By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For the most part, most NFL experts ain't buying what the Cowboys are selling.
Las Vegas oddsmakers and the majority of pre-season prognosticators on TV, in print and online have them pegged as the third-best team in the NFC East behind the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. Their projected win total is generally 9, and when it comes to Super Bowl XLIV conversation, Dallas isn't tip of tongue or top of mind.
A year ago—coming off 13 wins and boasting 13 Pro Bowlers—it was Super Bowl or bust.
"It's the first time I can remember us being overlooked a little bit," Romo says. "It's a different role for us, but I kinda like it."
Doubters don't believe in Williams as a No. 1 receiver. They don't believe that—outside of elite pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware—the Cowboys have enough defensive playmakers. And don't believe in Phillips, who tried his darndest to toughen up during training camp but is ultimately a powerless lame duck in the shadow of Jones and without a contract past this season.
At this point, the Cowboys aren't exactly sure they believe in themselves. Time and tinkering be damned, the Texas Stadium-closing heartbreak loss to the Baltimore Ravens and the gutless, season-ending 44-6 loss in Philadelphia last December still resonate.
"Have we lost some of the swagger?" Jones says, repeating a question during camp. "You know, I don't think that any of us feel like swaggering after last year. I'm a little hesitant to say we've lost it all because I know the pride and I know the expectations we have being part of the Cowboys."
Discarding high-profile gambles, publicly downgrading predictions and softening the team's profile is Jones' way of grudgingly admitting his mistakes. But they're nothing a little 3-million-square-foot stadium can't smother.
"Our energy this year will be the new stadium," Jones says. "I absolutely can see it being a positive factor in the way we play football."
Can Jones really implement steel and glass and five-star luxury as a 12th man? Can he actually facilitate a Super Bowl via a super stadium?
"Don't put it past him," Hall of Famer and former voice of the NFL Pat Summerall told reporters before the stadium's first pre-season game. "There's never been anyone quite like Jerry Jones."
Seems daunting for an under-siege owner to try and barter outrageous prices for an underwhelming team, especially one that hasn't won a post-season game since before Monica Lewinsky's blue dress needed dry cleaning. But, then again, Jones possesses the charisma and chutzpah to sell green bananas to a suicide bomber on the way to work.
"Jerry just has a way of making things bigger and better, whatever it is," former Cowboy and NFL all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith said before camp. "When he does something, or the Dallas Cowboys do something, the whole world is going to know about it."
There is little from his boyhood that would indicate he would become a supreme salesman, someone earmarked to be the most innovative marketer in the history of the NFL. Growing up in North Little Rock, Arkansas, he did learn customer relations watching his father, Pat, run the town's favorite grocery store and a successful insurance company. Didn't stop him from mistakes. At 23, he passed on a $6 million investment in the American Football League's San Diego Chargers that 60 days later—upon merger with the NFL—was valued at $11 million. Couple years later he dove into fast-food franchising, passing on deals in Missouri for established Kentucky Fried Chicken and iconic McDonald's for a chain of forgettable Shakey's Pizza Parlors. Finally, as a renegade wildcatter who struck oil in an uncanny 12 of his first 13 wells in Oklahoma including one that netted him $80 million, Jones found his fortune. And later, in 1988, when the Cowboys went up for sale, his passion.
These days—entering his 21st season as owner, president, general manager and autonomous caretaker of the Cowboys—he's a well-heeled, time-tested amalgamation of Pat Jones, Tex Schramm, Al Davis, Rupert Murdoch and Sam Walton.
"Sam's advice to me was to always be understaffed," Jones says. "That way you'll know who your heroes are."
To say Jones wants the spotlight is to say Kate needs her "Plus 8." He is loved. He is loathed. Above all else, he matters.
Critics lambaste his lingering omnipresence, usurping power from head coaches by watching the second half of games on the sideline and gagging them in the off-season. He's narcissistic, they say, Cowboys Stadium is merely a colossal self-portrait. He's a shrewd, ruthless capitalist, they add, tarnishing the Cowboys' once-pristine image by slapping it on everything from diapers to charcoal to lotto tickets, and tearing apart Texas Stadium and selling the pieces—3-inch slivers of the goal posts sold for $35 at an auction last winter—as though the guts of the iconic place belonged in Sanford & Son's side yard.
"If for one second you believe it's about the fans and not about the almighty dollar," says a former Cowboys employee who requested anonymity, "then you don't know the real Jerry Jones."