1999 Review: Cowboys Bank on Tar Heel DEs and a Rocket

Rocket Ismail was the Cowboys' big off-season acquisition in 1999.

After their loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the 1998 playoffs, the Cowboys had some work to do on the roster. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin had moments where they showed some greatness, but each had as many moments that left fans frustrated.

To help Aikman and Irvin in the passing game, Dallas brought some speed to the second wide receiver position by signing Rocket Ismail from the Carolina Panthers. Ismail had been a minor disappointment in his first five seasons in the league, but he gained more than 1,000 yards in 1998 with Carolina. Dallas was convinced that Rocket would ease the burden on Irvin.

The team improved its offensive line with three moves. Dallas brought back Mark Stepnoski after he had spent four seasons with the Oilers. Dallas also moved Flozell Adams to left tackle, which allowed the Cowboys to move Larry Allen back to guard. Everett McIver returned from injury to start 14 games in 1999.

On defense, Randall Godfrey moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, and Darren Hambrick became the new starter at left outside backer. Kevin Smith, who never returned to form after returning from an Achilles injury suffered in 1995, only played in eight games in 1999.

When the draft came around, the Cowboys for the fourth time in six seasons selected a defensive end with their first pick. Dallas believed that the combination of former North Carolina standouts Greg Ellis and Ebenezer Ekuban would give the team bookend defensive ends for years to come. But while Ellis was a solid player for more than a decade, Ekuban only lasted five seasons after recording 12.5 sacks with the Cowboys. He did, however, have more success with Cleveland and Denver.

Here is the entire draft:

1(20) Ebenezer Ekuban, DE, North Carolina
2(55) Solomon Page, G, West Virginia
3(85) Dat Nguyen, LB, Texas A&M
4(118) Wane McGarity, WR, Texas
4(132) Peppi Zellner, DE, Fort Valley State
6(193) MarTay Jenkins, WR, Nebraska-Omaha
7(229) Mike Lucky, TE, Arizona
7(243) Kelvin Garmon, G, Baylor

  • Nguyen turned out to be the best player in this group, though he only managed three full seasons as a starter.
  • Page, Garmon, and Zellner became starters, though they played when the team was especially poor in the early 2000s. ‘
  • McGarity was not a bad slot receiver, but the team cut him in the middle of the 2001 season after he failed to meet expectations as a slot receiver.
  • Lucky was a blocking tight end for three seasons.
  • Jenkins never played for the Cowboys but later played for the Cardinals.
  • Dab

    interesting review, hopefully we get to do it big this season.

  • Jason Neighbors

    What’s ironic is that after the ’98 season Patrick Jeffers was a restricted free agent. Carolina made him an offer sheet that the Cowboys didn’t match. So in effect we traded Jeffers for Ismail. Jeffers went on to have a Pro Bowl season in ’99. Ismail never came close to a Pro Bowl. Granted Ismail only had one year with a healthy Aikman, and Jeffers suffered an injury in ’00 that effectively ended his career. However, you can’t help but wonder if maybe the better personnel move would have been to hang on to Jeffers instead of giving big free agent money to Ismail. Perhaps that injury never happens if Jeffers stays in Dallas. Imo, if you have Pro Bowl talent, it will emerge no matter where you play. I think Jerry has learned from these past choices, though. Imo, he and Stephen are now one of the best in the league at holding on to their own talent.

  • Why Dallas didn’t keep Jeffers has always been beyond me. He was the one player who stood out towards the end of the 1999 season when everyone else appeared to have called it a season. Having him and Ismail after Irvin was injured could have made the ’99 season more bearable.

  • Jason Neighbors

    I wonder if they could have afforded to keep both of them? I always figured they let Jeffers go so they could have the money to sign Ismail.

  • I think that’s what happened, Jason. Aikman had to restructure his contract so that the Cowboys could give Rocket a 7-year, $21 million deal. Jeffers received a 1-year, $1.2 million offer sheet from Carolina, and the Cowboys didn’t match it. I don’t know whether Dallas couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the money, but it sounds more like the former.