During their dynasty in the 1990s, the Cowboys relied primarily on four players at the wide receiver position: Michael Irvin, Kelvin Martin, Alvin Harper, and Kevin Williams. Irvin, of course, dominated this group, but each of the others played vital roles during the Cowboys’ playoff runs between 1992 and 1996:
- Harper made three of the greatest catches in team history during the 1992 and 1993 NFC Championship Games,
- Martin was an effective punt returner who also caught the game-clinching touchdown to beat the 49ers in the 1992 NFC title game.
- Williams started to come into his own late in 1995, helping to spark momentum that allowed the Cowboys to win their third title in four years.
Each of these four was drafted, and three of the four were drafted to meet specific needs. Irvin was expected to become a top-flight leading receiver, and he came through. Harper was expected to use his athleticism to make big plays, and he did. Williams was supposed to be a solid returner and good slot receiver, and he was.
Current teams have used a variety of approaches to adding their receivers. Some, such as New England, have had good fortune in the free agent market. Others, such as the Colts and Steelers, have devoted their attention to drafting their receivers. In the case of Indianapolis, Peyton Manning benefits not only from a great offensive system designed by coordinator Tom Moore, but he also has at his disposal three former first round draft picks in Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Anthony Gonzales, along with yet another first round pick at tight end with Dallas Clark.
Tony Romo has one receiver drafted by the Cowboys (in the seventh round, no less), along with two receivers who have cost the Cowboys more in dollars and draft picks than either are worth to the team. Other receivers are undrafted free agents who have shown some promise but who have not developed into full-time contributors.
In sum, it is well past time for Dallas to adopt a new strategy when it comes to the receiver position.
Since 1986, the Cowboys have spent 24 draft picks on receivers, including each of the four listed above. Two others– Mike Sherrard and Jimmy Smith– suffered through injury problems and left Dallas after just a few years. However, both were productive with other teams after leaving Dallas.
Michael Irvin’s suspension for the first five games of the 1996 season exposed the Cowboys’ lack of depth at receiver. The Cowboys brought Martin back to the team that year after he had played four seasons with Seattle and Philadelphia, but he was more of a complementary receiver than a primary threat. The same was true of Williams, who was injured ten games into the 1996 season and left for Arizona via free agency after that year.
The Cowboys tried to address their problems at receiver in 1997 by going the free agent route. Dallas signed receiver Anthony Miller in 1997, expecting the former big-play receiver to take pressure off of Irvin. Miller, however, was limited to 645 yards during a disappointing 6-10 campaign, and he never played again after that season.
The arrival of Chan Gailey in Dallas in 1998 led to the signing of former Steelers receiver Ernie Mills, who was not a bad slot receiver but who also did not take any pressure off of Irvin. The other starter in 1998 was an undrafted receiver named Billy Davis, who did not play badly but who was also not enough of a threat to give Irvin any relief.
In 1999, Dallas once again addressed the receiver problem through free agency, picking up former Carolina Panther Rocket Ismail. Ismail made a memorable play during his first game with the team, catching a 76-yard pass from Troy Aikman in overtime to give Dallas 41-35 win over the Redskins. It was one of the few big plays for Ismail in Dallas however, as he averaged only 14.4 yards per reception and scored only nine touchdowns, which were low numbers for someone expected to help spread the field.
It did not help Ismail or the Cowboys that Irvin was lost for good during the fourth game of the 1999 season. The Cowboys could have had the opportunity in 2000 to select Irvin’s replacement in the draft, but Dallas instead traded two first round picks to Seattle to obtain Joey Galloway. Galloway was supposed to team with Ismail to create nightmares for defensive coordinators, but the move was destined to failure thanks to an injury that Galloway suffered during his first game with the team in 2000. Ismail was also lost midway through the 2000 season, leaving Dallas with another free agent acquisition in James McKnight, who performed well enough to earn a free agent contract from Miami in 2001.
The Cowboys have apparently learned nothing from their past experiences in trying to find the right receiver through the free agency process. Galloway played three seasons in Dallas, none of which were as productive as he has been in Tampa Bay. Dallas has brought in Terry Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens, and Roy Williams, but none of these players has helped Dallas win so much as a single playoff game.
Granted, there are plenty of other reasons why Dallas has struggled in since 1996, but the failed strategy of trying to find receivers from other teams has not helped matters.
The focal point of the offseason for Dallas is apparently on continuity and team chemistry. The focus of the past couple of days has been on whether the team should release Owens, who has hurt the team’s chemistry.
Should the Cowboys release Owens, we should hope that the team also adopts a new approach to its receivers. Some teams have had some luck relying on free agent receivers to excel, but that strategy simply has not worked in Dallas. It’s about time Dallas started looking at teams such as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, which have had pretty good fortune relying on the draft to build their receiving corps.