Five months ago, after the Dallas Cowboys had toppled the Seattle Seahawks 30-23 on the road and staked their claim as Super Bowl hopefuls, team owner Jerry Jones was floating through the locker room. Tapping players on the elbow and winking as he walked by, he joked that this was the kind of win that might have prompted him to form a line out of his office for contract extensions.
"And I might have signed them all, too," Jones said, half-jokingly.
Yet here we are, in the midst of what might be the most remarkable period of financial self-control in Cowboys history. All of the sudden, this is the team that passed on the searing media spotlight of Johnny Manziel and drafted offensive guard Zack Martin, who became an All-Pro as a rookie. It's the franchise that weighed the off-field concerns of superstar wideout Dez Bryant against his colossal on-field production – and chose to give him a safer, salary-cap averse, one-year franchise tag instead of a monster extension. The extension would have freed room to spend more money this offseason, but the Cowboys chose the conservative play.
And then came Thursday, when Dallas bricked up the vault and said it wouldn't pay league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray more than he was worth – and stuck to it, letting Murray slip away to the hated Philadelphia Eagles.
All of these moves are alarmingly prudent when placed against this franchise's history of being a slot machine for star players. As one high-level NFL agent put it, "The two best days in the year are your birthday, and when Jerry Jones takes your call."
All of which begged the questions Thursday: "Which chair is Jerry Jones tied to, and how dark is the closet where he's being kept?"
It's a joke, of course. It's undeniable that Jones will always be the rock-star front man for the Cowboys. But this streak of fiscal responsibility has some fingerprints on it, and those who know the Cowboys say those identifying marks belong largely to Jones' son Stephen. Outside of Dallas and NFL circles, not a lot is known about the man, other than he's the offspring of arguably the league's wildest owner, and carries a business card that lists a one-man corporation: "Stephen Jones: Dallas Cowboys Chief Operating Officer/Executive Vice President/Director of Player Personnel."
That's a mouthful in any organization but also not entirely uncommon for owners' sons who are expected to inherit the kingdom and all its glory. Stephen Jones is that guy in Dallas. He's the one who gets the party bus and the $4 billion franchise that accompanies it.
So here's what NFL sources are saying right now about Stephen Jones: He's doing a disciplined job of running a franchise that had become known for shooting from the hip fast and often, consequences be damned. Asked his opinion of what Stephen Jones is doing with the team, one NFL source lavished praise.
"What he's doing – I don't know how else to say it, other than it's really smart," the source said. "Stephen has restraint. He can be someone who is very cheap and deliberately slow."
Those aren't usually glowing reviews in NFL circles. But in this case, that's exactly what they were. Whereas Jerry Jones was known to spend as much with his heart as his head, Stephen appears to be taking this most pragmatic of approaches. If an option is not good for the Cowboys in the long-term he doesn't want to entertain it. And if he can't find a way to work around it, he'll take more time to figure it out, rather than trying to spend his way through it.
And what happened with Murray ultimately drew the spotlight and placed it squarely on Stephen Jones. It was Stephen who drew the line at $5 million a season for Murray, according to multiple league sources. They said Stephen felt that going north of that number would have necessitated tinkering with the salary cap beyond 2015, particularly with the Cowboys still looking at other free agents, and needing to retain financial flexibility for the draft class and any unforeseen roster problems later in the offseason.
So while others were riding a freight train to the outer limits of their cap, Stephen Jones made the decision that Dallas would sacrifice Murray and work around the problem with cheaper free-agent options or the draft. And in a twist – one league source said this was in contradiction to Jones' father, whose sentimentality for Murray would have had Dallas paying between $6 million to $7 million a year to retain the running back.
In the end, it was Stephen Jones who won out. Why? It's because Stephen has grown concerned with the percentage of the team's salary cap devoted to the offense, multiple league sources said. Prior to tackle Tyron Smith's contract restructure this week, nearly $61 million of Dallas' $143 million 2015 cap was accounted for by only four offensive players: quarterback Tony Romo ($27.7 million), Smith ($13 million before the restructure), Bryant ($12.8 million) and tight end Jason Witten ($8.5 million).
Stephen Jones did not want to add Murray to that list at the cost of $6 million to $8 million a season, sources said. So he offered a deal averaging around $5 million and stuck with it. Other media outlets have reported the franchise was willing to go as high as $6 million a season but even that wouldn't have beaten the deal offered by the Eagles, who landed Murray at an average north of $8 million a year.
So Dallas took the loss and began working other options. But expecting something glitzy might lead to disappointment. Despite redoing Smith's deal, an NFL source said Stephen Jones doesn't want to start tinkering with other large ones, such as Romo's – nor does the franchise seem in a hurry to extend Bryant and risk potential embarrassment by any off-field issues later.
"I think he's listening to the people around him," one league source said. "The personnel guys and the cap guys, he's taking their information into account, which I don't think Jerry always did."
Some have suggested that Adrian Peterson could come back into play, and perhaps he might. Sources have already told Yahoo Sports that Peterson would be willing to rework his contract and take a "discount" to $9 million a season with around $25 million guaranteed. But to even get that done, Dallas would have to convince the Minnesota Vikings to trade Peterson.
But the reality is this: $9 million per season and $25 million guaranteed no longer sound like Stephen Jones numbers. And if Jerry Jones is staying out of it, the writing is on the wall (NO ADRIAN PETERSON).
Passing on Peterson would fit in with these new Cowboys. And it would probably continue to look smart, too.
Call it what you want: consensus building, penny-pinching, slow-playing. Maybe Stephen Jones is all of these things. But one thing he isn't is an ATM for sentimental player withdrawals. That guy is the one tied to the chair and shoved into the closet. And the key to the bank vault is being turned by somebody new.