ARLINGTON, Texas – Three Super Bowl titles, billions of dollars for himself and his NFL counterparts, and a stadium that is part high-end department store and casino have combined to cement Jerry Jones' image as a business genius.
But for all his brilliance at turning a profit, the Dallas Cowboys owner would still like to be known as a football man. It's a nebulous title reserved for the likes of Bill Walsh, George Halas and Bill Parcells – people who build teams of men, not just piles of cash.
That is why, in a subtly significant way, linebacker Anthony Spencer(notes) may be as important to Jones' legacy as the palace that is Cowboys Stadium. If Spencer and some of the other young defensive players Jones has acquired over the past three years continue to play well, Dallas may win another Super Bowl.
"As GM, I'm proud of the fact that we have positioned ourselves the way we have," said Jones, whose Cowboys meet the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game. "Playing the way we are, as healthy as we are … we have a very talented team. We've got some depth and these guys are now starting to get experience under fire."
Since Parcells' departure following the 2006 season, Jones has augmented the talent his former coach brought in with a nucleus of drafted players and free agents. Michael Jenkins(notes), Felix Jones(notes), Tashard Choice(notes), Leonard Davis(notes), Keith Brooking(notes) and Ken Hamlin(notes) are among the key players who Jerry Jones and his staff have collected since the start of 2007.
However, Spencer may be the most significant find. Moreover, Spencer is finally proving Jones right after the Cowboys made a risky move to cut 34-year-old Greg Ellis(notes) before the start of this season.
Ellis was a proven pro, the type of player teams usually hang onto when making a run at a title. During his final two years with Dallas, Ellis had 20½ sacks. Spencer, a first-round NFL draft pick in 2007, had 4½ in that same time.
During the season's first 10 games, the decision was looking like the wrong one as Spencer failed to register a sack. Since then, he's recorded seven, including one in the 34-14 wild-card win over the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend. Ultimately, he is giving the Cowboys the kind of play that has made their pass rush, led by fellow linebacker DeMarcus Ware(notes) and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff(notes), arguably the best of all the teams in the playoffs.
"What we have together now is something really special," Spencer said. "I've just really started to focus on things more, make sure the little things are taken care of and it's all come together. I'm just a lot more comfortable."
The turning point for Spencer was in a Week 4 loss to Denver that dropped the Cowboys to 2-2 and had some fans pushing the panic switch. Late in that game, Spencer had a critical pass go through his hands that he felt he should have intercepted.
"That's when I realized that it was about focus on the details," Spencer said. "That was a ball I should have had, but I took my eyes off the play for just a second and it was through my hands and we lose the game."
While that moment clearly inspired Spencer to do better, others noticed the hard work well before then.
"All I've seen since I got here is how hard Anthony has worked to become a good player and it's all going right for him now," said Brooking, in his first year with the Cowboys after spending 11 with the Atlanta Falcons. "He just works and works. He didn't let the stuff with [Ellis] get in his head at all. He just worked to prove to himself and everybody else that he could be that guy."
Spencer celebrates during the Cowboys wild-card victory over the Eagles.
(Sharon Ellman/AP Photo)
Spencer's play during the season's second half makes Jones, who played college ball at Arkansas and dreamed of running the team back when he rode buses to and from the games, recall the glimpses he saw during the defender's first two years.
"He was close on a lot of plays, right there about to make it happen, that you knew it was just a matter of time before it all came together for him," Jones said.
Perhaps, but this is the same Jones who bungled draft after draft and trade after trade following Jimmy Johnson's tenure. After Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin were gone, Jones tried to replace them with the likes of Quincy Carter, Joey Galloway(notes) and James McKnight.
All the while, Jones heard from Cowboys fans that he needed to give up control of the team. He did, for a while, to Parcells, but eventually wanted it back.
And this time, Jones may be on the verge of another title. One that he helped build from a football perspective.