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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