Inside Jerry's World, Part I: A twisted system

How are the Dallas Cowboys really run behind the scenes? We talked to people in the know... and it is not pretty. From a skewed draft board to partying nights, it's "not normal" in Big D.

Miss the intro to “Inside Jerry’s World?”

Catch up right here.

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The Dallas Cowboys are a masterful production. For 25 years, this franchise has resembled a never-ending, must-see drama more than a football team.

That’s not necessarily a knock. That’s the genius of Jerry Jones.

We see and hear the Cowboys all the time. Somehow. All of the wild personalities that swoop through these doors keep the ratings soaring.

There is, however, one scene that never made its way to the screen for everyone’s consumption, one (common) scene people should see to fully understand how Jerry’s World operates.

For 9 1/2 of these last 25 years, the head coach was Jason Garrett.

And through those 9 1/2 years, of course, Garrett was the public’s whipping boy.

The clapping. The steadfast optimism. The perception was that he was nothing more than a puppet, which made Garrett the character you loved to hate. Unfortunately, the truth never met reality. As multiple sources explain, Garrett knew that being the head coach of the Cowboys demanded the ultimate tightrope act. You cannot effectively tell the Joneses to buzz off and stay away from your roster or you won’t be the coach for long. Like Bill Parcells. Nor can you be a total “yes man” and give into Jones at every turn or mistakes will compound, you’ll be blamed and you’ll be fired. Like Wade Phillips.

Garrett was no puppet. Garrett is described as “a fixer” who spent endless hours speaking to Jerry Jones to try to steer the owner to the right decision — all in a way that made Jones feel like it was his decision.

The scene people should see is Garrett, at The Star, after a marathon phone call with Jones.

One source remembers Garrett being “completely worn out” from the conversations. A look of total exhaustion was written across his face. Of course, Garrett and Jones knew each other for 20 years before the former QB even became the head man. His Dad was a Cowboys scout. Thus, Garrett developed a knack for ever-so delicately… ever-so resiliently… nudging Jones to a decision he knew was best for the Cowboys.

“He was the guy who was keeping everything together,” one ex-personnel man in Dallas says. “He kept it from going off the rails. I don’t think he has the personality of Parcells just to tell Jerry and Stephen, ‘Get over there. You’re not saying anything.’ And it wouldn’t have lasted long if he tried to be that way. On the other hand, he didn’t let Jerry walk all over him. But he wasn’t going to get into big confrontations.”

If Mike McCarthy can strike this balance, he’s got a shot.

But that won’t be easy because of this warped organizational structure.

How things are run around here — everything that goes into those laboring phone calls — is the focus of Part I.

Everyone in Dallas knows that Jerry and his son, Stephen, run the show. And on most teams, the people in charge of the football operation are in the office. Often. Their hands are dirty. They’re involved. Yet, as one former personnel man in Dallas notes, both are so busy with their other business dealings — flying in and out of town on one of their two helicopters — that it is downright impossible for them to stay on top of the roster like typical GMs.

Intelligence is not an issue. Jones is smart. He inherited a team losing $1 million per month and built an empire.

Fired employees even repeat how much they sincerely love Jones as a person. He treats people well.

Yet as one ex-personnel man says, two questions are central to Jerry’s World: “Are they running the Dallas Cowboys or are they running all of their other business interests? And what is the role of the Dallas Cowboys: Is it to win a Super Bowl or is it to generate income?” Because it’s always clear internally, 24/7, that Jones absolutely does not want to be the stereotypical owner up in a luxury box waving a pennant.

This source assures: “He wants to have his hands on what’s going on.”

That would be perfectly fine if Jones was all-in on the work, if Jones was willing to roll up his sleeves and put in the necessary 60 to 70 hours per week it takes to command such organizational control.

On one hand, he delegates. On the other, he still assumes responsibility.

A rough combination.

“I don’t think Jerry Jones is a bad guy,” this ex-personnel man says. “I don’t think Jerry Jones is a dumb guy. I just think his approach, the way he’s running the team, isn’t necessarily what’s best for winning.”

What results is a major schism between coaches and scouts.

Most NFL GMs will, bare minimum, watch tape of the top 150 players in a given draft. Maybe they’ll even study every potential draftable player. “The Joneses,” one source says, “don’t do that.” Their first exposure to players — other than the speed dates at the NFL Combine — are the team’s draft meetings that spring. And instead of actually pouring through full games, one source says Jerry and Stephen Jones rely on “profile tapes” in draft meetings which are, in essence, highlight reels of players. It’ll have that prospect’s Combine workout, Pro Day workout with about 25 plays from college.

Twenty of those plays will be positive. Five will be negative.

And, sure, it’s a neat little synopsis of the prospect. A “refresher,” one source calls it. By no means, however, is this tape enough to base an entire decision on. Jerry may form an opinion on a player off this profile tape alone and, then, that opinion is described as “malleable.”

He’ll listen to the scouts’ presentation on a prospect, then the coaches’ presentation.

“And there becomes a rivalry between the two sides of the organization,” said one source thrust into this rivalry. “Because you never feel like it’s Jerry pure decision. He’s sort of just siding with somebody. Where in other organizations, if you’re a coach and I’m a scout and the GM comes in and says, ‘I like this guy,’ and it happens to be the guy you wanted to pick in the first round that I thought was a third-round pick, he’s not necessarily siding with you. He watched the six games or eight games and he made his decision and you guys just happened to agree. Whereas, with Jerry, it’s ‘He’s siding with the coaches here’ or ‘He’s siding with the scouts there.’”

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Thus, the key is getting to Jones.

One other scene is also common in this 25-year drama. While setting the draft board, everyone may break an hour for lunch only to return and see a prospect had moved up. A prospect everyone agrees was a third-rounder is now, magically, a second-rounder. Ask Jones what in the heck happened and he’d simply say he decided to make a change. At which point everyone in the room can only laugh because they knew what happened.

Someone got to Jerry. Someone circumvented this rickety system.

“The process becomes compromised,” one source says. “Whoever was an advocate for this guy pulled Jerry aside and made their case without someone rebutting the case.”

One other factor also warped the Cowboys’ draft board through the leaner years of the 25-year drought. While they didn’t draft for need per se, the team’s specific needs in past offseasons have directly shaped how the team stacked its board. Maybe it was conscious. Maybe it was subconscious. Either way, the board was often skewed so, in the end, Dallas was drafting for need.

Which, of course, is bad practice long term. You miss out on the best players.

The same bad habit poisoned free agency. Players at positions of need tended to get higher grades from scouts. A running back who might’ve been tearing up the preseason for another team, for example, would get a “reject” grade if that particular area scout believed the Cowboys were stacked at that position.

Which, of course, is also bad practice. The Cowboys could easily see their top two backs go down with injury in Week 1, suddenly need an RB, and see nothing but rejects on the open market.

All roads lead to one problem: The lack of a clear decision-maker who’s watching film of prospects until his eyes are bloodshot. A decision-maker who is not sliding into a helicopter to tend to other matters. The perennial winners are led by one strong voice who’ll listen to everyone’s input but isn’t influenced by such input to this extreme. Ted Thompson didn’t say much of anything as the Packers’ GM but he always made it clear the buck stopped with him. He put in the work, too. If anything, Thompson was too married to the job.

The best bosses in recent history like Thompson, Ozzie Newsome, Chris Ballard and Bill Belichick set the tone in every room. They bring the informed opinion and more so challenge you to change their mind.

Chances are, their minds won’t be changed on a lunch break, either.

Since The Star at Frisco opened in 2016, Jerry Jones has been around the team more often but, overall, his attendance is described by one person as “very sporadic.” This former personnel man isn’t complaining about it because everyone eventually gets used to the spotty attendance. Still, he also knows this is a reason Dallas hasn’t been to a Super Bowl in 25 years.

Scouts could go weeks at a time without even seeing Jones up to a draft.

“It’s not like he’s showing up at 7 a.m. and grinding through it to 7 p.m. six days a week the way most general managers do it,” he adds.

Like this source, ex-Cowboys receiver Brice Butler makes it clear he liked Jones a lot. He even wishes he was able to talk business with the owner, to pick his brain on all things life after football. Yet, Butler also wonders how effective Jones can be as an NFL GM with so much on his plate.

If he owned a team himself, he knows he’d employ a true GM to oversee everything.

It’s impossible for any human to take on this much — from Legends Hospitality to real estate dealings to attracting corporate sponsors, etc. — and expect to be a successful president and general manager of an NFL team.

“When you’re Jerry, there’s a lot of things that need your attention,” Butler says. “You always think: How much time can you really put into football if you have to do all this stuff? And he’s still doing a lot of it. … The family, they’re building them up. They sit in meetings, too. They’re trying to groom the family to keep it. How much can you really do? How much of your undivided attention can you really put on getting the right players for the organization? Getting the right coaches for the organization? Making sure your team is in the right spot? When you’re doing all of the things that you’re doing?”

Granted, there are people in Jerry’s World who view all of this through a completely different prism.

Others in this “house” Jones built don’t view him as a reckless, off-the-cuff GM anymore.

OC Scott Linehan got whacked after his team made the playoffs for the third time in five years. He has every reason to be bitter and could lob a series of grenades at the organization if he so chose. He does not. He calls Jones one of the best owners “in any sport” and points to those three Super Bowls in his name. It’s true, too, that Dallas has at least stayed in the hunt for stretches of the last quarter-century.

From Linehan’s vantage point, Jones has sincerely delegated to Will McClay.

McClay, the VP of player personnel, is a smart football mind and often cited as the Cowboys’ de facto GM. You’ll only hear sterling reviews when it comes to him.

“Behind the scenes, people don’t realize that Jerry and Stephen let Will run that draft room,” Linehan says. “He makes a lot of, well, all of the suggestions and calls on the roster. Will McClay. Maybe it’s more perception than reality (that it’s all Jerry). I was so grateful that Jerry hired me and I have five years that I’m really proud of when I was there with Jason. We didn’t get to the Super Bowl. But we were a relevant team in professional football.

“Stephen and Will work really well together. I think Jerry has delegated a lot to them. I think he leans on them a lot. I thought Jason ran a great coaching side. We put a lot of time into player evaluation. I always felt it was not an accurate thing that Jerry was too involved. I thought he was really smart about how he delegated responsibility. He leaned heavily on his son Stephen and Will. People may not know that but that’s true.”

Former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson — the team’s all-time leading tackler who remains very connected with this franchise — disputes the notion that Jones waltzes into a draft meeting, watches a highlight reel and makes big decisions. He asserts that McClay has “a lot of punch” in this front office and credits him as the voice of reason in the ’14 draft room when Jones badly wanted Johnny Manziel. (More on that — with more examples — in Part II.)

McClay also had a strong hand in reconstructing the greatest strength on those Dallas teams: The offensive line.

“I’ve been around Will long enough to see how he operates,” Woodson says, “and how he and Stephen operate and they’re not just making changes in the wind. It’s a really, really thought-out process with how they’re doing things.”

They both see hope in Stephen Jones, too, since he’s never been afraid to take his Dad on behind the scenes, all the way back to throwing Jerry against a wall because he thought signing Deion Sanders was a bad idea.

And the brand that Jones created — the aura of “America’s Team” — isn’t completely for show. It can resonate with players. Cornerback Duke Thomas may be a player you’ve never heard of but his perspective is rare given he played for nine different teams between 2016 and 2020. Thomas can compare Jerry’s World to just about every other type of organization imaginable and, frankly, he enjoyed the Cowboys’ militaristic vibe.

Thomas’ father served in the military so he appreciated the feeling of upholding a standard.

He’ll never forget Day 1 at The Star, when he made the grave mistake of wearing a red hoodie.

“Being the only one in the building wearing red,” Thomas says, “I felt like the odd man out. Just the colors, down to the colors you wear in the building, it’s that profound. You can’t be seen wearing red in there. I can distinctly remember that day — ‘Wow, I’m the only one wearing red and everyone is looking at me funny wearing red.

“You just feel that presence, being in a place like Dallas. The culture is completely different.”

It didn’t last long obviously, but he loved his time around Garrett, too. The coach’s wife even hit it off with his future wife.

And when Dallas decided to stash Thomas on injured reserve with an ankle sprain in ’17, it wasn’t some intern with a towel over his shoulder who delivered the news. It was the head coach himself. The head coach juggling so much in Jerry’s World. Garrett told Thomas that he absolutely would’ve made the 53-man roster if he didn’t get hurt in the final preseason game.

Thomas liked this head coach — a lot.

“He always shot it straight with me and was an honest guy,” Thomas says. “That’s the only thing you can ask for in the NFL. To have that honesty is big. … It shined a new light on him. Honestly. Being a defensive back, you don’t really talk to and mingle with the head coach very often. But having a one-on-one conversation with him — and him be honest and shoot me straight — spoke volumes to me what kind of guy he was.”

And yet… Garrett’s time ran out. And yet… that aura hasn’t produced any rings since 1995. The Lions, WFT and Vikings are the only other teams in the NFC that have failed to reach the Super Bowl since then and nobody’s trumpeting the virtues of the “Lions Way,” no. Any Cowboy Way grandeur pumped through those AC units at The Star is based off people from a long-ago era, as if Jerry Jones and those closest to him are living in the past.

So opinions are all over the place.

Where one person sees Jones overseeing a free-for-all operation, another sees an open forum.

Where one person sees an ill-informed, ill-equipped owner still throwing his weight around, another sees McClay as this team’s savior.

Where you can take a look at that 2021 draft in which Dallas drafted six straight defensive players and think it’s brilliant given how terrible the defense was in 2020, you also wonder if that draft board was cockeyed to make it happen. Maybe that really was how the team’s draft board fell, as McClay said himself, but there’s a decent chance the board was spiked, too, and such blinders prevented the Cowboys from drafting a stud on the other side of the ball.

The fact that how this team is run is so wide open to interpretation is the problem itself.

It’s not like the chain of command is changing any time soon. Right there, in all caps, Jerry Jones is still the owner and president and general manager. Jones still has the authority to do whatever he pleases whenever he pleases.

So, don’t overthink it: This is still his house. He paid for it.

Ask one Cowboys legend familiar with the team’s inner-workings what is wrong in Jerry’s World and he asks to remain anonymous before revealing a totally different answer.

One that has nothing to do with X’s and O’s and draft boards.

To him, it’s simple: “Friendships” run this franchise. Not in a good way, either. 

“Here’s the dynamic with this organization,” this player says. “I’ll just flat-out tell you. There’s a lot of friendships. There are more friendships than it is business. Jason Garrett is probably another son to the Joneses. Tony Romo is another son to the Joneses. Troy (Aikman) was that guy until he got into the booth and was like, ‘Hell no. You guys are twisted there.’ If you agree with the Joneses, you’re in. You’ve got to agree with them. If you don’t agree with them, there’s conflict. And you will find your ass out.”

Coach. Scout. Former player.

Everyone knows that it pays to be on Jerry’s good side.

“It’s almost mafia-like,” this longtime Cowboy says. “They hang together. They run together. There’s a lot of people within that organization that do some crazy shit together. It’s a little backwards.”

This player then brings up Jerry Jones’ most embarrassing moment from these past 25 years, when scandalous pictures of the owner with strippers surfaced. Jones called the shots a misrepresentation but this player says nobody in the know was shocked. That’s Jones, he says, and he believes one reason many people in the front office last as long as they do is that they party with the owner.

“You wonder, ‘Why in the hell are they still…?’ Yeah. Well, they’re running with them Joneses.”

And when you’re in, “you’re in.”

This Cowboy believes everything went off the rails in the mid-90s and a complete rehaul has been a must since. He sees far too many “yes men” around the owner. “Yes boys,” he says, correcting himself. While he was never drawn to the party lifestyle himself — one captured poignantly by Jeff Pearlman in the book, “Boys will be Boys” — he says that everyone knows Jones can still get after it.

“He’s different, man,” this player says. “He has that Michael Irvin in him. Irvin could party until 3 or 4 in the morning and he’s up at 5, 6 balling. And he’d go the whole day. That’s Jerry.”

Hang out in Indianapolis during the week of the NFL Combine and you’ll see a massive Cowboys bus parked downtown. The running joke, of course, is that whatever happens on that bus stays on that bus.

Nobody atop this organization hides their partying ways.

And while it’d be easy to laugh this off as nothing, again, the Cowboys are a $5.7 billion enterprise. Year to year, countless livelihoods are on the line. Elsewhere, NFL head coaches freak out over a reporter’s tweet and here’s an organization with a very loose hierarchy, an organization this longtime Cowboy declares “morally corrupt.” He sees egos exploding in all of the wrong directions and believes that — more than any massaging of a draft board — is why Dallas hasn’t won a ring since ’95.

The world was given a sanitized front-row seat to this franchise on Hard Knocks this summer. No, this drama didn’t come close to living up to reality. When it wasn’t putting you to sleep with the same shot of a player drinking water and spitting it out mid-practice, Episode 3 served mostly as a Jerry, Inc. infomercial with a dramatic shot of Jones exiting one of his helicopters. It should be noted that NFL teams sign off on the editorial content, episode to episode, so we can only assume Jones wanted the world to see that slow-motion shot of him in his shades.

Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam” blared as he entered the stadium.

The entire sequence was vintage Jerry, oozing with desperation. He likely didn’t give a damn if you loved it or hated it.

But watching this, you cannot help but wonder what has really changed over 25 years.

On the field? The Cowboys actually have been closer to getting to that elusive Super Bowl than you think.

The issues laid out here all absolutely apply to wins and losses.

Read Part II right here:

Go Long
Inside Jerry's World, Part II: Moss, Parcells, Dez and 25 years of maddening 'What ifs'
Miss part of the series? Catch up right here: Jerry’s World, An Introduction Jerry’s World, Part I: A twisted system The pain in Jerry Jones’ eyes sure seemed real one month ago when the owner added a new, wild scene to this 25-year drama. When Jones…
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