FRISCO, Texas – Whole lot to digest at the start of this NFL Conference Championship Game weekend.
First, this will be San Francisco's NFL-high 17th championship game appearance since the 1970 merger, one ahead of Pittsburgh and two ahead of New England.
But to me, this is most amazing because the Cowboys haven't been to a championship game since the 1995 season, 27 seasons ago. The Cowboys' 14 NFC Championship Game appearances still rank second most in the NFC and fourth in the NFL, behind Pittsburgh (16) and New England (15). But think about this, from 1966-69, the Cowboys appeared in three Eastern Conference championship games and two NFL title games, a tribute to the franchise's first four decades of dominance.
Now then, next and maybe most of all, this has been lost in nearly two weeks of wild speculation since the Cowboys' 23-17 first-round playoff loss to San Francisco:
Remember that? Remember?
That was Cowboys COO Stephen Jones' answer when asked the day after that frustrating loss if he was confident Mike McCarthy would continue on as the Cowboys head coach going forward.
In fact, his complete three-word answer was this:
"Absolutely, very confident."
Let's get something straight right now, and for sure, once and for all. The COO in Stephen's title stands for _Chief_ Operating Officer. The rest of his all-encompassing title is executive vice president of player personnel. His picture and bio come second in the Cowboys' media guide behind only his dad's, Jerry Jones, in the franchise's hierarchy. He knows exactly what's happening on an hour-to-hour basis in this organization.
And it's never been in Stephen Jones' character to fly off the cuff, saying something irresponsible or haphazardly. He and Jerry are nearly always in lockstep, save maybe that time Jerry was signing Deion Sanders in 1995 to all that money or in 2014 when Jerry had Johnny Football on his mind in the first round of that draft.
But for some reason, "absolutely" didn't resonate "absolutely" by the end of the week when Jerry was basically non-committal while asked about McCarthy's immediate future with the Cowboys, expressing his frustration with the first-round playoff departure, making sure everyone in the front office, coaching, scouting and locker room heading into the offseason were just a wee bit uncomfortable.
Well, sound the speculation bullhorn. Jerry didn't come right out to assure McCarthy's job is safe. Must mean maybe defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, on a cross-country tour interviewing for vacant head coaching jobs, would take over.
Then gasoline was thrown on this hot raging speculation when Saints head coach Sean Payton, the Cowboys' former offensive assistant back during Bill Parcells' days from 2003-05, stepped down with three years remaining on his contract after 16 years in New Orleans.
That gave license to put two and two together with the timing of Jerry's non-answer on Friday and Sean's move on Tuesday to get 10. Why sure, Payton was taking over for McCarthy in Dallas, and if not this year then next for sure if the Cowboys didn't advance to their 15th NFC Championship Game.
Well, the ol' oil and gas wildcatter emerged on Friday to spray a firehose-worth of water to douse all speculative flames.
"It was never an issue with me, with Mike being the head coach – you never heard that from me," Jerry Jones said while calling in unexpectantly Friday to flagship radio station 105.3 The Fan. "You've taken the fact that I was sitting there being coy, it was taken as though I were somehow wishy-washy – nah-uh. Just because you're frustrated doesn't mean somebody necessarily is going to lose their job."
By sounding uncommitted to something he didn't feel necessary to commit to, Jones, undetected by most, was trying to send mixed messages out there to those teams interviewing Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for head coaching jobs, while behind the scenes he was competing, probably financially and with long-term security, to retain both coordinators without getting into a bidding war out there.
Sly dude, this Jerry Jones. Hey, he didn't build this financial empire investing every last penny of his $140 million to buy the Cowboys by being naïve.
Hey, learned this about Jerry the first two months after he purchased the Cowboys on Feb. 25, 1989. The Cowboys, along with Jerry and new head coach Jimmy Johnson, thanks to Tom Landry's last team going just 3-13 in 1988, inherited the No. 1 pick in the 1989 NFL Draft.
The Cowboys needed a quarterback. Bad. UCLA's Troy Aikman was considered, and by far, the best quarterback in the draft. Johnson didn't have a quarterback the new Cowboys wanted to sink their teeth into. The Cowboys had a club option on 37-year-old Danny White's expiring contract, one they were not going to pick up, White's career spiraling downhill ever since suffering that severe wrist injury in the ninth game of what had been a very promising 6-2 start to the 1986 season.
And Johnson never was sold on incumbent starter Steve Pelluer, Johnson once saying in so many words the veteran backup QB who had started the majority of the 1988 season just didn't have enough, uh, nerve. The Cowboys were never going to keep him, and for several months tried to peddle him away, which they finally did.
But Jerry created this negotiating ruse. See, teams back then with the first pick in the draft had the right to sign their player of choice prior to the draft, trying to avoid what happened in 1983 when the Colts drafted John Elway first. Elway refused to sign with Baltimore, forcing a trade to Denver soon after.
While Jones was negotiating with Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, the Cowboys started throwing out chum that they also had interest in Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. Come on, no way the quarterback-deficient Cowboys were going to take this offensive lineman with the first pick in the draft.
Even Jimmy jumped into the shenanigans, ol' poker face himself, trying to help Jerry drive down Steinberg's asking price.
Well, the rest as we know is history, Aikman signing a six-year, $11.2 million contract four days before the draft and the Packers then selecting Mandarich with the second pick. He lasted three failed seasons, Green Bay cutting him in 1992. Mandarich eventually would play only three more seasons (1996-98) for the Colts after his family checked him into a drug and alcohol rehab center in 1995.
Get out of here, taking Mandarich over Aikman. Not falling for that one.
Not saying I've learned to become a Jerry Jones whisperer a month removed from this 34-year journey with the Cowboys owner, but sure have learned to listen carefully if nothing else.
So here we are today, McCarthy still the head coach. Quinn still the defensive coordinator, and it is Jones' hope, even though Kellen Moore was on his way to interview with Miami, to keep him as offensive coordinator.
"The thing I wanted to clear up, the idea of Mike twisting in the wind just wasn't the case at all," Jerry said Friday morning after calling to offer some clarity on the situation after Quinn pulled out these head coaching searches to remain with the Cowboys on reportedly a multi-year contract extension.
"Mike was very involved in the process, and very involved in trying to give us every chance to keep Dan Quinn."
Oh, and what about this speculative notion you were lying in the weeds to scoop up Payton, probably knowing ahead of time he was going to walk away from the Saints earlier in the week?
"No, I did not because we are sitting here building together our future," Jerry said. "No!"
See, the misconception about Jerry Jones is that no one seems to realize he yearns for continuity. Why do you think once again the Joneses stepped up to the plate to make sure Will McClay, vice president of player personnel, didn't high-tail it out of here for one of the many general manager positions opening up? Why do you think Jerry keeps his two sons and daughter as executive vice presidents? Why do you think he has been loyal to so many of his folks from his oil and gas business after taking over the Cowboys?
Heck, things happen, granted. But Jerry always envisioned Jimmy Johnson being his head coach for the rest of his years. Same with Jason Garrett, thinking his search for the Cowboys' next Tom Landry would end with him, patiently moving along together for nine and a half seasons. The eternal optimist craves continuity.
And as for this notion of purposely leaving McCarthy twisting in the wind, Jerry straightened that out a second time, saying, "Our media did (that). I didn't want to get involved publicly because we were in a highly competitive situation (trying to keep Quinn)."
See there, trying to maintain continuity.
So, time to move forward, Jerry hoping to also keep Moore. But it's time to get ready for the Senior Bowl. Time to take some preemptive strikes with unrestricted free agents. Combine is right around the corner. No more time wasted brooding or posturing. Time to get to work.
"The switch had a funk on it, and depressed part of it the first few days, but here it is, two weeks later," Jones said. "It's time to get your head out of the bucket and get on here and start doing the right things. This was absolute a big-time happening the other day to get Dan Quinn to stay here and be our coordinator, and I'm excited."
"I say you start the day with little victories to build upon a better feeling. Well, this started the day with a huge victory for us to be able to maintain him. And the continuity involved with our team is, in my mind, worth moving mountains for, and I think we did."