Last August, Jerry Jones was having a private conversation about the state of the NFL and his pole position within the league’s ownership ranks. Reclining back in his chair, the Dallas Cowboys owner waxed broadly and passionately, repeatedly tracing his ethos back to one decades-old moment. It’s a snippet of his memory that speaks directly to the ruckus Jones is raising today, and might answer the question that is suddenly resonating throughout the NFL.
What is Jerry doing?
A few months ago, Jones gave a peek into the foundations of his ownership ideology. That glimpse showed why it’s looking more and more like the Cowboys owner is moving to position himself as the principal shot-caller in the NFL. Arguably since Day 1, he has been positioning himself to be the chairman of this billionaire fraternity, the leader who finds a way to dictate his preferred agenda.
“When I walked into my first owners meeting, I looked to my left and saw [Kansas City Chiefs owner] Lamar Hunt,” Jones said in August. “I looked to my right and saw [Cincinnati Bengals owner] Paul Brown. These were guys who bucked back. The NFL wouldn’t give Lamar a franchise, so he went out and started a whole other league [in the AFL] and forced his way in. Paul Brown basically got his [Cleveland Browns] franchise taken away from him – a franchise that was named for him – so he goes down south a few hundred miles and helps found the Cincinnati Bengals. These were people that looked at their situation and when it was called for, they made changes.”
This is what Jerry Jones believes it means to be an NFL owner. If things aren’t going the way they should – or you’re dealt a hand you won’t accept – you change something. And after speaking to multiple NFL sources familiar with Jones and his litany of recent frustrations, it’s clear that his attitude toward Goodell has shifted significantly over the past few years.
The universal opinion appears to be this: It’s not that Jones doesn’t like commissioner Roger Goodell – it’s that Jones doesn’t like Goodell’s relationship to the ownership group.
The sources also agreed on a key dynamic that has changed in that relationship during the past decade: how Jerry Jones sees himself and his influence within the broader group. As Jones has grown older, sources say the change of ownership groups around him have ushered Jones to the head of the table. Gone are some of the team owners who Jones saw as luminaries and mentors; guys like Hunt, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. Now, when Jones walks into a meeting and looks around, he sees himself as the center of the room. And even in a room of billionaires, that is largely true thanks in part to Jones’ aggressive business tendencies, marketing acumen and charisma.
“It’s the difference between being counseled and being the counselor,” one NFL source said of Jones’ mindset. “There were owners who counseled him who aren’t sitting next to him in meetings anymore. Now he’s the counselor in the room. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect or seek the advice of [New England Patriots owner] Bob Kraft or [New York Giants co-owner] John Mara. But those are his peers. Jerry is the kind of guy who tries to lead his peers. …
“It’s not natural to try and lead your mentors. But most of Jerry’s mentors are gone. I think naturally he sees himself as taking their place.”
Multiple sources also pointed at Rooney as the owner Jones might be missing most. Rooney died in April, leaving Jones without a man whom he respected for even-handed decisions, thoughtful debate and masterful mediation between owners.
“Jerry listened to Mr. Rooney,” one source familiar with Jones said. “I think he would have listened to Mr. Rooney on a lot of the things that are happening right now.”
But Rooney isn’t here. And that has left Jones trying to lead a room that – at least at this stage – doesn’t appear to be willing to follow. The sources said he separated himself from the larger group by aligning himself publicly with President Donald Trump on the national anthem protests. Then he did it again with the continued pushback on the final approval process of Goodell’s contract. But nothing has created more waves than his hiring of lawyer David Boies and the lawsuit threat that came along with it.
In the context of his life as an owner, this is Jones leaning back on the attitudes of power brokers who came before him. The ones who believed in decisive change. Now Jones is sitting at the head of the table staring at Goodell, calling for a correction.
And that correction is this: Goodell is trying to fashion himself as a commissioner who works in favor of the league. Jones believes that Goodell’s job description and massive salary dictate he should work in favor of the owners. Largely because in Jones’ mind, it’s the owners who should direct what’s best for the league – not the commissioner.
“Jerry looks at the prosperity of the NFL and sees it as the golden goose that Roger didn’t raise or create,” one league source said of Jones. “To Jerry, Roger is basically a babysitter. He watches the golden goose, but he doesn’t own it. … Jerry has known Roger almost going back to [Roger] being an intern [in the NFL]. Jerry had a hand in getting him that commissioner job. Now Roger is making a mint in a job that Jerry helped him get – and in Jerry’s mind, Roger hasn’t even kept the league as healthy as it should be. If Roger is making this kind of money, the point Jerry wants to deliver is that the commissioner serves at the pleasure of the owners. And also that Roger needs to do a better job of heading off or managing problems.”
While Goodell’s pay is a key point of Jones’ gripes, multiple sources painted a picture in which finances are tied to a myriad of issues that have been festering for at least the past two years. Three sources who have been alongside Jones at multiple owners meetings over the past three years said he has raised criticism of Goodell or the league’s crisis management on a number of issues.
Among the three biggest areas Jones has expressed concerns about under Goodell’s leadership:
• Over the past year, Jones doesn’t believe Goodell or the league’s public-relations department has done a good job framing the TV ratings storyline. Chiefly, Jones believes the entertainment consumption landscape is changing drastically, yet the NFL is weathering that storm far better than most entertainment cash cows; and that the league continues to aggressively reach for new platforms to make the game available to a younger demographic. While ratings are unquestionably down and Jones is concerned, the sources said he believes the context of the dip hasn’t always been relayed well by Goodell.
• Jones believes Goodell put the NFL into an unwinnable battle when he overhauled league policy after domestic violence cases involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy. While part of this seems to trace from his frustration with the suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott, the sources said Jones believes that league investigations are a dangerous quagmire. Especially when the NFL’s own disciplinary reach and judgement extends beyond that of law enforcement.
• The most obvious of all, Goodell’s inability to get anthem protests under control during the 2016 season, and the mushrooming backlash that occurred the past three months. The sources said Jones supported a more decisive approach to resolve the anthem issues during the offseason – before Trump could add fuel to an already smoldering issue.
Somewhere beneath all of those is the reality of public relations and image. According to the sources, Jones believes Goodell has done a poor job of identifying big problems before they happen, or definitively limiting damage in the wake of problems after they occur. And all the while, the NFL has paid him massive piles of cash during the course of what Jones believe was clear mismanagement.
In Jones’ mind, the inability to correct mistakes is often the difference between success or failure. And he said as much in August.
“It is how you react,” Jones said when describing his business philosophies. “There’s nobody that I’ve ever met that bats over .500 or 50-50 on making the right decisions. There’s nobody that can see around corners. Nobody can. But the guys that succeed are the ones that cut their bad decisions off quicker than others and let their good ones run longer than others.”
That might say a lot about where Jerry Jones is at right now. He sees an NFL that has paid Goodell hundreds of millions of dollars during unprecedented success. But the landscape is changing both on the field, in the fan base and in the ownership ranks. Having stepped to the head of the table and fashioning himself as the chief counselor in the room, he appears intent on pressing his agenda.
In Jones’ mind, changes with Goodell are necessary. And even if that means challenging the commissioner and some of his fellow owners, he learned this fighting stance from the likes of Lamar Hunt and Paul Brown.
What is Jerry doing? He’s bucking back.
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