Jerry Jones still calls Cowboys’ draft shots, but admits ‘less risk-taking in me today’

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Thursday will mark Jerry Jones’s 34th draft as owner of the Cowboys.

While it’s reasonable to assume that anyone who has ever been in a job for that long has changed the way they do it over that many years, Jones maintains that, by and large, the organization still drafts players the same way they did in 1989, when they took Troy Aikman with the first overall pick and jump-started a dynasty in the process.

The game has evolved, to be sure. Prospects are more skilled, both at football and at negotiating. But Jones says when the team is on the clock, how the Cowboys make the final decision has remained the same.

“It’s being made exactly the same way that it was always being made,” the team owner, president, and general manager said Tuesday at the Cowboys’ annual pre-draft press conference.

Much has been made with the passage of time about the inner workings of the Cowboys hierarchy. One popular theory holds that 79-year-old Jerry has stepped back and now serves mainly as the team’s mouthpiece and hype man; that it’s his son Stephen, 57, who’s really running the show now.

There’s some truth to that; Stephen is listed as Cowboys executive vice president, chief operating officer, and director of player personnel. That’s a significant load to carry for the most visible and valuable sports franchise on the planet.

But make no mistake, Jerry is still the one who holds the checkbook.

“Around here, if it has a dollar sign associated with it in any way, I make the final call,” he explained. “I’m responsible for the money, coming in and going out, ultimately. I make that call. Have been since the day I walked through this door.”

Jerry does readily admit, though, that his son’s role with the team has increased over the years.

“Stephen’s been doing this now for 33 years. He walked in here with a chemical engineering degree; he ought to be smart enough to pick it up somewhere along the way,” he laughed. “But seriously, he’s been around here in everything we’ve done. If you can’t have confidence in that, you need to go home… It’s a luxury on my part to have that kind of talent around me. I’ve got it, the Cowboys have it in several places around here.”

One of those places is certainly in the scouting department and with draft preparation. Jones famously went into his first draft less than two months after purchasing the Cowboys. With so little time to put into evaluating prospects, Jones and brand-new coach Jimmy Johnson relied heavily on players that they were already familiar with. The rest, they learned on the fly.

Leaning on his coaches is still a key ingredient to drafting players who will help the club find success, according to Jones.

“I have always thought that the men coaching the players should have an investment in the decision being made of putting the players out there,” he said.

To that end, head coach Mike McCarthy has confirmed that he’s more involved in his Dallas drafts than he ever was in Green Bay.

Jones maintains that the Cowboys’ draft process is essentially the same as it’s ever been, but, practically speaking, it’s more of a group project now than in 1989. From coordinators to assistants to scouts to team vice president of player personnel Will McClay- one of the best in the business- Jerry has plenty of help in the war room, even though he’s the one picking up the phone to tell a young man he’s been chosen to be a Cowboy.

That phone conversation is the moment the TV cameras capture, creating the illusion that Jones alone is calling the shots. But the owner explains that it’s about buy-in from the rest of the brain trust.

“There’s a lot of me that would like to take a player and hand it over when we draft him and have Mike sign it, have Stephen sign it, have Will sign it, and then go down through the coaching staff and have everybody on there sign it: ‘This is the guy we picked,'” Jones told reporters. “There really is buy-in here. And there’s buy-in with how players are selected. And there’s buy-in with, after they’re selected, how they evolve and how they’re coached. I believe in that.”

So while Jones is the most recognizable face of the front office, he says he wants everyone in the organization to take genuine ownership in the decisions that they help make, especially during the draft.

“I really do- and should, in my spot- make other people believe they’re making the decision,” the owner shared. “I should do that. I should work very hard to make other people believe it’s their decision, because if they think it’s their decision, they will work their ass off to try to make sure it’s a good one.”

Of course, they’re not always good decisions. The reality of trying to evaluate football players is that both the players and evaluators are human beings. And sometimes the players prove not to be who they looked like they’d become at the pro level. And that’s what makes the draft such an inexact science. At its heart, it’s still a crapshoot, one with very high stakes.

If there is a change in how Jerry Jones approaches the draft 34 years in, it’s in his stomach for taking gambles.

“There’s probably less risk-taking in me today than there probably was when I look back thirtysomething years ago,” the former oilman says. “When we got here, I frankly was the only one in the room that had ever taken a risk, certainly financially, when I first got involved. I knew how to take risks, knew how to judge consequences if you mess up on a risk. And I was experienced in that; that’s how I owned the Cowboys. That’s how I got them.”

Chalk it up to his past life as a wildcatter, prospecting for black gold, constantly drilling new oil wells and waiting for one to strike it rich. Sometimes it comes down to luck, to following a hunch.

And even though the gushers are the ones that create a life-changing fortune, the misses tend to haunt the mind, even many years later. The same goes for draft picks.

“The decision on off-the-field issues, I’m probably a little more conservative than I was fifteen years ago,” Jones admitted. “About availability, probably a little more conservative. Maybe a little more conservative about players [who have] got some developing to do, need to get some strength, because I feel like we need to use them now more than we did 15 years ago, 10 years ago.”

So while Jones may have the Shante Carvers and Taco Charltons somewhere in the back of his mind, he plunges ahead, knowing that the club’s next first-round pick just might turn out to be Troy Aikman or Micah Parsons.

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