All-Time Dallas Cowboys Team
Growing up in the City of Dallas, and following them with unfailing loyalty since, I’ve seen at least part of every Dallas Cowboys game since early in the 1977 season, along with many highlights before that. My earliest Cowboys memories involve a few plays and Landry being carried in Super Bowl 5, a 24-3 beatdown of Miami that almost was 31-3 but for a late, goal-line fumble. Between the 8 Super Bowls (5 won) and heartbreaking losses, 1-15 season, legendary plays for and against, and a cast of characters to make any soap opera bland and boring by comparison, it’s been a wild ride as a fan.
Recent exchanges with fellow Cowboys fan(atic)s David Fogel, Corey Mead, Jeff Evans and others, along with one of the best Christmas presents ever (History of the Dallas Cowboys and Top-10 Cowboys Games DVD sets from Elke), and the onset of this 50th Dallas Cowboys football season, have stirred the sports history buff in me and led me to compile my all-time blue-star team, by position. While most of these guys probably have the best stats at their position, my main criteria was a little more subjective — the level of fear and respect they forced in opponents over a span of many years. This is why many current Cowboys, while potential occupants of these hallowed thrones, aren’t there yet (with two exceptions).
This isn’t the goody-two-shoes team. While some of these guys truly led honorable lives worth every manner of respect (e.g., Staubach, Witten, Aikman), others surely did deplorable things off the field (e.g., Septien, Irvin, Martin). But this roll is purely for their football accomplishments, on the field and only on the field.
Even though the Cowboys currently play a 3-4 base set on defense, they have used variations of the 4-3 through the great majority of their history; so that’s what is shown below. They also have employed multiple-formation offenses for decades, but the I-formation has been the most commonly offered, and is shown here.
Quarterback: Troy Aikman. The most important position also was the hardest to decide, because Roger Staubach was a thrilling clutch performer and my football hero growing up. Only one more Super Bowl victory broke the tie. Troy was a quarterbacking machine, in all the best ways — efficient, smart, precise, peerless on fundamentals and form, strong-armed, minimal mistakes. Didn’t have nor need many comeback victories because his teams usually grabbed early leads (thanks to Troy’s pinpoint passing attack), then wore down opponents with Emmitt’s power running and huge line. Renowned as one of the most accurate passers in NFL history — the master of play action, timing routes and crossing patterns. Agonizingly close second: Staubach. Romo still is too inconsistent and needs to win multiple Super Bowls to be in this conversation.
Fullback: Robert Newhouse. Another very close call. Not the devastating lead-blocker that Moose Johnston was, but instead, a more complete fullback for a longer time. Very dependable and effective blocker, pass catcher and power runner. Threw fullback-option passes sometimes, including a touchdown toss in Super Bowl 12.
Tailback: Emmitt Smith. NFL all-time leading rusher. Likely unanimous, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer next year. The complete running back — not the top-ranked at any single skill, but probably the best-ever combined balance of all skills needed for the position. Amazing consistency over a long career. Blessed with uncanny vision and deceptive moves, seldom got hit hard despite being a strong, compact power runner. Legendary toughness…quite literally won a game single-handed with a separated shoulder, rushing for 168 yards and catching 10 passes in what could be the most courageous effort by a running back in NFL history. Superb cutback specialist, blitz blocker, and checkdown receiver. Honorable mention: Hall-of-Famer Tony Dorsett.
Left Tackle: Mark Tuinei. Strong and relentless blocker for a long time — his 15 year career ties with Bill Bates for longevity among Cowboys. Equally adept at pass and run protection, which surely kept both Emmitt Smith and concussion-prone Troy Aikman in the league a few extra years. Being a converted defensive lineman, he brought that level of aggression and intensity to the other side of the ball, and was widely respected for his toughness, his ability to play through pain, and his tendency to wear down DLs through the course of a game. Another in a long line of undrafted free agents who starred for the Cowboys.
Left Guard: Larry Allen. Best lineman on the best line the Boys ever had. Absolutely dominant blocker, widely recognized as one of the top few offensive linemen of all time. A human bulldozer whose strength and ferocity turned the tables and intimidated defenders league-wide. Very deliberate and intense, his aggressive style and brute force physically whipped and wore down opponents as games went on. Highlights sometimes show smaller defenders turning away or curling into fetal positions upon his approach, during sweeps and downfield blocks. Made Pro Bowl at guard and tackle, but played mostly guard. Strongest man ever in the NFL; once bench-pressed 700 pounds…combined that power with superior leverage to flatten would-be tacklers. Threw down defensive linemen with one arm on several occasions. Election to the hall of Fame is certain.
Center: Mark Stepnoski. Undersized for his era, Step used superior techique, quickness and leverage to surprise, occupy and often imbalance opposing nose tackles, helping to pry open holes for Emmitt Smith on Super Bowl teams. Dependable on snap and completely trusted by Aikman…very seldom mishandled the ball. Honorable mention: John Fitzgerald, Andre Gurode, Tom Rafferty.
Right Guard: Blaine Nye. If he wasn’t the smartest NFL player ever, tell me who was! Prototype for the intelligent offensive lineman, Nye understood the finest intricacies of the multi-set motion offense of Tom Landry’s. As an undergraduate physics major from Stanford who earned an M.S. in physics from Washington and an M.B.A. from Stanford while playing, he later earned a Ph.D. in finance from Standford. Nye, of course, had no trouble understanding the responsibilities of every player everywhere on the field on every play, and developed his own blocking game accordingly. Anchored the line during the 70s, through three Super Bowls, breaking open holes for the likes of Tony Dorsett, Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas.
Right Tackle: Rayfield Wright. Tall, strong and quick, the original “Big Cat.” First and still only Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman for the Cowboys, and perennial Pro Bowler. Neutralized the great Rams sackmaster Deacon Jones in his first game at the position, and only got better after that. Equally adept as pass- and run-blocking, thanks to a combination of range, size, mobility and consistent technical form that was unique in his era. Honorable Mention: Erik Williams.
Tight End: Jason Witten. Despite being only 27, already beats out very close competition in perhaps the most consistently excellent position throughout Cowboys history — Jay Novacek, Billy Joe DuPree, Doug Cosbie and Mike Ditka. Already is the most complete TE among them, excellent at receiving and blocking. Caught club-record (for a TE) 96 passes in 2007. Often lines up at fullback or split wide. Strong, smart, dependable and deceptively quick for a big man. Somehow gets open with astonishing regularity. Extremely tough. Has played entire games with broken ribs. Once ran over 30 yards downfield with no helmet after being hammered by two Eagles defenders at the same time. Only Cowboys tight end to top 1,000 receiving yards in a season. With health and another couple years, will smash all other Cowboy records for a TE. Honorable Mention: Novacek and DuPree.
Wide Receiver: Michael Irvin. Hall-of-Famer and prototype for the modern-era possession receiver. He offset his lack of breakaway speed with power, technique, leverage and sheer determination. Seemed to perform best in the biggest games. Precision route runner, superbly conditioned, strong and physically imposing for a wideout. Intense competitor and fiery leader with unmatched practice ethic, probably the emotional leader of the Team of the 90s. Honorable mention: Drew Pearson.
Wide Receiver: “Bullet” Bob Hayes. Rightfully voted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, about 25 years too late and several years after he died. Fastest man alive when drafted, whose speed still would be world-class today. Olympic gold medal sprinter, whose first love was…football. Unlike other sprint champions, had well-developed catching skills and route-running talent. Changed the position and forced the development of zone defenses. Nightmarish to defend…could not be covered man-to-man by anyone. Career yards-per-catch average and receiving touchdown total each remains a club record. Honorable mention: Terrell Owens (immense talent and great stats, but also short tenure, bad teammate).
End: Harvey Martin. “Too Mean” bookend to “Too Tall” on the other side for many years, he holds the Cowboys’ single season sack record with 22. [Since sack stats weren’t official at the time, they don’t count..which is pure BS. Surely these can be made retroactive through the Super Bowl era, at least…] Super Bowl 12 Co-MVP with Randy White. Ferocious pass rusher and dependable run stopper with surprising lateral speed. Honorable mention: Charles Haley.
Tackle: Randy White. First-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Strongest man in the NFL in his time, and exceptionally intense and tough. Surprisingly fast for someone so thick, he sometimes caught running backs from behind. Masterful run stuffer. He was known as the “Manster” — half man, half monster — for good reason. Nearly unblockable one-on-one for over a decade, Randy single-handedly collapsed offensive backfields on a regular basis and sent many a QB scurrying the other way, only to get clobbered by Harvey or engulfed by Too Tall.
Tackle: Bob Lilly. Mr. Cowboy, the unquestioned leader of the original Doomsday Defense, another first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, still often acknowledged as the greatest defensive tackle in NFL history, and on many top-10 all-time player lists for all positions. Tall, rangy, technically advanced and extremely tough, Lilly simply refused to be blocked. At times, could completely shut down an opponent’s running game to his side of the field while being double and triple-teamed. Improved the whole defense by funneling play after play the other way. Honorable mention: Jethro Pugh.
End: Ed “Too Tall” Jones. A human wall. Could excel in any era. Great strength and a lateral quickness that caught opposing linemen flat-footed. Still ranks as the tallest player in Cowboys history at 6′-9″. Blockers, runners and QBs had to divert themselves far afield to escape his reach. Essentially perfected the art of blocking passes, and also swatted aside several field goals on special teams. A man ahead of his time with regard to athletic conditioning and training, Too Tall played more games than any other Cowboy by the time he retired, and amassed 106 career sacks. Honorable Mention: George Andrie.
Outside Linebacker:Chuck Howley. Only player from the losing team named Super Bowl MVP, for two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Had a 41-yard INT return and a fumble recovery the next year, when Roger Staubach won Super Bowl MVP. Tremendous athlete for his or any day, who lettered in track, wrestling, gymnastics and diving in college, as well as football. Speedy and a sure tackler, Howley was a force from sideline to sideline, containing gaps and thwarting many big plays. Intercepted 25 passes and recovered 17 fumbles, including one for a 97-yard TD return. Belongs in the Hall of Fame. If he wasn’t the greatest LB in Cowboys history, Lee Roy Jordan was.
Outside Linebacker: DeMarcus Ware. Yes, his career still is young, but even if somehow this were his last season, I would rank him right here. Most feared pass rusher in the NFL, led the league with 20 sacks in 2008. Often unblockable one-on-one, and as solid against the run as against the pass. Outstanding, almost freakish athlete for his size and for his position, with an accelerating burst the match of most running backs. Has caught running backs from behind, tackled wide receivers on the open field, and broken up passes on many occasions. For these reasons, even though he probably would have been a DE in the 4-3, he could have been a great 4-3 OLB also. Therefore, I’m quite comfortable ranking him tops at one OLB slot, in either alignment. With four or five more years near recent performance levels, should be a no-doubt Hall-of-Famer.
Middle Linebacker: Lee Roy Jordan. Small for a Mike backer, not blessed innately with great speed, not missing teeth nor brandishing a fearsome persona, not hyped to Butkus or Lambert levels (despite being as good), Jordan instead was a football player’s football player: Tough, smart, intense, devoted film-watcher and student of the game (in an era where it wasn’t common), and as sure a tackler as ever played. I cannot overstate Jordan’s field sense and tackling skill. Watch old footage of Cowboys games, and you’ll see him around the ball on most plays, his arms wrapped firmly around the ball carrier on many of them. Still holds the team career record with 16 fumbles recovered. Shed blocks and stuffed the run with the best of them, despite his lack of bulk. Made a team-record 21 tackles in one game, and intercepted three passes (returning one for a pick-6) in another. One of the most underrated players in NFL history, who needs to in the Hall of Fame. His college coach, no less than Bear Bryant, called Jordan “one of the finest football players the world has ever seen”.
Safety: Cliff Harris. His excellence in a thinking man’s Flex defense, dependent on key reads and disciplined technique, made it quite remarkable that “Captain Crash” became feared league-wide for his explosive, self-sacrificing collisions. Even in his later years in the league, I clearly recall seeing helmets, chinstraps and spit flying in different directions from the force of any one of several hits by #43. One of the most outstanding undrafted free-agents in NFL history, out of tiny Ouachita Baptist College, Harris earned a starting job his first NFL season under a coach who loathed the thought of rookies as starters. Also returned punts and kickoffs. A four-time All-Pro, Harris earned six straight Pro Bowl spots and played in five Super Bowls. Honorable Mention: Cornell Green.
Safety: Darren Woodson. Highly underrated and under-appreciated player outside Dallas because of the dazzling array of superstars elsewhere on his teams. A rightful heir to Cliff Harris’ reputation for hard hitting and sideline-to-sideline playmaking, Woodson still holds the team career record for tackles with 803. Five-time Pro Bowler and 3-time first-team All-Pro who contributed to two league-leading team defenses and three Super Bowl championships. Had the speed of a corner and size of a linebacker, at the safety position. His game savvy and eye for developing plays reminded me a great deal of Lee Roy Jordan’s. Woodson was about as sure of a tackler, which was not too surprising considering his college career as a linebacker. Honorable Mention: Charlie Waters.
Cornerback: Deion Sanders. “Prime Time” revolutionized the position with his lockdown coverage skills, world-class sprinter’s speed, knack for spectacular interception returns, and ability to play head games with opponents. Often tricked QBs into throwing to receivers that appeared uncovered by deliberately hanging several steps off the route, then bursting into tight coverage with the ball in the air. I’ve never seen another player, before or since, who could get away with that on a consistent basis. One of the very few CBs in history whose coverage was so respected that opponents’ game plans largely ignored his side of the field in the passing attack. Starter on defense, offense and special teams at various points in his career with Dallas — sometimes all in the same game. Honorable mention: Terence Newman.
Cornerback: Mel Renfro. The Cowboys’ only Hall-of-Fame defensive back (though there should be others). Fast and exceptionally skilled in coverage, Renfro was peerless in the late 60s and early 70s, going to ten Pro Bowls and earning five All-Pro honors. Led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 1969, had 11 in 1971 and 52 for his career — not bad for a college halfback! Started his NFL career as a safety, at 6-0/190 lbs., but switched positions in his fifth season as a big (for his era) corner.
Punter: Danny White. Excellent form, good power and placement ability as the punter — even after he became starting QB! More than any other punter in history, Danny scared opponents because of his potential for successful fakery. Being a fairly athletic QB by nature, he always was a threat to pass accurately or run for first down. Honorable mention: Mike Saxon. A fully recovered and restored Mat McBriar could supplant Danny in another couple of years due to his power and accuracy.
Kicker: Rafael Septien. Longevity alone (barely) crowns him king here, but perhaps not for long. This may be the Cowboys’ weakest position historically. Few kickers have lasted more than 3-4 years, but if Nick Folk does, he’ll provide some competition here. Folk has proved he’s a clutch performer and very dependable. Honorable mention: Toni Fritsch.
Punt Returner: Deion Sanders. No contest. Most feared return man of his era, and perhaps of any era. Made absolute laughingstocks out of opponents’ punt coverage teams with his ability to cut back across the field, weave through traffic, sidestep tacklers with seeming effortlessness, and turn on Olympic-caliber straightaway speed. Scored touchdowns running, receiving, and in fumble, interception, punt and kickoff returns.
Specialist: Bill Bates. Singlehandedly responsible for the creation of this position in the Pro Bowl thanks to his many years of sustained excellence as a downfield tackling machine. Not the biggest, strongest or fastest guy, but simply refused to be outworked or out-hustled. Earned his popularity with fans and fellow players through his intense determination and will. Played 15 seasons for the Boys, tying the career record.
Long Snapper: Dale Hellestrae. Consistency, dependability, longevity for Super Bowl winning teams of the 90s. L.P. Ladouceur has a shot here with a few more years of his current outstanding play.
HEAD COACH: Tom Landry. The stern, stoic “man in the hat” was, behind that unmoving face of granite, a shrewd offensive and defensive innovator far ahead of his time for the first 3/4 of his coaching career. First-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and third on the all-time list with 250 wins over 29 seasons. Coached two Super Bowl winners and three other teams that made it that far. Guided America’s Team to 20 straight winning seasons — considered one of sports’ most unattainable records. Invented the 4-3 defense and its “Flex” concepts of situational alignment, along with the idea of defensive keys, and several offensive sets and formations. Brought situational substitutions to the NFL as a permanent concept. Restructured the “shotgun” formation and reintroduced the spread offense to the NFL in the mid-1970s. Honorable Mention: Jimmy Johnson.