IRVING, Texas – This dawned on me Thursday while attending the 2015 Texas Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Waco, Texas:
Why has it been so, so hard for the Dallas Cowboys to find cornerbacks and safeties, talented guys with any amount of longevity?
Has it been poor talent evaluation? Bad luck? Free agency? Devalued priorities?
Because there among this year's class of eight inductees, including Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, basketball coach Nolan Richardson, Olympic gold medal winner Jeremy Wariner, the late basketball player Zelmo Beaty and the late Olympic swimming coach Richard Quick, were two former Cowboys players:
Ring of Honor safety Cliff Harris.
Cornerback Everson Walls, second all-time in franchise interceptions.
Harris played 10 seasons for the Cowboys, starting nearly every game (130) from 1970-79, though limited to just five during his rookie year interrupted by military service. Walls was a fixture at left cornerback from 1981-89, nine seasons, starting 127 games for the Cowboys, robbed of a potential 11 more starts thanks to the strikes of 1982 and 1987.
Maybe the Cowboys were just plain lucky back then or maybe they had a knack for taking chances on obscure, cheap talent. Because the eighth member of the Hall of Fame class this night was none other than the Cowboys' 29-year player personnel director Gil Brandt, the man who revolutionized how NFL teams scouted and conducted their drafts.
See, Harris and Walls were both signed by the Cowboys as rookie free agents, Harris from out-away Quachita Baptist in Arkadelphia, Ark., and Walls, a suburban Dallas native (Richardson), from Grambling State. That's back when there were no limitations on how many rookie free agents a team could sign and bring to training camp. The guys from back then will swear the Cowboys were signing more than 100 rookie free agents after the draft to bring to the rookie portion of training camp.
So see, if the Cowboys were so, so smart, and so readily recognized the talent of Harris and Walls, they would have drafted them, right? Yep, there is a little luck involved in unearthing some guys.
Harris became a 1970s staple in the starting lineup, playing in those five Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade honors. Walls became a staple in the Cowboys' starting lineup at left corner from the start, setting the club's single-season interception record with 11 his 1981 rookie campaign.
But for gosh sakes, for the last umpteen years it seems as though the Cowboys have constantly been looking for a starting quality corner or a starting quality safety, and many times both, about this time of year. And this April may be no different, with a huge cloud hanging over the cornerback spot … again.
You're familiar. You can ink in Orlando Scandrick at one cornerback spot. After that, well, it's somewhat sketchy. There is the dilemma of what to do with Brandon Carr's $8 million base salary, and while so many are subscribing to making him a June 1 release that would save cap space, I keep reminding everyone, do so and he'll count $4.7 million against the salary cap this year in dead money for nothing and another $7.4 million next year. To me, that's not saving a thing.
But, say they do. Then what? Their 2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne, after having the patellar tendon he tore during the season repaired and the other that was showing signs of weakness before the 2014 season even started also repaired in late December, won't be ready for the offseason workouts and might not be ready for the start of training camp. Who knows, starting the season on PUP is not out of the question.
OK, and after that? Well, there is waiver-wire pickup Corey White, released by the New Orleans Saints, a guy who started this past season at corner and safety. He figures to be a nickel guy, meaning Dallas might be able to keep Scandrick on the outside. The Cowboys decided it was better to spend $1.54 million on White for a one-year deal than on retaining Sterling Moore. And after that, there is Tyler Patmon, who showed signs in the playoff loss to Green Bay he might not yet be ready for prime time.
Yep, drafting a starting-quality corner is not out of the question, and as high as the first round if a first-round quality one still is on the board at No. 27, even if Carr returns.
As for safety, and this doesn't appear to be much of a safety draft, the Cowboys likely will go again with Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, which would be somewhat of an upset to have the same pair of safeties starting the majority of games in consecutive seasons, health willing, since Gerald Sensabaugh and Alan Ball in 2010-11, and at that the only other pair to start the majority of games in consecutive seasons since Darren Woodson and Roy Williams in 2002-03.
Now look, I know since the days of Harris and Walls, there have been a few guys to start on a consistent basis, and ran into Woodson last week. After playing slot on the nickel his 1992 rookie season, he started at safety from 1993 through 2003, his final of 12 seasons (162 starts). Now, Terence Newman, the 2003 first-round pick, played/started nine seasons for the Cowboys (131 starts) at cornerback and for those who like to call him a bust, he's still playing, preparing for his 13th NFL season. How bust can you be?
Also starting back in 1981, another rookie free agent, Michael Downs, ended up starting for eight seasons and 1992 first-round pick Kevin Smith, who broke into the starting lineup at left corner late his rookie season, ended up spending eight seasons (103 starts) with the Cowboys, missing 15 games, though, in 1995 after tearing his Achilles in the season opener.
But after that, it's been somewhat of a crapshoot for the Cowboys at the cornerback and safety positions, and not entirely blamed on the 1994 advent of free agency. About the only defensive back I can remember the Cowboys losing because of cap implications was the inability to re-sign Ryan McNeil following the 2000 season because of having plummeted into cap hell during those Dave Campo years.
I mean, check this out: From 2000 through this past year, 35 players have accounted for the majority of starts at those four positions over the past 15 seasons, an average of just less than nine different guys at four positions, a few even having played both spots.
In fact, the inconsistency and turnover at corner and safety have been mind-numbing for the majority of the past 25 years.
See if you remember some of these names since the turn of the century: Phillippe Sparks, yep, Jordin Sparks' dad; Mario Edwards, yep current draftable defensive end Mario Edwards Jr.'s dad. How about Izell Reese, Duane Hawthorne, Derek Ross, Kareem Lattimore, Pete Hunter, Tony Dixon (a second-round pick), Lynn Scott, Patrick Watkins, Ken Hamlin, Jacque Reeves, Abe Elam and, of course, Pacman, er Adam, Jones.
On and on and on at those two positions, not exactly a Who's Who of Cowboys starters. Just never knew who might pop up starting, and most didn't last for long.
Other than Woodson, and it's high time he starts getting elected into Ring of Honors or Hall of Fames, there's not another Cowboys safety or corner duplicating those types of accomplishments since Harris and Walls. Now, you don't have to be born in Texas to be named to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Just excelling in a sport, any sport, from football to baseball to basketball to swimming to horse racing to tennis to boxing to polo, qualifies for induction. You name it, someone in the museum on the campus of Baylor University represents that sport.
In fact, there is an entire Cowboys wing to the museum, located in the Tom Landry Theater, where, by the way, you can sit and watch any number of highlight films of your choice. And the room just grew a little more crowded – Harris, Walls, Brandt joining the previous 23 Cowboys inductees, from Landry and Tex Schramm, of course, to the likes of Bob Lilly, Rayfield Wright, Gene Stallings, Drew Pearson, Harvey Martin, Troy-Michael-Emmitt and Walt Garrison, a dual inductee for football and rodeo.
A great walk down memory lane, not to mention a vivid reminder of how times have changed.