Cowboys face 4 major decisions – including one on Ezekiel Elliott – and Stephen Jones is the shot caller

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

For Jerry Jones, the watershed moment arrived on Day 1. Back in 1989, mortgaged to the hilt after his purchase of the Dallas Cowboys, he pulled the plug on the iconic Tom Landry and installed Jimmy Johnson as his head coach, kickstarting a return to prominence and laying the foundation that would help make Jones one of the biggest power brokers in NFL history.

Nearly 30 years later, arguably the most important turning point since that 1989 shakeup is now unfolding in Dallas. But this stage doesn’t belong to Jerry anymore. Instead, this moment belongs to Jerry’s son Stephen. The successor who is about to put his biggest mark on these Cowboys, completing a transition of power that has been steadily emerging over the past five years.

Make no mistake about this period of Cowboys lore: 2019 is the year of Stephen Jones. And the decisions he makes this year – including a contract extension for DeMarcus Lawrence that is already in the books – will end up defining the path of the franchise for the next decade or more.

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One agent on the Cowboys' Stephen Jones: "Compared to Jerry [Jones], Stephen is so cheap, too. He doesn’t want to pay big deals without a fight. Don’t kid yourself – Stephen is running Dallas now." (AP)
One agent on the Cowboys' Stephen Jones: "Compared to Jerry [Jones], Stephen is so cheap, too. He doesn’t want to pay big deals without a fight. Don’t kid yourself – Stephen is running Dallas now." (AP)

A long-term decision on the head coach.

A long-term decision on the franchise quarterback.

A long-term decision on the franchise wide receiver.

A long-term decision on the franchise running back.

That’s one hell of a prologue to the next chapter for the Cowboys, carrying massive financial ramifications that could either cement a Super Bowl window for several years or sow desperate chaos in the home stretch of Jerry Jones’ life.

And make no mistake, Jerry has been clear about his motivations in recent months. He’s 76 years old, he was shaken by the death of Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who died last November at 81. Jones doesn’t have time for sweeping rebuilds and he wants another Super Bowl win more than almost anything else

Consider this reality, and then overlap it with this offseason. It speaks to why Dak Prescott has to pan out as a $30 million franchise quarterback. And why Amari Cooper has to make the first-round pick worth the trade investment. And why Zeke Elliott – despite his continuing red flags off the field (including his latest handcuffing at a music festival, an incident that Stephen Jones says won’t have an impact on extension plans) – has to be the anchor Dallas envisioned.

After all, if Dak isn’t the franchise quarterback, then who will be? If Cooper isn’t the surefire No. 1 wideout they traded for, who else is available and what will he cost? If Elliott is too much of an off-field headache and isn’t the straw that stirs the drink as ownership has decreed, then which guy on the roster becomes that player?

None of this is to suggest those players aren’t worthy of extensions, of course. But it would be foolish to ignore the pressure that exists at the top of this franchise. For Jerry Jones, these have to be the guys. They were chosen for it and they’ve teased it, and anything else to the contrary means adding years that may not be here.

All of which makes this the transitional year when Stephen Jones can show he’s prepared to someday be the one and only owner of the Cowboys. There is a tight rope running down the middle of the franchise with these decisions – and he’s in charge of the balancing act. It’s why he took his time with the Lawrence contract, and might have taken longer if a new deal hadn’t been holding up Lawrence’s offseason surgery. It’s also why Stephen Jones hasn’t blown out Prescott, Cooper and Elliott already. He knows they’re all getting big deals and he might have to fight to keep the numbers in control any way he can.

If that means some slower than expected negotiations, so be it. If that means franchise tagging either Prescott or Cooper in 2020, then that’s the leverage he has to use. And if it means making head coach Jason Garrett play out 2019 just to make sure he’s absolutely the right guy (or that someone better doesn’t become available), that’s the route he has to take.

In that latter respect – the lack of a Garrett extension – there are two key considerations in play.

First, Dallas has a soft schedule up front in 2019. If something goes sideways in that first stretch of six games (which should produce nothing less than a 4-2 record) there is going to be hell to pay for the coaching staff. This team is too complete at this point to come out of the gate sputtering against inferior talent – and there is a lot of inferior talent on the schedule through mid-October.

Second, if the Cowboys have the players to compete for a Super Bowl – and ownership believes they do – there has to be an ace left to play after paying some of that talent massive contract extensions. Lawrence got his deal. Prescott will get his. And it’s possible Cooper will get a deal, too. Once those are in place, Dallas is going to be in a horrific spot if this doesn’t all pull together next season. A spot that will dictate it can’t be the fault of the players if this falls apart in 2019.

Stephen Jones told reporters Monday that running back Ezekiel Elliott's incident in Las Vegas won't have an impact on any potential contract extension talks. (AP)
Stephen Jones told reporters Monday that running back Ezekiel Elliott's incident in Las Vegas won't have an impact on any potential contract extension talks. (AP)

And if that happens, the last ace left to play is firing Garrett, blaming the coaching staff and setting out to find the right man to get the most out of the considerable talent that is being paid massive sums of money. This is the smartest, easiest play Dallas will still have left after the litany of player extensions because it’s easier to replace a head coach than a franchise quarterback. And if they believe in Prescott and he falters, the finances will dictate that it has to be a coaching problem – not a Dak problem.

And that brings us back to Stephen Jones, the guy who has to mind the long-term financial viability of a roster that is about to get heavy with max-level contracts, but also give himself some kind of out to fix the team if all fails. It’s a difficult spot to be in because they can either turn their franchise into the Seattle Seahawks, building a championship window and then deftly pulling off a micro-rebuild around a max-deal Russell Wilson, or they can falter into the Oakland Raiders, who entered a Super Bowl window with a max-deal Derek Carr in 2016, then blew up the entire organization one year later.

That’s why Stephen Jones’ handling of 2019 will put his most significant stamp on the organization to date. It won’t be just about balancing a pay scale with the new triplets of Dak, Zeke and Amari. It will be about how to handle that trio of deals while simultaneously keeping options with Garrett in his back pocket. The kind of moment Stephen Jones has been gearing up to tackle when he finally steps up to take over for his father.

As one prominent NFL agent said of Stephen Jones last week, “He has already taken over the big decisions the last three years. That dynamic has totally changed with how the money works. Jerry used to just pay everyone. Now he says all these nice things about a player, but Stephen ends up being the one who decides when and how they get their money. Or if they get paid at all.

“Compared to Jerry, Stephen is so cheap, too. He doesn’t want to pay big deals without a fight. Don’t kid yourself – Stephen is running Dallas now. Jerry is stepping back and Stephen is stepping forward. That’s what you’re seeing.”

That transition is no longer a distant plan with vague details. It’s being written right now. And three decades after his father made his splash in 1989, this year has the opportunity to be a watershed chapter in whatever ownership legacy Stephen Jones is planning to build for himself.

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