20 Years Gone: Cowboys Dynasty Dies With Or Without Jimmy Johnson

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Aug 2, 2013; Canton, OH, USA; Emmitt Smith at the 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinees Gold Jacket Dinner at the Canton Memorial Civic Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

March 29 marks the 20-year anniversary of former Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson’s resignation. Given the success Jimmy enjoyed with this franchise during his five-year tenure, there will likely be plenty of stories extolling his lengthy list of accomplishments as a Cowboy. While those pieces are certainly appropriate, and I’ll read every last one with a smile, this post is not among them.

We explored some reasons here why Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wasn’t really to blame for Jimmy leaving. In the comments on that post, one Landry Hat reader made a pretty bold assertion that, upon reflection, merits some research. From KingDaddy2000:

What you left out of the discussion above is Jimmy’s LACK OF SUCCESS in Miami (Dolphins), which if Dallas’ success was solely Jimmy, then he should have been able to repeat it.

An interesting question: Why couldn’t Jimmy duplicate his successes in Miami with the Dolphins? Did he miss his collaboration with Jerry? Was his run in Dallas just a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of luck and talent? Was he burnt out? Jimmy never coached anywhere for more than five seasons. His scorched-earth leadership style could never result in a Tom Landry-like legacy of longevity. Landry was the North Star, fixed brightly in the firmament. Jimmy was a comet, dazzling the night sky for a moment then gone the next.

Jimmy joined the Dallas war room in 1989 and drafted eventual Pro Bowlers with five of his first six picks. During his five-year tenure in Dallas, the team selected 14 Pro Bowlers with 63 draft picks, spotting elite talent at a 22 percent clip. This was back when the draft was 12 rounds, and only about 10 percent of all draftees ended up making a Pro Bowl. And that doesn’t include guys like linebacker Dixon Edwards, cornerback Kevin Smith, wide receiver Alvin Harper, and other excellent players who contributed greatly to the Dallas dynasty but never made a Pro Bowl. Dallas drafts during the Jimmy Era were nothing short of epic.

These drafts were the key to the dynasty. Jimmy is a fine coach, but without a bundle of elite talent, he’s not winning Super Bowls. The ’90s team began to erode in 1994, the first year of the NFL’s salary cap. The Cowboys lost key contributors along both lines to free agency – on defense, tackles Tony Casillas (Kansas City) and Jimmie Jones (St. Louis); on offense, guards John Gesek (Washington) and Kevin Gogan (Oakland). Linebacker Ken Norton Jr. signed with San Francisco. Safety Thomas Everett bolted for Tampa Bay.

Free agency and the salary cap would make the draft even more crucial to sustaining the dynasty. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at how Jimmy would have shaped the Cowboys roster had he decided to stay in Dallas. We can instead look at the four drafts he conducted for the Miami Dolphins from 1996 to 1999. That data suggests the magic was gone, and conventional wisdom on this matter is wrong. Through free agency and the salary cap, the Cowboys were bleeding talent, and if Jimmy had stayed he would not have brought in the fresh legs needed to win more Super Bowls.

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Tags: Dallas Cowboys Jimmy Johnson

  • David

    I cannot believe how many half witted writers these days are becoming the revisionist for the Jimmy
    Johnson Era. Regardless of what your opinions are in regards to Jimmy, Dallas has DONE NOTHING since he left town to move forward. They had a few more wining seasons with his talent, but once they all left the building we settle in for years of .500 season or worst with a few bright spots of hope thrown in there to keep us on the line. We will never know what would have happened had he stayed, but we know with certainty what happened after he left. We have gone from perennial winners to perennial losers. You can try as you might, but that will not change the reality of today. Do us all a favor the next time you and Elvis are having lunch with Jimmy Hoffa; stick to the subjects you all know like works of fantasy, doughnuts and union dues. Leave the assessments to the NFL Network and Fox Sports (who Jimmy works for). They have opinions based in reality and can see pass the backside of Jerry Jones. You on the other hand have obviously fallen into it.
    Atlanta, GA

    • Scott.

      Well said…

    • John

      I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you say, except Elvis was more partial to fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches than donuts, but the sole point of the post is that Jimmy wouldn’t have sustained the dynasty had he stayed. You don’t address that. There are innumerable forums in which complaining about the past 20 years would be relevant to the subject matter; the comments section of this post isn’t one of them…

      • TJ ylloJacket Mike M

        Jimmy Johnson would have created THE dynasty for all pro sports to be judged by if Jerry would let a coach be a coach. Jimmy IS the football IQ benchmark and knew what pro bowl caliber skill and the heart of a champ is and how to get a player to SHINE on his strengths and DISCIPLINE his weaknesses and recognizes a player for their virtues before they discover them their own self. He was educated as an industrial psychologist and had wisdom to get the most out of his players for team efficiency while raising morale. A master at X’s & O’s, while making crucial cowboy-style GAMBLES in pressure situations made other coaches marvel at his tenacity. He BUILT the house Jerry paid for and profits from to this day. Anyone contrary to the point is a football dumbass and arm chair QB who has never gained the RESPECT of the violence on a football field. No one else would’ve traded hWalker or dreamed up the GENIUS scheme to procure all those picks. He got more value out of those picks in a feat that’ll never be replicated ever. and… yes his Miami draftees were in the same thread and would’ve GUARANTEED at least 3 more Superbowls after the two he’d manufactured and probably another back to backer too. He knew what Marino would do to his legacy going into the situation and chose Miami for his own convenience of lifestyle because he could command where he was going and command his drafts there. He was always defense minded because he was a LB and built a #1 D like no1 else knows how to do… for instance he drafted sMadison a short CB no1 else would’ve wanted and turned him into a probowler. Jimmy continues to be the bane of Jerrys existence while Jerry is continuing to spite him in feable ways like drafting RB fJones from Arkansas instead of RB jCharles (also from Port Arthur, TX). The southeast corner of tx is the hotbed for NFL just google how many rings and players come from Port Arthur and this lets anyone know Jimmy has the background and track record to go down as the best NFL coach for your team. If Jerry wasn’t such an egomaniac he’d humbly ask him back throwing all the money at him he can for the betterment of the Dallas COWBOYS but Jimmy is a man of principles he’d turn him down anyway…lol. Jimmy was that Lone blue Star and the NFL is better for it. Thanks coach, you don’t have to prove anything to these dimwits you did it all.

  • cowboyfan

    The problem was not Jimmy leaving although he should’ve let Jimmy have controls until he failed. It was what he did 96-97 after. I mean after 5 years it is acceptable but 20 it is not.

  • Jerry L

    Jimmy’s trouble at the Dolphins, was undercut by Marino who insisted on passing and not using the run
    as Jimmy wanted.

    • John

      You think that’s why he drafted ZERO pro bowlers in 1999 and finished that season with a humiliating 62-7 loss? ‘Cause Marino wanted to pass?

      • drpaul1970

        Well, at least it was a playoff game. Jerry would love to have the opportunity to lose a playoff game at this point. And what pro bowlers did Jerry draft in 1999?

  • Ball Magnetic

    This is all BS if Jimmy had stayed with the cowboys with the same authority he had at that time the cowboys dynasty would’ve persisted. Why? Because he would’ve kept bringing in talent and refining his way of doing things until they didn’t work.
    In Miami it wasn’t fully Jimmy’s way of doing things because he had to kiss Marino’s butt.
    Also if Jimmy’s tenure in Miami presupposes the probability of him failing in Dallas for the next 20 years had he’d stayed then what about the real life fact that without him the cowboys with Jerry Jones REALLY DID FAIL for that amount of time and continues to do so? There is no real evidence to your argument being that with Jimmy the cowboys won 3 superbowls(Barry WHO?) and without him they have been mediocre ever since.

    • John

      But his draft record in Miami suggests he wouldn’t have kept bringing in the talent… You have evidence to the contrary?

      • drpaul1970

        Zach Thomas round 5. Sam Madison round 2. Jason Taylor round 3. Patrick Surtain round 2. You add those players during the 96,97, and 98 drafts and the dynasty continues. But the real genius of Jimmy Johnson was motivating and coaching. He wasn’t just a smart football coach but also a bona fide genius…………..and he has the IQ score to prove it. One of the smartest men to ever coach football. FACT

        • John

          Those are all nice players, but they’re all defenders. Dallas had a Top 5 defense five of six years after Jimmy left, all the way up through 1999. Defense isn’t the reason the dynasty failed, so I can’t say I agree that those players would have kept it going…

  • drpaul1970

    How in the heck can you look at the guys Jimmy was drafting in Miami and conclude that he lost his touch or couldn’t have won had he stayed in Dallas? You add Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, Patrick Surtain, and Sam Madison to those Jerry lead cowboy teams that were finding nothing in the draft, and the dynasty continues. Jimmy couldn’t win in Miami b/c he didn’t have a decent QB, Marino was at the tale end of his career. But he did build Miami’s defense into #1 in the league and they were competitive despite the offensive handicap.

    • John

      Sure, add those four Miami pro bowlers to the Dallas roster. And remove Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen, and pro bowlers Dexter Coakley, Greg Ellis, and Flozell Adams, who Jerry drafted after Jimmy left. The Cowboys were bleeding talent due to free agency and the salary cap – Jimmy’s draft record in Miami wasn’t near enough to sustain the dynasty. And with four years of Jimmy’s own drafts defining the core of the Miami defense, they gave up 62 points at Jacksonville in his final game. 62 points, man! In the playoffs! Jimmy built a No. 1 defense in Miami? C’mon, bud…

      • drpaul1970

        One game forms the the basis of your opinion? Really? Miami was ranked #1 overall in defense in 1998. Thats just a fact. Jerry Jones is one of the worst drafters in NFL history finding 4 starters between the years of 1996-2002. No GM would even be given the opportunity to fail that spectacularly. Flozel and Greg Ellis were average NFL players until Parcels arrived and coached them to their first pro bowls And I’ll take future HOFer Jason taylor over Ellis and Zach Thomas over Coakley any day. The guys Jimmy was finding on defense in Miami would have more than made up for the free agent losses.
        Jerry Jones has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that his only contribution to the 90′s dynasty was hiring Jimmy Johnson and getting out of his way. .500 since 1996………… 1 playoff win……..There is no credible defense of Jerry Jones as a GM.

        • John

          Hey, Peter. What’s happening. Yeah, this isn’t about who’s better, Jimmy Johnson or Jerry Jones, m’kay? The point of the post is that Jimmy had very little left in the tank when he walked out on Dallas, and his record in Miami supports that conclusion, m’kay? Thanks a bunch.