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All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part III: Cornerbacks

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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..

Click for Part I: Defensive Line or Part II: Linebackers

  • Cornerbacks (Five Players)

First Team

Mel Renfro, Deion Sanders

Like the defensive tackle position, when you have two deserving Hall of Fame players as starters, there’s really nothing to debate.

Mel Renfro was a two-time Super Bowl champion and played in four Super Bowls altogether. He was a 10-time Pro Bowler, and made first-team All Pro once in 1969.  He’s also a member of the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

Renfro finished with 52 picks, including seven in 1964 and 1967, and an NFL-leading 10 in 1969.  After that, teams tended to throw away from him for several years.

Renfro was very versatile, leading the NFL in punt and kickoff returns as a rookie is 1964.  He even played a little running back one season, averaging 6.5 yards-per-carry.  Renfro’s career was a bit of an oddity in that he started off as a safety before moving to corner (it tends to be the other way).

I personally caught Renfro near the end of his prime.  He was smart with good, but not elite speed. He obviously had very good coverage skills and solid hands.  Unlike most cornerbacks today, Renfro was also an excellent tackler.

The best I saw of Renfro was his tremendous coverage of Paul Warfield in Super Bowl VI.  He was a backup in SB XII against Denver and retired after that win.  What a way to go out, right?

Deion was, simply put, the best cover-corner I have ever seen.  His best attribute may have been that opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators were just scared to death of him.  While other great corners were respected, Sanders was feared.  High-level quarterbacks all but refused to even chance a throw in his direction.

Personally, I always thought he was given a little too much respect, because there were ways to throw at him with at least some success.  A big, strong receiver like Michael Irvin could out-muscle him on a slant, and he could be had on a crossing route. Anything deep or near the sidelines, however, invited trouble.

Deion had unbelievable football speed, of course, but that alone wasn’t why he was so successful.  He was an incredible athlete overall, with excellent size, awesome quickness, great body control, and very good hands.  Even great corners, if they guess wrong, are usually toast, but Prime could guess wrong and most of the time still get back in and make the play.  I have never seen anyone else even close to him in that respect.

By the way, many people disparage Deion’s tackling, but I don’t think that’s fair.  He wasn’t that bad, and compared to some of the atrocious tackling I see with many defensive backs today, he was downright good.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Sanders was never going to blow up a lead blocker and pile-drive a ball-carrier into the turf, but he would usually get the guy down somehow, some way. During his time with Dallas, I never recall jumping out of my chair and screaming at the TV due to some tackling whiffs like I’ve done so often the last several years.

Nickel CB and Backups

Everson Walls, Kevin Smith, Dennis Thurman

We go from the fastest corner ever to wear a Cowboys uniform (Deion, of course) to possibly the slowest (Walls), but both were top players.  For a long time, I’ve felt that pure “40” speed is vastly overrated, and Everson Walls makes that case for me as well as anyone.  Walls wasn’t just slow for a defensive back, he was slow for a linebacker.  His 40-yard dash time was somewhere in the 4.8 range—on a good day—yet Everson was a four-time Pro Bowler, made All-Pro once, and led the NFL in interceptions three times.

How does a ridiculously slow corner do that? Lot’s of opportunities, for one.  As a plodding, rookie free agent cornerback from a small school, you can imagine he had opposing passers salivating to go after him from day one.  And they did—he got burned quite a bit—but it seemed like for every deep one they got on him, he picked off another (18 interceptions his first two seasons– a mark it took Terence Newman over five seasons to reach).

Know how cornerbacks are supposed to have short memories?  When it came to getting toasted for a deep ball, Walls had advanced Alzheimer’s.  The man had absolutely no fear.  The other attributes Walls possessed were great instincts and body control, excellent quickness, loose hips, and the best hands I’ve ever seen on a defensive back, bar none.  Walls had huge hands, but they were butter soft as well, and footballs stuck to them like glue.

I readily admit a potential bias concerning my No. 4 cornerback.  Kevin “Pup” Smith is one of my all-time “underrated” players. Why?  All ‘Pup’ did was come in as a rookie and, over three games (including two NFC title games) covering the next two seasons, basically shut down Jerry Rice.  Smith helped Dallas get off the snide against the 49ers and win three in a row. If this all-time team had to play an all-time San Francisco squad, I’d put Smith on Rice and let Deion cover someone else.  That’s how much I liked Smith. That fact alone puts him high on my list.

Just a shade below Pro Bowl-level, Smith was very good, but not outstanding.  He had average size for a cornerback, with good speed and decent hands.  He was fearless, though, and clearly stepped up against top competition.

This last cornerback spot was a tough decision for me.  Many will scream about leaving off Terence Newman.  I understand.  I actually went back and forth on this one, and there was a lot of inner debate. . .until I looked at the numbers.

Both Newman and Dennis Thurman are about the same size; both pretty good, but not outstanding, tacklers.  Athletically, Newman is superior, especially in terms of pure speed. T-New was also the fifth pick in the first-round of the draft.  Thurman was drafted 306th in the 11th round.  No contest, right?

Right.  At a combine workout, Newman blows Thurman away.  Unfortunately for Newman, they play the game on the field, and not in workout clothes.

The difference is pretty basic.  Dennis made plays.  A lot.  Terence does not.  A lot.

Newman’s numbers: Eight seasons, 28 INTs for 265 yards and 2 TDs.

Thurman’s numbers: Eight seasons, 36 INTs for 562 yards and 4 TDs.

Oh, and Newman started day one as a rookie, while Thurman didn’t start until his third year. Newman’s best year snagging passes was last season with five.  Thurman’s best was 1981 with nine.  In fact, while starting, Thurman’s worst season (other than the strike-shortened 1982 campaign) consisted of five picks–equal to Newman’s best.

All right, I think I’ve made my point.  If anyone wants to make a case for Newman over Thurman, have at it.

SIDE RANT: Can we please stop drafting defensive backs in the top half of the first-round?  It never seems to work out, and we can clearly get comparable talent later in the draft.

NEXT: SAFETIES

—————————————————-

JB’s All-Time Dallas Cowboys Cornerbacks

1. Deion Sanders
2. Mel Renfro
3. Everson Walls
4. Dennis Thurman
5. Terence Newman

To me, the top three choices aren’t even a question.  Deion is the greatest cornerback to ever play the game, by far.  I realize the other guys played far more games in Dallas, but Prime Time was that good.  I also think Vince’s remark regarding Deion’s tackling is spot on.  No, he wasn’t great.  But he was also athletic enough to be in proper position.  He was no Jenkins.

Vince’s Thurman/Newman debate persuaded me to place Thurman ahead of T-New.  Newman has long been a favorite of mine, but it is true that he’s failed to cash in on a lot of play-making opportunities.

As far as Kevin Smith–I realize his importance to the teams of the 90s, but Newman has nine more picks and 113 more tackles (and is simply a better cover guy) than Smith in a comparable number of games.  During his prime, Newman was consistently near the top of the NFL in YPA-against and, as I’ve argued quite frequently, he’s always been underrated in run support.

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9 Responses to All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part III: Cornerbacks

  1. Vince_Grey says:

    I can’t argue the numbers say Newman over Smith, but IMO, Smith is a bit of an overachiever while Newman is decidedly an underachiever. I admire the former, and have issues with the latter.

    I probably place too much emphasis on Kevin’s coverage of Rice, but this was Rice in his peak years and by the `93 NFC title game Pup had the guy talking to himself. Who else has gotten into Jerry Rice’s head like that?

    Be interesting if we were able to ask Dave Campo, who coached both players, who he would take in a big game.

  2. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Ah yes, the Thurman – Newman comparison. This, I think, boils down to preference – do you prefer a solid player who displays little exceptional or poor performance or someone who makes big plays more often but also gives up big plays more often. I think I take TNew ahead of Thurman as I value solidity more than sporadic play. Yes, he was never a true shut down corner as Thurman showed a couple of glimpses of but Newman also never seemed to play average, as Thurman also displayed a few times. INTs are certainly game changing events, but giving up yardage consistenly, whether it’s deep passes along the sideline or 7-8 yards at a time, can be more devastating. Good QBs can kill a team (especially in a west coast type offense) w/ short but effective passes….

    Also, TNew, as was mentioned, started from Day 1, had much more pressure on him throughout his career given his draft status (and salary) and was better on special teams (remember, he was a return man as well).

  3. moses says:

    He looks pretty fast, but you are right that he is a bit of a project.
    If we can get him in the 4th round it would be great

  4. Vince_Grey says:

    Well, TJ, I have to disagree. The NFL is ALL about turnovers. He who wins the TO battle usually wins, period. I might concede you had at least a somewhat valid point… IF T-New was anywhere close to a shutdown corner, but he isn’t. He might not give up a lot of 40 yard bombs, but most games you can throw short and medium on the guy consistently if the rush isn’t getting to him pretty quick. Also, while Walls gave up deep stuff more often than one would prefer, I don’t recall Dennis being nearly that easy to beat deep. He was no “shutdown” corner, but he wasn’t burned deep all that often either.

    I don’t know where you get that Newman is better on special teams. Thurman was excellent in that regard, and I would rate him superior in that area, though not by a wide margin. As for return skills, clearly that wasn’t Thurman’s forte, (Career: 4 returns/59 yds) but in 8 seasons Newman has had less than 300 total return yards, so I wouldn’t call him any kind of serious return threat.

    Lastly, a top 5 pick, who, because of his contract, virtually can not be cut from the team, has MORE pressure on him than a guy taken in the 11th round? Seriously?

  5. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    I see your point VG but still disagree.

    Newman wasn’t a full time punt returner – he just filled in primarily and only has 38 PRs to his name. But when he did, he averaged 7.5 yds per return and had one TD. Something Thurman never did.

    Despite not being a INT machine, he led the team in INTs 3 times. And, in his prime years (2006-2008), Newman was a close to shutdown corner as they get. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but my guess is he was the least targeted CB on the team and among the league leaders in that category as well.

    As far as pressure goes, YES, the guy who’s drafted higher has MORE pressure not less. More pressure from his coach, from the owner, from the GM, from his teammates, from the fans, from the media and most importantly, from himself. Who do you pay attention to more – Matt Ryan (2008 4th overal pick) or Andre Woodson (2008 draft 6th round)? Andre may have to fight harder to get a paycheck but NO ONE is expecting him to be a pro-bowl QB. I’m sure if Thurman played poorly, few would care – he’d be cut and the team would move on. But, when you’re a top 10 pick and you suck, there’s all kinds of attention…there are event TV shows about the greatest NFL Busts of all time (Ryan Lief, Kijana Carter, Tony Mandarich, etc.)

    I think one thing fans need to realize is that not everyone on the team can be a superstar. It’d be impossible for one team to have a 22 pro bowlers on their team (theoritically it’s possible but highly unlikely). Even if it were, it’d only last 1 year as everyone would want more $ and the salary cap would cause 1/2 the team to go looking elsewhere.

    Thurman was supposed to be a career backup player. Those players are needed too – just ask Jason Garrett (who was a career backup). Sometimes those backups end up being diamonds in the rough but no one EXPECTS that. So, less pressure…

  6. Vince_Grey says:

    My point on special teams is that neither guy will ever be considered a “dangerous” return guy.

    Newman was pretty much a shutdown corner from `06 -’08? News to me, and the rest of the NFL too, apparently, because guys like that make 1st or 2nd team All Pro, or at least become consistent Pro Bowlers, yet TN has only made two Pro Bowls, in 2007 and 2009.

    I can’t understand your comments on pressure at all. I’ve been in near-broke, fighting for a job times and I’ve been in times where I basically lucked into a multi-year year contract that I really wasn’t qualified for, that more than quadrupled my take-home. Let me tell you, while there’s pressure both ways, I’ll take “plenty of money” pressure over “How am I gonna pay the rent next month” pressure anytime.

    As rookies, if Newman had a really bad day, he could just go home and count his signing bonus millions, knowing he had a job the next day no matter what. If Thurman had a bad day, he was fighting getting cut.

    Give me situation one all day.

    Backup? LOL… Thurman wasn’t even supposed to make the team! It was a miracle he did. This wasn’t some dog team he was joining, this was the fighting-for-the-SB every year Dallas Cowboys. 11rth rounders don’t often make those rosters, my friend.

  7. I would actually agree with Tyrone here that, for a few years, T-New was at least close to shutdown status. I think there was a string of something like 30+ games where he allowed just one TD. It was insane. CBs, like O-linemen, are usually voted All-Pro AFTER their great seasons. Newman wasn’t able to sustain that level of play due to injuries and now age.

    As far as pressure, I see both of your points. Different kinds of pressure…not sure which I think is more difficult with which to deal.

  8. Vince_Grey says:

    JB, you’ve already stated TN is one of your favorite players (??) but again, we’re talking the Cowboys here. They get so much pub (Good & bad) that any player remotely close to Pro Bowl status virtually always gets the benefit of the doubt. (Re: Andre Gurode)

    If Newman’s stats were so good I would say it was due to the other corner’s lack of ability more than TN’s “great” play.

    Let me be clear, I’m not saying the guy’s a dog or anything close. He’s a reasonably good cover corner who doesn’t force turnovers.

    But… shutdown? Pu-leeze.

    On the pressure debate, maybe it’s an age thing, but respectfully, you are both insane. This isn’t even a close call.

  9. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    VG, I do understand your point and too have been in the situation struggling to make ends meet, pay bills and feed myself in the process. But that situaiton doesn’t really apply here.

    Thurman was obviously a very good player who went unnoticed during the draft and fell to the 11th round. But when given the opportunity to shine he did. Good on him (and the Cowboys) for that – but let’s think about that opportunity for a sec.

    After being drafted that low, every play that Thurman was in for during camp for his 1st couple of years in the league, he was lining up and playing against 2nd and 3rd team talent – which he was certainly better than. Couple that with the fact that he knew whenever he went for the INT on a play and didn’t get it, the expectation of him was that he shouldn’t have gotten it anyway (ie. he was only an 11th round pick up and he wasn’t supposed to make that play). The DB coach wasn’t paying as much attention to him as he was toward the starting DBs.

    So, during the most critical time in the NFL as far as growth is concerned, Thurman was in a position to be able to play more free, take more chances and be more risky. In other words, he had no where to go but UP in terms of status. You mentioned it yourself – he wasn’t even supposed to make the team. If that was truly the case, then when he did make the team, it should have been thought of as a blessing to him.

    As far as pressure to feed his family, I think you’re a little of base with that. If he got cut, he certainly had other options besides bagging groceries. First, he could’ve bounced around the league on different practice teams getting paid league minimum (which is substantially more than most people). Or he could’ve headed for the CFL where lots of players (Raguib “The Rocket” Ishmael) went to develop their skill and get paid more than they could in the NFL. Your thoughts of him scraping up change for his next meal just doesn’t apply – athletes of his stature can always go somewhere and play for something (often its not for as much as the NFL offers but is still a good way to make a living).

    Newman, on the other hand, was facing top level competition everyday he played since the 1st day of training camp. Every attempt he made for an INT was scrutinized and over analyzed in the film room. The DB coach stayed on him. The D Coord stayed on him. He was the top draft pick that year so every veteran (not just the defense) was looking at him like he HAD to perform. Sure, he could always go home and count him $ at the end of the day but most Type A personality athletes at that level don’t want to be known as a bust!

    Essentially, what you and I have been debating is the difference in people’s perspective about money and the work they do (or don’t do) to deserve their pay. Everyone, of course, wants financial security but I for one don’t want it at the cost of looking like a fool to the world. You can play the Ryan Leaf role (and laugh all the way to the bank) if you want but for some people (espeicially people who can compete at the professional level), true pressure stems from underperformance, not underpay.

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