Commentary

For Cowboys, it's what might've been

Jerry Jones once had a winning formula, but it seems like a distant memory now

Updated: February 26, 2014, 1:57 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Since Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million in 1989, no franchise has won more Super Bowls.

Hard to believe isn't it? Especially after the past 17 seasons of mostly mediocre football, but it's true.

Dallas has won three Super Bowls in the Jones era -- none since Super Bowl XXX. The New York Giants have three titles since 1989, as do the New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones
USA TODAY SportsJerry Jones and the Cowboys have had trouble finding their way since Jimmy Johnson left.

But New England fans don't have disdain for owner Robert Kraft. And Giants fans don't wish the Mara family would sell the team.

The same can't be said in Dallas, which is sad, considering no matter how mad Jones makes you on a given day, you never question his desire to win. You can question his method and his decisions, but you know he'll spend whatever it takes to sign a player or make an aggressive move to get a difference-maker in the NFL draft.

If more of those gambles had worked out since Jimmy Johnson left, Jones would be more revered. He's not, because so many Cowboys fans are still stuck in the '90s, unwilling to move on emotionally from the Jimmy Johnson era because the Cowboys haven't won enough. Fans also blame Jones' unwillingness to hire a general manager for the nearly two decades of mediocrity that has enveloped this franchise.

It's understandable. After all, the Cowboys were 78-50 with a 12-3 playoff record and three championships in Jones' first six seasons. And that includes the 1-15 debacle in 1989. In the past 17 seasons, the Cowboys are 136-136 with one playoff win. They have only four 10-win seasons and just three NFC East titles.

The frustration with Jones and the Cowboys is that the past 25 years should have produced so many more great memories.

Sure, there have been some great victories and moments, such as the night The Triplets -- Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith -- were inducted into the Ring of Honor. And the many Hall of Fame celebrations in which Tom Landry, Tex Schramm and a host of players, from Tony Dorsett and Randy White to Rayfield Wright and Bob Hayes, were granted football immortality.

Landry, Schramm and Gil Brandt built this franchise from an expansion team into a champion. The Cowboys had a run of 20 consecutive winning seasons and were considered a Super Bowl contender for more than 20 years.

No more.

There have been so many dumb trades, poor decisions and bad drafts that the Cowboys have been reduced to being the poster child for mediocrity. Their six-year run of success seems like a distant memory. A generation of kids have grown up in North Texas with no memory of the Cowboys being one of the NFL's dominant teams.

The Cowboys have missed the playoffs each of the past four years -- the longest stretch without postseason play since Jones bought the team. The biggest reason? Since Johnson left, Jones has been unable to provide a consistent philosophical direction for the Cowboys.

When Johnson was the coach, the Cowboys understood exactly who they were on offense and defense. They relied on an undersized, speed-based defense and a timing-based passing game led by Aikman that established early leads. Smith and a big, physical offensive line closed out games.

Since Johnson left, the Cowboys' identity has been a constantly moving target.

Barry Switzer was a players' coach who once publicly apologized to Charles Haley for criticizing Haley after a game. Chan Gailey was a first-time head coach whose run-first offense didn't fit Aikman. Dave Campo, a first-time head coach, was so happy to have the job that he rarely challenged Jones.

The one time since Johnson left when the Cowboys had a clear identity is when Jerry let Bill Parcells run the team. Parcells established a 3-4 defense the Cowboys kept for nine years and relied on big, physical players. When Parcells left after 2006 season, Jerry replaced the disciplinarian with Wade Phillips, the consummate players' coach. While the team won 33 games in Phillips' first three seasons, they blew their best opportunity to get to the Super Bowl. After going 13-3 in 2007 and earning the top seed in the NFC, the Cowboys lost to the eventual champion New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs. They won just one playoff game with the foundation Parcells laid.

Since Jason Garrett has been the coach, Jones has merely been trying to keep the Cowboys competitive while they rebuild the roster. The result has been a team not bad enough to get a difference-maker at the top of the draft and not good enough to truly contend.

We're entering the 20th season since Johnson left and we're still wondering what might've been. Such is Jones' legacy. And it's not changing. Because, despite mounds of evidence his way is not the right way, he refuses to change.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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