If Jerry Jones doesn't care, why should anyone else?
If the standard for excellence for the Dallas Cowboys, as set forth by the owner and general manager of the team, is measured in Nielsen ratings, and not Lombardi trophies, what is the incentive for anyone inside the organization to strive for anything better than mediocrity?
The answer is simple. There isn't any.
Back in the day, when Jones was the fledgling owner of the Cowboys, he set the bar higher than he did earlier this week when touting the fact that AT&T Stadium will host the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards. After buying the Cowboys for $140 million in 1989, Jones used to drive his players nuts by saying before every season it was Super Bowl or bust.
Nothing but being the last team standing at the end of every season was acceptable, no matter how difficult the challenge.
Players like Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin knew how hard it was to survive a season, peak at the right time and get on a roll that would ultimately lead to the Super Bowl. It wasn't easy then, just as it isn't easy now.
But that's what Jones demanded. It wasn't division titles or winning seasons. No, the only thing that qualified as success was winning it all. And the Cowboys did so three times in Jones' first seven years owning the team.
Somewhere along the line, as the seats filled up and the new stadium got built and the money flowed, the goal changed. Popularity mattered more than on-the-field success.
Just listen to what Jones said the other day in Las Vegas:
"As you know, the Cowboys have not gone to the playoffs in several years. We have not gone. Yet we're the most popular TV show there is on television. We lead all teams in TV ratings. We lead, 24 out of the last top 25 shows were NFL games, and any time your Cowboys play, they're up there at the top and leading."
That's the standard now. Television ratings.
Imagine any other general manager in the National Football League, much less an owner, saying the same thing. Imagine Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson saying that "any time your Packers play, they're up there at the top and leading," and not leading on the scoreboard. Leading in the ratings race.
John Dorsey would get run out of Kansas City for saying such a thing. Think Seahawks fans would stand for John Schneider touting television ratings over the trophy Seattle just won? Or think 49ers fans would feel good about San Francisco's chances of dethroning Seattle if Trent Baalke said that?
It is ridiculous. That is what Jones has become.
The Cowboys have gone 136-136 since 1997 for a reason. They have become the poster child for mediocrity in the National Football League. They are a .500 franchise that has won only one playoff game -- at home against a declining Philadelphia Eagles team in 2009 -- in 17 seasons.
Dallas hasn't been a legitimate threat to win a Super Bowl since Aikman was on the team. Even when the Cowboys had home-field advantage in 2007 after their first 13-3 season since 1992, they crumbled against the New York Giants, who went on to win it all.
Each of the past three seasons has ended with Dallas 8-8. Each time, on the final week of the regular season, the Cowboys had a chance to win the division, and thus earn a playoff spot, and each time they lost, first to New York, then to Washington and then last season again to the Eagles.
As long as tickets sell and the television ratings are good and there continues to be, as Jones said, an "aura" and "excitement" around the team, Jones apparently is OK with it all. The losing doesn't matter. The franchise is worth north of $2 billion, after all.
The problem with Jones' thinking is that it sets the standard for the rest of the organization to follow. It sets the tone. And that trickles down.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie made a horrible mistake after the 2011 season, when he said that another 8-8 season wouldn't be good enough in 2012. What Lurie did not quantify was what would be good enough. A playoff berth? A Super Bowl run?
That uncertainty left everyone in the building edgy and fearful, and as the losses mounted, there was no way to turn the season around. Everyone knew Andy Reid and his coaching staff would get fired.
The point is that what the owner says matters. It carries weight. For Jones to be pleased with television ratings when his team hasn't done squat in nearly two decades removes the incentive for every employee of the team to do everything possible to be the best. It creates an atmosphere where, as long as fans want to watch the games and fill the stadium, losing is acceptable.
It wasn't like that in the early 1990s and it certainly shouldn't be that way now. Until Jones recalibrates his definition of success or the fans stop caring, Dallas will continue to be what over time it has become: Mediocre.