IRVING, Texas -- Back when Jerry Jones spent his time and money drilling oil wells, he had two ways to try to find a gusher. He could do his homework and methodically pick the spot most likely to produce, or he could be a wildcatter who took big risks and moved dirt on a whim.
His success at wildcatting helped him buy the Dallas Cowboys, and for more than a decade Jones stuck with the style, riding it to the top of the NFL. Then came a dry spell that sent him to the bottom.
Now Jones is trying to get back up by using the practical approach. He started 13 months ago by cutting Troy Aikman and reached a peak last weekend with a draft that's earned him the most praise since -- well, maybe ever.
Jones admits the unprecedented warm-and-fuzzy publicity is great, but he's trying to remain modest. After all, his team has won only five games in each of the past two seasons and hasn't won a playoff game since 1996.
''We all know the results aren't really going to be until two, three years from now,'' he said. ''But it's good to hear. The only thing is, I'm such a lightning rod that other people in our organization aren't getting their due. Our pro scouts, college scouts and all the guys who work back here, they're like offensive linemen whose reward comes when Emmitt Smith gets 100 yards.''
Jones went into the draft seeking an impact player with his top pick and another starter with his second choice. He did it with safety Roy Williams and offensive lineman Andre Gurode, then followed with two more players likely to play right away in receiver Antonio Bryant and cornerback Derek Ross.
The Cowboys had Williams, Gurode and Bryant rated as first-rounders, yet landed the latter two in the second round. Ross, a third-rounder, was listed as the No. 3 cornerback on their board, behind only Quentin Jammer and Phillip Buchanon. Dallas considered fourth-round choice Jamar Martin the best blocking fullback available.
''We weren't looking for backups,'' Jones said. ''The idea was to get guys who can play now and be a potential cornerstone for years to come. Was it luck? Yes. But I think our chances were enhanced dramatically by being willing to take some chances and having some resolve.''
The biggest chance was not grabbing Williams with the sixth pick.
Jones knew the teams picking behind him weren't interested in the Oklahoma hitting machine, so he was looking to move down a few spots, add another choice and still get his man. The old wildcatter was willing to drain his 15-minute allotment to be sure he got the best deal.
The clock hit 0:00 and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue went to the podium with nothing to say. Draft watchers from coast to coast, including former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson on ESPN, were laughing at what might have been the biggest blunder in draft history. Alas, a trade with Kansas City had been called in but not relayed to Tagliabue in time.
The pats on the back for Jones have mostly centered on the draft, but everything he's doing now is the culmination of a master plan that began early last year with the release of Aikman.
Jones used to prepare for every season with the mind-set that if No. 8 were under center, the Cowboys would be a Super Bowl contender. He now blames that blind faith for some bad moves, such as the hiring of coach Chan Gailey and trading two draft picks to get Joey Galloway.
Dropping Aikman meant a fresh start in many ways. Jones had to adopt a new outlook, and Dallas had to clean out its salary cap, which wasn't all bad. The ''dead money'' the Cowboys were saddled with in 2001 led to high draft picks every round.
Given Jones' record, having plenty of cap room and lots of desirable draft picks could have been a temptation to do some more wildcatting.
He stuck to his plan.
First he addressed offense, bringing former Stanford quarterback Chad Hutchinson back to football after a stint in baseball and hiring Bruce Coslet as offensive coordinator. He filled the biggest hole on special teams by signing deep snapper Jeff Robinson from St. Louis, then dug into a new strategy of upgrading a defense that was ranked fourth in the NFL last season.
The Cowboys didn't let that statistic fool them. They knew part of the reason they allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the league was because their turnover-prone offense and weak special teams often left opponents with fantastic field position. Coaches realized that to remain effective, they needed more sacks and interceptions, areas where Dallas neared franchise lows last season.
Jones brought in proven pass rushers in defensive tackle La'Roi Glover and linebacker Kevin Hardy, who is a risk because he's coming off a knee injury. The Cowboys also signed cornerback Bryant Westbrook and crossed their fingers that he'll be healthy.
Dallas didn't break the bank to sign any of them. Jones gave Glover a take-it-or-leave-it offer weeks after telling Glover his asking price was too high, and the Cowboys can escape their commitments to Hardy and Westbrook after one year if their bodies don't hold up.
Why all the bold changes? Is Jerry still trying to prove he can win without Jimmy and show everyone he really is ''a football guy''?
''The only thing that has always been a big motivator for me is critics and people saying we can't do it,'' Jones said. ''I would not recommend this course of action for any team, but you really do create more interest when you've gone down -- inordinately so when expectations are so high for the Dallas Cowboys.''
Jones drew attention last year by saying his team could win 10 games. His caveat about ''if the quarterback position gets settled'' was usually not attached, making him a national punching bag once again when the Cowboys went 5-11.
This season, he's taking no chances.
''It makes sense that I'll have a more conservative approach,'' he said, knowing that others are already whispering the Cowboys appear far closer to a playoff team now than they did when last season ended. ''But I will say that we'll be a better team.''
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