SEND­ING MIXED MES­SAGES BAD LOOK FOR COW­BOYS

Ac­tions don’t mesh with words com­ing from Jones and Co.

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - SPORTS -

OXNARD, CALIF. While de­vour­ing a ham sand­wich (se­ri­ously) last week in his suite at the ho­tel where the Dal­las Cow­boys are stag­ing train­ing camp, Jerry Jones paused to get a glance at the im­age on a TV screen. He stopped to watch him­self. Ear­lier that day, af­ter the Lucky White­head fi­asco that made the Cow­boys ap­pear so cruel for cut­ting a wide re­ceiver who was misiden­ti­fied by po­lice in a shoplift­ing ar­rest, Jones de­liv­ered a pas­sion­ate state­ment about his em­pa­thy for play­ers.

Jones, crit­i­cized over the years for back­ing play­ers to a fault, beamed as he saw the re­play.

Yet his drop-the-mic mo­ment hardly made up for the im­age hit the fran­chise took for its han­dling of White­head. It was like White­head took it on the chin as a sud­denly tough re­sponse for so many other off-the-field em­bar­rass­ments that keep pop­ping up with the Cow­boys.

“Some­body might say, ‘You might have had a lit­tle sen­si­tiv­ity in all of that,’ ” Jones told USA TO­DAY Sports, try­ing to ex­plain why the team didn’t give White­head his job back af­ter po­lice in Prince Wil­liam County, Va., ad­mit­ted the mis­take. “But the ba­sis of mak­ing a de­ci­sion of­ten­times is high­lighted by some kind of thing rel­a­tive to the in­di­vid­ual.”

Jones wouldn’t elab­o­rate, but one plot line cir­cu­lat­ing in Cow­boys camp was that White­head had a se­ries of off-the-field episodes that con­cerned the team.

What’s also rel­a­tive, though, is that White­head isn’t the tal­ent that, say, reign­ing NFL rush­ing champ Ezekiel El­liott em­bod­ies. But in White­head’s case, Dal­las ap­par­ently drafted his re­place­ment as the punt re­turner with the se­lec­tion of Ryan Switzer.

It’s just that, when pressed to ex­plain why the Cow­boys were mov­ing on from White­head, coach Ja­son Gar­rett came off as rather con­de­scend­ing in re­peat­ing his “best in­ter­est of the team” re­ply. That’s the same Gar­rett, hailed in 2016 as NFL Coach of the Year, who of­ten preaches about stan­dards and ac­count­abil­ity. Sud­denly, he couldn’t go be­yond the com­pany line. Bad look.

Then Fri­day, an­other sus­pen­sion. This time — amid an­tic­i­pa­tion that the NFL would an­nounce a de­ci­sion on whether El­liott will be sus­pended af­ter be­ing un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion in re­gard to the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence pol­icy — it was Da­mon­tre Moore. The de­fen­sive end was sus­pended for two games for vi­o­lat­ing the sub­stance abuse pol­icy.

Moore is the fourth Cow­boys player (in­clud­ing since-re­leased re­ceiver Shaque­lle Evans) to draw an NFL sus­pen­sion this year. The Cow­boys haven’t won a Su­per Bowl in more than two decades, but they surely lead the NFL in sus­pen­sions again.

Bungling the White­head re­lease is one thing. The pat­tern in play with the sus­pen­sions rep­re­sents an even big­ger stain. Ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by The Dal­las Morn­ing News, the Cow­boys have had an NFL-high 15 sus­pen­sions since 2014. And the 100 games lost from sus­pen­sions are nearly dou­ble the next-high­est to­tal dur­ing that span.

Imag­ine the en­ergy, re­sources and ad­just­ments in deal­ing with this. The tally could rise this year, given the El­liott in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Nolan Car­roll’s DUI ar­rest and ag­gra­vated as­sault charges fac­ing line­backer Damien Wil­son.

Still, Jones in­sists there is no philo­soph­i­cal shift re­gard­ing how the Cow­boys will con­duct busi­ness. “I don’t want to in any way cre­ate an ap­pear­ance of tol­er­ance or dis­miss­ing the grav­ity of it. But we’ve had great play­ers that we’ve worked with who were avail­able, that had you not helped them through chal­lenges they wouldn’t have been avail­able. So it works both ways. My assess­ment is that we’re ahead in that area.”

In the mean­time, the fran­chise’s im­age is reel­ing from the drama.

“I’ve had that con­cern sev­eral times in 29 years,” Jones said, “but I’ve never thought it’s im­pacted the games we’ve won or the play on the field.” That’s highly de­bat­able. “Any­body knows that avail­abil­ity with good play­ers be­ing on the field can im­pact it,” he said. “You can say, ‘Wouldn’t you have played bet­ter in some of those years?’ Well, we’ve won big with some con­tro­versy around the team.”

The Cow­boys haven’t won big, at least not when con­sid­er­ing the ul­ti­mate prize, since cap­tur­ing the Su­per Bowl XXX crown fol­low­ing the 1995 sea­son. In fact, com­ing off a fran­chise-record-ty­ing 13 vic­to­ries last sea­son, they are hop­ing to post dou­ble-fig­ure wins in back-to-back sea­sons for the first time since 1995-96.

No, the con­sis­tency hasn’t been there. Maybe the Cow­boys’ logic doesn’t add up any­more.

KIRBY LEE, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Ezekiel El­liott could be the next Cow­boy to be dis­ci­plined.

Jar­rett Bell jbell@us­ato­day.com USA TO­DAY Sports

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