This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
To see all the category page for this series, of which there will be one for every franchise, click here.
During an NFL Films production in the late 1970s, John Facenda famously proclaimed the Dallas Cowboys as “America’s Team,” noting the following: “They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars.”
The Cowboys were indeed the first team that was followed nationally, the pro football version of Notre Dame. Back in the day they were either the Pat Summerall double-header game or on Monday Night Football, and for good reason, they were perennially contenders.
The “America’s Team” handle has been challenged by others, the fan bases of the Packers and Steelers dispute Dallas’ title, and you can also include the Raiders as having a large legion of fans. They are franchises whose followings over time have far expanded beyond their geographic borders. Those teams have come to represent specific cultures as much as a region.
You may call Cowboys fans the original “bandwagon fans” (a.k.a. fans that gravitate towards a winner), but Cowboy fans are as loyal as any – even when the team was 1-15 in 1989, I ran into fans wondering when the next Dallas game was going to be televised locally.
I’ve been eagerly looking forward to doing the Dallas Cowboys Ultimate Franchise Player. Eight players who spent significant portions of their careers with the Cowboys are represented in the NFL Network’s Top 100 All-Time Players, but NONE in the top 25, which I consider amazing.
Due to time constraints, there will be some omissions from my personal list – the Cowboys themselves did a top 50 list two years ago. Also feel free to mention your personal favorites in the comments section, and vote for your No. 1 – the Cowboys UFP will be one of the most hotly debated segments in this series.
Mark Stepnoski (C 1989-94, 1999-2001)
Literally the entire offensive line of the early 1990s gets consideration on this list. Stepnoski is a member of the All-Decade team of the 1990s and made five consecutive Pro Bowls, but the final two were as a member of the Houston Oilers. He raised eyebrows post-career by advocating causes such as the 9/11 Truth Movement and marijuana legalization.
Nate Newton (OG 1986-1998)
Speaking of weed, Newton became as memorable for a pair of traffic stops in 2001 that had him trafficking 213 and 175 pounds of marijuana, which earned him some time behind bars. Shame is that Newton proved outstanding in his career after being un-drafted out of college and cutting his teeth for two years in the USFL, making the Pro Bowl six times in the 90s. He has reportedly straightened his life out in recent years and also dropped to 220 pounds after weighing nearly 400 pounds during his playing days.
Erik Williams (OT 1991-2000)
After a collegiate career at NAIA Central State (OH) University, Williams earned three All-Pro selections during the 1990s, the last two after surviving a serious car accident. He once won league Offensive Player of the Week for keeping the Eagles’ Reggie White at bay in a 1992 game. Some say if not for the accident, Williams could have gone down as one of the best offensive tackles in history.
Mark Tuinei (OT 1983-1997)
One of the longest-tenured Cowboys ever, Tuinei spent his entire 15-year career in Dallas. His career wasn’t as spectacular as it was solid, Tuinei did not earn All-Pro recognition until late in his career in the 1994-95 season. Sadly, Tuinei passed away in 1999 after taking a combination of heroin and ecstasy. The investigation determined that the incident may had been his first experience with heroin.
Herschel Walker (RB 1986-89, 1996-97)
Perhaps the best trade chip in NFL history. After winning the 1982 Heisman Trophy, Herschel shocked the sports world by leaving the University of Georgia as a junior (NFL players could not leave school early in those days) and joining the United States Football League. The Cowboys made a shrewd move in 1985 by drafting Walker in the fifth round, which paid off when the USFL folded.
In his first stint in Dallas, Herschel was a physical freak and actually a fullback to Tony Dorsett, and rushed for what would be a career high of 1,514 yards. During the Cowboys horrendous 1989 season, Walker was stunningly traded to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and six draft picks. The draft picks eventually yielded in that trade included Emmitt Smith, Kevin Smith, and Darren Woodson.
Walker’s second stint with the team at the end of his career was mainly as a kick returner. One of the best athletes in recent generations (as evidenced by his bobsled and MMA exploits), Herschel ended up being somewhat of a disappointment in pro football.
Deion Sanders (CB/WR 1995-99)
In his 14-year career, Deion’s most memorable seasons were the five years spent in Dallas, where he also moonlighted as a receiver, adding to his unique resume. During this period Deion was still in Major League Baseball as well, finishing second in the National League with 56 stolen bases in 1997. Ranked No. 34 on the NFL Network’s All-Time list, Deion is already qualified in MSF’s Ultimate Franchise Player Tournament as the Atlanta Falcons representative.
Terrell Owens (WR 2006-08)
It just seemed like T.O. was in Dallas longer because of the single fact that he was always in the headlines with the Cowboys seemingly even more than with other teams during his career. Owens was an omission from the NFL Network’s Top 100 and also falls just outside the top 100 on Pro Football Reference’s Elo-Rater. Owens is a long-shot to earn an at-large bid in the UFP’s field of 64.
Charles Haley (DE 1992-96)
Like Terrell Owens, Haley falls short of serious consideration based on splitting his career between the Cowboys and 49ers. Haley earned two Pro Bowl bids during his time in Dallas, during which time he allegedly pissed in a teammate’s car.
Tony Romo (QB 2005-present)
Unless he takes his team to the promised land, Romo will always have his critics. But Romo also has had a QB rating of 90 or above in each season in the league since debuting in 2006. The 2011 season was statistically Romo’s best yet, throwing 31 TD v. 10 INT. He will already be age 32 heading into the 2012 season.
Calvin Hill (RB 1969-74)
Calvin Hill was legendary even before putting on the blue star from his role on Yale’s undefeated 1968 team and the famous 29-29 game v. Harvard. Calvin ultimately became the first Ivy League product ever to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Hill would go on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year and earned Pro Bowl honors in four of his six years in the league. He took a money grab with the World Football League in 1975 and was not the same player after returning to the NFL.
DeMarcus Ware (OLB 2005-present)
Give DeMarcus a few more years and perhaps the greatest pass-rusher of this era will move much higher up the charts. With 99.5 sacks in seven seasons, Ware is on pace to approach Reggie White (198) and Bruce Smith at the top of the NFL’s all-time sack list.
Bob Hayes (WR 1965-74)
After becoming the World’s Fastest Human after winning the gold medal in the 100-meter event at the 1964 Olympics, Hayes was drafted by the Cowboys despite limited football skills at the time. Bullet Bob would end up redefining the game as an unprecedented deep threat for his era. Hayes averaged an even 20 yards per catch for his career and scored 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons alone in 1965-66.
Mel Renfro (S/CB 1964-77)
Also a return man much of his career, Renfro earned Pro Bowl selections in each of his first 10 years in the league, with 52 INT in all for his career. One of his most significant picks proved to be the turning point in the 1970 NFC Championship game in Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
Too Tall Jones (DE 1974-78, 1980-89)
There was the famous opening in the roof of old Texas Stadium, but the first overall pick of the 1974 draft did his best to cover it at 6-foot-9, 271 lbs. Although he played 15 years in the league (taking a sabbatical in 1979 for a short-lived boxing career), Too Tall only earned Pro Bowl recognition twice. But at least he still rakes in the endorsement dollars along with woodchucks and the caveman.
Harvey Martin (DE 1973-83)
Yet another of the small college diamonds that Gil Brandt uncovered in his legendary career as an executive. Harvey earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1977 with an incredible 23 sacks in a 14-game season. Martin fell on hard times following his playing days and passed away in 2001 at age 51. As of 2012 Martin is sadly the lone past Super Bowl MVP who is now deceased.
Michael Irvin (WR 1988-99)
This is how deep Cowboys history is, as Irvin does not quite crack the top five. He earned five consecutive Pro Bowl berths (1991-95) at the height of a Hall of Fame career, which finished with nearly 12,000 receiving yards. Pro Football Reference has him checking in at No. 170, which falls below some of the other Dallas legends.
Larry Allen (OG 1994-2005)
I had already mentioned the other four linemen of the 1990s, but Allen was the best of them all. Except for his rookie year and an injury shortened 2002 season, Allen made the Pro Bowl in each of his other ten seasons in Dallas. He deserves induction into Canton long before some others, including Cris Carter.
Tony Dorsett (RB 1977-87)
It has to say something about Cowboys history when not only could I not find room for Michael Irvin in my Final Five, but not Dorsett as well. My only knocks on Dorsett is that he only went over 1,500 yards once and only made the Pro Bowl on four occasions – which is a tough criticism considering someone named Walter Payton also resided in the NFC during this era.
Up next are my selections for ‘The Final Five’ and the athlete that will be named the Cowboys Ultimate Franchise Player.