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All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part IV: Safeties

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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 LinePart II: Linebackers, or Part III: Cornerbacks

  • Safeties (Four players)

First-Team

Cliff Harris, Darren Woodson

Our starting pair of safeties might not be in the Hall of Fame, but they probably should be.

Cliff Harris, a.k.a “Captain Crash,” was yet another of the Tom Landry-era Cowboys’ seemingly endless run of not just good, but great free agent signings.  Yeah, Dallas had some spectacular draft picks, but for a 20-year period from the early 60s to the early 80s, they were the best (no one else was even close, really) at finding diamonds among the trash, so to speak.  Especially when it came to defensive backs.

In the 70s, Harris was a six-time Pro Bowler, made AP First-team All Pro three times and was named to the Second-team once more. In addition, he was named the starting safety on the NFL “All-Decade Team” of the 70s, and is a member of the Cowboys Ring Of Honor. Cliff started five Super Bowl games with Dallas and was a two-time Super Bowl champion. Despite all that, he has yet to make the Hall of Fame, reaching as far as the final stage in 2004.  I’m a pretty hard sell on Hall of Fame membership, but I think Harris should be in.  He certainly deserves the spot far more than Bob “Big Game No Show” Hayes.

One thing that works against Harris is his lack of elite stats.  While Harris was actually pretty good in pass coverage, when given the choice of blowing up a receiver or going for the interception, Harris usually went for the hit.  In 10 seasons, he had only 29 picks, with a season-high of five in the 1977 Super Bowl year.

That said, no safety in the league during his run was more feared or more respected.  One of the major differences between say, a young Roy Williams and Harris, was that, while both hit very hard, Harris never sacrificed good tackling for a “kill shot.”

Darren Woodson came to the Cowboys as a second-round draft pick in 1992.  How did he last as long as he did in the draft?  Excellent question, because Woodson’s size/speed ratio (6’ 1”, 219 pounds, sub 4.4 speed) compares very favorably to Patrick Peterson, a consensus top-10 pick for this year’s draft.  His Combine measurables are extremely impressive even for today, meaning they had to be off the charts back in 1992.

The most likely reason is that his college coaches at Arizona State inexplicably played him at linebacker, so NFL scouts viewed him as a “tweener” and didn’t know if he could play safety or not.  Thank goodness Jimmy Johnson figured it out before the rest of the NFL, because Woodson, after a couple of seasons as a part-time player, became the stalwart and glue of the Cowboys’ defensive backfield for the next decade.

Woodson was named a starter in five Pro Bowls and was selected First-team All Pro three times.  He retired as the Cowboys’ all-time leading tackler.  The fact that the NFL left him off the All-Decade team of the 90s is a joke.

The greatness of Woodson lies in that he was consistently, almost boringly, outstanding at virtually all facets of the game.  He was smart, instinctive, excellent in coverage, a powerful hitter, an outstanding tackler, and excellent in run support.  Woodson was also a great special teams player, even playing there long after he became an established star.

Woodson’s only weakness was his lack of interceptions.  He didn’t have great hands, and finished his career with only 23 picks.  That, in my opinion, drops him a shade below a player such as Ed Reed, who is still playing and has 54 interceptions already.  Still, “Woody” was a great player–a three-time Super Bowl champion who made the players around him much better.  With Woodson at his side, Roy Williams was a deserving Pro Bowl safety.  Without him, Williams’ game quickly fell apart and he was gone a few seasons later.

Backups

Charlie Waters, Cornell Green

While Cliff Harris was roaming the Cowboys’ secondary at free safety in the 70s, his partner-in-crime was Charlie Waters, a former college quarterback turned safety. Tom Landry saw a lot of himself in Waters (slow, but very football-savvy, hard-working, and a fine all-around athlete) and tried to turn him into an All Pro cornerback as Landry himself had been in the early-to-mid 50s.  It was now the 70s, however, and Waters’ lack of speed and inexperience at the position caused him to get burned often by quicker, faster receivers.

However, Landry loved Waters’ perseverance, and once Landry made him the starting strong safety in 1975, a star was born.  Waters was a three-time Pro Bowler and the signal caller for the Doomsday II defense that went to three Super Bowls in four seasons.  He was a coach on the field, and, along with Harris, formed one of the outstanding safety combos in NFL history (which was our good fortune, because the Cowboys’ corners for much of that era were below-average–Aaron Kyle and Benny Barnes? Yeesh).

Waters was a great tackler out of necessity, as strong safety was really more of an extra linebacker on early downs in Landry’s flex defense.  Even so, Waters was very good in coverage.  His lack of top speed, while a serious detriment at cornerback, was just fine (though definitely not elite) for a strong safety.

And Waters really stepped up in big games.  He still holds the NFL record for the most interceptions in postseason history with nine. Personally, I put great stock in players who make big plays in big games (I also have a lot of contempt for supposedly great players who fail to show up in big games).

My last choice for backup safety is by no means a lock.  I basically had three guys in mind here–Cornell Green, Michael Downs, and Roy Williams.  Williams was eliminated early because, while his first three seasons were impressive, he lacked staying power.  Williams’ pass coverage grew worse as time wore on, and his shoddy tackling drove me nuts.  Poor tackling is a real pet peeve of mine.

Michael Downs was another of those great Cowboys’ free agent finds.  The kid started from day one as a rookie and had seven picks that season.  In the early-to-mid-80s, Downs had three seasons with six or more INTs and led the team in tackles three times.  I recall him being a very, very good player, but I can’t find any confirmation of him ever making the Pro Bowl or being an AP All Pro.  He may have been one of those guys who was always just a hair below that elite level.

With some reservation, I’m going to name Cornell Green to my All-Cowboys team, and basing the pick strictly on awards.  Green retired after the 1974 season.  I have read virtually everything a person can read on the Cowboys and I cannot find anything on Green.  No anecdotes, no major articles on his greatness, no video of him making a big play, nothing.  I even ran an article search on Sports Illustrated for his entire playing career.  Know how many times his name is even mentioned in SI?  Twice–once a single line about trying to cover Boyd Dowler in the 1966 NFL title game, and once about his time as a college basketball player.  The man is like a freaking ghost.

Having said that, Green was named to five Pro Bowls and was a three-time All Pro, and that’s impressive.  However, all those All Pro votes came when he played cornerback.  Green didn’t move to safety until the 1970 season–about halfway through his career.  Still, he made the Pro Bowl twice after that, so I’m assuming he would have won those other awards as a safety had he played the position the entire time.  And, a guy with that sort of versatility is always a plus.

Green was another free agent find (notice a theme forming here? You could construct one hell of a secondary with the Cowboys’ undrafted free agent DBs alone).  He was a big-time college basketball player who never played a lick of football, yet Landry converted him to a defensive back.

For a cornerback, Green was a giant at the time, at 6’3” and over 200 pounds (hell, that’s big now).  The only thing lacking from Green’s game was an abundance of interceptions, which, as far as I can determine, was due mainly to Green’s poor hands.  In 13 seasons–in which Green never missed a game (impressive, part II)–Green had just 34 picks, though he had seven in both 1963 and 1967.

I really can’t see anyone forming a terribly viable argument against these selections, but I’ve been fooled before, so fire way if you dare.

NEXT: Running Backs

———————————————

JB’s All-Time Dallas Cowboys Safeties

1.  Charlie Waters
2.  Darren Woodson
3.  Cornell Green
4.  Cliff Harris

Same names, different order.  I listed Waters number one for all of the reasons Vince mentioned.  He is is third in team history with 41 interceptions and his record nine postseason picks mean a lot to me.

Woodson wasn’t sensational in any individual aspect of the game, but his above-average play in all areas made him an all-around sensational football player.  If there was an elite component to his game, it was his tackling.

Vince wasn’t impressed with Green’s 34 career interceptions, but I think that’s quite a few–fifth in team history–for playing primarily in the 60s.

In terms of awards, Harris is probably the best safety in team history.  I’m not huge on comparing Pro Bowl selections among different eras, however, and Harris averaged just 2.9 interceptions per season in Dallas.  Still a heck of a player, but I’ll take Waters, Woodson, or Green ahead of him.

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5 Responses to All-Time Dallas Cowboys Football Team, Part IV: Safeties

  1. Vince_Grey says:

    JB – Green played 13 seasons. My math says that works out to be a shade over 2.6 INT’s per year. Not as good as Harris’ 2.9, and Green played corner for a lot of that time while Harris was strictly a safety. I agree Pro Bowls are often a bad barometer (Though IMO they were more accurate back then than now) but minus a lot of seeing the man play and any other detailed opinions, that’s about all I had to go on.

    OTOH, I did see Harris play pretty much his entire career, and he was great. Not many receivers ran routes into his area and those that did paid a heavy price.

    Let me add that while technically speaking Harris was the FS and Charlie played SS, they actually were, for all purposes, the opposite of those positions in terms of stats and effect. Harris was the hard-tackling “big hitter” you would normally see at SS, while Waters was definitely more the FS “cerebral” type more inclined to lurk in coverage and pick off passes.

    I recall reading a long, long time ago why they actually played the “opposite” position, and it had something to do with how Landry’s defenses used the SS, plus Harris was already established at FS.

  2. Sure would be nice to see how players of their talent level would fare in today’s game….I know it is comparing apples and oranges but, with proper weight training/coaching, how do you think a player like Harris would perform today?

  3. Vince_Grey says:

    Harris was at his peak in the mid-seventies, and I think any player born 35 years later would be significantly bigger, stronger, and faster than he was then.

    How much so is anyone’s guess. He was listed at 190, but actually played at about 180-185. That was a tad small for a safety even for that era, and Harris’ speed was never exceptional.

    Could he realistically carry another 20-25 pounds? Maybe shave a few ticks off his 40 time and go from a 4.8ish to a 4.5ish? I think so, and if he did, I say he’d be able to play top level football with those measurables.

    I see the biggest issue being his hitting. Much of how he played then would draw flags, fines, and suspensions now.

  4. Mark Shields says:

    No mention of Bill Bates anywhere? Are you serious?

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