THE FINAL FIVE
Roger Staubach (QB 1969-79)
Thanks to his five-year sabbatical to fulfill his military commitment after graduating from the United States Naval Academy, Staubach was only the Cowboys starter for eight years. Still, that was enough time to make Roger the Dodger an NFL legend. Also known for his running skills even as he aged, Staubach earned Pro Bowl recognition in his final five years in the league and has two Super Bowl rings.
Roger was also at his best when the chips were down, the best examples being the two late touchdowns in the 1972 Divisional Playoff in San Francisco, the Hail Mary game in Minnesota in ’75, and finally his final regular season game, where two late TDs got the Cowboys past Washington 35-34 to win the NFC East.
Emmitt Smith (RB 1990-2002)
The debate over the best running back of the 1990s is between Emmitt and Barry Sanders – and true, Sanders had to create a lot of things on his own while Emmitt simply benefitted from one of the great all-time O-lines. Still, something has to be said for being the game’s all-time leading rusher (18,355 yards) and second on the all-time TD list (176 scores). Emmitt’s toughness can also never be questioned. His 168-yard effort v. the Giants with a separated shoulder in the Cowboys 1993 regular season finale was his most defining moment of all.
Bob Lilly (DT 1961-74)
The first-ever draft pick in team history who played locally at TCU, Lilly is still considered the original Mr. Cowboy by many. Playing in 196 consecutive games, Lilly would earn 11 Pro Bowl selections during his stellar career. In 1999 The Sporting News named Lilly as the 10th best player in pro football history.
Troy Aikman (QB 1989-2000)
His RPI is not high (No. 244 by Pro Football Reference) and he did not put up prolific numbers, not reaching 3,500 yards in a season even once. But as was the case with Roger Staubach, leadership and winning some rings (three Super Bowls in all) made up for the lack of eye-popping stats. Hall of Fame voters noticed, nominating Troy in his first year of eligibility in 2006.
Randy White (DT 1975-88)
A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, I just had to make room for Randy in my Final Five, who was just as outstanding as predecessor Bob Lilly. One of the mainstays of the Doomsday Defense, White only missed one game in his entire career, earning 10 Pro Bowl berths in the process. He was named co-MVP in the Cowboys mauling of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII and ranked No. 106 by Pro Football Reference.
AND THE WINNER IS…
Here is how the NFL Network countdown had them:
- Bob Lilly – No. 26
- Emmitt Smith – No. 28
- Deion Sanders – No. 34
- Roger Staubach – No. 46
- Randy White – No. 62
- Tony Dorsett – No. 77
- Troy Aikman – No. 80
- Michael Irvin – No. 92
The most difficult decision will be how many Cowboys eventually get included in my final field of 64. With so many on the bubble, I am projecting three at this point.
Obviously Deion quickly gets dropped from consideration, since he’s already the Falcons UFP. Randy White is almost there, but just falls short, along with Dorsett, Aikman, and Irvin.
That leaves Lilly, Emmitt, and Staubach – and there is a strong argument for any of those three. Of the nine-member panel in Dallas that voted on the franchise’s best player, five went with Staubach, three with Emmitt, and the remaining panelist went with Lilly.
By ranking first in career rushing yards and second in TDs, Emmitt Smith sounds like a perfect default choice until you dig deeper into the annals of franchise history and recognize the impact of Bob Lilly.
Pro Football Reference has Emmitt at No. 48 and Lilly at No. 23, while the Sporting News 1999 list had Emmitt at No. 68 (although he would remain with the team through 2002 and in the league through ’04) and Lilly at No. 10.
Emmitt Smith, and likely Roger Staubach, project as good bets for at-large bids into the eventual field of 64. However my choice for the Dallas Cowboys Ultimate Franchise Player and the automatic berth into the UFP tournament is…