1989 Review: Cowboys Begin a New Era By Drafting Aikman

Troy Aikman was an $11 million man after the Cowboys took him with the top pick in the 1989 draft.

Jimmy Johnson did not conduct himself at the 1989 draft like a rookie head coach who was just feeling his way through it. He managed to draft a Hall-of-Fame quarterback and three other key starters who helped the Cowboys to become a dynasty just three years later.

Everyone expected the Cowboys to take UCLA’s Troy Aikman in the first round. Though Johnson was noncommittal about taking the rookie QB, there were no surprises on draft day. The only question was how much Aikman might make given reports that he would earn more than Joe Montana, who was the best QB in the game at that time (Aikman signed for $11.2 million over six years, which was indeed more than Montana).

In the second round, Raiders’ owner Al Davis desperately wanted Penn State guard Steve Wisniewski. The Cowboys drafted the guard but turned around and traded him and a 6th rounder to the Raiders for a 2nd, 3rd, and 5th from the Raiders. Wisniewski became an eight-time Pro Bowler, but the Cowboys did just fine. The picked up Syracuse fullback Daryl Johnston in the second round (using the Raiders pick).

Dallas found a Pro Bowl lineman in the third round in Mark Stepnoski. One round later, the Cowboys found a run-stopping defensive end in Tony Tolbert.

Here’s a look at the full draft:

1(1) Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA
2(29) Steve Wisniewski, G, Penn State
2(39) Daryl Johnston, FB, Syracuse
3(57) Mark Stepnoski, C, Pittsburgh
3(68) Rhondy Weston, DE, Florida
4(85) Tony Tolbert, DE, Texas-El Paso
5(113) Keith Jennings, TE, Clemson
5(119) Willis Crockett, LB, Georgia Tech
5(125) Jeff Roth, DT, Florida
7(168) Kevin Peterson, LB, Northwestern
8(196) Charvez Foger, RB, Nevada-Reno
9(224) Tim Jackson, DB, Nebraska
10(252) Rod Carter, LB, Miami (FL)
11(280) Randy Shannon, LB, Miami (FL)
12(308) Scott Ankrom, WR, TCU

Supplemental Draft
1(1) Steve Walsh, QB, Miami (FL)
12(5) Mike Loman, RB, Coffeyville Community College

The remaining picks in the regular draft are hardly worth mentioning.  Tight end Keith Jennings spent one year in Dallas before becoming a part-time starter with the Chicago Bears. The others who actually made the squad were special teams players.

The Cowboys could have entered the 1989 season with Aikman and Steve Pelluer. However, Johnson stayed with his QB from the University of Miami, Steve Walsh, who threw for 5,369 yards and 48 touchdowns in his college career.  Some speculated that Johnson drafted Walsh with the idea of trading him, but Walsh ended up at training camp.

With the team picking up the young QBs, Johnson had to advise Danny White to retire in July. For several months, Steve Pelluer sought a trade, which was finally completed when Dallas shipped him to Kansas City in October. He played 18 total games with the Chiefs, starting only three.

  • The JJs did extremely well in their first draft, but I think they got help from some of the Landry-Schramm scouting staff.

    After he fired everyone else, Jones kept Gil Brandt and a few scouts. How much input they had on draft day decisions is hard to know. By the time the ’89 media guide came out, Brandt was gone, but Jerry retained five of Landry’s last scouting staff: Dick Mansperger, John Wooten, Walter Juliff, Ron Marciniak, Jeff Smith, and Walt Yowarsky.

    Per the ’88 media guide, Brandt’s last scouting staff under Landry comprised himself plus eight scouts, meaning the JJs kept 67% (Brandt + five scouts) to help them with the ’89 draft. So while Jimmy (and to some extent Jerry) deservedly get much credit for the ’89 draft which laid the foundation for championships to come, it appears they had a lot of help from Landry holdovers.

    And I’m not saying Landry would’ve done as well in the ’89 draft. There’s no reason to believe the same staff that had a such dismal draft record during the ’80s would have done any better in ’89 without Jimmy & Jerry making the final decisions.

  • Mike Little

    Please forgive a Landry guy,but it was at least three years past for Tom to step down.The game,the schemes,the drafting,and development of talent had passed him by.If Tom Landry made the exact picks as Jimmy at this time in his distinguished career the results would not have been the same.Idle thought or question for all time Cowboy fans.How would Roger have done with Aikman’s Cowboys,and how would Troy have done with Roger’s teams?

  • David H

    The Landry/Brandt brain trust had a pretty solid draft in 1988, picking up Michael Irvin, Ken Norton and Chad Hennings. Even picks like Dave Waddell and Mark Higgs ended up having decent careers for other teams. So who’s to say that they wouldn’t have done as well in the 1989 draft?

  • Tim Truemper

    To Mike’s speculation–Landry favored hard working serious QB’s–even when he had his run-ins with Roger S. over the play calling issue, he had great respect for him. And it appears Roger did too, even being aware of Landry’s foibles. I think Aikman would have liked playing under Landry–he was dedicated, studious and coachable (at least with coaches he respected–forget Switzer). As far as Roger playing under Jimmy Johnson, I think Johnson would have been a big Staubach fan as he liked players who worked hard too–and were coachable. Roger, from his Navy days, understood chain of command and following orders, etc. But, really, who knows?

    I agree also with David H–Landry/Brandt had the knowledge of who were good players–some of their poor drafts from before consisted of some players who did well other places. I think that they got too cute about atheletes and their potential and so forth, and forgot about drafting fotball players. As far as schemes and things–the offense had changed considerably and Landry was moving forward with the 3-4 (had demoted Stautner). But I think he needed to relinquish control–something was missing and so….

  • I think Aikman and Landry would have gotten along. However, I don’t think that Landry would have used an offense that would have taken full advantage of Aikman’s skills. Aikman and Irvin didn’t really take off until Norv Turner came in, and I can’t see Landry transitioning to that system.

    As for other players, I am pretty confident that even if Landry et al. took Aikman, the team would have kept Pelluer as the starter along with several other players who left as soon as Johnson arrived (just speculation, but I’m thinking Randy White, Danny White, Doug Cosbie, Timmy Newsome). I don’t see the team taking Daryl Johnston in the second round, nor do I see the team taking Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft (the team eventually picked up three draft picks for Walsh, even though Dallas had to give up its first in the 1990 draft). On top of all this, there is no way Landry gives up Herschel Walker.

  • Mike Little

    Matt,great analysis.I felt then as that season progressed that the club for that year would have been more competitive under Landry,but still losing.The bottom line looking back.Dallas wasn’t getting back to the promised land under Tom Landry,but honestly did we ever think Jimmy could get ‘er done as the ’89 season went along?

  • Tim Truemper

    Matt — You are most likely right about the above personnel outcomes if Landry had stayed on–re: Walker, Walsh, Johnston, et al . Norv Turner’s entry was especially key as well to maximize the offense and to find a system that abided with Aikman and Irvin. And for Mike–I think so too that the 1989 Cowboys would probably would have won more games under Landry than under Johnson, but (as you apparently are suggesting)it would have only postponed an eventual recovery to championship standing for Dallas. And to extend Matt’s analysis, if Walker stays, then Emmitt Smith most likely never becomes a Cowboy either.