As for Johnson, much of the joy of coaching the Cowboys had departed during the last year along with buddies Wannstedt, Turner and offensive line coach Tony Wise, who's now with the Bears. Gone were the Friday-evening beer-and-nachos outings. Johnson seemed like a man thinking seriously of quitting. But, he recalled last week, "I softened a bit. I was thinking we could make it happen one more year." His friends thought that he would surely coach this season.
However, when Johnson was told in Orlando that Jones was threatening to fire him and replace him with Switzer, everything began to unravel. Johnson and Jones exchanged volleys in the press and then met on March 28 to sort out their future. "We came up with five options," says Johnson. "Number one, fire me, which we eliminated. Number two, I quit, which we eliminated. Number three, I continue to work under my existing contract, which we eliminated. Number four was to settle the contract and part. The fifth was to put all our efforts into one year. I even said I'd change the language in my contract, [which specifies] that I have sole control of all personnel moves. Then after one year I'd be free to go where I wanted."
That night Johnson went home to think about the final two options. He talked to Aikman, who urged him to stay. The next morning, before leaving for the office, Johnson was leaning toward giving the thing one more try. Once in the office, though, Johnson saw the front page of the Forth Worth Star-Telegram. The headline read, JERRY TO JIMMY: COMMIT OR QUIT. Johnson was livid. He regarded the paper as Jones's mouthpiece, and the headline did not convey the tenor of the meeting he had had with Jones, not by a long shot. "I said to myself, I'm so tired of this," says Johnson.
He walked into Jones's office and told him, "It's time." Jones agreed, and they worked out a deal whereby Jones would rip up the last five years of the contract. Johnson was a free man, with a bonus.
"I want to thank you for everything you've done for the Cowboys," Jones told him. "How does $2 million sound?"
"Jerry," Johnson said, "you don't have to do that."
"Hey, I want to do it," Jones said. "You deserve it."
Johnson was thrilled with the deal. "I didn't want to be like Joe Gibbs, who still doesn't know if he can get out of his Washington contract," he says. "And I didn't really want a financial settlement. I just wanted to be a free agent."
Jones was vilified in Dallas. At midweek his black sedan was parked on the grass near his office window, instead of in his regular parking space, because he had received death threats.
While there may be gloom in Dallas, executives around the NFL are trying hard to stifle grins. "This is the best thing that could have happened to the rest of the league," says one AFC general manager. "I can't wait until Jones and Switzer start looking at the waiver wire together."