1995 Dallas Cowboys Review
Figure 1: Top 30 Cap Charges
Figure 2: Positional Groups
Figure 3: Starting Lineup and Contributors
Figure 4: Basic Team Stats
Figure 5: Offensive Leaders
“New ideas in football tend to arise as potential solutions to specific problems.” – Chris B. Brown; @SmartFootball
I read Brown’s book Smart Football and in the notes I rook while reading the book, underneath that quote, I wrote: “This is a big reason why I, and many other people, love analyzing the game of football so much. It’s entrepreneurial in nature because ‘solutions to specific problems’ is what entrepreneurship is about at its core.” It’s why Bill Walsh became such a popular thought leader in the business world because, more so than anyone who came before or after him, he brought this business-like problem solving ability to the NFL and he was able to communicate his philosophies in books so others could learn from him. It’s a beautiful game of chess with athletic freaks as the pieces on the board and it plays to our analytical mind, while also playing to the beauty of the sport.
In a way, football reminds me of chapter six in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where Robert Pirsig explains the difference between classical and romantic understandings of the world: “A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.” The romantic aspect of the game is that beauty that the movie Concussion even acknowledged in Bennett Omalu’s speech at the end of the movie, while the classical aspect is everything underneath that beauty, all the work that goes in behind the scene to orchestrate that Sunday afternoon beauty.
This 1995 Cowboys team’s story begins on February 25, 1989, when Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys from H.R. “Bum” Bright for $140 million. Soon after buying the team, he fired Cowboys’ legend Tom Landry, who was the only coach in Cowboys’ history at that time, and Jones hired his old Arkansas football teammate, Jimmy Johnson. Then soon after that, Jones got rid of longtime general manager Tex Schramm and he and Johnson took control of all football matters. Jones was the owner, president and general manager, while Johnson was the head coach and in charge of player personnel. We keep seeing this with some of the best teams of this salary cap era, the best teams give a ton of control to their head coach as he’s the guy who needs to make it happen on Sundays, so he should be involved in the decisions so he can acquire the chess pieces that he wants for his systems.
With this new regime in Dallas, they were taking over one of the least talented teams in the NFL and they went 1-15 in year one because of it, but it was a major move during that season that laid the ground work for the 1990s dynasty that followed.
In his five years as the head coach at the University of Miami, Johnson went 52-9 with his first season, 1984, being his worst at 8-5. After that, he lost four games in the next four years, going 12-0 in 1987 to win the National Championship. Outside of being an incredible football coach, he came to the NFL without any preconceived notions or prejudices for how to do business and he certainly wasn’t tied to old ways of thinking.
Johnson and Jones became two of the biggest innovators in the way the NFL does business because, well, they had to, they had a terrible team in 1989, so like Chris B. Brown says, they had to create a solution for this problem. In this period of the NFL, teams rarely made trades, but Jimmy Johnson was in such a position with a team that would end up winning only one game, that he had to do something to build for the future. In Johnson’s five years in Dallas, he made 51 trades, which is more than the entire rest of the league put together.
Johnson saw a major advantage in drafting because he and his staff had just left the college game, so when commenting on the situation that led to the Herschel Walker trade, he said:
“The Rams tried to do the same thing when they traded Eric Dickerson to the Colts two years before, but that didn’t work out for them because they chose the wrong players. The advantage we had was that we had seen the players we were drafting. We had relationships with other assistant coaches, so we knew who to call to get an honest assessment. Why do you think Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly have been so successful in the pros? Yes, they know how to teach and motivate, but they also know how to get the information they need to find talent.”
Since Carroll and Kelly created and perfected their philosophies through the college game, they’ve brought their unique styles that aren’t tethered to the normal ways of doing business in the NFL. They have a different perspective than those who came up in the NFL, so they might see different opportunities that others can’t see.
Steve Wulf wrote a great piece on ESPN.com accompanied with a 30 for 30 Short titled “The Great Trade Robbery,” about that trade. When the Cowboys were 0-5 during that 1989 season, Johnson and his staff went on one of their “mobile meetings” where they would go on a midday jog as a coaching staff. This was where Johnson first proposed the idea that the only way to fix their issues was to trade Walker because of how bad their team was and how much more they needed to fix their issues. Keep in mind, during that 1988 season, Walker had run for 1514 and had another 505 receiving.
One of the keys to this is that Walker was a big powerful runner, the guy that they would have to build a strong offensive line for and build a system for. While Norv Turner came in as the offensive coordinator in 1991 with his Air Coryell system, a system which needs a great running back and strong offensive line, the team had acquired many of the pieces needed to run that offense by that point. They got rid of Walker, but they drafted Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh, which gave them two young quarterbacks with the potential to be great quarterbacks; Aikman was picked in the first round in 1989, while Walsh was picked in the first round of the 1989 Supplemental Draft. He was Johnson’s quarterback at The U.
By the end of the day that they had that fateful “mobile meeting” about Walker, Johnson already had a trade offer from the Browns where the Cowboys would receive a player, two future first round picks and three second rounders. Johnson only got the Vikings involved to at least sweeten the pot because their general manager, Mike Lynn, had mentioned Walker to him earlier in the year. According to “The Greatest Team Ever” by Ron St. Angelo and Norm Hitzges, Johnson told Lynn that he had until 6:30 that night or he would make the deal with Cleveland and because the Vikings believed they were only a player away from the Super Bowl and they loved Walker, which really amplified the pressure on them.
Here’s who got what in the trade:
- Jesse Solomon, LB
- David Howard, LB
- Alex Stewart, LB
- Darrin Nelson, RB
- Issiac Holt, CB
- Minnesota’s First Round Pick in 1990
- Minnesota’s Second Round Pick in 1990
- Minnesota’s Sixth Round Pick in 1990
**This is the key, each player had a conditional pick attached to him if he were to be cut before February 1st, 1990. This is where things were complicated and Johnson got exactly what he wanted.
Darrin Nelson refused to report got traded to San Diego and became a sixth rounder in 1990 and a second rounder in 1991 for the Cowboys.
- Herschel Walker, RB
- Cowboys Third Round Pick in 1990
- Cowboys Tenth Round Pick in 1990
- Cowboys Third Round Pick in 1991
According to Wulf, Johnson thought Stewart was lazy, so he cut him right away to get the second round pick in the 1990 draft that was tied to him. Considering that Stewart was an eighth round pick in 1989, it’s absurd that the Cowboys got a second round pick out of him in a trade that happened on October 12, 1989. It’s not like Stewart was a high performer either, he was dealing with a wrist that broke a few weeks before the season.
With all of the players left tied to conditional picks, Johnson instructed his coaches to not start them to make it clear to Lynn that all he wanted was the draft picks. This helped him eventually work out a deal with Lynn that lessened the draft cost for the Vikings and allowed the Cowboys to keep Solomon, Howard and Holt.
What Johnson points out is that people overlooked him because they thought, “what does this guy from the college game know?” It was the arrogance around the league, the arrogance that so many people in history have gotten when we see someone doing things different and don’t expect anything to come from it, that let the Cowboys sneak up on the NFL in a way that none of them could have predicted because that wasn’t the normal way of doing business. All those trades were so unheard of at that time, like I said before, Johnson’s 51 trades in five years outpaced the entire NFL, and he even says he considered trading every single player on that 1989 team. He had a big problem and he was willing to try whatever it took.
Since Johnson had come from the college game, like Carroll, Kelly, Jim Harbaugh and other college turned pro coaches, he had seen so many of the players they were drafting, this allowed him to have great drafts during his Cowboys years. They stockpiled picks because they knew they needed a complete rebuild of the team and they knew that they could draft well. In that first draft in 1989, they drafted four Pro Bowlers in quarterback Troy Aikman, center Mark Stepnoski, and defensive end Tony Tolbert. They drafted an All-Pro at guard in Steve Wisniewski and traded him, plus a sixth round pick, to the Raiders immediately for a second, third and fifth round pick. The second round pick was used to draft All-Pro fullback Daryl Johnston.
Johnson says that every single draft pick they got, it never stayed in the same spot, they always either moved up or down with the pick. He’s so well known for his drafting prowess that the Draft Trade Value Chart that teams still use today is his invention.
What follows is a pretty complete list of the insane success that Jimmy Johnson had in evaluating talent through the draft. This is where this dynasty was built and that 1995 Super Bowl was won. Some of these draft picks had their success with other teams, but are still worth mentioning as it speaks to Johnson’s talent as an evaluator. It’s an important fact to remember that their 1992 Super Bowl champion team was the lowest-paid and youngest team in the NFL, which is a testament to the way this dynasty was constructed. While Pete Carroll and the 2013 Seahawks had some big cap hits as their Top 10 cap charges cost a record 61.31% of the cap, their core was made up of mostly young players they’d drafted who now make up their current core in 2015 and moving forward into 2016.
What follows is a long list of the draft picks and their accomplishments as I felt the need to acknowledge these rather than make the curious fan go look up each player he’s interested in finding out more about.
- Troy Aikman, QB (1st Round, 1st Pick Overall)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 6.72%
- Hall of Famer
- 6-time Pro Bowler
- Played for the Cowboys until 2000
- Led the Cowboys to all three Super Bowls
- Currently ranks 32nd in NFL history for passing yards in a career with 32,942, Tony Romo is now the franchise leader having passed him in 2014.
- His 165 passing touchdowns rank him 65th all-time, Romo leads the franchise with 242.
- Career record of 94-71. From 1992 to 1996, he went 56-19.
- Steve Wisniewski, OG (2, 29)
- 8-time Pro Bowler
- 2-time First Team All-Pro
- Hall of Fame semi-finalist in 2014
- Played from 1989 to 2001 for the Raiders
- Daryl Johnson, FB (2, 39)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 3.78%
- 2-time Pro Bowler in 1993 and 1994
- Was on all three Super Bowl teams
- Played in 149 consecutive games form 1989 to 1997
- One of the greatest special teams players in franchise history
- 22 career touchdowns
- 294 receptions is third highest among all Cowboys running backs, had 2227 receiving yards for a 7.6 average
- Had 50 catches in 1993
- According to Dallas Observer, Johnston was so good that the NFL created a position on the Pro Bowl ballot for the position in 1993 to acknowledge his significance.
- Mark Stepnoski, C-G (3, 57)
- 5-time Pro Bowler
- Played for the Cowboys from 1989 to 1994, went to the Oilers from 1995-98, then came back to the Cowboys from 1999-2001
- NFL 1990s All-Decade Team
- Tony Tolbert, DE (4, 85)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 3.62%
- Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 1996
- Played for the Cowboys until 1997, when he retired.
- Was on all three Super Bowl teams
- 59 career sacks, 531 tackles and 49 assists (assists started being counted in 1994)
- Had 10 playoff sacks, two in 1992, three in 1993 and five in 1995.
- Emmitt Smith, RB (1, 17)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 9.17%
- While this is the record for the running back position, one can’t deny he was worth it, especially considering the lower costs as he ran for 1773 yards at 4.7 per carry and 110.8 per game in 1995 with 62 catches (79.5% catch rate) for 375 yards (6.0 ypc). With 78 targets, his yards per target of 4.81 gave them the equivalent of 78 more plays at the same level of efficiency as he gave them on the ground.
- NFL’s All-Time leading rusher with 18,355, which is 1629 more than Walter Payton, who is second on the list.
- 8-time Pro Bowler
- 4-time First-Team All-Pro
- Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010
- Played for the Cowboys from 1990 to 2002, then finished his career with two seasons in Arizona
- 164 career touchdowns, 153 with the Cowboys
- During their three Super Bowl seasons, he averaged 373 carries for 1657 yards (4.4 ypc) and 21 touchdowns with 59 catches for 375 receiving yards.
- 1995 Cap Hit: 9.17%
The Cowboys had 18 draft picks in the 1991 draft including three first round picks, three third round picks, and four fourth round picks. Such a display of the way they stockpiled draft picks to completely turnover that 1989 team they started with.
- Russell Maryland, DT (1, 1)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 4.91%; was still on his rookie deal and ended up signing a $19 million, six-year contract with the Raiders in 1996.
- Pro Bowler in 1993
- Played in 75 games with the Cowboys from 1991 to 1995 and started 61 of them
- Highlights include seven forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries with one returned for a touchdown, 14.5 sacks, 199 total tackles. He had four sacks in 12 playoff games with the Cowboys.
- Alvin Harper, WR (1, 12)
- Played in 65 games with 47 starts for the Cowboys from 1991 to 1994 with 124 catches for 2486 yards (20.0 ypc) and 18 touchdowns.
- In 10 playoff games, 24 catches for 655 yards (27.3 ypc), and four touchdowns.
- Kelvin Pritchett (1, 20)
- Played from 1991 to 2004, but according to KnowYourDallasCowboys.com, he was traded by the Cowboys on draft day for picks in the second, third and fourth rounds. They used that second-round pick to take linebacker Dixon Edwards.
- Dixon Edwards (2, 37)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 1.42%
- Played in 74 games with 47 starts for the Cowboys from 1991 through 1995. Highlights include 236 total tackles with 2.5 sacks and one interception return for a touchdown. Just a solid starter, drafted in the second round.
- Godfrey Myles (3, 62)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 1.22%
- This pick came to the Cowboys through a trade with San Diego.
- Played with the Cowboys from 1991 to 1996 and was a solid backup linebacker and special teams player. Started 11 games during the 1995 season and played through a separated shoulder to help them win that Super Bowl.
- Was on all three Super Bowl teams, starting at outside linebacker in the January 1993 Super Bowl. A freak ACL tear celebrating a touchdown in that game changed his career with many saying he was never again the same player.
- Highlights include 135 total tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
- Erik Williams (3, 70)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 3.70%
- Pick came from New Orleans in exchange for QB Steve Walsh.
- 4-time Pro Bowler
- 2-time First-Team All-Pro
- Played in 141 games with 133 starts for the team from 1991 to 2000. He was a starter on all three champions.
- Due to bad grades, he went to Central State University, which was at the NAIA level. He was an All-American and led the team to a NAIA national championship in 1990. There was nowhere the Cowboys couldn’t find talent.
- Earned national recognition and NFC Offensive Player of the Week in 1992 when he held Reggie White without a sack in a 20-10 win.
- From 1992 to 1995, with Nate Newton, Mark Tuinei, Mark Stepnoski and Kevin Grogan, he was a part what may have been the best offensive line in NFL history, “The Great Wall of Dallas.”
- Leon Lett, DT/DE (7, 173)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 3.16%
- 2-time Pro Bowler
- Played in 109 games with 73 starts with the Cowboys from 1991 to 2000 with 257 total tackles and 22.5 sacks. Was a big part of all three Super Bowl teams.
- In their first Super Bowl against the Bills, he set the record for the longest fumble return in Super Bowl history with a 64-yard return and sacked Frank Reich on the final play of the game.
- Another guy they found in the NAIA out of Emporia State. He was supposed to go to Auburn, but a low ACT score made him go to Hinds Community College for two seasons. After having problems transferring credits to New Mexico State after JUCO, he ended up accepting a partial scholarship from Emporia State. Helped his team reach the NAIA Football National Championship.
- Larry Brown, DB (12, 320)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 1.35%
- With 74 starts in 83 games with the Cowboys, no one could have predicted this 12th rounder would have become one of the mainstays on three Super Bowl teams. A remarkable value this late in the draft and shocking how quickly he became a starter considering where he was drafted. Highlights include 13 touchdowns with 206 return yards for two touchdowns and 291 total tackles. He had five interceptions for 105 return yards in 13 playoff games with three coming in the 1995 playoffs.
- First rookie to start at CB since Ron Francis in 1987.
- Named to NFL all-rookie team.
- Had an interception in the 1992 Super Bowl.
- In the 1995 Super Bowl he became the first cornerback to win the Super Bowl MVP and the first defensive back to do it since 1973. He had two interceptions of Steelers’ QB Neil O’Donnell. He also had a big 28-yard interception return against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
- Dale Hellestrae
- They traded a seventh round pick to the Raiders for the best deep-snapper in the NFL. Hellestrae was on the Cowboys from 1990 through 2000 and played in every single game. He was also a backup at guard and center. Was a vital special teams player on all three championship teams.
- Kevin Smith, CB (1, 17)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 3.68%
- Started six of his 16 games played in 1992, but then started every game he played until he retired after the 1999 season. He had 19 interceptions returned for 190 yards with one touchdown, eight forced fumbles and one fumble recovered with 361 total tackles.
- Led the Cowboys in interceptions in 1993 with six interceptions and one returned for a touchdown. He teamed with Larry Brown to form the youngest set of starting cornerbacks in the NFL and was one of the elite cornerbacks in the league.
- His 1995 season started with a torn Achilles tendon in Week 1 against the Giants on Monday Night Football. This led to the Cowboys signing Deion Sanders the next week.
- You’re supposed to hit on your first round picks, but Jimmy Johnson never missed, Smith is just another great pick.
- Robert Jones, LB (1, 24)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 2.36%
- Was an immediate starter at middle linebacker as the team moved Ken Norton outside and he was the NFC Rookie of the Year during Super Bowl number one. He had 108 tackles with one sack and one fumble recovery.
- He was benched in 1993, but would come back to start in 16 games in 1994 and have one of the best seasons of his career registering 162 tackles, which was the fourth-most in a season in Cowboys history at the time.
- Just like how Ken Norton Jr. ended up on that 1994 49ers team, Jones was not resigned due to the salary cap because they did not feel the need to pay a premium for linebackers.
- Jimmy Smith, WR (2, 26)
- Smith’s only action with the Cowboys was in 1992 and he missed most of the year with a broken leg. In 1993, he had an emergency appendectomy, which led to a severe infection and was nearly fatal. Before the 1994 season, the Cowboys cut him and he was signed by the Eagles, but cut by them as well. He was signed in February 1995 as Tom Coughlin understood how talented Smith was. In 1996, he emerged as one of the best receivers in the league. Smith is 7th in NFL history with 862 catches and 11th with 12,287 yards.
- Even though Barry Switzer and his staff released Smith, this is just further proof of Johnson’s ability to scout talent. Smith is certainly one of the best receivers in NFL history.
- Darren Woodson, S (2, 37)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 1.81%
- Hall of Fame semi-finalist in 2015
- 5-time Pro Bowler
- 3-time All-Pro
- 3-time Super Bowl champion
- Dallas Cowboys all-time leader in tackles.
- Bart Starr Man of the Year Award in 2001, which “is given annually to an NFL player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.”
- Woodson played with the Cowboys from 1992 to 2003 with 162 starts in 178 games. Highlights include 1350 tackles, 23 interceptions with two returned for touchdowns and 11 sacks. He had three interceptions and on fumble recovery in the playoffs.
- One of the best safeties of all-time and someone who revolutionized the safety position. He was a masher and a guy who could cover your receivers in the slot, a very lethal defensive weapon and a huge reason the Cowboys were so successful.
- Kevin Williams, WR (2, 46)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 1.39%
- Between 1977 and 1992, the NFL Draft was a 12 round affair and in 1993, it was reduced to eight rounds. According to KnowYourDallasCowboys.com, the Cowboys traded their first round pick, which was the last pick of the round, along with a fourth-round pick to the Packers for two second-rounders, a fourth and an eighth-round pick. With those two second-round picks, the Cowboys took Williams and linebacker Darrin Smith, two players from the University of Miami.
- Williams was their first selection in this draft and gave them a critical piece of their 1993 and 1995 Super Bowl teams as a punt returner, kick returner and wide receiver. He was drafted to replace Kelvin Martin who was the team’s slot receiver and punt returner.
- Williams was with the Cowboys from 1993 through the 1996 season before leaving for the Arizona Cardinals. During his time with the Cowboys, he started 28 of his 57 games, as a punt returner, he averages 9.6 yards per return and had three touchdowns on his 95 returns that went for 913 yards. In the kicking game, he had a 23.7 average return and one touchdown in 144 returns for 3416 yards. He had 98 catches for 1268 yards (12.9 ypc) and five touchdowns as a receiver.
- In 1994, he had 33 catches for 821 yards and eight touchdowns. He had an absurd 24.9 yards per catch.
- Darrin Smith, LB (2, 54)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 1.15%
- NFL All-Rookie Team
- NFC Defensive Player of the Week in 1994
- 2-time Super Bowl champion
- Smith was able to develop into a starter in his first season and played with the Cowboys through the 1996 season and started 54 of his 57 games.
- His Cowboys highlights include 287 tackles, 9 sacks, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), and four fumble recoveries.
- Brock Marion, FS (7, 196)
- 1995 Cap Hit: 0.50%
- Played with the Cowboys from 1993 through 1997 and started in 43 of 71 games with the team. His highlights with the team include 290 tackles, eight tackles with one returned for a touchdown, one sack, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He had one interception in the 1995 playoffs. The seventh rounder developed into a started during the 1995 season and started all 16 games. The team couldn’t keep him because of salary cap limitations.
- He was a three time Pro Bowler with the Dolphins.
- Ron Stone (4, 96), Barry Minter (6, 168), Dave Thomas (8, 203), and Reggie Givens (8, 213) all played until at least 2000 with Stone playing until 2005 with 173 games played. Another solid example of their ability to scout talent.
Including the supplemental first rounder for Steve Walsh in 1989, the Cowboys had eight first round picks from 1989 to 1992, so two per season. Those players and the trade value they got from the players they drafted really helped build a low-cost dynasty.
That is quite a list of talent that Johnson drafted and obviously, a huge reason why they had so much success during his tenure and at the beginning of Switzer’s reign. In 1994, Switzer added Larry Allen in the second round with the 47th pick and he’s now a Hall of Famer. Outside of that, Switzer didn’t have nearly the same amount of success that Johnson had in the draft and it’s a huge part of why the dynasty fell apart in the second half of the decade. In 1996 and 1997, Switzer’s last two drafts, they only had two players in each draft that made it past their rookie contracts out of 18 total picks, a very poor success rate. While Switzer was a college coach, he stopped coaching at Oklahoma in 1988 and didn’t coach again until 1994 with the Cowboys.
This conversation brings us all the way to the 1995 season and the Super Bowl team we’re going to analyze.
Remember, Switzer was the head coach because Johnson and Jones had a falling out that began soon after the Cowboys Super Bowl win after the 1992 season. In March 1993, Jones told the media that any coach could have led that team to a Super Bowl. Add in the fact that Jones was grumbling about wanting more of a say in personnel decisions and I can only imagine how Johnson must have felt considering that his incredible decision making and scouting had constructed the team from one that was 1-15 in 1989 and going nowhere.
In December 1993, while the Cowboys were preparing to play the Giants with the NFC East title on the line, Johnson said he would be interested in the Jaguars head coaching position. Jones then told the media that he alone would decide Johnson’s coaching future. So on March 28, 1994, after a second straight Super Bowl win, Johnson was shown the door.
This is a great lesson in how great teams know exactly who they are because it goes all the way up to the owners box. Jones ruined the glory years of the Cowboys with one of the seven deadly sins, his pride, his ego. It’s no surprise that the Cowboys didn’t have success again until he handed over the reigns of the decision making to others in recent years. And it’s no disrespect to Jones, I’d need some combination of meditation and ayahuasca to calm my ego if I was worth $5 billion.
Jerry Jones is a fantastic businessman, he’s a showman, a marketer and an incredibly successful man, but to give you an idea of how misguided he is from a personnel standpoint, let’s look at the 2014 NFL Draft. Tony Romo has a contract through 2019 and he has $19.6 million in dead money in 2017, $8.9 million in 2018 and $3.2 million in 2019, but Jones wanted to draft Johnny Manziel with his first round pick that year. They 100% need to begin planning for a future without Romo, especially considering his back issues, but this was before they made the 2014 playoffs, so the Cowboys present was nowhere near good enough to start planning for the future as they had not made the playoffs since 2009. Plus, as of now, Tony Romo’s cap hit in 2017 is $24.7 million and his dead money cap hit is $19.6 million, so they’d have Manziel in his important fourth year to decide on the fifth year option, but with Romo’s cap hit at 14.92% and his dead money cap hit no better at 11.84%.
Johnson and Jones were a terrific team because they both had great skills that complemented the other person’s skills. Johnson was a master evaluator, scout and coach, so he was the guy putting together the roster; while Jones was the guy making sure that it all made sense from the business side of things. There is nothing wrong with that, they’re both world-class performers and that’s incredibly admirable. The lesson is one for us all know who you are, be humble and appreciate the skills that the people around you have, so you don’t take them for granted and ruin a good thing.
Just to go over it one last time before we discuss the 1995 team, here’s Johnson’s record with the Cowboys:
1991: 11-5; Beat the Bears 17-13 in Wild Card Round, but lost to the Lions 38-6 in the Divisional Round with a -4 turnover ratio.
1992: 13-3; Super Bowl Champions
1993: 12-4; Super Bowl Champions
What more could the man have done to prove to Jerry Jones that what you’re doing is working? If you are in charge of an organization and you ever get in the position that Jones was in, don’t mess it up.
Matt Cordon from KnowYourDallasCowboys.com wrote a brief draft review about this draft in August 2010 that hits the nail on the head and exemplifies why the glory days were coming to an end. “In 1995, the Cowboys decided that instead of drafting potential future starters or even the best players available, the team would look for backups and special teams players. In 1998, the Cowboys were still regretting the decisions made in that draft.” Cordon then went on to break down how horrific that draft was by listing off the players who were already out of the league by 1998 or even struggling to stay around.
To summarize their philosophy in that draft, we only need to look at guard Shane Hannah, their second-round pick, and safety Charlie Williams their third-round pick. Hannah “admitted to reporters on draft day that he didn’t expect to be taken until the fifth or sixth round – if at all,” while Williams was projected as a free-agent by most teams.
That is some of the most horrible logic I can imagine going into a draft, I mean if you’re looking for backups, why not just draft the best players available at the positions that you most need backups for? If you’re looking for special teams players, some great ones, some grinders and hard workers can be found at the end of the draft or after, no?
So 1995 is the last year of the Cowboys dynasty and it wouldn’t return to anything close to that form until 2014, again, once Mr. Jones got out of the way. I know I keep saying it, but it’s a great lesson in the importance of knowing who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and sticking to your process. The Dallas Cowboys could have been the best dynasty in NFL history by far because of Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, but it wasn’t…because of Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson.
The 1995 Cowboys team was like their last two champions, they were good at everything, third in points scored and third in points allowed. With Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin on offense, they had three Hall of Famers who fit perfectly into their Air Coryell system. They had an offensive line that some consider the best in NFL history with Daryl Johnston at fullback who was so good that they started voting for fullbacks for the Pro Bowl because of him. Jay Novacek and Kevin Williams were dynamic role players and should not be forgotten.
On defense, they had a front line made up of killers in Tony Tolbert, Russell Maryland, Leon Lett and Charles Haley. Tolbert and Maryland went to one Pro Bowl a piece, Lett went to two and Haley was just inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015, they combined for 21 sacks in 1995. Backups Chad Hennings, Shante Carver and Hurvin McCormack added 10 more sacks, adding depth to a disruptive front four.
Their linebackers were good, but not necessarily the best in the league, but that was by design as the Cowboys let their more expensive linebackers go as they entered the salary cap era because they felt they could save money there and still get what they needed. Robert Jones, Dixon Edwards, and Godfrey Myles did their jobs and didn’t need to be superstars because of the talent surrounding them. I believe they were a little bit ahead of their time as I’ve noticed that the linebackers in the 4-3 defense are a place where teams might rather spend this money on cornerbacks, safeties and defensive ends.
At the back end of this defense, they had two of the best safeties of this generation with Darren Woodson, who is a semi-finalist for the Hall of Fame, but should already be in, and Brock Marion who did have his best years after he left Dallas, but was great in 1995. Woodson and Marion were the top two tacklers on the team with 95 and 80 respectively, which might be a bit of a sign of how they made up for having average linebackers schematically. They had eight interceptions combined and each returned one for a touchdown.
At cornerback, Kevin Smith, their budding star cornerback tore his Achilles in Week 1, so they signed Deion Sanders, but he didn’t come in until Week 9, which was fine considering the level of talent on the team. Larry Brown was the other starting cornerback and he had six interceptions and returned two for touchdowns. Sanders played in only nine games and he had two interceptions and 26 tackles, but it was mostly about getting into the playoffs with this team.
I look at the 2014 Cowboys team and with the offensive line and the big three they had on offense of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, I’m so reminded of this 1995 team, even Jason Witten reminds me exactly of Jay Novacek. The thing that they were missing was a defense filled with Pro Bowl level players at all three levels, but they’re on the right track in their thinking.
Regarding the offense and the Air Coryell, this team might be the best example of how to build an offense for this system. In the section on the three main offensive schemes that I have in this book, I discuss Mike Randall’s four requirements for the Air Coryell offense that he wrote for Baltimore Sports and Life. His claim is that teams need at least three of the four components to be successful and this Cowboys team had all four.
Tall wide receiver who can stretch the field and win in jump ball situations? Michael Irvin.
Power running game with a fullback as a lead blocker? Emmitt Smith behind Daryl Johnston.
Strong offensive line to allow time for mid-range to deep passing options to open up? Most certainly with, from left to right, Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Ray Donaldson, Larry Allen, and Erik Williams.
Pass catching tight end who finds space in the middle opened by the wide receivers stretching the field? Jay Novacek.
Back to that point about the 2014 Cowboys, below are their offensive statistical leaders. It’s obvious to me that they used the 1995 Cowboys as an example of how to build the team and that kind of team building by example of what’s worked for your franchise before seems to be at the core of what makes a great organization. From a “Caponomics” standpoint, it gives you a solid formula for understanding how money should be allocated.
Figure 6: 2014 Cowboys Offensive Leaders
Both teams had great quarterbacks with Romo and Aikman, but they were not asked to do too much due to the tremendous franchise record setting seasons from Smith and Murray. Irvin and Bryant are both 6’2” with Bryant 20 pounds heavier, but both cut from the same cloth with the same skills and legitimate #1 receivers.
Past that Big 3 though, there are even more comparisons with Jay Novacek and Jason Witten having almost identical stats:
Jay Novacek: 62 catches, 705 yards, 11.4 ypc, 5 TDs
Jason Witten: 64 catches, 703 yards, 11.0 ypc, 5 TDs
Look at the comparison between Kevin Williams and Terrance Williams. As if the third leading receiver and WR2 for both nearly identical offenses having the same last name, albeit it’s a very common last name, isn’t weird enough:
Kevin Williams: 38 catches, 613 yards, 16.1 ypc, 2 TDs
Terrance Williams: 37 catches, 621 yards, 16.8 ypc, 8 TDs
At least Jay isn’t short for Jason, that’d be an even stranger coincidence. There’s a total difference of three catches and 9 yards between these two sets of pass catchers 19 years apart.
The only big difference with the top three receivers is that Michael Irvin caught 23 more passes for 283 more yards, but Bryant had six more touchdowns and 0.6 more yards per catch. It’s very interesting to see the head coach, Jason Garrett, who was a backup on that 1995 team build an offense in 2014 so close to what that team did.
Back to the 1995 team, not only was this offense good, but it was the perfect combination of players for what was needed. It’s also why the starters on offense took up 41.33% of the cap. Jason Pieri from Buffalo Rumblings wrote about that cost factor with this offense because of their need to have great players at almost every offensive position for the Air Coryell offense to have success.
Any team that would have players of Aikman, Smith or Irvin’s caliber would struggle with them out because they’re impossible to replace, but in the Air Coryell offense, they’re really impossible to replace. An understated fact about the Cowboys dynasty was how few games were lost to injury, especially offensively. At the six starting offensive skill positions, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek and Alvin Harper/Kevin Williams missed a total of eight out of 384 total games. Aikman missed two in 1993 and two in 1994, Smith missed two in 1993 and one in 1994 and Novacek missed one in 1995.
This stat is so shocking that it should stand alone: From 1990 to 2002, Emmitt Smith averaged 312 rushes and 37 catches per season and he missed only seven games and never more then two in a season.
With the amount of talent that they had on both sides of the ball, they still did okay when these guys went down, but it sure was helpful to be able to count on these guys playing week in and week out. Like with the Peyton Manning led Broncos, when you have a team that’s almost a shoe-in to make the playoffs, it becomes all about making the playoffs and then winning in that three or four game season.
This Cowboys team had a bye through to the Divisional Round, where they played the Philadelphia Eagles and earned a 30-11 win. Aikman threw for 253 with one touchdown and his only interception, the Cowboys only turnover, of the playoffs. Smith ran for 99 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown, while Kevin Williams led the team with six catches for 124 yards and Irvin had one catch for nine yards and a touchdown. Deion Sanders actually had a 21 yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter that broke a 3-3 tie and started the blowout, he added an interception as well. The Eagles didn’t score a touchdown until a 4 yard run by Randall Cunningham last in the fourth to make it 30-11.
In the NFC Championship, they beat the next year’s Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers 38-27 in a game that they were losing by three entering the fourth quarter. Aikman threw for 255 and two touchdowns, Smith had 150 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries, and Irvin had seven catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. This is a game that’s remembered for the “triplets” performance, but, as it often does in the playoffs, there’s always seems to be a pivotal turnover. Larry Brown, who would win the Super Bowl MVP, had an interception of Brett Favre with 9:24 left and the Cowboys up 31-27.
While the Packers first score was off a blocked punt, which is a huge play that’s not counted as a turnover, the Cowboys had a +2 turnover ratio. Leon Lett intercepted Favre early in the game, which led to Aikman’s second touchdown pass to Irvin and a 14-3 lead, so both interceptions were key plays for Cowboys scoring outside of just robbing the Packers of an opportunity to score.
One of my keys to playoff success is a running game and defense, so while the Cowboys rushed the ball 43 times for 169 yards and three touchdowns, the Packers with Edgar Bennett leading the way only had 48 yards on 12 carries. Without that running game balance, the reliance on the pass can make you too predictable and open you up to some of the mistakes that ended up killing the Packers.
Ed Werder wrote a January 2015 article for the Dallas Morning News that took a look back at this game and he mentions that with the Packers leading 27-24 heading into the fourth quarter, it came down to the Cowboys winning the fourth quarter with two touchdowns, three sacks and Brown’s interception. That lack of a running game allowed the Cowboys to key on the pass, which allowed them to shut it all down by the fourth quarter. Once you know the other team can’t run against you, it becomes easier to shut down the pass, which eventually leads to them being unable to muster anything and it creates mistakes, and that’s what happened in this game.
After that came a Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers who were two touchdown underdogs and lost 27-17. Aikman threw for 209 and a touchdown, Smith had a pedestrian 49 yards on 18 carries, but added two touchdowns, while Irvin had five catches for 76 yards. Jay Novacek had another solid game with five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown after five for 56 in the NFC Championship, such a great weapon at tight end in the Air Coryell.
I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but turnovers ruled the day again. The Steelers had 310 yards on offense, which was 56 more than the Cowboys, but Neil O’Donnell threw three interceptions, two by Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown and one by Brock Marion. Charles Haley and Tony Tolbert had a sack apiece and Chad Hennings had two to help put the pressure on O’Donnell and cost the Steelers 32 yards, which certainly slowed down some drives. Bam Morris ran for 73 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown and O’Donnell threw for 239 and a touchdown, but those three interceptions were the difference.
Both of Larry Brown’s interceptions led to short drives that resulted in Emmitt Smith touchdown runs. His first interception was in the middle of the third quarter wand was returned to the Steelers 18-yard line. On the next play, Aikman hit Irvin for a 17-yard completion to the one and Smith ran it in on the next play to make the score 20-7. The next interception was brought back to the Steelers 6-yard line and Smith ran the ball twice and scored to turn a three-point game into a 27-17 game with 3:47 left in the fourth quarter.
At the end of the three-playoff games, the Cowboys had a +5 turnover ratio, which was what solidified this dynasty. For all the talent they had on both sides of the ball, other teams were talented too, against the Packers and the Steelers, who knows who would have won if the turnover ratio was zero?
When I started writing for OverTheCap.com and began to analyze teams, I was a believer in the devaluation of the running back position and I believed that it would get even worse in the years to come as seen by this first article from August 2014. What I found over time was the value of this position, especially come playoff time, I even wrote a piece on the position in January 2015 that re-examined what I wrote my first article. I talk about the turnover ratio, Pete Carroll has said, in a quote I’m sure I’ll repeat forever, “turnover ratio is the path to victory in the NFL,” that was evident with this team and it’s amplified with a good running game and defense to control the pace of the game.
When you’re in the playoffs, you might run into a team that has your number, a team that is constructed in a manner that can shut down your strengths. Well, the 1995 Steelers had the second best run defense in the NFL, they were ninth in points allowed and third in yards allowed, they were talented enough to shut the Cowboys down and they definitely slowed them down, but those turnovers by O’Donnell were what turned the game. That 3-4 Steelers defense had Pro Bowlers at right and left outside linebacker in Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene as well as cornerback Carnell Lake. At left inside linebacker they had two-time Pro Bowler and one-time First-Team All-Pro, Levon Kirkland.
In that Super Bowl, Smith averaged 2.7 yards per carry and if you subtract a 23-yard carry he had, then he averaged 1.5 per on his 17 other carries. They all but shut him down, he had two short touchdowns, but he couldn’t be relied on like the 249 yards he had in the first two rounds.
When you have an even match-up, a game where your opponent has the ability to shut down one of the main things that got you there, which happens on almost every team’s march the Super Bowl, that’s where the turnover ratio comes in. Turnovers, and a handful of other key plays, are what end up deciding the game.
There is a high level of importance in having a sustainable running game in the playoffs because it decreases the amount of times you have to throw the ball and that’s a play that’s more likely to result in a turnover. If you have to throw the ball 40 or 50 times in a game because you can’t establish a running game like both the Packers and Steelers in this playoff run, you end up needing to throw the ball more, thus increasing the likelihood of an interception as you’re also allowing the defense to tee off on your quarterback knowing he’s going to drop back on almost every play. As I said with the Packers, the lack of a running game leads to the defense being able to guess that you’re going to pass the ball, which increases their ability to defend the pass.
These Cowboys dynasty teams were good at everything. While they did have the advantage of being at the front of the salary cap era, they build this team through the draft, which gave them a manageable cap situation. Like any great organization or business, the Cowboys already have the blueprint for what they need to do to be successful; it’s just a matter of getting back to that. Even though they had a down 2015, they have started to rebuild in the image of those 1990s teams and that alone should be cause for celebration for a fan base yearning to go back to those glory years.
Zack Moore is an MBA graduate from Rutgers Business School and contributor for OverTheCap.com. He’s just finishing up his first book titled, “Caponomics: Moneyball Thinking for the NFL” with plans for it’s release this summer. If you want to join the e-mail list for that book, please e-mail Caponomics@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL and listen to him on iTunes and Soundcloud at The Zack Moore Show.