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Spagnola: Catching Up With NFL Draft 40 Years Ago


IRVING, Texas – The NFL Draft, loaded with all its so-called "experts," has become this perceived scientific endeavor, a study in analytics where only the brilliant succeed.

To me, it's an exercise of equal part smarts and luck. So let's be real, to succeed in this draft, the next one now just 20 days away with the Cowboys sitting at No. 16 in the first round and loaded with 11 picks of their own, you have to be …

Brilliantly lucky.

Let's address.

In 1989, the Cowboys were in dire need of a quarterback, Danny White at the end of the road and Steve Pelluer having made a less than favorable impression on new head coach Jimmy Johnson. Well, as luck would have it, the Cowboys had the first pick in the 1989 draft thanks to Tom Landry's final season of 3-13. Not only that, Troy Aikman sat as the best QB in the draft.

Had the Cowboys not had the first pick in the draft and if Aikman was off the board by time they did pick, here would have been the Cowboys' choices at quarterback, and in the order they were drafted:

Mike Elkins (and not until the second round), Billy Joe Tolliver, Anthony Dilweg, Erik Whilhelm, Jeff Graham, Jeff Carlson, Jeff Francis, Rodney Peete, Brett Snyder, Terrance Jones, Paul Singer, Bob Jean, Wayne Johnson, Steve Taylor and Chuck Hartlieb.

Seriously, other than Peete, a big bag of yuck.

That was the entire 1989 quarterback class, that is, until the Cowboys used what turned out to be the first pick in the 1990 draft to grab Miami's Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft a few months later, meaning they forfeited the right to draft first in 1990.

Heck, me and you could have chosen Aikman from that bunch.

Let's see, in 1991, the last of the Cowboys'17 choices that year was Larry Brown, cornerback, TCU, the 320th pick. The Cowboys selected Brown because he was close to Valley Ranch, in Fort Worth, and wouldn't cost them but gas money to bring him in for minicamps. Ha! He became a Super Bowl MVP.

In 1992, in the 12th round, with pick 317, the Cowboys took an equally low-percentage flier on Texas Tech baseball/football player Donald Harris, a first-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 1989. Wanted to see if he could play both. Never made the team.

In 1984, with the 334th pick the Cowboys took … Carl Lewis. Yep, Olympic track star Carl Lewis. He never reported. Track guy.

But in the first round of 1984, after all the studying in the world, with the 25th pick the Cowboys selected LSU linebacker Billy Cannon Jr. He was active eight whole games that year. Contributed 12 tackles. And that was it, a serious neck injury ending his career in Dallas. Dumb pick or bad luck?

With the second of three third-round picks in 1991, after selecting linebacker Godfrey Myles with the 62nd pick and before selecting offensive tackle Erik Williams with the 70th pick, the Cowboys nabbed guard James Richards at 64. Not sure he even made it out of training camp before getting cut. Myles was a perennial backup and Williams was on his way to a Hall of Fame career until his devastating car accident in 1994 reduced him to barely better than average.

And that brings us to 1974, 40 years ago this year when the Cowboys, the very first time they ever had the first pick in an NFL draft – and the only top selection until Aikman in 1989 – selected …

Ed "Too Tall" Jones, defensive lineman, 6-9, 260, out of tiny Tennessee State, having played just one year of football in high school (didn't have a team his first three years), and actually went to college on a basketball scholarship, playing both basketball and football during his first two years at the independent NCAA Division-II school in Nashville, Tenn., before devoting fulltime to football.

The Cowboys were recognized as the first NFL team to have selected a player from a predominantly black institution with the NFL Draft's first pick (Grambling's Buck Buchanan was selected with the first pick in the 1963 AFL draft by Kansas City before the merger), and this all at a time when many of the major southern schools were just starting to racially integrate their football programs.

So were the Cowboys smarter than everyone else 40 years ago? Or were they just lucky?

Actually both, NFL Network reminding us of that with its recent airing this week of "Caught In A Draft," a 30-minute very deftly documented 1974 draft that most insist changed the profile of the NFL Draft, suddenly going from a mere midweek exercise into a cottage industry that now airs in primetime on national television.

First, the luck. When George Allen arrived in Washington D.C. in 1971, he was a staunch proponent of playing veterans, a believer in trading away draft choices for proven commodities.    In fact, he traded away his first six first-round draft choices once he arrived in Washington, along with 25 other selections those first six seasons for proven players. The guy did so much trading that twice the NFL caught him trading away the same picks twice. Seriously.

And when the woeful Redskins, having recorded just one winning season in the previous 15 years, jumped to 9-4 and 11-3 Allen's first two seasons utilizing this over-the-hill tactic, in fact beating the Cowboys in the 1972 NFC title game before losing to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII, other teams decided that was the way to go – trade for veteran players.

So in the spring of 1973, the Houston Oilers, having just hired future Pro Football Hall of Famer Sid Gillman as head coach after he had spent the 1972 season as a Cowboys special assistant, decided the best way to turn around the Oilers was to also trade for veterans, just as the Redskins were doing.

And knowing what Gillman knew about the Cowboys, he calls Gil Brandt well after the 1973 NFL Draft to trade for third-year wide receiver Billy Parks and third-year defensive lineman Tody Smith, brother of Bubba Smith. He would give the Cowboys his first-round and third-round picks in the 1974 draft.

"They didn't know what they were giving up when they made the trade," Brandt says, "but they knew what they were getting."

Well, here's what they got. Parks played just three seasons, catching 64 passes and scoring just two touchdowns, starting but 14 games, all those that first year. Smith also spent just three unremarkable seasons with the Oilers before getting waived.

As for the Cowboys, they hit the jackpot, selecting "Too Tall" with the first pick in the draft and then taking another one of those calculated fliers they became notorious for with that third-round pick on quarterback Danny White, who already had signed with the upstart World Football League's Memphis Southmen for guaranteed money in '74. After the WFL folded two seasons later, White's rights reverted back to the Cowboys.

And we know the rest of this story, Jones going on to play 15 seasons with the Cowboys and 224 games, most in club history. His 203 starts also remain most in team record books. White held many of the franchise passing records during his 13-year career until the arrival of Aikman and then Tony Romo, the only quarterback to throw for more yards in a single Cowboys season than White.

Man, Jones and White.

"No one expected us to draft him that high," Brandt said of Jones.

Oilers Snookered?

Again, the Cowboys had no idea they would end up with the first pick in the 1974 draft, and Jones wasn't exactly a secret the Cowboys had unearthed.

"Other teams had shown interest in me," Jones said, pointing out that nine of the 11 seniors from his 1973 undefeated Tennessee State team were drafted in '74, including his good friend Waymon Bryant, drafted by Chicago just three picks later.

But there is a but in this story. The Cowboys were onto Jones the previous year when Tennessee State went 11-1, following 9-1 and 11-0 records Jones' first two seasons in Nashville.

"We were going to draft him the year before with our last pick in the draft," Brandt said of the 17th round that year. "I knew his sister and brother-in-law, and they showed us proof he we eligible to be drafted."

In fact, just not to tip their hand and worried about potential spies, Brandt said he and Cornell Green, who worked the offseasons with the Cowboys as a scout even while he still was playing, met Jones' family members in Memphis, Tenn., just outside his hometown of Jackson, Tenn., instead of in Nashville looking for proof Jones was eligible to be drafted.

But the NFL said no since Jones was not listed among those who were draft eligible.

"The Cowboys had scouted me pretty heavily," Jones remembers. "Cornell Green kept coming around, even my junior year. He had been there a lot. Then my senior year, I was told if Dallas had a chance, they intended on taking me." [embedded_ad]

So how fortunate. Houston ended up going 1-13 in 1973, meaning the Oilers had traded away the first pick in the 1974 draft for what turned out to be two nobodies, Parks and Smith. And on Jan. 29, 1974, the Cowboys cashed in on their good fortune, selecting Ed "Too" Tall Jones.

Brilliant or lucky?

Maybe a little bit of both, since with their very own first-round pick that year (No. 22) the Cowboys selected running back Charles Young out of North Carolina State. He lasted just three seasons in Dallas, suffering a career-ending knee injury in 1976, having rushed for just 638 yards and scoring four touchdowns – and thus requiring the Cowboys to trade up in the 1977 draft with Seattle (switching firsts and giving up three seconds) to grab Tony Dorsett with the fourth pick. [embedded_ad]

Besides Jones and White in 1974, only five of the Cowboys' other 17 draft choices made the team. Those other five guys combined for just eight seasons in Dallas, Young lasting the longest.

Brilliance at times can be fleeting.

And sometimes luck runs out, because with that 22nd pick in '74 the Cowboys used on Young, they instead were intent on taking Southern Cal wide receiver Lynn Swann, still on the board when Pittsburgh went on the clock with the 21st pick. In fact, as Brandt remembers the story, Swann was still there with only seven seconds left on the Steelers' clock.

"When it had gotten down to a minute left, we told our guy at the draft to write Lynn Swann's name down on the card right now and be ready to run up there," Brandt says, knowing the Steelers allotted selection time was about to run out. "It went down to the last seven seconds."

That close to Swann becoming a Dallas Cowboy, and we all know the irony of this story, the Steelers' Swann having a big hand in dealing the Cowboys two Super Bowl losses in the 1970s. Not only that, the Steelers, with four of their first five picks becoming Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster – four of the five Hall of Famers selected in that draft – fortified their Super Bowl title runs in four of the following six seasons, interrupted only by the Raiders and Cowboys.

See, I'm telling you this NFL Draft, part brilliance and part luck, and I'm sticking to it.

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