1989 Review: Cowboys Manage a Win Over Washington
By the time that the Cowboys traded Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings, hope was all but lost for the 1989 season. Dallas also traded quarterback Steve Pelluer to Kansas City for a third-round pick. The Cowboys added a little bit of punch by acquiring running back Paul Palmer, who was a first-round pick of the Chiefs in 1987 but who was returning kickoffs for the Lions by 1987.
Commentators recognized that the Cowboys were building for the future, even when the team was still winless by November. Here are some points that columnist Tim Cowlishaw made on November 1:
At mid-season, the Cowboys may be halfway to 0-16. Johnson pretends not to care so much about that while believing that the foundation for the 1990s is being established. Here is a look at Johnson’s five decisions, their current impact and possible future ramifications.
1. Playing rookie quarterbacks. When Johnson ushered Steve Pelluer and his agent at the time, Joe Courrege, out of his office last spring, he made the decision that Troy Aikman would play as a rookie. This was long before the Cowboys had added Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft.
But without Pelluer around, it became obvious before the Cowboys even left for Thousand Oaks, that Aikman or Walsh or some combination of the two would be running the Cowboys’ offense in 1989. Most NFL coaches do whatever they can to avoid playing rookies. Johnson did it by design.
While the bottom line is an 0-8 record and quarterback ratings at the bottom of the NFL pack, there is little doubt that Aikman and Walsh will profit from the experience that most rookie quarterbacks never get.
“I think both quarterbacks have been hampered by their supporting cast,’ said Johnson. “Both will get better when the receivers are able to run the right routes, when we get more of a running game and when players don’t drop passes.
“A lot of times when people are evaluating Troy and Steve, the expectations are so high that they get compared to quarterbacks who’ve been in the league for a long time. We’ve got to remember that they are rookies and they have progressed a lot faster than most rookies might progress.’
2. The revolving-door policy. Johnson decided last spring that the Cowboys would examine the waiver wire daily and exercise their right as last year’s worst team to take first shot at any player released. By failing to win a game, the Cowboys have remained the No. 1 selector of the waiver wire list all season. Dallas also has been involved in 11 of the league’s 27 trades since last spring’s draft.
This is not a club that is wary of change.
Dallas’ current roster includes 11 players who have been added since the team left training camp. Of those, Johnson sees bright futures for wide receivers James Dixon, Derrick Shepard and Bernard Ford and running back Paul Palmer . That’s just on offense. The defense includes linebacker Jack Del Rio and defensive tackle Dean Hamel, both of whom started against Phoenix. Ex-Viking linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard are getting more playing time this week although their futures here are tied to draft picks that Johnson doesn’t plan to surrender.
But in going after players who may help the Cowboys in the next decade, Johnson has sacrificed the ’89 season.
“I knew after we made the cutdown to the 47-man roster we were going to take a step back from the (3-1) pre-season,’ Johnson said. “You’re looking at about one-fourth of our squad that will be active Sunday that was not in training camp with us. All the time we put in at mini-camps, quarterback school and training camp will not pay dividends with those 11-12 players.
“The other thing is that, by the new players making mistakes, it hurts the performance of the players who have been in camp. But we’re looking at the long haul, and we felt this would help us in the future.’
3. Cutting a substantial number of veterans. Adding new blood is only half the equation. Going back to last spring when Danny White and Randy White were told that their playing days here were over, Johnson has never hesitated to cut a veteran even when there wasn’t an obviously more productive newcomer ready to take his place.
Fullback Timmy Newsome, a starter since 1984, was released to make room for Broderick Sargent and rookie Daryl Johnston. They have combined for 12 carries and 20 yards thus far.
Wide receiver Ray Alexander, who led last year’s team with 54 catches, was released twice. Dixon, Shepard and Ford combined aren’t on a pace to catch that many balls.
In fairness to Johnson, while at times it has seemed that these and possibly other released veterans could have helped, Newsome, Alexander, linebacker Jeff Rohrer and most of the other former Cowboys have not been picked up by other clubs.
4. Fitting players to the system. A lot of coaches do the opposite. They take a look at what they have and decide how to structure the offense and defense to fit the personnel. Johnson takes the opposite approach. Never mind that Herschel Walker was in the backfield and rookies were playing quarterback, Johnson wanted to install a passing offense. And did.
Johnson prefers speed to size although the Cowboys have more of the latter in several areas. This is especially true on defense although that unit played its best game of 1989 Sunday, and there is hope among the coaches and players that the corner is being turned.
“We’re playing much better defense now than we were early because we understand the system much better today. I think the offense has probably been hurt more with changes and injuries than the defense,’ Johnson said.
“We did start from scratch this year because we’ve added about one-fourth of our roster since training camp. That made progess difficult in the first half. I do believe, from this time one with more players comfortable in the system, that we will make steady progress in the second half.’
The first-year records of successful coaches such as Bill Walsh (2-14), Chuck Noll (1-13) and Mike Ditka (3-6) lends credence to Johnson’s claim that implementing a new system has some built-in drawbacks in the first year.
5. Trading Herschel Walker. Needless to say, this was Johnson’s boldest stroke since replacing Tom Landry. A stroke of genius? We won’t have the answer to that for three or four years when the eight draft choices the Cowboys acquired from Minnesota have been made.
The short-term effect is obvious. The Cowboys have no running game. Paul Palmer is averaging 5.4 yards per carry (24-for-130), but subtract his 63-yard run at Kansas City and the average falls to 2.9. Keep an eye on his fumbles, too.
Here is a look at the final 11 games of the 1989 season.
Week 6: San Francisco 31, Dallas 14
The Cowboys kept the game with the defending Super Bowl champions close, as the game was tied 7-7 at the half. But Steve Young (filling in for Joe Montana) and Roger Craig proved to be too much. Steve Walsh had a relatively strong day, completing 23 of 36 for 294 yards. However, he also threw two picks.
Week 7: Kansas City 36, Dallas 28
Paul Palmer had one of his few highlights against the team that originally drafted him. However, the Cowboys fell behind early, and a late surge was not enough to give the team its first win.
Week 8: Phoenix 19, Dallas 10
Dallas held former Cowboy QB Gary Hogeboom to 164 passing yards, but the Cowboys only managed 45 rushing yards in a 19-10 loss.
Week 9: Dallas 13, Washington 3
Thanks to a defense that caused two turnovers and an offense that did just enough, the Cowboys ended their losing streak by upsetting Washington. Palmer rushed for110 yards on 18 carries, giving him his only career 100-yard game.
Week 10: Phoenix 24, Dallas 20
The Cowboys took a fourth-quarter lead when Troy Aikman hit James Dixon on a 75-yard touchdown pass. However, Arizona’s Tom Tupa (who later became a full-time punter) hit Ernie Jones on the second of two fourth-quarter TD passes to give the Cardinals a 24-20 win.
Week 11: Miami 17, Dallas 14
Dallas jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first half, only to see Dan Marino and running back Sammie Smith lead a Miami comeback.
Week 12: Philadelphia 27, Dallas 0
Other than their 1-15 record, the 1989 Cowboys are best known for being a part of the “Bounty Bowl.” Unfortunately, the Cowboys barely showed up, committing five turnovers in a shutout loss.
Week 13: L.A. Rams 35, Dallas 31
Aikman rebounded from the Bounty Bowl by throwing four touchdowns passes, including scores to the likes of Steve Folsom and Bernard Ford. However, Jim Everett threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to give the Rams a 35-31 win.
Week 14: Philadelphia 20, Dallas 10
The Cowboys’ performance in Bounty Bowl II was not as bad as the first game, but the Cowboys still lost their 13th game of the season.
Here’s a clip:
Week 15: N.Y. Giants 15, Dallas 0
In one of the worst games in franchise history, the Cowboys only managed 108 total yards in a shutout loss to the Giants. The team’s leading rusher: Daryl Johnston, who managed 15 yards on four carries.
Week 16: Green Bay 20, Dallas 10
With the bathrooms at Texas Stadium reportedly freezing up, the Cowboys’ 1989 season came to an end. Jack Del Rio’s 57-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown tied the game in the second half, but the Packers were able to put the game away.