1997 Review: Age and Free Agency Accelerate the Cowboys’ Decline
By 1997, the Cowboys were a team hoping to turn back the clock by three or four years. Dallas hoped that the trio of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin had enough to keep the team in the championship hunt, but each of them was starting to show cracks during the 1996 season.
More problematic was that the talent level of the surrounding cast was declining because of age and defection through free agency and retirement. Dallas lost hope that Jay Novacek or Charles Haley would ever return, so the search was on to replace both of them. Darrin Smith’s departure meant that every starting linebacker from the Super Bowl era had left as a free agent. The starters were still talented, though, as second-year player Randall Godfrey teamed up with rookie Dexter Coakley to give the Cowboys two quick outside backers. The secondary was still a strength, but Kevin Smith struggled in 1996 and would continue to struggle for the rest of his career.
On offense, the left side of the line consisting of Mark Tuinei (37) and Nate Newton (36) wasn’t getting younger. Larry Allen was all-world, but Erik Williams never dominated like he did before his car wreck in 1994. Ray Donaldson retired for good, and the Cowboys tried to go with second-year player Clay Shiver. It didn’t work.
As for skills positions, the Cowboys signed former pro bowler Anthony Miller, who had posted four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons between 1992 and 1995. By 1997, though, he was 32, and he only caught 56 passes for 735 yards the year before in Denver.
Eric Bjornson’s play in 1996 tended to make people miss Novacek even more, so the Cowboys targeted a tight end during the 1997 draft. Aikman personally selected LSU’s David LaFleur, so the Cowboys snagged him with the 22nd overall pick. Dallas found Coakley in the third round, giving the Cowboys two starters for its first two picks. The others were largely forgettable.
1(22) David LeFleur, TE, LSU
3(65) Dexter Coakley, LB, Appalachian State
3(83) Steve Scifres, G, Wyoming
3(94) Kenny Wheaton, DB, Oregon
4(101) Antonio Anderson, DT, Syracuse
4(127) Macey Brooks, WR, James Madison
4(129) Nicky Sualua, RB, Ohio State
6(187) Lee Vaughn, DB, Wyoming
7(224) Omar Stoutmire, DB, Fresno State
LaFleur had a few moments, but injuries held his career back, and he was gone after four seasons. Coakley turned out to be the best pick of the draft, as he earned three trips to the Pro Bowl during his 10-year career.
Many wanted to see Dallas give Brooks a chance, but he never quite caught on. He played two seasons in Chicago but never stood out. Wheaton, Anderson, Sualua, and Stoutmire saw action as special teams players. Of these four, Stoutmire had the best career, starting for four different teams and playing for five during a nine-year career.