All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part II: Linebackers
All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team
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 on that. . .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..
- LINEBACKERS (Seven players)
In the first part of this series, we studied one of the deepest position in Cowboys history (defensive line). Now we take aim at one of the least deep. The linebacker spot is the only area of the Cowboys, including coaches, with no Hall of Fame inductees.
Looking over Dallas’ linebackers since the team’s inception, you see a common theme: small, quick players rather than Dick Butkus-type brutes. No real surprise, as both Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson favored speed and quickness over size on defense. Even since we’ve switched over to a 3-4 scheme, Dallas has shied away from the big bruisers you see on other teams (I like that approach, by the way, and eight Super Bowl appearances means it’s obviously a successful one).
- Weak Side “Will” Backer
1. Chuck Howley
2. Dexter Coakley
Howley is far and away the most accomplished Cowboys linebacker of all-time. Five-time first-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champion (1971) and Super Bowl MVP (1970). Personally, I think he’s a very viable Hall of Fame candidate. No offense, but if Dave Wilcox is a Hall of Famer, then Chuck Howley is darn sure one as well. Howley did everything very well, and he was very capable of making the big play, as he so often did. `Nuff said.
Coakley was a three-time Pro Bowler, playing from 1997 to 2006. Bad timing, really, because he just missed all the Super Bowl fun of Troy and the ‘Boys. He was released when Dallas switched to a 3-4.
But, Dex could really play. He was an outstanding weak-side linebacker. He was very short at about 5’ 10”, but packed a wallop at 235 pounds. Dexter is tied for the Cowboys record for most defensive touchdowns (five), four of those being interception returns.
He was also a rock-solid tackler. Obviously, his game was speed and quickness, and he used it extremely well. Like Howley, Coakley excelled in pass coverage. Both covered more like strong safeties than linebackers. I think either player, in a 4-3 defense, would be special in this era’s wide open game.
- Middle “Mike” Backer
1. Lee Roy Jordan
2. Bob Breuing
Frankly, I was surprised when I looked up Lee Roy Jordan’s awards. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, but with only two All-Pro selections (one as first-teamer). I was a little perplexed at that, but then I realized Jordan played middle linebacker in an era when the NFL had a boatload of Hall of Fame-caliber middle `backers. Looking at it from that aspect, I suppose it speaks to his ability that he made the All-Pro team at all.
Jordan was pretty small even by the standards of his day, standing 6’ 1” and weighing 210-215 pounds. Were he playing today, I doubt he would get to more than 230 or so, but what Jordan lacked in size, he made up for with intelligence, quickness, and toughness. He was just a tough, hard-nosed player who gave everything he had on every play. Very football savvy. Lee Roy is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and is also in the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
I can honestly say that I’ve seen 99 percent or more of Bob Breunig’s playing career as a Cowboy and I can’t specifically recall a single play. Not one. That, in a nutshell, was Breunig. Mr. Steady. He made just about every play he was supposed to, but not many passed that. Very smart (Stanford), excellent tackler, kind of a liability in coverage. Very good, but not great, at diagnosing plays. Limited speed and quickness.
Breunig played the middle for Landry’s flex from 1977 to 1984. He never missed a game until late in his career. Bob was a captain on some really dominant defensive teams, but truthfully, I give much of the credit for Breunig’s success to the system (Tom’s defense protected the “Mike” from blockers extremely well) and to the defensive line he played behind.
Still, he did make three Pro Bowls and go to three Super Bowls. NOTE: Wikipedia has Breunig named All-Pro 4 times. I think that’s incorrect. I don’t recall him ever making AP All-Pro, and I can’t find anything to collaborate that notion.
- Strong Side “Sam” Backer
1. Ken Norton Jr
2. Dave Edwards
This one’s virtually a toss up. Norton had more awards, barely, as he was named to the Pro Bowl one time (1993), and he has two Super Bowl victories to Dave’s one, but Edwards played longer (11 seasons compared to six for Edwards), and almost never missed a game. Both players were very, very good, but just a shade below All-Pro/multi-Pro Bowl level.
I give Norton the slight edge due to his versatility, but he was also the largest of my group, weighing about 240-250 pounds on a 6’ 1” frame. His natural position was “Sam” LB, but he could play the middle, and even the weak side, without losing much production. Edwards, as far as I can determine, was exclusively a “Sam” LB. That’s not to say he couldn’t play the other positions, only that he never did as far as I know. Dave was taller at 6’ 3,” but listed at 230. However, extrapolating that out to today, I could easily see him going 250 or so.
I had a major dislike for Norton after he defected to the Niners in 1994. I didn’t mind him leaving so much (this was the infant days of the salary cap and Dallas refused to pay their LBs any real money back then), but going to despised `Frisco was just too much to bear. Of course, the fact that Ken was from California didn’t seem relevant at the time. All I knew was that he went over to the dark side and suddenly we couldn’t beat the 49ers anymore. I’ve mellowed some on Norton since that time, forgiving. . .but never forgetting.
- The Seventh Man
With two true middle linebackers and another who could play that spot as well, I didn’t want anymore players at that spot. While I briefly considered Dat Nguyen and Bradie James, I didn’t go there. I also thought of Darrin Smith, an underrated “Will” backer from the early-mid 90s, but decided against it.
I decided to get creative, going with Hollywood Henderson.
Yes, I know. Loudmouth. Pop-off. Coke head.
But, also, arguably the fastest and best all-around athlete at linebacker in Dallas Cowboy history. Thomas was a really, really good backer for the Cowboys for four seasons before he blew up in 1979. He started on three Super Bowl teams, made a lot of big plays, and, here’s the real kicker, was an outstanding special teams player.
Henderson was a natural “Will” who was forced to play the “Sam” in Landry’s defense. I can almost guarantee had he played the weak side, Thomas would have made multiple Pro Bowls.
And, if and when Hollywood stepped out of line, there was always Randy White available to kick the crap out of him.
JB’s All-Time Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Corps
1. Chuck Howley
2. Ken Norton Jr.
3. Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson
4. Lee Roy Jordan
5. Dexter Coakley
6. Bradie James
7. Dat Nguyen
Not much to add here. Howley leads the pack (although if we were including 3-4 outside linebackers, I would have Ware already rated No. 1).
Despite the off-field issues, Hollywood Henderson was an absolute beast. As Vince pointed out, he was the most physically gifted of any Cowboys linebacker ever.