1989 Review: Cowboys Manage a Win Over Washington

Troy Aikman takes a hit in a 15-0 loss to the Giants in 1989.

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, theĀ  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.

  • Timmy Newsome

    Mr. Cordon, thanks for your blog on the 89′ Cowboys. This is Timmy Newsome, the player you referenced in the article. I was never picked up by another NFL team because I just decided to retire after 9 wonderful NFL seasons….As expected I cleared waivers and within 2 weeks several teams called with some interest in me. However, I informed each of them I no longer wanted to play football and was ready for another chapter in my life….As a career I was far more concerned about what happened the previous season when we had a 3-13 record. That poor record would cause a lot of us to become unemployed including Coach Landry.

    Enjoyed your article and the look back.

    Thanks,

    Timmy Newsome

  • Tim Truemper

    I only watched bits and pieces of the season because the season was not only dismal (all the losses), but the roster shake-ups and seeming lack of a coherent personnel policy was discouraging. In reading the excerpt posted above, it can be argued that there was a “method to the madness.” But I would argue too that there was a lot of “tiral and error” which resulted in some hits while there were also quite a few misses. Interesting in the video clip that Randy Shannon had the personal foul call–is this the same Randy Shannon who now coaches Miami?

  • Tim Truemper

    More grist for the mill–I got interested about the roster stability issue with JJ taking over. I wnet on Pro Football Reference and reviwed the rosters for the following review:

    Of the 55 players on the 1988 roster, only 25 stuck it out at the end of the 1989 season (45%). That means of the 1989 roster that had 63 different players throughout the season, the 25 players from the year before yields a percentage of 40.

    As a matter of comparison, I looked at the changeover after Johnson’s first year, 1989 and its transition to 1990. Only 22 players were retained to the end of the second of these two seasons. Thus, of the 63 players from 1989, only 34 percent moved on. If these 22 are copmpared to the total of 59 players on the 1990 season, then this yields a percentage of 37%. Of these 22,were included 11 “Landry boys” who were on the 1992 championship roster. My view, though more analysis may be needed,is that there was a lot of ineffective (not saying unneeded) roster churning. For example, Mark Higgs from the last Landry team goes to Miami– he is a smalller elusive RB. As a replacement, Paul Palmer (actually more for Walker I guess) is picked up for one year–small elusive back. Palmer is out of the league after that one year in 1989. Higgs plays on for a few more. Why Palmer over Higgs? Just citing this as an example that I think both JJ’s were grabbing at straws and hoping to get a few “hits” with their multiple attempts (that apparently yielded many “misses.”

  • Like most of us, I had no idea how much things would eventually improve — things certainly looked pretty gloomy at the time.

    Other than the Walker trade, the one thing I remember from that dismal 1989 season was that I got back into collecting football cards! I think the new regime, regardless of the poor results, and the introduction of Pro Set and Score, got me excited about collecting Cowboy teamsets again after I’d been out of the hobby for 3-4 years.

    Looking back on some of those ’89 cards makes me wonder whatever became of some of those guys (Paul Palmer, Jesse Solomon, etc.).

  • Drafting Emmitt and signing Novacek were great moves and helped the team in 1990. However, most of the moves that improved the core of the team to the point that it could contend took place between 1991 and 1993. In ’89 and ’90, Jimmy took a chance on several players who had made names for themselves previously– Steve Walsh, Alonzo Highsmith, Danny Stubbs, Timmy Smith, Dennis McKinnon– but few of them panned out. Starting in 1991, though, more of the players came in with a BANG rather than a ping.

  • Mike Little

    Look at it this way.The club bascically became a new franchise.It needed something to bring it back,and Jimmy by golly became quite the demolition man quite successfully.The real building started in 1990.JJ not only was a very,very good coach,but just as good a talent evaluator.Keep in mind he was doing this under an extremely skeptical press,and a large portion of Cowboy fandom that immediatley pitied Tom Landry’s exit.Thank goodness Jerry was there to look after the jocks,and socks.

  • David H

    All I remember from 1989 was that I was able to watch 3 Cowboys games all season long (I was living in Ohio then), and they were shutout all 3 times. In other words, I was not able to see (live) a single point scored by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. Good times.

  • I was in Missouri, David. I saw both Bounty Bowl games, plus the game against the Rams. I felt like I was watching a college team with a familiar uniform…fortunately, the bad times didn’t last long.

  • Tim Truemper

    I agree that Jimmy Johnson could evaluate talent. And also that 1990 was the time in which the core talent base was greatly improved. My point was that initially the approach in 1989 was somewhat haphazard and that this was borne out by the # of players brought in and the # would did not stick around. I kind of wonder too that Jimmy Jo0hnson was looking for “his guys” who wouuld buy in to his approach. But there was a lot of players who came and went– I guess it was what had to be done. Interesting to me how some like Jack Del Rio and Dean Hammel were important, but then not around when Dallas finally won the 92 SB.

  • Mr. Mulligan

    I had the pleasure of watching that lone victory over the Redskins in my cousin’s Silver Spring, Maryland home. He was so confident and gleeful before the game, that it would be an easy Redskin victory, then it actually turned to tears of frustration later on, LOL…

  • Mr. Newsome, I am very sorry for not responding to your comment earlier (my antispam plugin worked too well). I assure you that you have several big fans on here. We’ve been covering the last 50 seasons (it’s taken a while), and so we previously covered several of your big games, including your highlight-reel touchdown against Houston in 1982 and your game-tying touchdown against Tampa Bay in 1983. You were a great Cowboy.

  • Matt: were you responding to Timmy Newsome? That’s so cool when former players stop by to visit!

  • Man, I remember those days all too well. There were so many more questions than answers at that time and I’m pretty sure a lot of us were convinced that the late-80’s Cowboys were destined the same fate as the present-day Raiders. Matt, thanks for sharing this!