With all due respect to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers or anyone else who claims to be “America’s Team,” that honor belongs to the Dallas Cowboys. They are the most popular NFL franchise thanks to their dominance under Tom Landry in the '70s and '80s, their resurgence during the Triplets Era of the '90s and the star-studded team that currently populates our TV screen in today’s game. The ratings back up the popularity of the Cowboys, as they consistently rank as the most-viewed team each year in Nielsen Ratings. Additionally, they are the most valuable sports team in the world according to Forbes, and the Cowboys also have the best winning percentage in NFL history.
While the Cowboys have boasted some of the biggest names and best players in NFL history, even the most die-hard fan would admit that the team held onto some of those players a bit too long. The Cowboys like name value, but when that player’s name exceeds his actual game, then it creates a bad look both for the player and for the team. Likewise, some NFL greats just had a cup of coffee in Big D before moving on to bigger and better things elsewhere. We will look at the players at both ends of that spectrum including some current Cowboys who should have left long ago, and players currently playing for other teams that were once Cowboys. Here are 8 players that the Dallas Cowboys never should have let go and 7 players they kept for too damn long!
15 Never Should Have Let Go: Jimmy Smith
The Cowboys had Michael Irvin’s successor on their team for two years (1992-93), but they let him get away. Smith was a special teams player during his first season and gathered his lone Super Bowl ring as a rookie. After a mysterious illness, he then underwent appendectomy surgery in 1993 and missed the entire season. Even though the Cowboys were the ones who initially misdiagnosed the injury, they asked Smith to take a pay cut to return to the team in 1994.
Smith declined the pay cut and decided to test the free agent market, and after a brief stop in Philadelphia, Smith joined the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. Smith would then proceed to become the best receiver in Jags franchise history and one of the NFL’s best receivers, period. From 1996-2005, only Marvin Harrison had more receiving yards than Smith, who made five straight Pro Bowls and posted nine 1,000-yard seasons.
14 Kept For Too Long: Drew Bledsoe
Bledsoe had a solid first season in Dallas in 2005 when he led the NFL in both fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. But in 2006 the statuesque Bledsoe had become even more immobile and struggled to avoid pressure. Over his last three games, Bledsoe had a 16.6 percent sack rate, which means he was sacked one out of every six dropbacks. With the Cowboys at 3-3, Bill Parcells lifted the veteran for the undrafted and unknown Tony Romo. The rest is history, but what would have happened if Romo started from the beginning?
The Cowboys may have started 4-2 or even 5-1 instead of 3-3, and then they would have been hosting a playoff game instead of going to wet and gloomy Seattle, where Romo would botch a snap on a potential game-winning field goal.
13 Never Should Have Let Go: Danny Amendola
Amendola is a native Texan who went to Texas Tech and was a local invitee to Cowboys tryouts in 2008. He didn’t make the team, but he made the practice squad and was heavily featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks that preseason. He spent the entire season on the Cowboys practice squad, while the likes of Terrell Owens, Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin were on the main roster. After 2008, the Cowboys chose not to re-sign him and he joined the Eagles practice squad. Again, Amendola would not be promoted to the main roster, but that would come a year later after joining the Rams.
Since then, Amendola has become of the best slot receivers in the NFL as well as a valuable return specialist. He led the NFL in all-purpose yards in 2010, has won two Super Bowls with the Patriots and is closing in on 500 career receptions.
12 Kept For Too Long: Mike Ditka
Yes kids, Mike Ditka was once a football player. At one point Iron Mike was the NFL’s best tight end and is the only tight end in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons. But the Bears got his best days as a player (and a coach), and he was just about done when he left Chicago for Philly in 1967. After two seasons there, Ditka was on his last legs but the Cowboys signed him in 1969 for one last season. However, Ditka didn’t retire, and he wouldn’t retire for another four years, as he was something akin to a player-coach. He was definitely more of the latter than the former, as Ditka had more receiving yards in his rookie season in Chicago than he had in his four-year career in Dallas. After serving an apprenticeship, Ditka was officially hired as an assistant coach in 1973 by the Cowboys, perhaps, because Dallas feared he may return again as a player if they didn’t make him a coach.
11 Never Should Have Let Go: Joey Galloway
The DeSean Jackson of his era, Galloway had one weapon and it was speed. I’m not sure he ever ran any other route than the deep route, but he didn’t really need to. The Cowboys traded two first-round picks for Galloway, and while he led the NFL in yards per reception in his last year in Dallas, he was a bit of a disappointment. The Cowboys thought he was washed-up so Bill Parcells traded him away in 2004 for Keyshawn Johnson. Parcells is a HOF coach, but this was one of his most glaring mistakes, as Galloway still had a lot left in his legs.
Galloway would post three more 1,000 yard-receiving seasons after leaving Dallas as he joined Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with at least three 1,000-yard receiving seasons after the age of 33. In 2007 a 36-year-old Galloway even finished second in the NFL in yards per reception, so he still had plenty in the tank when the Cowboys shipped him away.
10 Kept For Too Long: Keyshawn Johnson
You know those former Pro Bowl running backs that then become slower, plodding versions of themselves later in their careers? Keyshawn Johnson was the wide receiver version of that in Dallas. He had just come off essentially being kicked off the Buccaneers after Jon Gruden deactivated him midseason, but Johnson reunited with Bill Parcells in Big D. Parcells traded away Joey Galloway for Johnson, but only one of those players still had something left in the tank, and it wasn’t the player that Dallas acquired. Johnson failed to reach 1,000 yards in either of his two seasons in Dallas, and played only three more years after the trade.
However, Galloway played seven more seasons after the trade and had three 1,000-yard seasons. If Parcells wanted a receiver prone to temper tantrums, then he should have acquired one who could actually still play, and he did just that the following offseason, as Keyshawn was replaced by Terrell Owens.
9 Never Should Have Let Go: Brock Marion
A somewhat-forgotten Cowboy, Marion spent his first five seasons with Dallas and won two Super Bowls. He led the team with six interceptions in 1995, but after not picking off any passes over the next two seasons, the team did not re-sign him. Marion then joined the Dolphins in 1998 in order to be reunited with the man who drafted him, Jimmy Johnson. His impact was immediate, as he made all three of his career Pro Bowls in Miami and picked off 20 passes in six seasons as a Dolphin. Miami finished in the top five in scoring defense four times during Marion’s tenure with the team. The person the Cowboys replaced Marion with, George Teague, had a combined three interceptions during Marion’s tenure in Miami.
8 Kept For Too Long: Greg Hardy
The Cowboys employed Greg Hardy for just 12 games, but that was 12 games too many. He threw his girlfriend onto a bed of guns and asked her which one she wanted to get shot with. Hardy may have been a great pass-rusher, but he was a nutcase and a locker room cancer. This isn’t like the Cowboys taking a chance on Charles Haley who struggled with bipolar disorder; Hardy suffered from no mental illness and just didn’t care for others. Heck, many Cowboys fans would probably have preferred that Jerry Jones signed a then-51-year-old Haley instead of Hardy. Fortunately, Hardy’s stint in Dallas was brief and no NFL team has even worked him out since then. Now Hardy has taken his talents to MMA and is beating up other men, which is a stark contrast from what he did before.
7 Never Should Have Let Go: Ken Norton Jr.
The only player in NFL history to win three straight Super Bowls, Jerry Jones would have preferred that Norton’s third ring came with the Cowboys and not the 49ers. Norton spent his first six seasons as an outside linebacker with Dallas and won Super Bowls in each of his last two seasons with the team. However, when 1994 rolled around, the Cowboys felt they could three-peat without a Pro Bowler like Norton, so he walked in free agency and joined the 49ers. That ended up costing Dallas, as the Cowboys were defeated by San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game and the dream of a three-peat was over for everyone except Ken Norton Jr. Norton would go on to make two more Pro Bowls in San Francisco before retiring after the 2000 season. He then joined the coaching ranks of his alma mater, USC, and later the Seahawks and Oakland Raiders.
6 Kept For Too Long: Tony Dorsett
The HOFer had, perhaps, the greatest final-college season/first-pro season combination in football history. Dorsett won a national title and the Heisman at Pittsburgh in 1976 and then won the Super Bowl and the Offensive ROY award in 1977! He became the first player to win the national championship one year and then the Super Bowl the next year. While Dorsett had a great first nine years in Dallas, the last two were ones to forget. Dorsett split time with Herschel Walker in 1986 and 1987 which left both players unhappy. Dorsett’s play also slipped, as he averaged 4.4 yards per carry over his first nine seasons and just 3.8 over those last two. With Walker being eight years younger than Dorsett, he won out and was named the starting running back. Dorsett was shipped to Denver before the 1988 season, where he played one forgettable season with the Broncos.
5 Never Should Have Let Go: Matt Moore
Moore was undrafted in 2007 but signed with Dallas’ practice squad because there were just two quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart, Tony Romo and backup Brad Johnson. Moore had a passer rating over 100 in the preseason and thought he had a great chance to make the final roster, but the Cowboys elected to keep just two QBs and Moore was cut. He then joined the Carolina Panthers, where he would make 13 starts over four seasons. Take a guess at how many starts Tony Romo missed over those four seasons….13!
Dallas likely would have fared much better with Moore than they did with the Brad Johnson/Jon Kitna/Stephen McGee combination. Moore then joined the Dolphins in 2011 and has been with them ever since. He’s certainly not a franchise quarterback, but Moore may be the best backup QB in the league and he has a .500 record across 30 career starts.
4 Kept For Too Long: Jason Witten
The only active player on the “kept too long” list, Cowboys fans will see what I mean four years from now. That’s because a then-39-year-old Witten will STILL BE UNDER CONTRACT thanks to the five-year deal he signed this spring. Let’s be honest, Witten can’t even separate from linebackers at this point and eight-yard hitch routes is all he can run. It’s not like he’s going to suddenly get faster in his late 30s, and he’s more valuable as a team leader and mentor than as a player at this point.
IMHO, the main reason why Jerry Jones extended Witten’s contract through 2021 is so he can pass Tony Gonzalez on the career receptions list. That, in theory, would put Witten with the most catches all-time for a tight end and with the second-most catches in NFL history, trailing only Jerry Rice. Jerry Jones likes records and milestones (see: Emmitt Smith) and in his opinion, Witten setting that mark outweighs his subpar play. That line of thought is okay when you are the owner and are thinking about the fans, but it doesn’t work if you are also the GM and your job is to win.
3 Never Should Have Let Go: Martellus Bennett
The Cowboys were familiar with Bennett as he played just a couple hours away at Texas A&M. They took Marty B in the second round of the 2008 draft, but with Jason Witten in the fold, it was clear that Bennett was only going to have a marginal role. Thus, after just 85 catches over four years, Bennett left Dallas and would then play for four more NFL teams. It was when he left Dallas that he would really get to show off his talents, and personality, as he made his lone Pro Bowl and won a ring with the Patriots. My question for Dallas is: why draft a tight end that high when you know he’s only going to play 15 snaps a game?
Bennett is five years younger than Witten, so you could have argued then (not now), that Dallas should have kept Bennett and let Witten go. Bennett is arguably the only player on this list who falls more under the banner of “never should have been drafted” rather than “never should have let go.”
2 Kept For Too Long: Emmitt Smith
On one hand, you can understand why Jerry Jones kept Emmitt Smith on the Cowboys for as long as he did. Jones wanted Smith to become the NFL’s leading rusher in a Cowboys uniform, and it would have been a terrible look for the franchise (and Smith) if he gave his heart and soul to the Cowboys only to set the record in a Cardinals uniform. But on the other hand, you could argue that Smith should have left the Cowboys right after their last Super Bowl in 1995. Over the last seven years of Smith’s career in Dallas, he averaged 4.0 yards per carry…AVERAGED. Smith’s rushing average dropped in each of his final three seasons in Big D, and his now-plodding style really hurt the Cowboys’ offense.
After Smith eclipsed Walter Payton’s rushing mark, Jerry Jones couldn’t get rid of him fast enough, as Smith’s rushing attempts decreased after breaking the record, and he would go and join the Cardinals the following season.
1 Never Should Have Let Go: Todd Christensen
Christensen is the only player on this list who deserves more blame than the Cowboys do for him leaving the team. He was an All-Conference fullback at BYU and was drafted by Dallas in the second round in 1978. Christensen then broke his foot as a rookie and didn’t play a down. When his second season rolled around, the Cowboys decided to convert him into a tight end, but Christensen balked at the idea. An unhappy Christensen lasted just one week at the position before Dallas ended up releasing him, and after one game with the Giants, he then landed in Oakland. It took a couple of years of convincing, but Christensen finally realized that tight end was the best position for him and bought into the pass-catching role with the Raiders.
Five years after being drafted as a fullback, Christensen led the NFL in receptions as a tight end. He would make five Pro Bowls and win two Super Bowls with the Raiders. When Christensen retired in 1988, he ranked fourth all-time in receptions by a tight end, zero of which came in a Cowboys uniform.