All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part I: Defensive Line
All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part I: Defensive Line
By Vince Grey
I thought since it was kind of a dead period between actual football and the draft, I’d have some fun creating my version of the all-time Dallas Cowboys team. After some consideration, I decided to do it as a 53-man roster and coaching staff, as if I were building the team to compete this upcoming season in the NFL.
A couple of notes. . .First, I took some “artistic license” as it were, in order to include players from the distant past. Obviously, an All-Pro 260 pound offensive tackle from the 60s, large for that time, would be 50-70 pounds light by today’s standards. I went with the assumption that had that same player been of this era, with better training and diet, he would have added size/speed to equate to this era’s players. Also, I decided to only include a player at his level of play during the time he was with the Cowboys. For example, Herb Adderley was a HoF defensive back for the Packers, but only played for the Cowboys at the tail end of his career. He couldn’t make my team because he wasn’t “All-Pro Herb” with us. Got it? Good.
And one last thing. . .I’m very much a 4-3 guy, but even if I wasn’t, all the great Dallas Cowboy teams have played a 4-3 defense, so that’s what I’m going with here.
- DEFENSIVE LINE (Eight players)
This is one of the deepest and most talented areas of the Cowboys since their inception. Even if someone wanted to play a 3-4 by design, they’d be insane to do so with such a great and deep talent pool of defensive linemen.
Bob Lilly, Randy White, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Charles Haley
Jay Ratliff, Russell Maryland, Demarcus Ware, Harvey Martin
- Starting DTs
As far as the starting defensive tackles go, the choices are stupid easy. A couple of no question Hall of Fame players, both great against the run and the pass. Not much to add here, other than I might give Lilly the slight edge as a run defender and White the slight edge as a pass-rusher.
There’s a considerable drop-off in talent when looking at the backups defensive tackles, but that’s really due to the level of talent from the starters than the poor quality of the reserves, who ain’t bums by any stretch.
Russell Maryland wasn’t much of a pass-rusher inside, but was rock solid as a run defender, and made one Pro Bowl.
Jay Ratliff will play defensive tackle in my 4-3 scheme. He’s a multi-time Pro Bowler and a one-time All-Pro. He’s cat-quick 300-pounder with excellent inside pass rush skills and a solid run defender.
- The DEs
Defensive end wasn’t nearly as easy as defensive tackle. You have four quality guys who all deserve starting spots: Haley and Jones (listed), along with Martin and Ware.
So, how did I choose? I went with “Too Tall” at one end spot because in a 4-3, you need at least one end who plays the run first, at least on first down, and guards against draws and screens. With White/Lilly inside, no one’s running up the middle much on this team, so that leaves sweeps and other off-tackle plays. Jones was an outstanding run defender who used his height and long arms to ward off blockers and reach out to grab runners. He was also underrated as a pass -usher. No, he wasn’t a sack guy, but Ed knocked down or deflected a ton a pass attempts. There’s also no telling how many passes the opposing quarterbacks threw off-target, or never attempted, because the 6’ 9” Jones was in his face.
It’s easy to say I chose Haley to start because of his three Super Bowl rings (remember, I only count what a player did for Dallas), but it’s a little more complicated than that. Harvey Martin, during his prime years in the mid-70s, was a more dominant pass rusher than either Haley or Ware. The man was a true quarterback killer, one season (1977) recording an incredible 20 sacks. And recall, this was at the height of the so-called “dead ball” era, when teams didn’t have anywhere near as many pass attempts per game as they do now. Less pass attempts, fewer chances for sacks.
However, Harvey was never close to that dominant again. Once the rules were changed in 1978 to help the offensive line, his sack totals began to drop dramatically. To keep his sack totals in the double-digit range, Martin had to focus more and more on that aspect of his game, and his run defense suffered for it. He was still a fine pass-rushing end, but no longer a dominant force.
Since I’m building this team to compete under today’s rules, I feel I have to move Harvey back a notch from starter to second string, but that’s no knock on Martin. Not bad, having a four-time All-Pro as a backup, huh?
So it came down to Ware versus Haley for a starting position. Right off the bat, I can tell you I’m hesitant to name a guy still playing as a member of my All-Time team. Still, there are a couple of notable exceptions and Ware is certainly one of them. I know he’s an outside linebacker in our scheme, but I think the guy could play the rush end spot in a 4-3 with absolutely no drop-off. If I don’t consider the difference in championships (3-0), this call isn’t so cut and dry.
Ware’s per season sack totals are superior to what Haley put up during his time as a Cowboy, and Ware hasn’t had the advantage of playing with the same level of team that Haley often did. That said, I break this down to my “eyeball” test, and for those of you who didn’t see Haley during the three -out-of-four Super Bowl run, I can tell you that Charles was a more consistently dominant end than Ware, despite the sack differential. The main difference between the two was that Haley seemed to always be around the quarterback, pushing and harassing. Even when he didn’t get the sack, his presence was definitely felt.
DeMarcus, on the other hand, has long periods of time where he’s not a factor much at all. Ware gets his sacks and pressures, but he’s not the consistent force (yet) that Haley was. To be fair, that could well be because of Haley’s superior teammates, but then I also have to consider Haley’s rings. They are a factor, just not the factor.
Haley gets the nod as starter.
There’s an interesting little tidbit about pass-rushers Ware, Martin, and Haley: Despite playing decades apart, they’re all virtually the same size. All three stand 6’ 4” or 6’ 5” and weigh about 250 pounds. It doesn’t really mean anything I suppose, as great pass-rushers come in all shapes and sizes, but still intriguing.
- The Rest
Well, that’s it for the defensive line. What an awesome group. Two current Hall of Fame players, along with one who will be there soon (Haley), and another who possibly should be there (Martin had 114 sacks. If Richard Dent is a HoFer, then Martin is too). I can’t think of another franchise whose all-time defensive line group could compare to this one. Maybe the Rams, with Decon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Andy Robustelli and Jack Youngblood, but I can’t see them matching our depth after that.
Defensive end was so incredibly deep. I mean, I had no room for George Andrie, a five-time Pro Bowler with the Cowboys in the 60s. Andrie was no runt. He was 6’6” and would likely be around 300 pounds if he played today. Then there was Jim Jeffcoat. Excellent player for many years. At defensive tackle, there’s rock steady Jethro Pugh, or even underrated John Dutton. Heck, even though he was kind of an idiot and definitely a pothead, you could add Leon Lett in there as well. The man made a lot of big plays for Dallas during his time there. Any of these players would be worthy of a slot (and would certainly take one on a lot of other squads).
Note from JB. . .
I won’t get too in-depth with my selections as Vince has already gone into great detail regarding many of the great Cowboys defensive linemen of all-time, but I wanted to put forth my first and second-teams as well.
Bob Lilly, Randy White, DeMarcus Ware, Too Tall Jones
Jay Ratliff, Leon Lett, Jim Jeffcoat, Greg Ellis
Here’s an interesting note: of all the great Cowboys pass-rushers of all-time, only 11 have recorded 20+ sacks in Dallas. Of course the NFL didn’t keep track of sacks when guys like Bob Lilly played, but still a bit strange.
And do you know which player leads that entire list? Jim Jeffcoat, with 94.5 sacks. He was an extremely underrated player. He still has 354 more career tackles than Ware.
I know Greg Ellis’ presence on my list will surprise some people, but he is third all-time in sacks for Dallas and was really out of position at the end of his career in the team’s 3-4 defense. Charles Haley was undoubtedly a more dominating player, but he wasn’t in Big D long enough for me to rank him ahead of Ellis as a Cowboy.
Plus, we all know I’m new-school.