SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Jerry Jones climbed a few steps onto a podium, then settled in next to coach Wade Phillips for the annual “state of the Dallas Cowboys” news conference.

They were sitting in the center section of a wide table with an ad for a truck maker draped in front. Right where Jones and Phillips sat, the cardboard cutout showed a giant, close-up image of the grille of a pickup, giving the illusion the two men were sitting in the front seat.

Any guesses who was on the driver’s side?

Twenty-plus years after buying the Cowboys, Jones remains as firmly in charge as the day he arrived and proclaimed himself the boss “from socks to jocks.” He’s just as giddy, too.

Although Dallas hasn’t won a playoff game since 1996, Jones hopes this year’s club can bring him his fourth Super Bowl title. Yet his emotional attachment to this year’s team is nothing compared to his financial commitment: about $100 million in cash, his most ever, and that’s on top of the $1.15 billion spent on the new stadium.

“I can’t wait to get up every day,” Jones told The Associated Press. “It’s the potential. The combination of the stadium and then having a team that could compete in it right off the bat as a contender, that would be maybe more than I can stand.”

This conversation came near the 50-yard line of the Alamodome following a practice that drew 13,708 fans, the most his club’s ever pulled in here, even dating to the days when Emmitt Smith was playing. The amazing thing is, these Cowboys are doing it without a drawing card like Terrell Owens and they’re coming off a season in which they shriveled from preseason Super Bowl favorites to missing the playoffs.

To Jones, the turnout is further proof of his team’s unbridled popularity. As he crowed during that camp-opening news conference, “We’re the most-watched program there is in all of television.”

More confirmation is all around him in the form of sponsors’ banners — big, small and inflatable, from a 40-foot beer bottle to a 25-foot smiling sack of groceries.

Down economy? Not around this team.

But that’s the business side, the “owner” and “president” titles Jones carries. Those fans in the stands care more about the football side, and Jones oversees that, too, as the general manager. It was his decision to release T.O. and make other offseason moves that he memorably described as being “Romo-friendly.”

Jones knew something had to give after last year’s failure. While he dismisses the concept of locker-room chemistry, insisting that wins and losses set the mood, he did get rid of several older players with difficult personalities. He also chose to surround quarterback Tony Romo and linebacker DeMarcus Ware with younger, less-proven players.

The plan is risky, but Jones is nothing if not a gambler.

In 1989, he gave up being an oil wildcatter (talk about a risky business), sold everything he owned and borrowed the rest to buy the Cowboys for a then-whopping sum of $140 million. His first move was to fire Tom Landry and replace him with a college coach with no NFL experience but who’d played football with Jones at Arkansas in the early ’60s.

Hiring Jimmy Johnson worked out quite well, as did trading Herschel Walker for a bundle of draft picks. Dallas won Super Bowls following the 1992, ’93 and ’95 seasons, the last after Jones rolled the dice again, replacing Johnson with Barry Switzer.

The franchise hasn’t been anywhere near the top since the prime years of the players acquired during Johnson’s heyday. The climb back has taken so long that if the Cowboys don’t win it all this year, they’ll match the longest stretch without a championship in club history, 14 seasons.

“I should know more about what I’m doing than I did 21 (seasons) ago. Consequently, it ought to keep your feet on the ground – but it doesn’t,” Jones said. “That’s exciting.”

The excitement shows. When Tashard Choice, the third man in a three-man running back rotation that will be a big part of Dallas’ plans this season, walks by, Jones interrupts himself to go pat Choice on the back.

Soon after, Jones sees Miles Austin, a fourth-year receiver who has shown he can make big plays but hasn’t shown he can stay healthy. Jones is off again.

“You’re giving every ounce, every day,” Jones said, smiling wide. “Way to go, Miles.”

The stadium is finished, the roster reshaped. All that remains is about six weeks of waiting until Jones can start finding out whether he invested wisely.

“It is reminiscent to me of the feelings and the excitement I had in the early years, right after I bought the team, because you’ve got it hung out there a little bit,” Jones said. “This has been one of the busiest offseasons we have had. Certainly, it had its challenges.

“Hopefully we’ll get some breaks and we’ll get to where we all wanted to be last year.”

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