Dallas Cowboys: Before Jason Witten, There Was Jay Novacek


Dec 29, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) stiff arms after a reception against Philadelphia Eagles safety Patrick Chung (23) at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Aikman, Irvin, Smith…Dallas Cowboys fans from the 1990s have “The Triplets” engrained in their memories. The history books show that the “Team of the 90’s” was led by a top-flight quarterback, wide receiver, and running back who were blazing their path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame while collecting Super Bowl Rings for their fingers and Lombardi Trophies for America’s Team.

As the memories of those halcyon days fade slowly into the recesses of our collective memories, I notice the discussions that revolve around the legends of the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s often do not include many of the players that had crucial supporting roles in the success of these teams.

A few players come to mind when I recall those glory days. Daryl “Moose” Johnston was the battering ram that cleared the way for so many of NFL All-Time Leading Rusher Emmitt Smith’s carries. Alvin Harper was a fantastic #2 receiver compliment to Michael Irvin. The defense always seemed to be stacked with unlimited depth and talent – Deion Sanders, Larry Brown, Chad Hennings, Russell Maryland, Charles Haley, Tony Casillas, Leon Lett, and others formed the “Doomsday Defense” of the 1990s.

But, if any player was to bump the “Triplets” to the “Quadruplets” I believe it would have been tight end #84 Jay Novacek.

Novacek came to the NFL through the University of Wyoming where he was, without a doubt, the definition of an “all-around” athlete. Having been an all-state quarterback an all-state basketball high school star in Nebraska, he became an All-American tight end for the collegiate “Cowboys” setting an NCAA record for receiving yards per catch for a tight end (22.6) while catching 83 balls for 1,536 yards and 10 touchdowns. In the off season, he was an All-American decathlete; setting school records for decathlon points (7,615) and the pole vault (16’4”).

Novacek was drafted by the Saint Louis Cardinals in the 6th round of the 1985 draft. He had a relatively quiet five seasons in Saint Louis/Arizona where he caught 83 passes for 1054 yards and eight touchdowns.

#84 was signed by the Cowboys for the 1990 season as a Plan B free agent and his career started in earnest. Novacek quickly became one of Troy Aikman’s favorite targets, especially when defenses were shutting down Irvin and the other wide receivers. He caught 59 passes for 657 yards in his first year with the pro Cowboys. By Novacek’s second year with Dallas, he had passed his reception, yardage, and touchdown totals for his five years with the Cardinals.

In his half-dozen years in Dallas, Novacek represented the Cowboys in five Pro Bowls and was a key starter on all of the Super Bowl squads. He retired from the NFL after the Cowboy’s victory in Super Bowl XXX and he left the team having caught 339 passes for 3576 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Every time I watch a Cowboys game today, when I see Tony Romo connecting with Jason Witten in a crucial 3rd down or desperation pass, I think back to the days when Aikman was finding Novacek to gain critical yardage and keep a drive alive. When Witten lost his helmet and continued down the field back in Week Nine of the 2007 season against the Philadelphia Eagles (see below video), I recalled #84 showing his decathlon skills by hurdling a Kansas City defensive back and heading deeper into the secondary.

Like Witten, Novacek had a professional presence on the field. No showboating. No excessive celebrations. Just a professional playing hard and doing his job.

I’ll finish with this, if it were not for the success of Jason Witten, a lot of Cowboys fans would be sitting around the campfire talking about the last great Cowboys tight end, Jay Novacek. His role in the successes of the 1990s cannot be understated.