It was a special moment for Jerry Jones last Saturday when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it was a moment that Cowboys fans shared almost as deeply.
Cowboys fans, perhaps more than any other fan base, identify with their team’s accomplishments and struggles. When the Cowboys win three titles in four years, the fans feel like they’ve won three titles in four years. When the Cowboys go the following 21 years after that without a conference championship appearance, the fans feel that one just as much.
And it’s for that reason that Cowboys fans often get bent out of shape about players left out of the Hall of Fame. The fans feel personally slighted when Lynn Swann gets elected and Drew Pearson has to fight just to be put in the Ring of Honor.
So even for all their differences with Jerry Jones over the years, Cowboys fans beamed with pride at his induction. It also left many of them grumbling about not being afforded this pride more often over the years.
It is in that spirit that I share the five most deserving Cowboys yet to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
NOTE: To be included in this list, the candidate in question must have spent at least half of their professional career with Dallas. That would exclude Terrell Owens from acknowledgement on this list.
#5 Darren Woodson, Safety, 1992-2003
A quick glance at Woodson’s career statistics would shut down any conversation of his enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, but his impact goes deeper than a box score.
During the course of a game, Woodson was being yanked around the formation. It was not unusual for Woodson to play both safety spots, linebacker, and nickel corner in the same game. His interception numbers (23 in 11 years) are unspectacular, but that’s largely due to the fact that quarterbacks knew better than to throw at him when he was covering a receiver.
I was recently talking to a former coach from Woodson’s days in Dallas.
“We kind of ruined his chances,” the coach said. “He was never able to just stay in one spot and do his job. He was too good and we needed him to do things other guys couldn’t.”
A former teammate of Woodson’s also told me recently that Woodson, “covered better than almost every corner in the league.”
Woodson was elected to five-time Pro Bowler, a three-time first-team All-Pro, and won three Super Bowls as a member of the 90s dynasty. He remains the franchise’s all-time leading tackler with 1,350.
#4 Cliff Harris, Safety, 1970-1979
One of many undrafted gems in Cowboys history, Harris is still waiting for his well-deserved enshrinement.
Harris made the Pro Bowl each of his final six seasons, and was name an All-Pro five times during his career. A member of the Ring of Honor, Harris is the only first-team defensive player on the 1970s All-Decade team that isn’t included in the Hall of Fame. What makes that fact more bizarre is that the 1970s All-Decade team was voted on by the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.
Harris retired following the 1979 season as a two-time Super Bowl champion, and fifth in franchise history with 29 interceptions.
#3 Gil Brandt, VP of Player Personnel, 1955-1988
Brandt spent 29 of his 34 NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, and was an integral part in building the franchise from expansion to “America’s Team.”
Brandt selected eight future Hall of Famers during his time (nine if you include Billy Shaw, who opted for the AFL) and four of them were selected in the seventh round or later. On top of his Hall of Fame selections, Brandt drafted another 29 players who would become Pro Bowlers during their careers.
Brandt was so good at his job, in fact, that other teams started changing the way they did business with him:
Brandt teamed with Tom Landry and Tex Schramm to build the Dallas Cowboys from the ground up. Brandt is the only one of the three not to be included in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, nor the franchise’s Ring of Honor.
#2 Drew Pearson, Wide Receiver, 1973-1983
We’ve discussed before how many folks feel like the criteria for a Pro Football Hall of Famer is, “can you tell the story of the NFL without them?” If that’s the criteria, than Pearson is long overdue.
Pearson was named a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro three times in his 11-year career. At the time of his retirement, Pearson ranked 20th all-time in receiving yards, and 14th in receptions. His 1,105 career playoff receiving yards is still good for ninth in NFL history, and was as high as fourth all-time when he retired. From 1973-1981, no NFC receiver had more 100-yard performances than Pearson (19).
And with the criteria we mentioned above, you can’t tell the NFL’s story without Pearson’s 50-yard game-winning Hail Mary reception against the Minnesota Vikings in December of 1975.
Adding salt to the wound is that Lynn Swann – the best player to compare Pearson to given their team’s dynamics – is in the Hall of Fame with worse numbers.
Similarly to Harris, Pearson is the only first-team member of the 1970s All-Decade team who isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
#1 Jimmy Johnson, Head Coach, 1989-1993, 1996-1999
The most egregious Cowboys omission from the Hall of Fame (and the Ring of Honor) remains Jimmy Johnson. Johnson is largely responsible for overseeing the construction of the team of the 90s. Without his contribution, the decade is radically different, and so is NFL history.
Johnson selected 13 Pro Bowlers over five drafts with the Cowboys. He picked another four during his time with the Miami Dolphins from 1996-1999. Between the Dolphins and Cowboys, Johnson picked three Hall of Famers (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Jason Taylor).
Johnson won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys, saw five of his assistants go on to become NFL head coaches, orchestrated what is widely considered to be the most lopsided trade in sports history, and built rosters between 1989-1993 that featured 30 past, present, or future Pro Bowlers.
Johnson was the first head coach in NFL history to win a college football National Championship and a Super Bowl.