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Thursday, July 29, 2010
The autumn of Jerry Jones' football life

By Johnette Howard
Special to ESPN.com

Jerry Jones
Has Jerry Jones finally learned the arts of patience and understatement? Uhhh, stay tuned.

Dallas Cowboys haters don't want to hear it, but this is shaping up to be the autumn of Jerry Jones' football life. He's hosting the Super Bowl in the billion-dollar showplace stadium he built, and he has a team that has a great shot at getting him there. The recent passing of the Yankees' George Steinbrenner leaves Jones sitting alone as the uber owner in American sports. Pass the ego. Don't hold the bluster.

Jerry Jones
He isn't the coach, but his presence on the sideline at practices and games might suggest otherwise.

He took a chance on keeping much-maligned coach Wade Phillips and drafted controversial wide receiver Dez Bryant, then gave the rookie Michael Irvin's old No. 88 for good measure. (No pressure, kid.)

While his old frenemy Jimmy Johnson is pushing all-natural male enhancement pills in late-night TV ads and has agreed to endure the mud and tropical insects as a contestant on this season's episodes of "Survivor," Jones just did a far hipper guest shot on HBO's hit show "Entourage." He is poised to win as many Super Bowl titles without Johnson as the two rings he won with him in 1992 and '93.

All of which makes the modest Jerry Jones who surfaced when the Cowboys reported to training camp this weekend seem quite strange.

Who is this guy soft-pedaling the 2010 Cowboys' chances of winning it all and talking instead about the unpredictable "journey" that all NFL seasons become?

Nobody should buy this judicious Jerry. He will not last. And it doesn't become him, anyway. Somewhere down the road, Jones will forget his humility and snap back to who he really is. He is still the man who once dismissed a past bit of bravado by telling a magazine interviewer, "That was just the whiskey talkin'," and maintained that vanity is a good thing because "It makes you go the extra mile."

Jerry Jones
This is the "old" Jerry Jones, shouting at an official in a 1997 game against the Redskins.

At some point this season, Jones will preen and strut and be ready for his close-up again, all right. Even if it doesn't happen until the Cowboys are safely sitting at 12-2 and Brett Favre has just thrown his 30th pick of the season and the Saints' Sean Payton doesn't look like the smartest guy in the NFC anymore, Jones' reversion to form will happen.

Even he knows it.

The other day, when a reporter at the Cowboys' first training camp news conference asked him how he acquired late-career patience after years of sharing Steinbrenner's penchant for impetuous decisions, Jones at first looked inclined to answer the question seriously -- then blinked, paused a beat and said, "I think that's a compliment, right?"

Everyone in the room burst out laughing.

Jerry does self-reflection now, too?

"I'm not so sure I buy it," Jones continued, still laughing. "I'm reluctant to get too positive in my response there because the next thing I do may be viewed as the most impulsive thing I've ever done."

At 67, Jones does seem more conscious now about how the 21 years he has owned the Cowboys are unfurling behind him. He refers to it all the time.

Pete Rozelle, Jerry Jones
It all began here, as then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and Jones emerged from the NFL owners meeting that approved Jones' purchase of the Cowboys in April 1989.

Maybe that's the sign of a self-made man who made his first fortune the hard way, as a wildcat oil driller, and has just recently recognized that so many of his grand ambitions have come true. He built that pharaoh-size stadium and footed more than $600 million of the bill himself. He brought the Cowboys back to serious contender status by being the NFL's most do-everything chief executive since oft-sainted Paul Brown. He has proudly worked his son Stephen, now the Cowboys' chief operating officer and director of player personnel, into the business, along with other family members.

Maybe the death of Steinbrenner -- a friend and business partner in a stadium hospitality management company since 2007 -- sobered Jones a little, too.

"I was hoping that over the years we'd get to have several years of at least touching base, and we got to go up there to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium," Jones said. "With me, George talked football. He really liked talking football."

Like Steinbrenner, Jones has always been part showman, part business tycoon, part sportsman and part lightning rod. Consciously or not, he seems to have cribbed heavily from The Boss' 37-year tenure with the Yankees.

He bought the Cowboys low and raised the franchise's net worth to well over a billion dollars, turning his new stadium into an ATM along the way, too, just as Steinbrenner did. Both of them swore that owning their iconic franchises was a "responsibility," almost a civic trust. Both made hiring and firing people a sport early in their careers and later poked fun at their overbearing images in self-parodying TV commercials.

Wade Phillips, Jerry Jones
Jones, right, is never far from his coach, Wade Phillips, especially at the end of games.

But in still other ways, Jones has gone further than Steinbrenner ever did. If it ever occurred to The Boss, for example, to install go-go girls to dance on two-story-high platforms inside the new Yankee Stadium as Jones did at his new football palace, that detail was somehow left undone. Jones is more involved in the day-to-day details than Steinbrenner was, at least in his later years. Jones insists on being personally involved in the Cowboys' draft and talent acquisition. He reads scouting reports. He breaks down film with coaches, has full run of the practice field and descends from his skybox suite to the Cowboys' sideline late in games, often standing so close to Phillips that his head coach could trip over him.

Such ubiquitousness sets Jones up for ridicule, of course. Instead of sharing his joy, many people mock him. The TV cameras constantly catch him squirming during games like a white-knuckle flier. Jones fidgets in place and occasionally flinches in horror. He claps for good plays like a hummingbird beating its wings. YouTube is full of "take that" videos showing Jones looking as if he had a bad case of angina as the Cowboys were bowing out of the playoffs in 2010 & and 2008 & and, well, how far back do you want to go? That 2007 playoff game when Tony Romo fumbled the snap from center on a last-second game-winning field goal attempt against Seattle? Bill Parcells couldn't stomach coaching another year after that.

Jones' Cowboys went a franchise-record 13 seasons without a playoff win until last season's 34-14 thumping of Philadelphia. Then they were embarrassed 34-3 by Minnesota the very next week.

Jones still winces at the memory.

"We have a lot to make amends for," he said last week.

Stephen Jones
Jones' son Stephen and other family members are now integral parts of the Cowboys' front office.

The recent past explains why Jones dances around talk of this year's Super Bowl.

"I've been coached up real good," he says. "I've drawn back too many nubs when I didn't go."

That was just his 21 years on the job talking louder than his three Super Bowl rings again. But if Jones gets a fourth championship this season, 14 long and winding years after his last previous one, who knows what he'll say?

This Cowboys team doesn't have a surefire Hall of Fame trio like Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. Phillips can't touch the star power Johnson and Parcells enjoyed as Cowboys coach.

This is Jerry's team. Jerry's show. Jerry's title, if they win it.

And Jones is right: Vanity is good sometimes because it has prodded him to go the extra mile again and again. He might go down in NFL history as the man who gave over-the-top a good name.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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