NFL Draft: Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys

Before Jimmy Johnson arrived in Dallas during the 1989 off-season, the Dallas Cowboys had been purchased by billionaire egomaniac Jerry Jones. Jones, Johnson’s former teammate at Arkansas, saw himself as an Al Davis type. A guy who could (or in Davis’ case used to) coach the team but instead owns it. Jones would go on to take credit for the drafts and signings of players during Jimmy Johnson’s tenure, but inexplicably hasn’t had much success since Jimmy’s players retired or left in free agency after the 1995 Super Bowl winning season. 

But the relationship between Johnson and Jones has been long analyzed. What I’m here to look into is the lightning in a bottle that Jimmy Johnson found by leaving Miami at the precise time, in the precise situation… both for his career, and the NFL and Cowboys he was stepping into.

Before 1994, there was no salary cap nor free agency in the NFL. The post-strike atmosphere in the NFL from 1988-1992 led to court battles and a CBA that created free agency in 1992, and an obvious need for a salary cap, to control the large market teams, in 1993. In some random dude named Charles N. Baschnagel’s thesis paper I found online, he seems to think that players salaries increase due to the overall competitive nature of the league, and he’s probably right. The post-1987 strike season NFL we know has done everything right to ensure the dominance of its league. The set-up of the draft which was instituted in 1935, the salary cap, free agency, etc has pushed football into the spotlight as America’s past time.

In 1984, Jimmy Johnson leaves Oklahoma State for the sunny beaches of Miami, Florida. Miami was a hard nosed squad that Howard Schnellenberger had molded to his image. A pro style passing attack with a top caliber schedule aided by conference independence and a national championship trophy in the athletic department in both baseball and football. Johnson would bring his innovative 4-3 under defense and keep the ‘Canes pro style offense in place. This would set Jimmy up to move onto the NFL quicker than other college coaches who were running the wishbone and a 50-front defense, neither of which were employed in the NFL. With national media attention surrounding the program as well, this gave Johnson a chance to establish his public image as a handsome, quick-witted southern gentleman that surrounded himself with tri-county South Florida impoverished and brash African American males.

With regards to the national schedule, what better way to get eyes on future NFL talent than playing top ranked powerhouses all over the country every single weekend? The ‘Canes played Auburn, Oklahoma, Florida State, Florida, Notre Dame, Michigan, Pitt, Boston College, UCLA, South Carolina, Tennessee, Penn State, West Virginia, Arkansas, Maryland, Wisconsin, LSU, BYU and Nebraska in Johnson’s five seasons in Miami. Over a dozen nationally televised games versus around twenty ranked opponents including five straight major bowl games. He coached and game-planned against some of the greatest talent in NCAA and NFL history. Names like Jackson, Sanders, Blades, Aikman, Irvin, Sharpe, Brown, and Rozier to name a few. Heisman winners both on his team and the opponents. Johnson finished 1-2 in national championship games, but that wasn’t enough to stop him from moving on to the NFL.

With Jones’ purchase of the Cowboys, it opened the door for Johnson to jump to the NFL. It was truly the right place and time for a shrewd tactician like Jimmy. In 1988, the Cowboys had finished 3-13 in Landry’s last season and given Johnson a good position to draft from, first overall. While they were bad, the Cowboys weren’t completely devoid of talent either. They had Nate Newton and Kevin Gogan on the offensive line, Ken Norton Jr at linebacker, Everson Walls at defensive back, and even former Hurricane Mike Irvin at wideout.

The Cowboys were to choose first in 1989 in what is regarded as the deepest NFL draft class of all-time. Jimmy Johnson and/or Jerry Jones, depending on who you believe, selected Troy Aikman (UCLA*), then Steve Walsh (UM), Steve Wisniewski (PSU), Daryl Johnston (Syracuse), Mark Stepnoski (Pitt), Tony Tolbert (UTEP), some random Florida player who didn’t make it, Rod Carter (UM), and Randy Shannon (UM). Johnson had coached or coached against all but two of these players and had probably seen film on Johnston while scouting the BC’s and Pitts of the world.

Then came the Herschel Walker trade. This is where Johnson’s genius or the Vikins stupidity became ever so clear and he dumped Walker for eight draft picks including three 1’s, three 2’s, and a 3 that resulted in drafting Emmitt Smith (UF) and Jimmie Jones (UM) in 1990, and combined with the Steve Walsh to New Orleans trade- Russell Maryland (UM) in 1991 and Alvin Harper (Tennessee) as well, to go with their own draft picks like Godfrey Myles (UF) and Mike Sullivan (UM). The Vikings mistake even affected the 1992 draft where the Cowboys took Darren Woodson (ASU). However, the further Jimmy got away from his college coaching days, the worse his drafts became.

In 1992 for instance, while he did land future all pro Kevin Smith (Texas A&M) and Pro Bowl WR Jimmy Smith (Jackson State)- the latter did more for the Jaguars than the Cowboys. In 1993, Johnson took two ‘Canes in the second round with WR Kevin Williams and LB Darren Smith. Smith had a solid career in Dallas and Philly with almost 800 tackles in 10 seasons and won two super bowls while Williams speed never translated to more than a KR/PR specialist in the NFL. But it was the middle and later rounds where Johnson lost his luster for finding hidden gems like Leon Lett and found guys who went pro in something other than sports instead.

Johnson had used his innovative trade evaluation chart with regards to draft picks and their value which resulted in the Cowboys always moving back in rounds to obtain more picks. This chart, still used today by NFL GMs (although the Harvard model is gaining popularity), is a place where Johnson took his bridge playing skills and parlayed them into more than just coincidence and luck.

While Johnson did put together an all-star team in Dallas it was made much easier by a lack of salary cap and a lack of free agency. Free agency was a tricky thing with only a handful of free agents changing teams every year and  most being washed up veterans who were let out of their contracts. It wasn’t the big money Haynesworth type deals we see today. With this lack of ability to leave Dallas, Johnson/Jones created an army of players who either had played for or against Jimmy while at Miami and won the 1992 and 1993 Super Bowls together, before Johnson was fired/quit and Barry Switzer took over to the 1994 season.

In an even more ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ situation regarding the Cowboys and Johnson was the fact that Switzer was Johnson’s nemesis back in the college ranks. Barry’s Sooners had gone 0-3 versus Johnson’s Hurricanes, all high profile games from 1985-1987, including a national title game in the 1988 Orange Bowl. However, Switzer did take Johnson’s roster and win the Super Bowl in 1995, with one of the original big NFL free agent signings Mr. Deion Sanders (who Johnson had coached against while he was at FSU).

While I do believe that Johnson was an innovative defensive coach with an eye for talent and the psychology background to manage egos like Smith, Irvin, and Lett- I think a large part of his success in the NFL from 1991-1993 was being in the right era, with the right coaching situations, at the right time. Take in part Johnson’s hit-more-than-miss drafting upon his return to Miami with the Dolphins from 1996-1999. Johnson failed to win the AFC East and only hit 10 wins once after inheriting a high powered offense and Hall of Fame QB Dan Marino. Johnson did hit on Sam Madison, Pat Surtain, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas but missed on Yatil Green, John Avery, Cecil Collins, et al while passing on Warren Sapp and Randy Moss.

With Jimmy Johnson up for the Hall of Fame this off-season I don’t wonder if he will get in, it’s only a matter of when… but as for the pundits wondering why he’s not an NFL GM, it’s a brave new world from the late 80’s/early 90’s NFL he saw his original success in.