LANDOVER, Md. -- Jerry Jones stood near a training table in the back corner of the Dallas Cowboys' locker room, the smell of rubbing alcohol so pungent that he joked he would be floating out of the stadium. Jones had good reason to be floating Sunday night -- his team had just beaten the Washington Redskins, 33-19, to keep its postseason hopes alive at 4-3, possibly burying a rival in the process.
But Jones' league remains embroiled in a national controversy about political protests -- and on Sunday night, his best player was headed to New York for another court date to determine his playing status. In recent months, Jones has thrust himself into conversations about a contract extension for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, with whom Jones is unhappy about his handling of Ezekiel Elliott's suspension.
So while Jones briefly put on his sunglasses and jokingly asked reporters "You all know it's me?" there is no losing sight of the fact that Jones remains prominently at the center of virtually every high-profile issue the NFL is facing right now.
Jones, who further inflamed the protest issue when he said he would bench any Cowboys player who did not stand for the national anthem, would not say if he still believed that after the NFL declined at a meeting two weeks ago to mandate that players stand. He said he speaks regularly with Houston Texans owner Robert McNair -- who has apologized for saying in a meeting of owners that the league could not have inmates running the prison, a pronouncement that caused the majority of Texans players to kneel for the anthem on Sunday -- although Jones did not say whether he has spoken to McNair since that quote became public late last week.
Jones, though, sounded as if his own hardline position on the league's response to the protests has softened slightly. He said repeatedly that he viewed these fraught times for the NFL as an opportunity for improvement -- for fans, foremost, but also for players. And he talked at length about, when he played, often having to do what he did not want to do, for the good of the team. Football is not like other sports, he said. It is painful. It causes you to do unnatural things for a positive result, he said. That appears to be how he views the big-picture issues the league faces, too.
"We are all, the whole constituency, are here for the fans," Jones said. "We really are here for them -- that's what we play for, that's who we depend on, everything goes back to us being something that is attractive to our fans. But my point is this angst we've got, these different issues that are causing us to come together, no matter what position you're in in the NFL, we can all do better. And I certainly can. I'm really for pushing the envelope and pushing to see where we can get it better. I want to do that for my players, and I certainly want to do it for my fans and I want to do it for other people, the companies and everybody, that are part of backing the Cowboys.
He added: "I don't look at this as any crisis from [the] standpoint of a negative. I look at it as crisis that will engender us getting better. We can look at [making] people accountable, including starting with my mirror. I need to look in that rascal. My mirror deserves some correcting and some things that need to be adjusted in light of what we're involved now.
"I would say, I'm not a dreamer in this respect, my best things I've been involved in were borne of angst. I bought the Cowboys and it was broke, part was owned by the government. I've had good experiences with dealing with things that get broke. Most of the things have to be adjusted as you go along from time to time. And sometimes you have to be slapped up on the head to get it done."
Perhaps Jones believes this is one of those moments, for him and the NFL, although it was clear after owners met in New York that if Jones believed the NFL should force players to stand for the national anthem, he was not going to get his way. His moderated public position Sunday, though, did not extend to the league's handling of Elliott. Jones remains angered with the treatment Elliott, who has been suspended for six games following an NFL investigation into domestic violence allegations, has received. The hearing in New York will determine if Elliott can remain on the field while his case winds its way through federal court.
Elliott, who rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Redskins, said he was not thinking about the hearing or the suspension Sunday night.
Jones, though, clearly believes the league's own investigatory and discipline practices are flawed. He repeatedly expressed frustration with an investigation that took more than a year to complete. He intimated he wants the league to stop conducting its own investigations -- a practice that began after the Ray Rice fiasco, when the league relied on the judgment of the legal system.
"What is important is he gets a fair shake," Jones said. "Zeke has in no way, by any standard in this country, done anything wrong. He's done nothing wrong. We, the league, have tried to say he's done something we disagree with. We all don't agree with that. I want him to get a fair shot. He deserves that.
"We don't have the system in place for this and we're trying to make one up in a few short months and it's got too many ways to not be fair to a person like Zeke. ... I know this: We have pretty good system in place in this country. It's called the legal system and it has a lot of precedent. It's made a lot of mistakes, but it's the best one probably in the world, in my view. For us to not recognize that, that's a concern. First thing we did when we came to this country, our forefathers, we're not going to let somebody sit over here and be accused. They're going to get quick-and-immediate accounting and justice. Zeke hasn't gotten that."
Jones, of course, has become vocal about the investigative system since Elliott has been ensnared, and it is unclear if even his ire will be enough to get the NFL to reconsider a system that has now angered both Jones and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. But there is little question that Jones' relationship with Goodell has been strained by the Elliott case. And, even obliquely, Jones made it clear he has questions about a contract extension that the compensation committee has been hoping to complete this fall.
Jones acknowledged that there have been further conversations among owners after the New York meeting about the contract. And he said he deplored leaks about the conversations.
Jones is not a member of the compensation committee, although his voice is too powerful to be entirely ignored. And even if his tone is softening on the issues that have the NFL in the news headlines and in the crosshairs of the president's Twitter feed, Jones' comments remain some of the sharpest on the internal dynamics of the league.
"We make the commissioner of the NFL the most powerful person that I know of as to the organization," Jones said. "So it's a big deal when we not only hire but extend him. That has a lot of consideration to it. Shouldn't surprise anybody."