(Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
Jimmy Johnson is listed as a “coach” on the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame ballot.
But that shortchanges both Johnson and his candidacy for Canton.
As someone who was there from the beginning, I can tell you he was much more than that to the Dallas Cowboys. He not only coached the Cowboys to championships; he built them into champions.
When Jerry Jones bought the franchise and hired Jimmy Johnson in 1989, Jones set some simple ground rules – each would stay within his field of expertise. Jimmy would handle the football end of the franchise and Jones the business end. I know that because I saw the clause in Jimmy’s contract. He was smart enough to have it written in – Jimmy Johnson would call all the personnel shots for the Dallas Cowboys.
And in the 43 years I’ve been covering the NFL, he’s the best head coach I’ve ever seen at personnel — both in talent evaluation and player procurement.
In 1991, hours before the draft was to start, I bumped into Johnson walking the halls at Valley Ranch and asked if he was ready to draft. He pulled a three-by-five card from his pocket and proceeded to show me what he considered his personal draft board. He had 20 names on the card and the round he had pegged for each player.
Johnson didn’t need to study the club’s massive 200-name board in the Cowboys draft room. He knew exactly whom he wanted and where he hoped to get them. By the end of the draft, Johnson had collected 10 of the names on his card.
That was the edge Johnson brought to the Cowboys — the edge that allowed him to engineer one of the fastest franchise turnarounds in NFL history. The Cowboys went from 1-15 in Johnson’s first season to a Lombardi Trophy inside of three years.
Coming from the University of Miami where he annually competed for national championships, Johnson knew and recruited the bluest of blue-chip players. He was in the homes of Troy Aikman and Russell Maryland. He recruited Emmitt Smith, Mark Stepnoski and Daryl Johnston. So he could identify greatness.
But Johnson knew if he adopted the traditional NFL approach of keeping his 12 assigned draft picks and selecting players that fell to him each round, his NFL career would be short. So Johnson used the Herschel Walker and Steve Walsh deals to stockpile draft picks — four first-rounders, four seconds and two thirds. Then he moved around on draft day, trading up or down in a round to select a player at what he perceived the proper value.
In his five Dallas drafts, Johnson selected 18 players who would start in Super Bowls and 15 who would become Pro Bowlers. He also drafted three different players who would become Super Bowl MVPs and, to date, two Hall of Famers. There isn’t a general manager who ever drafted a player who wouldn’t take that five-year window by Johnson.
Johnson won two Super Bowls but left after the 1993 season in an ego tussle with Jones, who repeatedly tried to get Johnson to remove that clause about personnel from his contract. It wasn’t enough for Jerry to control the business end. He wanted the football end, too.
Thus, the divorce.
But before Johnson left, he won two Lombardi Trophies – and the Cowboys would win another Super Bowl in 1995 with a roster stocked by their former coach. Johnson returned to the sideline in 1996 at Miami but never came close to another Super Bowl.
Johnson guided the Dolphins for four seasons and took them to the playoffs in each of his final three years, posting an overall 36-28 record. His championship touch may have been gone by the time he got to Miami but not his personnel wizardry.
Johnson drafted four players for the Dolphins who would go to a combined 19 Pro Bowls — and not a one of them was a first-round draft pick: Zach Thomas, Sam Madison, Jason Taylor and Patrick Surtain. Taylor and Thomas would become NFL all-decade selections.
Strictly as a coach, Johnson inherited the worst team in the NFL and, despite an 8-24 start in his first two years with the Cowboys, would still go on to win 56 percent of his career games. Johnson took teams to the playoffs in six of his nine seasons on an NFL sideline and won at least one playoff game in five of those post-seasons. He posted a 9-4 playoff record.
This is Johnson’s 17th year of eligibility and third time as a semifinalist, bidding to reach the finals for the third consecutive year. What he did as a coach should be his ticket to the finals. Add on what he did as a builder and Johnson becomes worthy and deserving of a bust in Canton.