a marketing juggernaut. According to Forbes Magazine, the Cowboys are the most valuable sports franchise in North America with a value of $1.6 billion. After spending nearly 40 years playing at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys will move into a brand new $1.1 billion stadium in 2009. Not bad for a franchise that many thought Jones over paid for when he purchased the team for $140 million in 1989.

If there is an owner in modern sports history with which to compare Jones, it is probably long-time New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Like Jones, Steinbrenner dared to challenge the status quo of sports after purchasing the Yankees in 1973. Within four years, Steinbrenner had his team in the World Series and the team claimed back-to-back championships in 1977 and 1978. They again reached the World Series in 1981.

Then, like Jones, Steinbrenner and the Yankees went through an extended playoff drought. From 1982 through 1994 the Yankees annually had the leagues highest payroll, but failed to reach the postseason. During that stretch, Steinbrenner employed 10 different managers as well as numerous general managers and the Yankees regularly made more headlines off the field than on the diamond.

Steinbrenner eventually realized that for the team to be successful he could not continue the revolving door policy in the front office and needed to allow his baseball experts to handle most of the decision-making responsibilities. With Steinbrenner stepping into the background and offering only occasional insight, the duo of manager Joe Torre (who served as manager of the Yankees from 1996-2007) and general manager Brian Cashman (general manager since 1998), led the Yankees to their greatest era since the team’s hay-days of the 1950s and early 1960s. They appeared in the playoffs in every season from 1995-2007 and claimed four World Series titles.

Returning the Cowboys to their previous level of greatness might be a little tougher for Jones. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL currently has a salary cap, which means that teams can't just spend more money than anyone else to buy the best talent and compensate for errors in player evaluations. NFL teams must build through a combination of productive drafts and thoughtful free agent acquisitions. While Jones and Johnson originally built the Cowboys using that philosophy, in recent years Jones has gotten caught-up in trying to make the "quick fix" with glamorous free agent and trade acquisitions that have not always panned out.

The Cowboys of 2009 are certainly on firmer ground than the Cowboys he inherited 20 years ago, but you have to believe that Jones won't be satisfied until his new stadium is recognized as both the most financially viable stadium in sports and as the home to the best team in the NFL.

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