The NFL draft is just around the corner and everyone is scrambling to put together their 2011 NFL mock draft. Of course, then the men making the decisions—men like Jerry Jones and Al Davis, for instance—proceed to make a mockery of the mock drafts.
Every Dallas Cowboys fan has to be a bit tied up in knots when draft time rolls around because that fan knows the man in charge is as inept in the judging of NFL talent as he is incoherent when attempting to make an impromptu speech. The post-Jimmy Johnson era of Jerry Jones drafting has not been pretty, which has led to the slow erosion of the team’s talent base and the longterm absence of playoff success.
Not to worry, though. Maybe the next great Dallas Cowboy won’t come through the draft at all. Maybe, just maybe he will fall through the cracks instead. Maybe he will be that great player that all of the genius talent evaluators overlooked, misjudged, or just plain missed. It isn’t an impossibility. It has happened before…more than once.
That said, I give you a brief team history review and present for your consideration, the all-time top ten undrafted Dallas Cowboys. Feel free to discuss and debate amongst yourselves. Better yet, leave a comment.
Number Ten: Dan Reeves, Halfback (Class of 1965)– I may be putting Dan Reeves too low on this list, based on the fact that after a productive career as a player he went on to serve as an assistant coach on Tom Landry’s staff, participating in five Super Bowls. He then participated in four more Super Bowls as a head coach. (Yes, if you are counting, that is nine total Super Bowls.)
As a player, Reeves was solid, but not spectacular. He was named to the Sporting News All-Conference team in 1966. That same year, the Associated Press named him second-team All-NFL. Perhaps his most memorable play was a halfback pass he threw for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in the 1967 Ice Bowl game.
Number Nine: Miles Austin, Wide Receiver (Class of 2006)– It is hard to believe that, in this information age, a talent like Miles Austin could slip through seven rounds of drafting unnoticed by 32 teams. Austin is big and fast and the reason Jerry Jones felt confident in cutting Terrell Owens loose.
In 2009, Austin had a breakout year that captured the imagination of fans across the NFL. He only started nine games, but caught 81 passes for 1320 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2009 and again in 2010.
Number Eight: Mark Tuinei, Offensive Tackle (Class of 1983)– This undrafted free agent forged a 15-year career with the Dallas Cowboys. He was named to two Pro Bowls. And, in the early ’90s, he was a member of an offensive line that some feel is the greatest of all time. That line protected hall of fame quarterback Troy Aikman and blew open holes for the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and hall of famer, Emmitt Smith.
Mark Tuinei started in 15 playoff games during his stellar career.
Tragically, in 1999, at the age of 39, Tuinei died of a drug overdose.
Number Seven: Bill Bates, Safety (Class of 1983)– 1983 was a good year for the Dallas Cowboys finding overlooked or ignored talent. Bill Bates, like Mark Tuinei, made the ’83 Cowboys squad as an undrafted free agent and then stuck around for 15 years.
Bates was known as a hard-working, hard-hitting, smart football player. What he lacked in speed and raw talent, he made up for with heart and determination. In 1984, the NFL added a Pro Bowl spot for a special teams player because of Bates’ impact on that part of the game. The ’84 Pro Bowl would be Bates’ only appearance, but he would continue to impact his team and would be a part of three Super Bowl championships.
Number Six: Nate Newton, Guard (Class of 1986)– Listed at 6’3, 318 (add at least 50 pounds to that, I would think), Nate Newton was one giant oversight in the 1986 draft. All this guy did was put together a 14-year career, become the face of the fiercest offensive line of his era, earn six trips to the Pro Bowl and make two All-Pro teams. Oh, and he won three Super Bowl rings for good measure.
‘Big Newt’ was one of the most colorful, quotable characters on one of the most colorful teams in NFL history. He was a character, for sure. He was also a player.
Number Five: Tony Romo, Quarterback (Class of 2004)– In 2006, at halftime of the sixth game of the season, against the New York Giants, coach Bill Parcells made a change at quarterback. He pulled an ineffective Drew Bledsoe in favor of little-known undrafted free agent Tony Romo. Romo was in his third year with the team and was on almost no one’s radar. No one’s but Parcells’ and his staff.
Romo took over in that game and never looked back. He became the Cowboys’ regular starter. In four plus years he has spent under center, Romo has been named to three Pro Bowls. He has thrown for more than 4,000 yards twice. He has tossed 118 touchdowns against 62 interceptions.
Tony Romo is a lightning rod among Cowboys fans because, to date, he has but one playoff win. In Dallas, with names like Staubach and Aikman to live up to, one playoff win won’t cut it. Should Romo ever guide the Cowboys to another Lombardi trophy, he will shoot to the top of this list, or very near it.
Number Four: Everson Walls, Cornerback (Class of 1981)– Everyone knew this guy was too slow to play cornerback in the NFL. So, why did Tom Landry keep him on the 1981 squad? The slow-footed defensive back would be toast.
Not exactly. Not only did Walls make the ’81 Cowboys team. He started. And, he led the NFL with 11 interceptions. He kept his job with the Cowboys all through the 1980s, earning four Pro Bowl trips.
Number Three: Cornell Green, Cornerback (Class of 1962)– Cornell Green was a two-time All-American at Utah State University— in basketball! It was the genius of Gil Brandt and his way-ahead-of-the-times scouting that led to Green becoming a cornerback in the NFL.
Green played cornerback and safety for the Cowboys from 1962 to 1974. He recorded 34 interceptions and returned two for touchdowns. Cornell Green went to four Pro Bowls as a cornerback and one as a safety. After the switch to safety, Green’s Cowboys went to their first two Super Bowls, winning one of them.
Number Two: Drew Pearson, Wide Receiver (Class of 1973)– The original 88 was Mister Clutch. He was Roger Staubach’s go-to guy for years. Adept at route-running, deceptively fast, and a master at catching the sideline pass while doing the tight-rope thing with his toes to make the catch in bounds, Drew was a highlight reel in a helmet.
Drew Pearson caught the famed Hail Mary pass against the Minnesota Vikings. That was but one of many clutch grabs he made to help his team win big games. Three times he was named to the Pro Bowl and was selected first-team All-Pro each of those times. The NFL named Pearson to the All-Decade team for the 1970s.
Still, Drew Pearson has never been inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor, which is both a travesty and evidence that Jerry Jones sometimes lacks good judgment or a sense of team history, take your pick.
In fact, Pearson belongs in the Hall of Fame, as does our selection for the greatest all-time undrafted Dallas Cowboy…
Number One: Cliff Harris, Safety (Class of 1970)– So far, Cliff Harris is the only one in our group of elite nobodies to be inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor. Known as a bone-crushing hitter, Harris was given the nickname “Captain Crash.” He and his backfield mate Charlie Waters formed the almost-undisputed best safety tandem in the NFL throughout the 1970s, and they are among the greatest twosome in NFL history.
Cliff Harris played ten years, from 1970–’79. He made six Pro Bowls and was a three-time All-Pro. Harris is in the Ring of Honor and was a Hall of Fame finalist in 2004. The fact that he has not been named to the NFL Hall of Fame is beyond ludicrous, as he rates among the greatest ever at his position…and he was a major component in a team that went to five Super Bowls in a decade.
But he wasn’t a Steeler. He was a Cowboy. So, go ahead and turn those media bias conspiracy theories loose. I am right there with you.
But I digress. The point here is that Cliff Harris is at the top of a list of elite football players that were overlooked on draft day, but left their imprint on the National Football League anyway.
Long live the overlooked, the over-achievers, the underdogs. And God bless those who discover the diamonds in the rough.