The essence of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is this: He is as competitive as the feistiest player, and he doesn't sulk. Hanging up the phone last week after an hourlong conversation with Jones on the sad state of his team, I thought, This guy can handle the fans and the press and the football establishment shoveling dirt on Dallas's coffin.
"A lot of people wondered if Lee Iacocca could rebuild Chrysler, didn't they?" Jones said with a sly chuckle. "Our future is not bleak. I don't like 6-8, but ask me my regrets, and I don't have any."
Jones, whose Cowboys were eliminated from playoff contention by virtue of their ninth loss, 31-24 to the Bengals on Sunday, refused to confirm what seems inevitable: Laissez-faire Barry Switzer won't return for a fourth season. But listening to Jones, you could easily conclude that Switzer will go back to his couch in Oklahoma and offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese will be looking for a job. Jones will try to keep the defensive staff and special teams coach Joe Avezzano. "We're going to change some things," Jones said, "and, more than likely, they will have something to do with how we do things offensively."
Here are five things Jones must do with a team that is less than two years removed from its third Super Bowl title in four seasons.
1. Hire the right coach.
Jones knows there's no one Mr. Right for this job. He dumped a dictator ( Jimmy Johnson) for a Jimmy Buffett ( Switzer) in 1994, and the most important trait the new guy must have is a Johnson-like firm hand. The next coach must be at least as tough as Dave Wannstedt, who will be the front-runner if the Bears fire him. Former UCLA coach Terry Donahue will get consideration, and a surprise candidate, such as Eagles offensive coordinator Jon Gruden, could emerge.
2. Find another offensive weapon.
Dallas won't pick up the $1 million option on disappointing wideout Anthony Miller for 1998. In the draft look for the Cowboys to focus on a precision game-breaking wideout to pair with Michael Irvin. Best first-round guess: Virginia receiver Germane Crowell.
3. Fix the offensive line.
Except for the tackles—Larry Allen on the left side, Erik Williams on the right—there's not much to build with. The Cowboys can't afford a big-ticket lineman in free agency and, because they need a couple of guys to play immediately, shouldn't look for line help in the first round. Instead they need to go after free agents they can sign at the cap-friendly price of about $1 million a year. There are several candidates: Cardinals guard Joe Wolf, Bears guard Todd Burger and Broncos guard Brian Habib. If they can sign two of those and live with incumbent Clay Shiver or reserve John Flannery at center, the line will have a prayer of keeping Troy Aikman healthy and Emmitt Smith productive.
4. Hire an on-the-rise pro personnel director.
Jones is going to function as the general manager. End of story. The Cowboys, however, don't have a man who evaluates pro talent exclusively; their scouts do double duty on NFL and college players. Jones needs an egoless tapehead to tell him if a Seahawks practice-squad tackle is worth picking up.
5. Keep Jerry out of the coaches' offices.
Nobody likes the boss looking over his shoulder, and it can be the kiss of death for football greatness. Jones must hire the right guy and get out of his way.