<
>

Roger Goodell has a Jerry Jones problem, and nobody knows how it will end

play
The uncivil war between Jones and Goodell (3:32)

OTL's Don Van Natta examines the once strong and now fractured relationship between Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (3:32)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 4 Fans, Family, Food, Football Issue. Subscribe today!

THERE WAS A PAUSE. It was Aug. 9, inside Roger Goodell's sixth-floor office at the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters in New York City -- down the hall, past the executives' offices and his assistant's desk, and through a large, thick wooden door that is both imposing and usually left open to serve as a welcome. Goodell huddled over a speakerphone with general counsel Jeff Pash. On the other end was Jerry Jones. Adhering to the protocol of giving owners a 48-hour heads-up before a major disciplinary issue involving their team is announced, Goodell and Pash informed Jones that after a 13-month domestic violence inquiry, the Dallas Cowboys' star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, would face punishment -- a six-game suspension.

The line went quiet. Seconds passed. Goodell's decision was an unconscionable violation of trust, Jones later told associates, because he believed that the commissioner had assured him this past spring that there would be no suspension. Jones saw in Elliott a genuine opportunity, a player so good that he had made Jones believe that this year he just might win a Super Bowl for the first time since 1996. His anger was palpable. Finally, according to sources with direct knowledge of the call, Jones broke the silence. He aimed his words not only at Goodell's decision but also at his role as judge, jury and executioner in the case.

"I'm gonna come after you with everything I have," Jones said. Then he mentioned Deflategate. "If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I'm going to do."

Nobody knows what Jones is going to do. But at the age of 58, Goodell is fighting to keep his job. In public, he looks fresh and energetic, and he is more resolute than ever to leave with a legacy of having come close to fixing football's long-standing issues. Up close, though, his face has changed due to relentless stress; it is now sallow and lined and tired. Roger Goodell is in a battle few saw coming, with the league's membership teetering on an all-out, unprecedented civil war.

A LITTLE LESS than a week before that contentious conference call, Goodell and Jones seemed as close as ever at Glenmoor Country Club in Canton, Ohio, even as friction burned beneath the surface. Goodell was among the guests at Jones' multimillion-dollar Hall of Fame celebration inside a white tent big enough to accommodate a pair of Boeing 767 jets. Goodell knew that Elliott would be suspended, but he held off on the league announcement of it so that Jones could enjoy his moment. Goodell hugged Jones and offered his hearty congratulations as Justin Timberlake delivered a two-hour set, telling the crowd: "The greatest owner in the history of sports is being honored tonight!"

For years, America's most powerful sports owner has heaped praise on America's most powerful commissioner for being a visionary, a "grow-the-pie thinker." Jones, now 75, uses a cost-benefit analysis to measure the value of many relationships, and as the NFL grew from a $6 billion-a-year to a $14 billion-a-year enterprise under Goodell, their relationship seemed strong. But then Goodell suspended Elliott, and it's only gotten nastier since, with that decision clarifying Jones' long-standing worries about Goodell's leadership, his current total annual compensation of $42 million, and the approval process for a contract extension expected to pay even more, according to documents and nearly two dozen interviews by Outside the Lines with owners, league and team executives and lawyers, and union leaders. Trust among owners and among senior executives inside the league office has all but evaporated. In early November, when Jones threatened to sue his fellow owners and the league to stop progress on Goodell's next contract, Falcons owner and compensation committee chairman Arthur Blank told Jones, "This is not how we do things in the NFL."

As the league's TV ratings and favorability polls have drifted downward this autumn, a growing number of owners have expressed their dissatisfaction with Goodell's stewardship: He has not held many executives accountable despite a long line of mishandled crises; even with tens of millions of dollars invested in new executives and consultants, Goodell still has not managed to resolve high-profile cases of player discipline without embarrassing legal battles; behind closed doors, even perfunctory policy decisions, like the posting of game highlights on Twitter, have become bitter showdowns among owners and executives. At the same time, the league has been exposed to unprecedented pressure over player protests during the national anthem that have polarized fans and players while angering sponsors and TV network partners. Even more, throughout the past few months, the war for the future of the NFL has played out uncomfortably and publicly, often through competing leaks between owners, all of which has distracted fans from the actual games.

It is a turmoil that seems new but actually began years ago in a shadow war waged inside the cloistered world of NFL offices, owners' suites, private meetings and conference calls, rooted in very different visions, mostly by Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell, about what the NFL's future should be.

"I'm gonna come after you with everything I have."

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

BEFORE ENVISIONING AN NFL without Goodell, Jones needed him in it. More than a decade ago in a league meeting, Jones stood before his fellow owners and, in the words of an executive in the room, "all but begged" for a loan. The price tag had skyrocketed on his $1.3 billion AT&T Stadium, and he needed more cash from the league's G3 loan program. Jones also knew that many owners were angry with him; years earlier, he had disposed of thousands of seats at Texas Stadium and replaced them with club suites, trading revenue shareable with visiting teams' owners for money that went straight into his own pocket. So on this day, he told owners that he realized what he had done was unfair -- but that he was building a stadium that would be a great showplace for the NFL and needed tens of millions in additional loans.

Goodell was silent during the meeting. Back then, he was the NFL's chief operating officer, commissioner Paul Tagliabue's No. 2 and the favorite of a clique of powerful owners to succeed Tagliabue. But after Jones' speech, owners approved the loan, in no small part because Goodell helped muscle the proposal through in private conversations with owners, selling them on Jones' vision of a football palace. In August 2006, Jones returned the favor. Goodell was elected commissioner, aided in part by Jones, who, along with others, twisted arms to put Goodell over his closest challenger, league attorney Gregg Levy. After Goodell won, the owners were deeply divided. Owners of the smaller-market clubs who had supported Levy worried that Goodell would leave them behind. Goodell had to find concepts that everyone could support, setting up the fight playing out today:

To fulfill the vision of Jones and others, Goodell promised to increase revenue.

To fulfill his own vision, Goodell promised to defend the brand, in his words "to protect the shield."

AT THE TIME, nobody saw those two agendas at odds. But almost as soon as Goodell took over, the NFL plunged into crisis, from Michael Vick's dogfighting scandal to Spygate and Bountygate. The league's flat-footed, obfuscating response to head injuries lingered over it all. Many called for Goodell to step down, but Jones was among the owners who always publicly backed Goodell -- even when he was upset with him. Jones threatened to sue the league in 2012 after being penalized $10 million in salary cap room for manipulating a contract. But in 2014, Jones publicly supported Goodell after the Ray Rice domestic violence mismanagement, Goodell's low point as commissioner. "He's acknowledged that he's mishandled this," Jones said on his Dallas radio show at the time, "and he said that he'll do better in the future."

What troubled Jones more than the crises was the way Goodell had responded. In most cases, Goodell expanded the power of the league office and broadened its scope, adding executives, many of whom are paid seven-figure salaries and given generous operating budgets. Among others, Goodell named former lobbyist Jeff Miller to oversee the league's health and safety policy in response to head injuries; former Manhattan prosecutor Lisa Friel to investigate criminal allegations in the wake of Rice; longtime sports executive Tod Leiweke in 2015 as chief operating officer to manage the new cabinet; and in 2016, former White House spokesman and league consultant Joe Lockhart to run public relations and attempt to rehabilitate Goodell's image. Some owners, most notably Jones, quietly questioned the wisdom of such moves -- especially the hiring of Friel. Before her position was established, Jones argued to owners in a closed-door meeting that creating its own law enforcement arm might not solve the problems of the NFL and would, more likely, create a new set of them. As Steelers owner Art Rooney II says, "We've expanded staff in areas that 10 or 20 years ago I probably would have never dreamt."

"Roger was trying to solve two things," former NFL attorney Jodi Balsam says. "One, cosmetic: Get people in there with the right credentials and diversity with experience to show that we are serious. It was also deeply substantive. The league needed to refresh its talent in some areas."

Jones, though, was conditioned in the spirit of Raiders owner and mentor Al Davis to never allow the league office to amass too much power. And in recent years, Jones felt that owners were being relegated to the role of mere "suggesters." One of the first times his anger over that power shift spilled out into plain view came during a league meeting in October 2015 in Manhattan. The owners were frustrated. The movie "Concussion" was about to be released, and they conceded that years of inaction and denials about football-related brain injuries had damaged the league. But more recently, owners had approved rule changes that they believed made the game safer. Some owners complained, "Why aren't we perceived as being part of the solution?"

In his deep Arkansas drawl, Jones argued that everyone was overreacting, both about the film and the fallout over head injuries.

"This is a pimple on a baby's ass," Jones said, drawing an awkward silence from the room.

The frustration of Jones and other owners continued over issues big and small. Last year, TV ratings declined and anxiety mounted. Many owners concluded that former Pepsi executive Dawn Hudson, whom Goodell hired as the league's chief marketing officer, was providing analysis that was too optimistic. At an October 2016 league meeting in Houston, Hudson and Lockhart presented a slide that showed different variables measuring the popularity of the major sports leagues. At the top was the NFL. Various others, including Major League Soccer, were labeled "up-and-coming." At the bottom, under the category of "eroding," was the NBA, which had just signed a $24 billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT and was coming off its most watched Finals since 1998.

"Do you buy this bulls--t?" one owner said to another.

Owners wanted to hear an insider's state of the union, as the league's future depended on whether the slide reflected a temporary blip or the beginning of an alarming long-term trend. Instead, they felt they were being spun. Jones, in particular, seemed eager for a fight. And the next day, an argument erupted between Jones and other owners and league executives over the league's in-game video and social media policy. At the time, the league tightly controlled the posting of video highlights on social media and team sites. Jones blasted the policy.

"Why are you restricting this?" Jones asked. "We're best suited to handle our content."

Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, who co-chairs the digital media committee, walked to the front of the room and defended the policy, then returned to his seat. Jones dug in again, saying, "If the league can post highlights, we should be able to post highlights."

Kraft stood up again to explain the policy. Several owners concluded that Jones didn't understand the policy's details, but it didn't matter. He was hot. Kraft left the room. Jones turned to Brian Rolapp, now the NFL's chief media and business officer, and said, "I don't know why it has to be that difficult, Brian."

The committee eventually amended the policy. But Jones now had league executives in his crosshairs, and, as he would tell associates, such matters ultimately reflected poorly on Goodell. Jones wasn't alone. Bob Kraft told associates that the league office had become "bloated." Says another owner: "Nobody knows what to expect from the league office. Who's really making decisions?"

Suspicions ran high. League officials who visited teams used to be given the red carpet treatment; now they often were left to wait in team lobbies and quickly ushered in and out of meetings. That tension flowed into the league's Park Avenue headquarters. Despite Leiweke's efforts to play peacemaker, many of the top executives didn't, and don't, trust one another. They felt they were in an impossible position, taking bullets for owners, who would turn around and complain about their performances and salaries. But owners also feel that Goodell hasn't been served well, especially by Miller on player health, Lockhart on the league's overall image and Pash on player discipline. Sensing that many of his executives are afraid of him and seem unwilling to offer objective counsel on vital issues, Goodell has become exhausted and distrusting -- yet more determined to succeed. Owners grumble that, as a result, Goodell has marginalized many executive vice presidents, including Leiweke -- and that they have even marginalized themselves, often leaving Goodell unsupported.

"The executives want to protect themselves by isolating Roger," one owner says. "They don't care if they burn the league down to keep their jobs."

Another owner, though, pointed out that for as sincere as Goodell seemed in his 2006 speech to owners pitching himself for commissioner -- that he would "hire a great team" and "make people accountable" -- he has been too loyal to most top executives, no matter how badly an issue has been handled. "His strengths and his weaknesses are kind of the same," Rooney says of Goodell. "He can be very firm in his positions, and at times that frustrates people who want to have somebody with more of an open mind."

And so Jones and other owners began to quietly ask: Are we getting the right people for what we're paying?

At the October 2016 meetings in Houston, the league was, as usual, enduring crisis. The NFL had recently suspended Giants kicker Josh Brown for only one game after domestic assault allegations, which made it appear that Goodell had not learned the hard lessons from the Ray Rice debacle. "The New York Daily News" had obtained incriminating evidence from Washington state law enforcement authorities that Friel, with her multimillion-dollar budget, had failed to gather. It all came to a head at the meetings. (The NFL would retroactively suspend Brown for six games the following season; the entire public relations mess was exactly what Jones and other owners and executives feared and predicted could occur from the beginning.)

On the first night of the meetings, Jones and a few other executives walked into the hotel bar shortly before midnight. Friel was there. In February and July 2016, Elliott's former girlfriend had claimed that he assaulted her on six separate days in Ohio and Florida; he had been neither arrested nor charged with any wrongdoing by the authorities in both states. Jones believed there was no case. At the bar, Friel explained to Jones that the Elliott investigation was open and would be indefinitely as she finished her job.

Jones' eyes widened, his brow furrowed. He raised his finger and wagged it in her face. "I'm saying this as an owner!" he yelled. "Your bread and butter is going to get both of us thrown out on the street!"

The bar got quiet. Everyone stared. After a minute or so, a Cowboys executive ushered Jones up to his room.

"If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I'm going to do."

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

SEVERAL MONTHS LATER, at the Arizona Biltmore, during the owners' winter meetings this past March, Jones looked cocky, carrying a cocktail in the lobby -- and for good reason. His power and influence were never greater. He had just helped engineer the second team relocation in 14 months, first the Rams to Los Angeles and now the Raiders to Las Vegas -- two months after being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "He's the shadow commissioner -- or Roger is a puppet one," an owner said at the hotel bar.

During one meeting, Jones reminded Goodell of his impatience with the ongoing Elliott inquiry. Behind closed doors, Jones repeated to other owners that the NFL shouldn't be in the "investigative business." Jones knew many owners agreed; Bob Kraft, for example, has complained for years that the league "wastes" money on seemingly endless player discipline investigations, including a reported $22.5 million on Deflategate. Jones also challenged Goodell's practice of punishing players who are not charged with crimes, let alone convicted.

Jones didn't mention Elliott by name, but he didn't need to.

During an executive session, Goodell left the conference room, and the topic turned to his contract, which expires in March 2019. An extension seemed like a formality; even owners who weren't pleased with Goodell's performance wanted him to lead negotiations against the union when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021. Jones, though, complained to fellow owners about the power vested in the six-member compensation committee that would negotiate the terms of Goodell's contract with him. Jones, who was not a committee member, said that for Goodell's next contract, all 32 owners should be kept apprised of all the negotiations' key developments and be given the opportunity to approve the contract's final terms.

The unspoken issue, again, was Elliott.

When Goodell returned to New York from the Biltmore, he told his deputies that he wanted the Elliott case closed by June to avoid having yet another disciplinary case against one of the NFL's stars hanging over the start of the season. Elliott's accuser and ex-girlfriend was interviewed by Kia Roberts, the NFL's newly hired director of investigations, a total of six times -- twice in person and four more times on the phone. By the spring, Roberts had concluded that the accuser was not a credible witness, an opinion she conveyed to Friel.

In May, Jones asked Goodell by phone for a status update on the Elliott investigation. Jones later told several people that he came away from their conversation with an assurance that there would be no suspension for Elliott and that Goodell felt the running back should enter counseling and perhaps issue a statement showing contrition for his behavior. Jones replied that Elliott wouldn't be contrite about domestic violence because he hadn't committed it. "[Jones] told me, 'Roger told me there was nothing to worry about -- the evidence just isn't there,'" says a high-level source briefed on the call. "Jerry ... was damn sure that Zeke was free and clear."

Lockhart, the NFL spokesman, disputes that account: "Absolutely no assurances were given to Jerry by the commissioner that there would be no discipline, at any point in the process."

Later that month, the owners were set to vote on granting the six-member compensation committee, led by Arthur Blank, authority to begin negotiating Goodell's extension. To get the requisite 21 votes to move forward, Blank felt he needed the powerful Jones behind him. "I want you on the committee," Blank said.

"I won't go on the committee," Jones replied. "I want to be an ombudsman. I want to literally represent the owners who are not on the committee."

That position was approved. At the NFL's spring meetings in Chicago, owners -- including Jones -- voted unanimously to extend Goodell's contract, giving Blank, and Goodell, enormous leverage. Jones railed later that he and owners didn't spend a single minute reviewing Goodell's job performance.

Back at the league office, the Elliott investigation dragged on despite Goodell's directive to have the case wrapped up by June. Friel's 160-page report, listing Roberts as a co-author, was dated June 6. In a highly unusual move, Friel did not include a punishment recommendation for Goodell. The NFL's chief investigator always concludes an investigative report with a recommendation for the commissioner.

It left some league executives and others close to the case baffled; some agreed with Roberts' conclusion that there were credibility questions around the accuser, while others wondered whether Friel and other league executives sought a makeup call for the mishandled Josh Brown case.

AFTER THE REPORT was written, Goodell met with Friel, Pash and several other league executives. Roberts, however, did not attend. At Friel's recommendation, Goodell convened a four-person panel of advisers to consider the evidence collected in the Elliott matter, hear from Elliott himself and make recommendations -- proof, a league source says, that Goodell never had assured Jones that Elliott was in the clear. And so, on June 26 in the NFL offices, the advisory group reviewed witness statements, medical records and text messages exchanged by Elliott, his accuser and others. The panel questioned Friel, but again, Roberts was not invited and didn't have a chance to express her opinion. Friel later testified that she did not know whose decision it was not to invite Roberts. "I've never seen a situation when a league office takes an official position in federal court that they are willfully blind to key facts in their own process and owners tolerate it," says Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney for the players. "Everybody now knows that they suppressed the findings of their own investigation -- and kept their chief investigator on the sidelines -- to get the result that they wanted."

During the session, former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White asked Friel what she had concluded about the credibility of Elliott's accuser. Friel said she found the accuser not credible on one occasion but credible overall; however, Friel did not bring up the credibility concerns raised by her investigator, Roberts. Under questioning by Kessler, Friel described Roberts' concerns about the accuser's credibility.

For her part, Friel has privately told colleagues that despite the resources at her disposal -- the Elliott case has cost an estimated $2 million and counting -- she was hamstrung without subpoena power. Her worst fears, and Jones', were coming true. Still, Goodell gave considerable weight to the opinions of the panelists, who unanimously concluded that Elliott deserved to be punished.

Jones didn't know that Goodell was changing his mind. And he didn't know that Goodell was facing pressure, both from a handful of league executives who felt Elliott should be suspended and from owners wanting Jones to be humbled. Kraft had called Goodell in the summer and, referring to the Elliott case, told the commissioner, "My guy got four games for footballs and there's still nothing on this?"

Just before the Cowboys' training camp opened in Oxnard, California, Jones told reporters on July 23 there was "absolutely nothing" to the domestic violence accusations against Elliott, a refrain he repeated several days later during Hall of Fame activities. And on Aug. 9, Blank's compensation committee convened a dinner meeting in Manhattan to discuss Goodell's contract; Jones attended via phone. During the session, Jones did not raise any concerns about Goodell's contract extension, sources say.

The next day, Blank called Goodell, telling the commissioner that Jones had participated in the meeting. That's when Goodell told Blank, "He's not going to be too happy with me tomorrow," explaining that Elliott's suspension was coming.

On Aug. 11, Goodell announced the six-game suspension of Elliott. Jones saw it as a "complete betrayal," a source now says. "An overcorrection" by Goodell, Jones later called it publicly. Privately, Jones seethed to confidants that Goodell hadn't studied the case's many details, and he considered suing the NFL to get the suspension overturned. "Roger blew off his own investigator's conclusion -- it's just patently unfair," Jones told a confidant, a charge that a league source denies. Jones had turned on Goodell, perhaps for good. An ESPN report in mid-September detailed that Jones was impeding progress on Goodell's contract extension. And then, at league meetings a month later, Jones took over a meeting about Goodell's contract, irritating his colleagues by calling himself, more than once, the "ranking owner" and adding, "I'm going to be a pain in the ass" to committee members.

Lockhart has insisted that Roberts' recommendation that she did not believe Elliott should be suspended had been communicated to Goodell. But on Oct. 30, at another hearing over Elliott's suspension before U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla, NFL lawyer Paul Clement suggested that it didn't matter because of the broad authority Goodell has over player discipline. Failla asked, "Would it not have assisted [Goodell] in determining whether punishment were appropriate to hear from the very person that had been tasked with interviewing this very key witness?"

"I don't know that it would," Clement replied.

To Jones and to Elliott's lawyers, Clement's position was proof that Goodell had failed to obtain a critical fact before handing down punishment -- permissible under the CBA but fundamentally unfair to Elliott. It didn't matter: On Nov. 9, Elliott's six-game suspension was upheld by a federal appeals court, sending him to the sideline, after more than two months of appeals, and escalating the anger and determination of the league's most powerful owner.

"Jerry's message to Roger was 'I run this league, you better get with it.' This is about power and control, not the contract -- that's all white noise."

NFL senior league executive

A LONG-HELD assumption has been that Goodell wants another long-term deal. Those who have discussed the contract situation with him have described him as "furious" and "emboldened" at the notion of accepting a deep pay cut after making the owners a lot of money over the years, watching their teams' valuations skyrocket and taking many bullets for them. ESPN has reported that he asked in August for a compensation package of about $49 million a year, if every incentive is met, plus use of a private jet for life and health care for life for his family. But most owners expect him to land in the range of $40 million a year. If owners decide to squeeze him too hard, he might walk away. He knows that there's no clear successor, which is both a failing on his part and a source of leverage.

The owners, though, have considered other successors. A confidant of one owner reached out to gauge whether Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, would be interested in running the NFL, to which Silver immediately said no. Owners have also considered looking to the International Olympic Committee for someone with global experience to grow the game -- or even installing the 76-year-old Tagliabue for a year while a committee searched for the ideal successor. Jones has told confidants that he has his own candidate in mind, which Jones has publicly denied. Few owners are interested in allowing Jones to essentially handpick the next commissioner. Even so, Jones has vowed, sources say, to make Goodell's life miserable. "Jerry's message to Roger was 'I run this league. You better get with it,'" a senior league executive says. "This is about power and control, not the contract. That's all white noise."

That's why, no matter how often some team executives say not to underestimate Jones, and no matter how frustrated many owners are with the state of the league, the support to remove Goodell doesn't seem to be there. Jones has the Redskins' Dan Snyder and a handful of other owners on his side; there are a dozen or so owners who just want to extend Goodell and get the story out of the headlines; and the rest don't approve of Goodell's performance, not because they agree with Jones but because they believe Goodell has empowered him to a fault, especially given the ugly situation with two relocated franchises drawing small crowds in Los Angeles. "Switching commissioners is like switching from an iPhone to a Samsung," one ownership source says. "Do my pictures transfer? Do my contacts? Does my music? In the end, why take the risk?"

It's Goodell who now seems more willing to take risks, as if he realizes he has less to lose than before. He defied many owners, including Jones, and many league business executives by refusing to back a mandate that all players stand for the national anthem. His relationship with the union and some players has improved this fall; he is not merely serving as the puppet of the owners, as players have long suspected. A day after Outside the Lines reported that, in an owners-only meeting in New York, Texans owner Bob McNair said, "We can't have the inmates running the prison," McNair released a statement insisting that he was referring to league executives as inmates, not the players, drawing skepticism. According to sources, McNair asked Goodell to publicly back him up. Goodell refused.

If Goodell does re-sign, nobody knows exactly how long he will serve. "There's always a risk that people stay too long, and I don't want to be in that category," he said at a Bloomberg conference in early November. Some of the tension, sources say, has been over a severance package that could approach $100 million -- should either Goodell or the owners choose to end the contract early. Few owners want a new commissioner before the expiration of the CBA in 2021; any replacement would have to repair the damaged relationship with the players' union by giving away concessions that the owners prize. Goodell is already beginning to duplicate his most valuable contribution to the 2011 CBA deal: unifying the owners en masse against the union. Pash has advised the owners in meetings to prepare for a bloody and bitter battle in four years -- a fitting possible capstone to the tumultuous Goodell era. "I'm here for you through that," Goodell has told some owners. "After that, you guys should start having a conversation."

ON A SUNDAY afternoon in mid-November, three days after Elliott began serving his suspension, Jerry Jones walked onto the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for a game between his Cowboys and Arthur Blank's Falcons. Blank stood about 20 yards from Jones. The anger and suspicion were unmistakable. It had been only a few days since Blank effectively fired Jones as compensation committee ombudsman, after Jones, through an attorney, accused him of misleading owners about the details of Goodell's extension, a charge Blank denied. After he was removed, Jones told Blank, "You're making a big mistake."

Nothing more needed to be said on game day. It is customary for the owner of the home team to greet the owner of the visiting team, but as this fall has revealed, this is not a season for tradition. The two men never spoke, opting instead in the coming days for power plays on letterhead: Blank's compensation committee accused Jones of "conduct detrimental to the league's best interests"; Jones asked for a special owners-only meeting to discuss Goodell's new deal.

A few hours after the 27-7 Falcons rout, Jones emerged from the Cowboys' locker room, looking drained but sounding defiant. Even some of his closest advisers aren't on board with the war he is raging. In a black suit and black cowboy boots, Jones found himself in the middle of a mob of cameras and reporters. He spoke quietly, saying that he wanted to "do everything I can" to help the league improve and that "this is one of those times" when "you need to adjust." He was asked, point-blank, whether he thought Goodell should continue as commissioner.

"I'm not going to discuss that right now," Jones said.

A few minutes later, he moved down a long hallway at the bottom of the stadium, surrounded by four security guards. He walked with a slight limp. He said nothing. Everyone cleared out of his way, and when he exited the stadium into a cold and stiff wind, a crowd of Cowboys fans lining a fence cheered. Jones stopped, and for a moment he seemed unsure of where to go: right toward the fans or left toward the limo? Jones stood, a man alone in so many ways. He turned left, away from the fans. The cheering ceased. The idling limo pulled away. A gate was raised, opening a route out of the stadium. A police escort flared its siren, and Jones was off, with nobody knowing exactly how far he'll go.

ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen contributed to this report.