All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part III: Cornerbacks
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..
- Cornerbacks (Five Players)
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.
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.