By Steve Silverman
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Jerry Jones has learned a few things since he bought the Dallas Cowboys prior to the 1989 season.
When he came into the NFL, he was viewed as an outsider and a back-country rube. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way when he came in like a bull and fired legendary head coach Tom Landry almost immediately after he closed on his purchase from an owner named Bum Bright.
While many around Dallas and the league’s offices on Park Avenue were upset because Jones did not show the proper respect for one of the greatest coaches in the game’s history, he was straightforward and he did not let Landry twist in the wind.
He could have wined him, dined him and kept him around for a few months — or even one more ceremonial season — but Jones knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to rebuild the Cowboys in his own image, and he was willing to take the criticism that went with firing a legend.
There have been many things that you could accuse Jones of over the years — most of them have to do with ego aggrandizement — but he was not a phony when it came to dealing with Landry.
Jones was able to get the Cowboys back on track, and they became a championship-caliber team a few years after he became owner. Shrewd player procurement, keyed by the mind of Jimmy Johnson, helped the Cowboys build the most talented team in the league in the early and mid-1990s.
There was brilliance up and down the roster, but there were three primary players on the offensive side who allowed the Cowboys to compete with and surpass the San Francisco 49ers. Those players were the triplets: running back Emmitt Smith, wide receiver Michael Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman.
After the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII against the Buffalo Bills to conclude the 1992 season, Smith wanted to get paid more money. He informed Jones of his wishes, and when the owner did not come through with a raise and a contract extension, Smith threatened to hold out.
Jones was more than willing to engage Smith in a standoff. He figured his superstar running back would be back in a Cowboys uniform before the Cowboys started playing meaningful games. He knew Smith had responsibilities and he needed to get paid.
Jones underestimated his running back’s resolve and never thought that Smith would miss any game checks. He also thought that the Cowboys had more than enough talent to survive without Smith and continue to win games in 1993.
Jones was wrong on both accounts as Smith never gave a hint of wavering from his stance. He sat out the first two games without any signs of cracking. The defending-champion Cowboys lost their first two games of the year.
Before the third game, Smith was back in uniform as Jones capitulated to the running back’s contract issues. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief in Dallas. The Cowboys recovered from their two early losses and repeated as Super Bowl champions.
Jones was about to have another holdout on his hands this year. After trading NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray to the Eagles — a move that they may live to regret — it was clear that the Cowboys were counting on wide receiver Dez Bryant to lead the Cowboys in 2015.
Bryant may have been in a stronger position than Smith was 22 years ago. It’s clear that the Cowboys need their top receiver to be their most productive offensive player, and Bryant was threatening to hold out if the Cowboys were going to ask him to play under the franchise tag and not give him a new deal.
Jones came to his senses at the last possible moment, and he capitulated to Bryant. He gave him a five-year, $70 million contract that includes $45 million in guaranteed money.
Bryant is now the second-highest paid receiver in the league behind Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions. He is clearly happy with his contract, and the Cowboys are counting on him to get into the same neighborhood he was last year when he caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards and 16 TDs.
He may not be able to do it because of the Murray trade. The Cowboys had ideal offensive balance last year, but their running game has taken a major hit. If they can’t run the ball with Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle, Bryant is going to get bracketed on nearly every snap.
But if Jones hadn’t come through with the new deal and Bryant had lived up to his threat and stayed away, the Cowboys would have been doomed.
The Cowboys have a puncher’s chance to win the NFC East and advance in the postseason this coming season. That’s because Jones had learned something from the Smith holdout 22 years ago, and his best offensive player will be on the field for 16 games this season.
Jones may be stubborn and ego-driven, but he has learned from his mistakes.