Jon Machota is the Dallas Cowboys beat writer for The Athletic. Previously, he worked the same beat for the Dallas Morning News. He took the time to answer questions from The Big Lead about Ezekiel Elliott’s contract situation, how this year’s rookie class has been in camp, and more.
Liam McKeone: Hi Jon, thanks for taking the time. In your own words, describe your journey in sports media, from when you knew you wanted to be in the business to where you are now at The Athletic.
Jon Machota: I always wanted to work in sports but I didn’t start believing I could actually cover a pro sports team until I was in my mid-20s. I just had doubts about my ability to write professionally. I grew up in Metro Detroit. I graduated from Wayne State with a journalism degree. While in college, I got an opportunity to do some freelance work for the Detroit Free Press. At the same time, I was covering high school sports for a few smaller local papers. That went on for about five years. I was becoming a better writer, but I was also worrying that I might never get a full-time job covering a team.
A sports editor I became friends with at the Free Press later took a job at The Dallas Morning News. He called me in October of 2010 and said he had freelance opportunities. I knew I wasn’t going to be making much money, but I thought it improved my chances of one day covering a pro team. I drove to Dallas a week later and have been living there ever since. While reporting on just about every sport you can imagine, I was given some opportunities to cover Cowboys practices. I became obsessed with writing about the Cowboys. I’d go to their Valley Ranch practice facility as much as possible. I kept doing that for the next three years and eventually in 2014 I was hired full time to cover the Cowboys. It’s been a dream job. I never thought that was possible 15-20 years ago. I was a Cowboys beat writer for the Morning News up until a month ago when I was approached with a great opportunity to continue covering the team for The Athletic. I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Five Big Things
McKeone: How do you think the Ezekiel Elliott situation will play out?
Machota: I think Ezekiel Elliott ends up getting a new contract within the next month. I don’t see him missing regular season games. He doesn’t want that and the Cowboys can’t afford to not have him on the field. They’re a completely different team without Elliott. The team is built around him having success.
The offseason slogan for executive vice president Stephen Jones has been “taking the next step.” The Cowboys haven’t been to the NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season. Taking the next step means making a legitimate Super Bowl run. Dallas doesn’t do that without Elliott. There hasn’t been any recent communication, but both sides will eventually get something worked out.
McKeone: The Cowboy seem set to pay Elliott, Dak Prescott, and Amari Cooper quite a bit of money. Do you think it’s a smart move to lock up those three, and what players might they have to let go with all the money tied up in that big three?
Machota: The Cowboys have budgeted to make all three among the highest-paid at their respective positions. I do think that’s a smart move for the franchise. That trio represents the best chance of the Cowboys getting back to competing for Super Bowls. In regards to players that might be let go because of it, some of the key contributors include Byron Jones, La’el Collins, Maliek Collins and Jaylon Smith. All four have contracts that expire over the next two years. I don’t think they’ll be able to bring back all four. Of that group, I believe Smith is the best bet to be locked up long-term. But there definitely will be sacrifices to make. Fortunately for the Cowboys, they’ve drafted very well recently. They’ll have to fill in some of the gaps with future quality drafts.
McKeone: The Cowboys’ defense ramped it up at the end of last year. How do you think that unit will stack up against the rest of the league’s top units this year?
Machota: They have an opportunity to be among the league’s best if they can force more turnovers. That’s the only thing missing. They were a very good defense in 2018, the best in recent memory around here. But they were middle-of-the-pack with only 20 takeaways. They only intercepted nine passes. If they can get that number to 15 or 16 interceptions, they have a chance to be elite.
McKeone: How important is the return of Travis Frederick?
Machota: Extremely important. Joe Looney did a good job filling in for Frederick, but he’s not the elite player that Frederick has been. The Cowboys particularly struggled scoring touchdowns in the redzone last year. Having Frederick back should improve their ability to run down there. He has been looking like his old self during training camp, but he’ll be the first to tell you that we really won’t know exactly where he is in his recovery until he starts playing in games again.
McKeone: Who has stood out the most from this year’s rookie class so far in camp? Do you see another rookie coming in and playing at a high level like Leighton Vander Esch last season?
Machota: I don’t see a player from this class having the type of impact that Vander Esch did in 2018. Dallas didn’t have a first round pick because of the Amari Cooper trade, so defensive tackle Trysten Hill was their first pick, No. 58 overall. I think he’ll eventually become a good player, but I see him being more of a rotational player in Year One. The best chance for a big season belongs to Tony Pollard. Dallas used a fourth-round pick on the running back to add another dimension to their offense. He’s been very good as a runner and receiver in camp. With or without Elliott on the field, Pollard will make an impact on offense and as a returner on special teams. Others to keep an eye on: CB Mike Jackson and DE Joe Jackson. The two fifth-round picks out of Miami have looked good in camp.
Five Little Things
McKeone: Favorite stadium in the NFL to visit as a reporter? As a fan?
Machota: As a reporter: Seattle. Great atmosphere. Cool stadium. Fun city to visit. As a fan: Any of the older stadiums. I loved covering last year’s playoff game against the Rams in the Coliseum. I feel the same about Lambeau. You can just feel the history in both places.
McKeone: Favorite place to eat in Dallas?
Machota: I’ve never been disappointed at any of the BBQ places. Pecan Lodge. Lockhart. Hard Eight. I love them all.
McKeone: Favorite person to interview, both currently and in your career?
Machota: Jerry Jones. You just can never predict how he’s going to answer a question. And there’s a good chance his response will include using words in a way you’ve never heard another person use them. It can be difficult to transcribe, but it’s always interesting.
McKeone: What’s one thing about working in this industry you feel like other people don’t know?
Machota: Some people understand it, but I’m still amazed by how many think sports writers are fans of the teams they cover. I didn’t grow up a Cowboys fan. I really don’t care if they win or lose. The reason I love covering the Cowboys is because they are always interesting. And their fans are incredibly passionate.
McKeone: What’s one thing you wished you knew, back when you were starting out in sports media?
Machota: You don’t have to cover a team the way anyone else does. You can do your own thing. I love writing, but I also love talking about sports on radio, podcasts and TV. I’m always on Twitter. I certainly didn’t think 10 years ago that social media was going to have the impact it’s having on how we’re covering sports today. But I’m glad it has. It’s helped my career considerably.