The Worst Teams of All Time, Part 8: The 1989 Dallas Cowboys

This is a post in an ongoing series, where we examine and poke fun at some of the most ghastly teams ever to take the field.

The Dallas Cowboys are poised to win on Monday Night this week and soar to a 7-1 record, much to the joy of Cowboy fans that the years of .500 season torment are now over. But let’s take a time to remember the worst team in franchise history, shall we? Rewind the franchise a little bit. In the 1990s, the Cowboys build a dynasty, we know that, but rewind just a little bit more. 1989. The season “America’s Team” hit absolute rock bottom.

In 1989, Jerry Jones became the new owner of the Cowboys, taking over for H.R. Bright. Jones immediately fired legendary head coach Tom Landry, who had steered Dallas to a 3-13 record in 1988. Cowboy fans reeled at this and quickly began to fume over Jones’ disregard for Landry’s view as a hero. But he wasn’t done yet. General manager Tex Schramm was also fired, and Jones appointed himself the GM duties. Cowboy fans again went nuts.

Jimmy Johnson

After Jones was named the GM, he hired Jimmy Johnson, a friend of his who had played with him in the college ranks. Johnson had just finished an unbelievable run with the University of Miami, where he established Miami as a perennial championship contender (usually “winner” more than “contender”) and cementing the “Decade of Dominance” there. The issue was, Johnson had 0 experience in the NFL, and he was often questioned as to whether or not he could control his players, the opposite of what he did at Miami.

Dallas did have the 1st overall pick in the 1989 draft after their 3-13 decimation the year before. They used this pick on UCLA’s Troy Aikman, a very wise pick, and a crucial one regarding the Cowboys’ future.

Troy Aikman

Troy Aikman probably spent more time on the ground than he did upright in 1989.

Well, the initial results weren’t promising. Not even close. Aikman had a terrible rookie year, completing 52.9% of his passes for 1,749 yards and a touchdown interception ratio of 9-18. This led to a quarterback rating of 55.7. He went 0-11 as a starter.

Steve walsh

Trouble was, the Cowboys also selected Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft, who played for Jimmy Johnson at Miami. Accustomed to his tactics and style, Walsh started 5 games, while playing in 8, finishing with pedestrian numbers. He completed 50.2% of his passes for 1,371 yards and a 5 TD – 9 INT ratio and a rating of 60.5. Walsh didn’t have a very strong throwing arm, though, and his deep accuracy was poor. He did lead the Cowboys to their only victory of the season, but four games into 1990, he was out of Dallas.

Herschel Walker

Herschel Walker was unquestionably the Cowboys’ best player heading into 1989. He had rushed for over 1,500 yards the year before, and was basically their entire offense. However, 5 games into 1989, Dallas made an incredibly bold move by trading Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and eight draft picks. It was the biggest trade in NFL history, if not the biggest, and it basically sent the Cowboys into a black hole for the entire season. Johnson’s idea was that his team was beyond trying to win a few games in one year, so he traded away the best player to begin building for the future. The Vikings, on the other hand, thought Walker was the final piece to a Super Bowl puzzle.

Despite playing only 5 games, Walker finished as the second leading rusher on the team. He ran for 246 yards and scored 2 touchdowns. Paul Palmer led the team in rushing, with 446 yards and 2 touchdowns in 9 appearances. Tony Dorsett he was not. The Cowboys also tried luminaries such as Darryl Clack and Kevin Scott, who never made an impact on the NFL.

Michael Irvin, despite being a Hall of Fame player, had a below-average year in 1989. He recorded only 26 receptions for 378 yards and 2 touchdowns. Irvin fought injuries all year, playing in only 6 games.

All of this came together to form the worst offense in the NFL that year, one that only averaged 12.75 points and 268.3 yards per game. They were also shut out three times.

The defense was summed up by Jimmy Johnson in an interview in 2014:

When I got to training camp, I just couldn’t believe how slow and old the players were.

Jim Jeffcoat

Pretty much the only player who knew what he was doing in 1989 was Jim Jeffcoat, who recorded 11.5 sacks and 100 tackles. The defense was truly a no-name unit, but they were not like the Dolphins of the early 70s. They were no-name, and they played crappy defense. They surrended 24.56 points per game, more than double what the offense could muster.

So, in all, the Cowboys finished with a 1-15 record in 1989. They were not America’s Team. They were not loved or famous. They were in the bottom of the barrel, and were more America’s Laughingstock than the former. The only bright spot came on November 5th, when they shocked the rival Redskins 13-3, costing Washington a playoff berth in the process. Other notably bad losses included a 28-0 pounding at the hands of the Saints, and two defeats to the Eagles, one on Thanksgiving Day (27-0 and 20-10 were the scores).

In 1990, the Cowboys improved to 7-9 with new talent, and then earned a playoff berth in 1991. In 1992, they formed one of the best teams ever, assembling a methodical offense and the league’s best defense, earning them a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl title. In 1993, they returned to the championship game, and won once again.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, the Vikings suffered 6-10 and 8-8 records in 1990 and 1991, before returning to the playoffs in 1992. Herschel Walker never found his stride there, and the countless draft picks used to get him handcuffed the team. Badly. Minnesotans could only watch in disgust as the Cowboys built a dynasty off a bum trade for an overrated power back.

This, ladies and gentleman, is a turnaround. And the 1989 Cowboys show us that you can go from the absolute definition of “worst” to the absolute definition of “best” in just a short time.


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