A[n Incomplete] History of Problem Players

Pacman JonesThe Cowboys on Wednesday completed a trade for cornerback Pacman Jones, which ends a long process of debate and will likely influence the team’s priorities in the draft this weekend.

Jerry Jones has taken plenty of risks as a businessman and owner and general manager of the Cowboys.

He is taking another one in Adam “Pacman” Jones.

On Wednesday, the Cowboys agreed in principle with the Tennessee Titans to trade for the suspended cornerback and are in the process of completing a new four-year contract for Pacman Jones that includes no guaranteed money.

According to sources, the Cowboys will give up a fourth-round pick in this weekend’s draft (No. 126 overall), plus a sixth-round pick in 2009 should he not have any off-field troubles this season.

Several commentators have noted that the Cowboys during the past decade have taken chances on problem players. Dallas has not had overwhelming success with these players, but they were probably worth a risk (sort of like buying debt at a highly discounted rate). Regarding recent “project” players, this is from Mickey Spagnola:

And I’ll say it again, yes, the Cowboys have taken chances with some questionable characters with questionable backgrounds. And in the end, they were questionable characters, guys such as Alonzo Spellman, Demetrius Underwood, Mike Ulufale, Nicky Sualua, Antonio Bryant, Quincy Carter, Derek Ross, Kareem Larrimore and The Hambricks. They took chances on some guys who slid in the draft because of their questionable work ethic, guys such as Solomon Page, Willie Blade, Char-ron Dorsey to name a few, and in that end, that’s what caused those guys to fall by the wayside.

Most of the problem players have not worked out. Spellman played two seasons and started 31 games, but he was not the dominant player in Dallas that he was in Chicago. Underwood showed a little bit of promise as a rookie in 2000, but he was gone after appearing in only four games in 2001. Tank Johnson is the most recent example, but he was little more than a role player in 2007 after serving an eight-game suspension.

Like all franchises, the Cowboys have had their share of problem players. Not all have had legal problems, but they have provided distractions that teams would prefer to avoid. Here is a list of some of the more noteworthy problem players in team history:

Early Players

Tom Landry ran into problems with several players early in the team’s history. Many of these players were veterans who rejected Landry’s systems and requirements, such as the dreaded “Landry Mile.” Examples include John Gonzaga, Gene Cronin, and Sam Baker. None of these players lasted long in Dallas.

Buddy Dial

Dial, who recently passed away at the age of 71, was a hard-drinking former Steeler who was apparently a bad influence on quarterback Don Meredith. Dial played three seasons in Dallas, though he was never as productive as Cowboys as he was in Pittsburgh.

Pete Gent

Gent was a college basketball player who made the transition to pro football. He wrote the book North Dallas Forty, which chronicles life in the NFL during the 1960s. From what I’ve read, he was not a huge distraction, but his book was not well received by the team’s brass.

Duane Thomas

Thomas’ exploits during his two-year career in Dallas are well-known. After a successful rookie campaign in 1970, he irritated the team so badly that Dallas traded him to New England. He returned and helped the Cowboys win Super Bowl VI. After that, he became such a distraction that the team traded him away for good prior to the 1972 season.

Lance Rentzel

Rentzel was not a problem player in the locker room, but his arrest in 1970 for exposing himself to a child led to his dismissal from the team.

Bob Hayes

Hayes had a well-publicized dispute with the Cowboys in 1970 over his salary, and he lost his starting job for a time as a result. After his retirement, he spent time in prison thanks to a conviction for selling cocaine.

John Niland

Niland was involved in a very strange incident in 1973 while he was tripping in acid. He ended up wandering in the streets of Dallas before being found by officers. Though he survived the incident without being arrested (and though he became a Christian as a result of it), he was later convicted of trying to obtain a loan through fraudulent means.

Hollywood Henderson

Henderson’s run-ins with the conservative Landry were legendary, and his downfall due to drug use is the stuff of infamy. He wasted more talent than perhaps any other player in team history.

Clint Longley

Longley was just as well-known for punching Roger Staubach as he was for replacing Staubach on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 against the Washington Redskins.

“South America’s Team”

The use of cocaine by the Cowboys in the early 1980s led to the first use of the moniker, “South America’s Team.” According to a story in Sports Illustrated in 1983, several players were caught up in a drug investigation. The players: Harvey Martin, Tony Dorsett, Tony Hill, Larry Bethea, and Ron Springs.

Charles Haley

Haley wore out his welcome in San Francisco before the Cowboys acquired him in a trade just before the start of the 1992 season. Although he had an unusual personality, he never seemed to be a problem player in Dallas. Without him, the Cowboys would have struggled to win three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

Michael Irvin

Irvin had more than his share of off-the-field problems, all of which are well-chronicled.

Leon Lett

By 1996, Lett had overcome his gaffes (recall Super Bowl XXVII; Thanksgiving Day in 1993) to become one of the more dominant defensive tackles in the league. Then came the hammer– he failed a drug test, leading to a one-year suspension. Dallas could not replace him, and he was never the same once he finally returned.

Clayton Holmes

Holmes was another starter during the 1990s who was suspended for drug use. He now reportedly lives in poverty.

* * *

The Cowboys in 1997 established a special department that would focus on player development. Led by former running back Calvin Hill, the effort was designed to improve player behavior. Part of the story:

Nearly three years of off-the-field problems have prompted dramatic action from the Dallas Cowboys.

In his first significant response to the spate of player arrests and suspensions, Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones has announced the creation of a department devoted to improving player behavior.

The wide-ranging plan, devised by new consultants Calvin and Janet Hill, calls for the hiring of at least four managers and more than 10 staff members. It also includes an alumni advisory board and an orientation program for rookies and other newcomers.

Department managers will be hired in areas of security, player development and assistance, psychology and spirituality, Jones said Wednesday. The supervisors will be in place by September, he said.

“The fans of the Cowboys deserve this type of intense commitment to good behavior,” Jones said.

It is a “multimillion-dollar commitment over a number of years” and one Jones says he envisions will become a model for the league.

“He’s taken that function to the next level,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Wednesday. “A lot of clubs have one or two people charged with player programs and player behavior, but nothing like this.”

Reluctance to go along with the program could result in players eventually being cut, traded or not having their contracts extended, Jones said.

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Article by Matt Cordon

Blogging impatiently about the Cowboys since 2006. Being a fan since 1977 hasn't required quite as much patience.
  • EP

    I wonder how many of the players had problems before getting to Dallas. My family new Nicky Sualua well. His problem was he was a follower, who was often homesick, and very trusting. Dallas is not a place for people looking to fit in or a place for people who need someone riding them to stay on track. Nicky was a quiet guy who never wanted to draw attention to himself, unfortunately it might have contributed to his friend dieing.

  • Fred Goodwin

    Golden Richards wasn’t a “problem child” while he was with the Cowboys (traded to Chicago during the ’78 season), but he developed serious drug problems after his football days were over.

    Another player who didn’t have off-the-field issues, Butch Johnson didn’t get along with Tom Landry (Landry never cared for the “California Quake”) and was traded after the ’83 season.

    Ron Springs was a vocal critic of the club while a Dallas Cowboy and was released after the ’84 season.

    There was also the case of Rafael Septien — he pled guilty to charges of indecency with a child after being released by the Cowboys following the ’86 season.

    Larry Bethea suffered depression and committed suicide in ’87 albeit a couple of years after being released by the Cowboys.

    Mark Tuinei last played for the Cowboys in ’97, then died in ’99 of a heroin /ecstasy overdose.

    Alonzo Spellman suffered from bipolar disorder and was released by the Cowboys after the 2000 season.

    Erik Williams was (falsely) accused of rape, and was never the same player after a 1994 car accident; his last season was 2000.

    Lest we forget, some coaches had issues while they were with the Cowboys, most notable of course was “pistol packing” Barry Switzer, who was controversial during his entire tenure (94-97) with the Cowboys, especially because of his prickly relationship with franchise QB Troy Aikman.

    Aikman also didn’t along well with OC Dave Shula (89-90).

    And finally, there were also some shenanigans going on among the front office staff, when owner Clint Murchison married the ex-wife of super scout Gil Brandt!

    There was enough going on in that franchise to create a soap opera and call it “Dallas” (I forgot, they already did that!)

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