On Sept. 9, 1995, Jerry Jones signed the San Francisco Giants' centerfielder to play cornerback for his Cowboys.
“I remember when we brought in Deion Sanders,” Jones said Sunday night, after his resurrected team put a stake through the hearts of the Eagles' season. Chan Gailey, Jones recalled, said, "Thanks for Superman.”
It wasn’t Chan Gailey who said that -- Gailey didn’t become the Cowboys’ coach until 1998 -- but forgive Jones. He has employed dozens of coaches. The point: Jones spent lavishly to acquire the best player available, and Sanders helped the Cowboys win their third Super Bowl in four seasons.
If Neon Deion was Superman, then Amari Cooper must be Batman.
Which makes Golden Tate ... what? The Green Lantern?
Cooper caught 10 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, including the winner in overtime.
Tate had one catch for 7 yards.
Cooper, 24, has 642 yards and six touchdowns and the Cowboys are 5-1 since Jones engineered a controversial trade for him. He is making $700,000 this season, and the Cowboys have his rights next year.
Tate, 30, has 19 catches for 189 yards and one touchdown and the Eagles are 2-3 since they landed him. He’s making $7 million. He’ll be a free agent.
Jones looks like a genius today, but that’s a new look for the old guy. In October, Jones was roundly roasted when, with his team at 3-4, he traded a first-round pick to the Raiders to get Cooper. Ridicule mounted when the Cowboys lost their next game -- and the Eagles nabbed Tate from Detroit for a third-rounder. Cowboys legend Troy Aikman called for a complete overhaul of the franchise.
Overhaul? More like overdrive.
The Cowboys have won five in a row, the latest being Sunday’s 29-23 overtime statement that moved them to 8-5 and gave them a two-game lead over the Eagles and Washington in the NFC East with three games to play.
Rest assured, the Birds were wishing they had a bit more of Jerry’s chutzpah while they watched their defensive backs chase Cooper on his 75-yard, fourth-quarter TD. League sources say the Eagles considered the same trade for Cooper. They declined. Why forfeit the chance to draft another Danny Watkins?
Jones likes making big moves, and he likes raiding the Bay for talent. Three years before he signed Sanders, Jones made waves when he traded a second- and a third-round pick to the 49ers for cantankerous left outside linebacker Charles Haley. Haley moved to right defensive end, became an All-Pro, made the Cowboys the No. 1 defense in football, and helped them win those three Super Bowl titles.
This year, Jones gambled on Cooper, a fourth-year receiver whose mediocre third season didn’t match his first two, which had landed him in the Pro Bowl. Sunday stamped his ticket back to the Pro Bowl.
“He’s a difference-maker. Deion Sanders was a difference-maker. Charles Haley is [like] Deion Sanders,” Jones said. “Those difference-makers can be the difference.”
Er ... yes.
Also, difference-makers make a difference for everyone.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who lost Jason Witten to retirement and Dez Bryant to free agency, had an 87.4 passer rating and a 62.1 percent completion rate in the seven games before Cooper arrived. He’s at 105.7 and 74.1 since.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott had averages of 88.4 yards rushing, 4.69 yards per carry, and 25.0 receiving yards, and scored four total touchdowns in the first seven games. Then Cooper came aboard, and Zeke’s averaging 107.2 rushing yards, 4.73 yards per carry, and 54.5 receiving yards per game, and has scored five TDs. Cooper changes everything. Prescott figured he would.
“I was almost astonished we were able to get that trade,” Prescott said Sunday night after passing for 455 yards, 123 more than his previous career best. "If we’re getting a trade like that, [you think] ‘what’s wrong?’ "
Fair question. The Cowboys were 3-4 when the deal was done, and they lost their first-round pick, and they are on the hook for $13.9 million next season if they opt to keep Cooper.
But that’s a fair salary in today’s receiver market. Besides, Jones said, he would have traded for Cooper after this season anyway:
“We would’ve wanted Cooper [for] the pick in the spring."
Sound crazy? Maybe it is, a little. Jones, 76, has delegated many of the day-to-day operations to his children, but his fingerprints remain on every big decision. And no, Cooper might not take the Cowboys to the Super Bowl as Haley and Sanders did, but he revived their swagger.
“I think a big part of competing -- a big part of doing things, a desire to excel -- is to show 'em," Jones said. “It’s a major motivational factor.”
The Tate deal might not have motivated the Eagles this season, but they found some juice before the deadline last year when Howie Roseman added Jay Ajayi, who became the team’s No. 1 running back and energized the locker room.
“It gets everybody believing," Eagles tackle Lane Johnson said, comparing the Ajayi deal to the Cooper coup. “And then a big play or two happens, and it snowballs.”
Is that what happened with the Cowboys?
“I played here multiple times,” Johnson said. “This is the hardest they’ve ever played.”
The Cowboys didn’t need the same sort of motivation when Sanders landed 23 years ago. They hadn’t lost more than four games in any of the previous four seasons, they were bursting with Hall of Fame talent, and after cornerback Kevin Smith ruptured an Achilles tendon in the season opener, they simply needed a player. Jones pounced.
Aikman, of all people, had to overhaul his $50 million contract to wedge Sanders' in under the cap, but Aikman realized that Sanders was a finishing piece for a Super Bowl favorite. By contrast, Cooper is a foundational piece for a Super Bowl hopeful -- a foundational piece whose costly acquisition had alumni questioning Jerry’s fitness to run the team.
“When they were talking about cleaning house, I completely understood,” Jones said. “That implies me."
Ha paused, and flashed his impossibly smooth smile.