Randy Gregory enters season as Jerry Jones' latest risk-reward project

FRISCO, Texas -- Randy Gregory represents everything Jerry Jones loves about risk-taking.

In 2015, the Dallas Cowboys pegged Gregory as the most natural pass-rusher in the draft. They saw him as an athletically gifted defensive end who could change a game, however off-field concerns dropped him from the top of the first round to who knows where.

Holding the 60th overall pick and with Gregory available, Jones took the second-round chance.

To Jones, the art of the deal matters almost as much as the deal itself.

Jones was convinced the Cowboys could do for Gregory what they had done for several players -- such as Dez Bryant -- over the years and provide a support system to help him acclimate to life in the NFL. Jones knows how coveted pass-rushers can be, and having a talent like Gregory staring him in the face was too much to pass. He was getting a first-round talent at a second-round price.

Other teams had Gregory either off their draft board or pushed well down to the middle or later rounds. Jones did not care.

Even though Gregory has produced more failed or missed drug tests than sacks in his time with the Cowboys, Jones still does not care. He would make the same decision he made in 2015.

"It don't always work, but I think he looks at it like, 'OK, what's the downside?' And he always sees a bigger upside. That's just his nature. He knows he's taking a chance. He just don't ever figure he's going to lose." Nate Newton

When the Cowboys open the 2018 season Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, Gregory, who has played in just two of the past 32 regular-season games, might be the only person happier than Jones.

Last March, Jones was asked why he continued to support Gregory, who at the time had yet to file for reinstatement.

"He is really a good person. That goes a long way," Jones said. "He is smart. That is redeeming. Is there a chance he could get this figured out and be accountable and responsible? There is.

“Oh, there is one other little thing: He is one helluva football player."

The same talent Jones saw in Gregory leading into the 2015 draft is what Jones saw this summer in Gregory's few practices during training camp. On the third play from scrimmage against the Arizona Cardinals in the preseason, Gregory recorded a sack with a savage spin move. He later had another quarterback pressure.

But by the end of the night, Jones was fielding questions as to whether Gregory would be eligible to play against the Panthers. On the day the Cowboys closed the preseason against the Houston Texans, Gregory was in Chicago meeting with the NFL’s medical director at his own request, according to sources, to discuss the plan that is in place for him to remain eligible.

Such is life when you take these kinds of risk where each day is a new day.

“I think in fairness, we all realize that the guys that have had suspensions are vulnerable,” Jones said after the Cardinals’ game. “Certainly the ones that have had recent [suspensions], and just that’s our program.”

Jones made his money by taking risk in the oil and gas business. He said the Cowboys were losing $1 million per month when he took a risk and purchased them in 1989 for a record $140 million. He took a chance in firing Tom Landry and hiring his college teammate Jimmy Johnson.

Risk-taking is part of what defines Jones' identity.

Since Jones has been the Cowboys' owner, he has taken chances on players of questionable character, backgrounds or health.

Since 2010, a lot of those chances have come in the second round of the draft, like Gregory.

  • Sean Lee’s anterior cruciate ligament was torn when the Cowboys took him at No. 55 in the 2010 draft, but it did not fully tear until 2014, causing Lee to miss the season.

  • In 2011, the Cowboys took Bruce Carter in the second round knowing he was not fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered in his final year at North Carolina.

  • In 2014, the Cowboys gave up their second- and third-round picks in a trade to NFC East rival Washington Redskins to take DeMarcus Lawrence at No. 34 overall.

  • In 2015, Jones took Gregory.

  • In 2016, Jones took Jaylon Smith at No. 34 overall knowing Smith would miss his rookie season and might never be the player he was at Notre Dame because of a serious knee injury that included nerve damage.

Why does he do it?

“I think the better way to phrase it is when it does work out, that ‘work out’ makes up for all the ones that didn't,” Jones said. “And usually you are dealing with a situation that the player is an impactful player. That's important. So when it does [work out], it's very, very meaningful.

“For instance, and it has nothing to do with the same situation [as Gregory], but Jaylon Smith is somebody that could be very rewarding. When you do that, that keeps you going back and using a high pick for a redshirt. What happens is a success -- even though it might be a lower percentage -- causes you to stay tuned and stay interested in maybe a value that others have just decided not to take as far as risk.

Without question, Gregory was a risk, but coming off a 2014 season that ended controversially with Bryant’s fourth-down catch at the Green Bay Packers' goal line in the divisional round of the playoffs getting overturned via replay, the Cowboys felt they were close to being a Super Bowl team.

Had they had a better pass rush, maybe they would have beaten an ailing Aaron Rodgers, who limped around that day with a calf injury.

The Cowboys were not blind to Gregory’s issues. They brought him to Valley Ranch before the draft. They felt they could surround him with a support group that would keep him on the field. But where the team failed Gregory was in the makeup of the defensive line room.

In March 2015, the Cowboys signed Greg Hardy as a free agent despite domestic violence accusations from 2014, when he was with the Carolina Panthers. As the season wore on, Hardy’s negative influence grew, especially as the losses piled up in what turned out to be the second-worst record of the Jones’ era. He did not practice hard. He was not “the right kind of guy,” as Jason Garrett likes to say.

For impressionable young players such as Lawrence, David Irving and Gregory, Hardy was the wrong role model, although that does not absolve them of the blame for what happened next.

In 2016, Lawrence was suspended the first four games of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Gregory missed the first 14 games for violating the substance-abuse policy for multiple failed or missed tests and was suspended for the entire 2017 season. Irving will open the 2018 season on the suspended list for the second straight year; a year ago, it was for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy, this year it is for substance abuse.

As Gregory worked toward reinstatement, players wrote letters of recommendation to commissioner Roger Goodell. They believe Gregory is a “good kid” who needs the structure of a team to remain on the right path. While the Cowboys were practicing in Oxnard, California, Irving was training in Los Angeles after an offseason that saw him miss most of the offseason program due to custody issues and a domestic violence accusation by an ex-girlfriend that was later recanted.

Multiple sources question Irving’s commitment to the game and to getting better, something they did not question with Gregory.

“First and foremost, they liked me not only as a player, but as a person,” Gregory said. “And then I’ve always tried to do the right thing. I know I always haven’t, but I’ve tried.”

Irving is eligible to return to the Cowboys on Oct. 1, but considering he has not been around the team, nobody knows for sure when he will be able to play. Despite all of Irving’s issues, the Cowboys have not released him.

Why? Jones knows Irving had seven sacks in eight games last year.

When Jones talks about the risk-reward factor, he almost always brings up Charles Haley, even though that acquisition was 26 years ago. He likes to say the Cowboys could not spell Super Bowl until Haley showed up in a trade from the San Francisco 49ers.

The Niners and coach George Seifert had tired of Haley by 1991, even with his ability to rush the passer. The Cowboys gave up a second-round pick in 1993 and a third-round pick in 1994 to get him, and five months later, Jones was holding up his first Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The Cowboys became the first team to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span, with Haley playing a large role. Haley did not dramatically change from the cantankerous personality he was in San Francisco; the Cowboys were willing to put up with his behavior.

As far as the impact inside the locker room, at least one player with his name in the Cowboys Ring of Honor said he can deal with a problematic teammate as long as that teammate can play.

“It depends on the production I’m getting,” Darren Woodson said. “We’re the most forgiving people inside a locker room. If you’re an ass----, but you can play, I’ll deal with the ass---- Monday to Saturday as long as you can play on Sundays.”

While Haley is the standard-bearer of the success of Jones’ risk-taking, many other chances did not play out. As the Cowboys’ Super Bowls of the 1990s faded, Jones took chances on talented by troubled defensive linemen Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood. Add in poor drafts and the Cowboys finished 5-11 from 2000-02.

In 2007, the Cowboys added Tank Johnson, who had been suspended by the league for violating the personal-conduct policy. In 2008, they added cornerback Pacman Jones, who was suspended for violating the personal-conduct policy, in a trade with the Tennessee Titans.

None of them produced well enough.

“It’s (Jones') nature,” said Nate Newton, a Pro Bowl guard on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams of the 1990s. “He’s always done that. It don’t always work, but I think he looks at it like, ‘OK, what’s the downside?’ and he always sees a bigger upside. That’s just his nature. He knows he’s taking a chance. He just don’t ever figure he’s going to lose.”