Inside Jerry's World, Part II: Moss, Parcells, Dez and 25 years of maddening 'What ifs'

Upstairs, the system has been broken for years. So how has that affected everything on the field through the Super Bowl drought? Insiders relive the painstaking "What ifs" from 1995 to today.

Miss part of the series? Catch up right here:

Jerry’s World, An Introduction

Jerry’s World, Part I: A twisted system

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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 told the story of hiring Barry Switzer in 1994.

He brought the longtime Oklahoma coach into town, Switzer asked, “Where’s Jimmy?” and Jones informed the new coach that Jimmy Johnson was out and he was in. Switzer’s reaction wasn’t what Jones expected. Jones couldn’t understand why Switzer was so, so anxious to talk to Johnson. And that’s when Switzer told him, “I just want to get both you little a--holes on this couch and ask you both how could you f--- this up.” In time, Jones admits he realized that famous divorce was his fault.  

“Jimmy’s a great coach,” Jones says. “It was my job to keep it together. It was my job. I should have had deference to something that was working good.”

And just like that, an emotional Jones nearly burst into tears.

“I’ve never been able to know why I f----- it up.”

It was a shocking admission.

Right then, Jones himself acknowledged that ego — his ego — killed something special. Switzer won a title with Johnson’s players in ’95 but it was clear to all that he wasn’t a fraction of the pro coach Johnson was — he was merely putting Band-Aids over what he inherited. If Johnson stays? This dynasty could’ve lasted all decade with the Cowboys winning it all in ’94, ’95, ’96, heck, maybe even ’97. The core on offense was intact and this was an all-time defense, too. As several sources note, the titles shouldn’t have stopped there, either.

The lack of normalcy upstairs, which we covered in Part I, directly affects everything downstairs.

Which is the focus of Part II.

How does “America’s Team” go 25 years without a ring? Jones is too often influenced by the wrong people. Contracts with star players go haywire. And it’s nearly impossible for any type of head coach to thrive in Jerry’s World.

In an alternate universe, Jones cedes power to Johnson, keeps winning Super Bowls and — into the 1998 draft — selects a player who single-handedly extends the careers of his aging stars: Randy Moss. Most know by now that Moss desperately wanted Dallas to draft him No. 8 overall, and the Hall of Fame wideout has even said that Jones promised to take him if he was on the board. Instead, the Cowboys selected defensive end Greg Ellis.

A fine selection. Ellis enjoyed an 11-year career in Dallas.

But he was not Moss. He was not a living, breathing nightmare, not the second-best receiver of all time who’d make an EKG machine explode.

The problem? The wrong influencers got to that malleable owner/GM/judge/juror/executioner.

If only Jerry Jones listened to poor Mike Zimmer.

We took a critical look at Zimmer’s own “world” in Minnesota upon launching Go Long. He’s not perfect. But know this: Zimmer could’ve saved those Cowboys. Zimmer — the DBs coach on that team promoted to DC two seasons later — was the loudest voice in Dallas banging the table for Moss. Even though he was a defensive guy through ‘n through, Zimmer desperately wanted his boss to select this offensive player because he knew from Day 1 Moss was a transcendent talent.

Each year, the coach would bring in his DBs to watch some film of a prospect he loved.

It was always a full game or two. Never a cheap highlight reel. And it was always a defensive player.

That is, until Moss entered the NFL Draft.

Former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson can still remember Zimmer bringing him into his office — the coach was beaming. Zimmer told him this kid from Marshall was “f------ phenomenal” and “ridiculous” and, sure he was skinny, but wait ‘til Woodson saw what he did after the catch. “He’s different,” Zimmer said, hitting play on a full game. Woodson watched every snap and Woodson… was not sold. The five-time Pro Bowler couldn’t get past the fact that this receiver’s 55 touchdowns came against schools like Army and Kent State and he assured Zimmer this stuff would never fly in the NFL.

“And he said, ‘You’re out of your f------ mind. This guy is going to transition,’” Woodson says. “That was how the coaches approached things and he was pushing heavy for Moss. Heavy.”

To no avail.

Zimmer knew Ellis would be a solid player but also told informed people that the Cowboys made the “biggest f-----g mistake ever” passing on Moss.

“He was not happy,” Woodson says. “Not happy.”

The person pushing hardest against the Moss pick? New head coach Chan Gailey. He took a look at Moss’ rap sheet, a look at Irvin’s rap sheet and saw nothing but trouble. To rewind, Moss signed with Notre Dame out of high school but never attended the school after spending three days in jail for his role in a fight. He then went to Florida State but was booted after testing positive for marijuana. Thus, Gailey feared what kind of mentor Irvin would be for Moss. Woodson says Gailey viewed this as a recipe for disaster, adding that the head coach — who he liked a lot as a person — was also trying like heck to dump Irvin that ’98 offseason.

Those Cowboys teams in the ‘90s were obviously riddled with character concerns. Arrests and fights and insanity were the norm. His goal was to clean this all up and Jones was on board.

Noble? Sure. But as Woodson notes, the Cowboys “paid the freaking price five months later.” Moss dominated the league — instantly — and, sans mooning, the iconic moment of his whole career came against these Cowboys that rookie season. On Thanksgiving Day, right in Cowboys Stadium, he posted one of the most ridiculous stat lines in NFL history: Three catches, 163 yards, three touchdowns.

The cameras even captured a lost Gailey staring down at his playsheet after Moss’ second touchdown.

This was the moment the entire franchise took a turn for the worst.

Let the counterfactuals run rampant in your mind. Moss’ presence alone could’ve extended Troy Aikman’s career. Woodson knows Aikman, like Randall Cunningham, could’ve chucked the ball as far down the field as he could. Jones later admitted that he begged for Moss’ forgiveness. And Moss? He was never shy in saying the owner’s slight fueled him throughout his career. He never stopped making him pay. In seven games against Dallas, Moss caught 35 passes for 662 yards with 10 touchdowns.

Gailey was fired after two seasons.

Dave Campo was hired. Campo was fired after three straight 5-11 seasons.

And as if delivered from the football gods, from Tom Landry himself, in came the snarling Bill Parcells. With a Canton-bound resume of 11 playoff wins, two Super Bowl titles and one more AFC title to his name, Parcells arrived in 2003, took a sledgehammer to Jones’ broken system and led a Quincy Carter-quarterbacked squad to 10 wins and a playoff berth in Year 1. Forget the rings. This might actually go down as Parcells’ finest coaching accomplishment ever.

He wasn’t interested in any of the owner’s parties.

He wanted to win. That’s all.

“He changed everything,” one source in the organization then recalls. “He was like, ‘Keep the f------ scouts away. I’m not going to be running around with you guys.’ He wasn’t running around with them. At all. He was not a Jones guy. He brought some discipline to that organization. And the scouts? He would ream their asses. Ream ‘em. All the time.”

And, hey, there’s an evidently drunk Jones blasting Parcells on camera.

A bad mix from the start, indeed. Parcells tried to box out Jerry and Stephen Jones, one source explains, and grasp more authority than anyone since Johnson. Of course, this is the same coach who famously said on his way out of New England that if you cook the dinner, you should shop for the groceries.

By 2006, Parcells retired. You may recall that Jones didn’t do much to change his mind.

And the personality pendulum swung — hard — to someone completely different. To Wade Phillips. Like most owners, Jones hired someone who wasn’t anything like his successor. Unlike most owners, Jones didn’t retreat to the owner’s box and kick back, no, his stranglehold on the roster only tightened. Any semblance of checks and balances mostly disappeared and Jones, one ex-personnel man says, “ran rampant.”

Re-embracing the idea of a character risk, in signing Terrell Owens to a mega deal, helped. Dallas did win some games with the same player who famously mocked the owner’s beloved star. But those teams never punched through, thanks to some bizarre personnel decisions. Most notably, Jones traded first-, third- and sixth-round picks to Detroit in 2008 for wide receiver Roy Williams and inked him to a five-year, $45 million deal. Only Jones’ trade of two firsts for Joey Galloway in 2000 rivaled this disaster.

“There was really nobody else in the organization that wanted him,” one source in the front office then said. “And there was no one there who was going to push back against him. Wade didn’t. So, Jerry did his own deal and things went off the rails.”

Into the 2010 draft, a good 12 years removed from his Moss mistake, no way was Jones passing on another ultra-talented wideout with red flags. Dez Bryant was a coup of a selection at No. 24 overall.

That same year, however, the wheels fell off the Phillips Era. He was fired after a 45-7 shellacking in Green Bay dropped Dallas to 1-7. Jason Garrett was promoted. Garrett was the coach for a decade.

As a backup quarterback on those Super Bowl teams, yes, Garrett was well-versed in Jerry’s World.

He tried striking a balance between Parcells and Phillips.  

“He was able to navigate keeping Jerry at bay,” one ex-personnel man says, “while also allowing Jerry to feel like he was not only integrated into the process, but like he was making the decisions even though you’re sort of directing the decision for him to make. And that’s the way you have to play it with Jerry. Because he doesn’t want to be pushed out on an island like Parcells did to him. But I don’t think it’s good for the organization to just let Jerry shoot from the hip and make all these decisions. So, you have to be able to navigate the two and I think Jason did a fairly good job of that.”

Further, ex-OC Scott Linehan adds that he thought Garrett worked “great” with ownership and had a strong relationship with Will McClay.

Garrett wasn’t going to ball up a fist, hit the podium and declare this whole organization corrupt, but he did have a knack for steering the Cowboys in the right direction. Brice Butler remembers his coach gently leading the owner to the right place, too, to make it seem “like it was his decision.” And he echoes many others in saying he loved playing for Garrett.

The wideout hated when anyone ripped the coach because outsiders didn’t know the half of it.

“I’m like, ‘Bro. You all do not understand what goes on in that organization,’” Butler says. “You get guys that are benched and it has nothing to do with the coaches. If Jerry wants somebody to play, he’s playing.”

Butler first points to Ronald Leary getting benched, at guard, for rookie tackle La’el Collins in 2015. He vividly remembers Leary telling him that the coaches were adamant it wasn’t their call, that this decision came from “upstairs.”

“That’s why Ron was so adamant about leaving,” says Butler. “He’s like, ‘This is bull crap. How do I get benched when I am a PFF Top 15 guard?’ And La’el is not a guard. He’s a tackle. I’m not dogging La’el. He turned out to be a good player — once they got him to the right position. But you don’t do something like that.

“And if you’re the head coach, you’ve got to deal with all of that — ‘I’ve got to try to win games with guys I don’t want out there at this moment.’”

Then, Butler points to his own career. He received the same reasoning for his reduced role.

Whenever Bryant was out, he was vaulted into the No. 1 spot. Otherwise, he was a No. 4 which — to him — didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Especially when Stephen Jones was telling him he’d get to compete for the No. 2 spot. Especially when he had such dynamite training camps and coaches were assuring him the competition was open. He believes this strange hierarchy cost him, too.

Says Butler: “My coach told me, after my last full season there in ’17, I should’ve been starting but he didn’t have the power to make the change. I’m sitting there, like, ‘I appreciate you telling me the truth. I can respect that.’ Obviously, I knew that. You don’t have to tell me that because I know what’s going on.”

Butler ended up injuring his foot but believes this odd usage at this juncture of his career is why his career ended.

His point? He’s not alone. The owner telling the coaches who to play is normal in Dallas and players realize it over time.

As noted in our intro, Garrett tried his hardest. Garrett helped the team move toward stacking its draft board more purely, away from perceived needs. McClay might’ve organized all draft meetings, but sources recall the head coach speaking up more than anybody in those meetings, too. Garrett was determined to drive discussion on a prospect to the right place for Jones.

Nevertheless, different voices were always trying to get Jones’ ear which led to that friction between the scouts and coaches.

In 2014, Jones nearly careened the franchise over a cliff, too.

The legend is true. That spring, Jones desperately wanted Johnny Manziel when nobody else in the building did. All along, Dallas planned on drafting Anthony Barr, Aaron Donald or Ryan Shazier at No. 16 overall. Everyone knew Jones was infatuated with Manziel but they assumed (hoped?) Manziel would be gone by then. All three defensive players flew off the board, their pick arrived and — as Stephen Jones tells the story — all scouts and coaches buried their faces down.

Nobody wanted Johnny Football.

This time, coaches and scouts banded together.

McClay told Jones that the QB had issues. To which, Jones asked why Manziel was so high on their draft board. (Hunch: That board was skewed to the owner’s preference.)

Garrett spoke up, too. He told Jones that this quarterback was a poor leader.

So, with extreme reluctance, Jones signed off on Dallas selecting Notre Dame guard Zack Martin. Seconds later, Stephen Jones said his Dad slapped him on the leg and bristled, “How do you think I had this type of success? It damn sure wasn’t making middle-of-the-road decisions like taking an offensive guard. All you’re ever going to be is average.” No, Jones was not happy. Probably because, as Linehan adds, Manziel would’ve also set the record for most rookie jerseys sold ever.

Jerry saw massive marketing potential.

Jerry was also ready to move on from Tony Romo.

Of course, we all know what happened next. Manziel self-destructed and Martin, a four-time All Pro, has now started 104 games. He may join those 90s Cowboys in Canton one day, too.

That same 2014 season, the Cowboys also went 12-4.

If officials rule Dez Bryant’s apparent touchdown a catch, there’s a good chance they travel to Seattle the next week for the NFC Championship. And, who knows? That team had the requisite back-alley temperament to take on the Legion of Boom. Linehan recalls this as his best Cowboys team, a “destined” team that struck the perfect winning formula. With a defense fresh off a horrible season, he knew running the ball effectively would be crucial. The result? A 1,845-yard season from DeMarco Murray and the best season of Romo’s career.

Bryant, rocking the famed No. 88, was ascending into superstardom, too. He was brash. He threw up the “X.” He was the heart, the spirit, the face of this franchise clearly on the rise with 88 receptions for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns that final year of his rookie deal.

So, what did the Cowboys do? Play hard ball.

Yet another front office gaffe, right then, doomed Dallas.

Some sources in the front office then believe the Cowboys effectively sabotaged Bryant’s career. Instead of rewarding the eccentric wideout after that ’14 season with a contract extension, they punished him with the franchise tag on March 3. This dreaded provision that only pisses players off angered Bryant, thus triggering a chain of events that effectively extended the Super Bowl drought to where it is today.

This was the classic case of failing to know how your star players are wired.

Bryant is described as one the toughest and most competitive individuals to ever enter Jerry’s World, yet also someone who isn’t very self-disciplined. Tag certain players and they’ll continue to train like maniacs.

“You tag Dez Bryant?” one former personnel man in Dallas says. “He’s going to shut it down for six months.”

When the Cowboys finally got around to giving him a five-year, $70 million deal in July, Dez wasn’t Dez. Out of shape, he pulled his hamstring and missed camp.

His first game back, he broke his foot.

The entire 2015 season was a wash, especially with Romo going down with a broken collarbone.

The next offseason, in 2016, Bryant was in rehab mode instead of training mode. By the time he got through the season and back into the Cowboys’ regular offseason program for the first time in what felt like forever, Dez still wasn’t Dez. Through all of the team’s conditioning tests that offseason, his “explosive” and “quickness” and “speed” numbers, one source says, were all way, way, wayyy down from his peak in ’14.

“Because he hadn’t had a legitimate offseason to train and develop for two years,” that ex-personnel man says. “And it all had to do with the fact that we tagged him as leverage. We might’ve saved a few dollars in that contract but we lost a player. They’ll look back at it and say, ‘Well, the Dez Bryant contract shows you shouldn’t pay a receiver this type of money at age 27.’ My point would be, well, if Dez was locked away when he should’ve been — and he went through a full offseason both of those seasons — his numbers and production would’ve been way higher. And he would’ve played longer for us and produced more for us, and even if we would’ve spent more money, we would’ve gotten much more production to make it worthwhile.”

If Bryant gets paid, stays hungry and the Cowboys are back in that ‘16 divisional playoff game? No way are they losing again to the Packers at home. In Dak-Zeke-Dez, the Cowboys would’ve boasted their best trio since Aikman-Emmitt-Irvin. Instead, of course, Mike McCarthy’s Packers eliminated Dallas again on Aaron Rodgers’ heroics.

Jerry Jones’ instincts in other industries may be impeccable. He may know exactly where to explore, drill and complete an oil and gas well.

When it comes to negotiating contracts with his star football players, not so much.

One source indicates Garrett — and others — were more so asked what their opinion of Bryant was and not if Dallas should tag him or not. The twisted power structure burnt Dallas again.

“Sometimes,” one ex-personnel man in Dallas says, “I think the Joneses get too enamored with their negotiating and deal-making ability which is probably very, very good when working in the oil and gas company or when finding ways to monetize AT&T Stadium and doing all those types of deals. But sometimes, some of the negotiations with some of the players haven’t been as good as they should’ve been.”

Dallas did get to the playoffs once more, in 2018, with an overachieving team. As defenses loaded the box to stop Ezekiel Elliott, this Dez-less offense was in dire need of a wideout who could beat 1-on-1 coverage. This time, Jones’ bold trade for a receiver in the middle of the season paid off, too. After acquiring Amari Cooper, the Cowboys won seven of eight games to make the playoffs.

They even knocked off Seattle in the Wild Card to reach the divisional round for the third time in five years.

“And then,” Linehan chuckles, “I was let go.”

As Linehan correctly states, it’s worse to go to the playoffs and lose in today’s NFL than it is go 8-8 with dazzling passing numbers. He knew he couldn’t leave his defense out to dry so he tried to pound away with Elliott. This was an offense still full of Pro Bowlers, one with clear direction.

Says Linehan: “If I said, ‘Don’t worry about running it. Don’t worry about protecting the defense. And just chucked it like they do now?’ — they’re throwing 45 times a game because Dak Prescott’s pretty damn good — and we were 8-8? I’d probably still be there.”

Such is life in the NFL… especially in Dallas. He’s now an offensive analyst in Missouri.

One year later, Jason Garrett was fired. He’s now the OC with the rival Giants.

Mike McCarthy was hired and his first season in Dallas was total disaster.

The pressure will run higher than ever into 2021.

Jerry Jones is desperate for a ring, after all.

Read Part III right here:

Go Long
Inside Jerry's World, Part III: Where do the Cowboys go from here?
Miss part of the series? Catch up right here: Jerry’s World, An Introduction Jerry’s World, Part I: A twisted system Jerry’s World, Part II: The maddening What-Ifs… The campaign accelerated at 100 MPH right through the offseason. From the top of the mountains, story to story, Mike McCarthy essentially screamed, “Hire me! Please!……
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