Whether it’s the euphoria of the Herschel Walker trade in 1989, regrets about not drafting Randy Moss in 1998 or getting slapped with a six-figure fine for prodding along Minnesota’s stadium situation in 2009, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has had a passionate, career-long connection to the Vikings.
It started, of course, on Oct. 12, 1989, when the rookie owner and his first-year NFL coach, Jimmy Johnson, pulled, as Johnson told reporters that day, “The Great Train Robbery” — aka the Herschel Walker trade. The Cowboys used the bounty of picks to win three Super Bowls in four years as the NFL’s Team of the ’90s. Meanwhile, the Vikings went 21-23 and lost in their only playoff appearance before releasing Walker in 1992.
“You’re absolutely right,” Jones said this week by phone from the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch headquarters. “After that, whenever I saw the Vikings or thought of them, I thought of Herschel Walker and what that trade did for our success. There’s no question that was the foundation and basis for us winning three Super Bowls.”
Jones said that’s changing now that his team will face former Cowboys assistant Mike Zimmer — “a friend who I think the world of” — as Vikings head coach for the first time. Jones’ Cowboys (10-1) bring a 10-game winning streak into Thursday night’s game against a Vikings team that’s 1-5 since starting 5-0.
“This will be my first time seeing U.S. Bank Stadium, but I hear it’s magnificent,” Jones said. “Minneapolis-St. Paul was a must-have market. It’s a huge cornerstone for the NFL, which is why I was such an outspoken proponent of trying to hook up a great ownership situation with a great stadium situation.”
According to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Jones overstepped his bounds when he lobbied for a new stadium on behalf of the Wilf ownership group before a preseason game at the Metrodome in 2009. Jones was fined at least $100,000 for violating a league gag order on labor issues when he said, “Right now, we are subsidizing this market. It’s unthinkable to think that the market you’ve got here, with 3.5 million people, and have teams like Kansas City and Green Bay subsidizing this market. That will stop. … That’s called revenue sharing. That’s on its way out.”
This week, Jones said, “I got fined a lot of money for basically really pushing Minnesota and the fans to build that stadium you have now before it was too late. I actually thought the Wilfs should have paid it because they encouraged me to say it.”
That wasn’t the first time the Vikings could thank Jones. Of course, it doesn’t settle the Herschel Walker debt, but Jones always has regretted not taking Moss when the Cowboys, like 20 other teams, chose not to take the character risk on him when they had the eighth overall pick in 1998.
“[Current Cowboys coach] Jason Garrett’s daddy, Jim Garrett, stood up in our draft room,” Jones said. “He had been with us going on 20 years as a scout. He stood up and said, ‘We got to take this Moss kid.’ He said, ‘Guys, this is pro football.’
“Chan Gailey was our coach and, of course, we had had some sensitive times with off-the-field issues. And we were a little more skittish than we should have been. And it was a real mistake, and he made us pay. And I just have to think he got extra motivation when he walked into the stadium.”
On Thanksgiving Day as a rookie, Moss caught three passes for 163 yards and touchdowns of 51, 56 and 56 yards in a win over the Cowboys.
When Jones answered his phone at Cowboys headquarters, he apologized for his voice being so hoarse. When told: “That’s OK, you’ve had a lot to shout about this season,” Jones laughed.
“I agree with that,” he said.
On Feb. 4, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 46-member selection committee will vote on Jones as an NFL contributor finalist when it gathers in Houston.
“It’s surreal,” Jones said. “I still remember when I was 20, 21, 22, selling insurance in Missouri. I used to slip away from my job and go down to Houston or Atlanta when the AFL was meeting. I would just hang out in the lobby of the hotel for a chance to say hello to the owners.”
On Feb. 5, Jones could be wearing his Hall of Fame gold jacket while his Cowboys play in Super Bowl LI in Houston’s NRG Stadium.
It would be Dallas’ first Super Bowl since the famed “Triplets” — Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin — and a dominant offensive line led the Cowboys to their third of three Super Bowl titles in four years.
This year, Dallas has a new-age set of “Triplets” — quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Dez Bryant — another powerhouse offensive line and a coach, Garrett, whom Jones has stuck with through three straight 8-8 seasons and a 4-12 injury-riddled meltdown a year ago. Asked if he ever envisioned Prescott, a rookie fourth-round draft pick, leading his team to a 10-1 start, Jones said, “Never in a million years.”
“But what turned out to be our greatest decision came when [Tony] Romo went down in the preseason,” Jones said. “There was a lot of clamor to bring in a veteran quarterback with starting experience. We had Kellen Moore, but he was hurt. We thought we should give Dak a chance to show that he could translate what he was doing to the regular season. To me, that’s the story.
“So we took a chance and did not do what conventionally you should do, and that’s go pay an arm and a leg for a veteran quarterback.”
Jones said he sees similarities between this team and the NFL’s Team of the ’90s.
“It’s amazingly a pretty similar set of circumstances,” he said. “Now, certainly, I’m not going to predict anything. And with a rookie quarterback, you don’t want to get out over your skis when you consider that team in the ’90s won three Super Bowls with three Hall of Famers. But the initial exit polls are looking good.”