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A decent trivia question would be to ask which running backs backed up Emmitt Smith during his 13 years in Dallas.
You’d have the likes of Tommie Agee, Derrick Lassic, Lincoln Coleman, Blair Thomas, Sherman Williams, Chris Warren, and Troy Hambrick.
During the 1992 playoffs, another backup named Derrick Gainer carried the ball 11 times for 30 yards with a touchdown, even though he had not carried the ball once during the 1992 regular season.
The reason Gainer had not carried the ball was that Smith’s primary backup in 1992 was a former Pitt standout named Curvin Richards. Richards had gained 1,964 yards with 9 touchdowns at Pitt before Dallas drafted him in the fourth round of the 1991 draft.
During his rookie season, he carried the ball twice for four yards. One year later, though, he had more chances, gaining 176 yards on 49 carries.
However, in the team’s regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears, Richards fumbled twice, drawing the ire of head coach Jimmy Johnson. The coach famously cut Richards after the game to send a message to the team about avoiding complacency.
(Jeff Pearlman’s book has a good summary. Here is an excerpt from his book.)
Richards moved on to Detroit in 1993, where he played in one game as Barry Sanders’ backup. He carried the ball four times for one yard in the Lions’ opener against the Falcons.
And he never played in the NFL again. The Lions cut him after the game.
Twenty years ago, the Cowboys headed into a season as the defending Super Bowl champions. It was hardly difficult to find an NFL magazine that featured one of the Cowboys on the cover (even in Missouri).
A book published in 1993 also featured a member of the Cowboys. It was Cliff Charpentier’s 1993 Fantasy Football Digest, which had Emmitt Smith on its cover. I had never played fantasy football at that point, so I bought the book.
The Cowboys were not only the best real-life team heading into 1993 but also had several of the top fantasy players. Here’s a summary
Emmitt Smith, #2 RB: Charpentier ranked Thurman Thomas above Smith in terms of “performance points” (yards), thanks to the yardage that Thomas picked up through the air.
Michael Irvin, #1 WR: Irvin had back-to-back seasons with 1,523 and 1,387 yards, respectively, and Charpentier ranked Irvin ahead of Jerry Rice.
Jay Novacek, #2 TE: Novacek had three consecutive seasons with more than 600 receiving yards, and Charpentier ranked him second behind Keith Jackson of Miami.
Troy Aikman, #6 QB: Aikman was never known for his stats, but he was good enough to rank just below Jim Kelly and ahead of Jim Everett of the Rams, Chris Miller of the Falcons, and Brett Favre of the Packers.
Lin Elliott, #5 K: Charpentier was not impressed with Elliott’s accuracy in 1992, but Charpentier liked that Elliott had 35 attempts in 1992.
As it turned out, several of these Cowboys failed to live up to the hype:
- Smith famously (infamously) held out for the first two games of the 1993 season and saw his TD numbers fall from 18 to 9 between 1992 and 1993.
- Although Irvin had 1,330 yards and 7 TDs, his performance could not match that of Rice, who had 1,503 yards and 15 TDs.
- Aikman had 3,100 yards and 15 TDs, which was not bad but not a top-6 performance.
- Novacek had only 445 yards on 44 receptions with 1 TD, far below expectations.
- Elliott only played in two games for the 1993 Cowboys after missing two critical field goals in a loss to Buffalo.
* * *
This was a time before the widespread use of the Internet. This was also a time when fantasy football magazines were hardly commonplace. Moreover, this was a time when many people did not have cellular phones.
Without an Internet program to run a league, commissioners had to rely on things like the telephone. For instance, Charpentier describes a commissioner’s job on transaction night when players make trades or pick up players off waivers. The players would give the commissioner a telephone number where the commissioner could call at a certain time. Here are the rules that applied when a commissioner could not reach a player:
1. If a commissioner receives no answer at the given franchise number, it will be assumed that the franchise desires no transactions that evening and, after allowing 15 rings, the commissioner may go on to the next team. If the team involved calls later in the hour to make transactions, this team will go to the end of the list.
2. If a commissioner gets a busy signal, the must continue to call that team for 3 minutes. If the commissioner fails to reach a team, he goes on to the next team. If the skipped team calls in and wants to make transactions, it must go to the end of the list of the first-hour transactions.
3. If the commissioner reaches a telephone recorder, he should leave a message with the time of the call. If the team calls back and wants to make transactions, it must go to the end of the list.
Even more daunting is the option where the first player who called got to make a transaction. Charpentier suggested that the commissioner leave the phone off the hook for five minutes before the commissioner started accepting calls at a certain time, such as 6 p.m.
* * *
Incidentally, Cliff Charpentier was inducted into Fantasy Sports Trade Association’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
I was very tempted to name Danny Noonan as the Most Obscure Player of 1991. It isn’t everyday that a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys is not as widely remembered as Danny Noonan the caddie from Caddyshack. Shout “Noonan!” and more people will probably remember the Danny who hit a 20-foot putt to help Ty Webb (and an “injured” Al Czervik) beat Judge Elihu Smails and Dr. Beeper than the Danny who was a first-round pick out of Nebraska in 1987.
But alas, I don’t think Danny Noonan the defensive tackle is really an obscure player, as much as I would like to insert the reference to Caddyshack.
Instead, I’m going with a defensive back that only those with the most bizarre memories will remember.
The Minnesota Vikings drafted defensive back Donald Smith in the 10th round of the 1990 draft. He never played a down there.
Dallas picked him up at some point during the 1991 season. He played in three games but was released in October. He did not record any sort of a statistic other than games played.
Some players in this type of circumstance might have spent a year or two in Europe (if anywhere), but Smith wound up doing quite well in Canada.
He played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Memphis Mad Dogs, Toronto Argonauts, and Hamilton Tiger-Cats from 1992 to 2000. During his playing days in the CFL, he was a divisional CFL All-Star four times. He also won two Grey Cup Championships with the Argos in 1996 and 1997.
And now he has a MOP Award to add to his collection. Congrats.
So in conclusion, we end with these immortal words: “Danny, I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen; all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking…let things happen…and be…the ball.”
By 1990, the Dallas Cowboys roster started looking like the team that would eventually win three Super Bowls in four years. There were a few lesser-known players, but not as many as there were in 1988 or 1989.
The Most Obscure Player of 1990 is better known for being an obscure Super Bowl hero. In Super Bowl XXII following the 1987 season, rookie Timmy Smith gained 204 rushing yards on 22 carries and nearly won the Most Valuable Player award.
He managed two 100-yard games for the Redskins in 1988 but never came close to duplicating his Super Bowl success. The Redskins released him after the 1988 season, and he sat out the 1989 season because teams suspected drug use.
He joined the Cowboys for the 1990 season and even started the opening game of the season. The result?
Six carries for six yards.
Rookie Emmitt Smith saw the field that day as well, gaining two yards on two carries.
In fact, Troy Aikman rushed for 15 yards, outgaining the combined totals of Emmitt Smith, Timmy Smith, and Daryl Johnston.
The leading rusher in the 17-14 win for the Cowboys?
Tommie Agee, who gained 59 yards on 13 carries.
Anyway, Timmy never played in another NFL game after the Cowboys released him on September 11, 1990. He later spent time in a federal prison on drug charges.
Fans will remember Paul Palmer from the 1989 Dallas Cowboys before they will remember several other players.
Junior Tautalatasi? Curtis Stewart? Eric Brown? Steve Hendrickson? Onzy Elam? Garry Cobb? Kevin Lilly?
The reason Palmer is the Most Obscure Player of 1989 is his place among starting running backs in team history.
Everyone remembers Tony Dorsett. Everyone remember Herschel Walker. And, of course, everyone remembers Emmitt Smith.
In between them was Palmer, who replaced Walker in the starting lineup when Dallas traded Walker to Minnesota for enough draft picks to build a Super Bowl champion.
By the time the Cowboys did win that Super Bowl title, Palmer was long gone, having lasted just one year with the Cowboys.
He was the 19th overall pick in the first round of the 1987 draft, taken by Kansas City. He lasted two season with the Chiefs, gaining just 607 yards before being waived just before the 1989 season.
The Lions signed im, but he only saw the field as a kick returner. When Dallas unloaded Walker, the Cowboys sent two late draft picks to the Lions to acquire Palmer.
For a few weeks, it looked as if Palmer might have some promise. The Cowboys faced the Chiefs on October 22, 1989—just five days after the Cowboys signed Palmer—and he rushed for 85 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Two weeks later, he recorded the only 100-yard rushing game of his career when he gained 110 yards against the Redskins in the Cowboys’ only win of the 1989 season.
In the final six games, however, he only gained a total of 206 yards, including three games where he rushed for less than 20 yards.
Dallas waived him, and though the Bengals signed him during the 1990 offeseason, he never played in the NFL again. He played one season with the Barcelona Dragons of the World League of American Football in 1991.
We have recognized the replacement players of 1987 as the Most Obscure Players of 1987. I should have noted that the list only included players who only played in the three replacement games that year.
A few players, such as quarterback Kevin Sweeney and receiver Kelvin Edwards, had opportunities to play with the team later in 1987 and again in 1988.
A third replacement player who received an opportunity with the “real” team was a receiver named Cornell Burbage. He played college football at Kentucky, gaining 994 total receiving yards in four seasons. He went undrafted in the 1987 draft.
He was the first replacement player to score a touchdown against the Jets on October 4, 1987. He also gained 110 receiving yards in a 41-22 win over the Eagles. In three games, he caught 7 passes for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns.
While Edwards remained with the team later in 1987, Burbage did not. However, he made the team in 1988.
The result—2 receptions, 50 yards. He was slightly more productive in 1989, catching 17 passes for 134 yards.
He played two seasons with the New York/New Jersey Knights of the World League of American Football. His final season was 1992.
He became a coach and served for one year as the head coach at Kentucky State University. He recorded a 7-4 record in his one season as head coach there.
* * *
Sadly, if you enter “Cornell Burbage” in a search, you will likely find stories about Burbage’s son, Cornell Burbage II. The younger Burbage was a standout high school receiver but was convicted on rape charges in 2006.
I was going to review the list of replacement players from the 1987 season to decide whether one of them might be the Most Obscure Player for 1987.
But then I thought, aw hell, they’re the most obscure players in the history of the team. We can’t exclude any of them.
So here are the 35 Cowboys-for-three-games-or-so who are our Most Obscure Players of 1987:
RB David Adams (Arizona)
RB Alvin Blount (Maryland)
TE Rich Borreson (Northwestern)
T Dave Burnette (Central Arkansas)
G Sal Cesario (Cal. Poly-SLO)
DT Steve Cisowski (Santa Clara)
DB Anthony Coleman (Baylor)
WR Vince Courville (Rice)
LB Chris Duliban (Texas)
DT Mike Dwyer (Massachusetts)
LB Harry Flaherty (Holy Cross)
CB Alex Green (Indiana)
S Tommy Haynes (Southern California)
TE Tim Hendrix (Tennessee)
CB Bill Hill (Rutgers)
DT Walter Johnson (Pittsburgh)
LB Dale Jones (Tennesee State)
RB E.J. Jones (Kansas)
C George Lilja (Michigan)
DB Bruce Livingston (Arkansas Tech)
DE Ray Perkins (Virginia)
P Buzz Sawyer (Baylor)
WR Chuck Scott (Vanderbilt)
C Joe Shearin (Texas)
OL Joe Shields (Portland State)
LB Victor Simmons (Central State-Ohio)
QB Loren Snyder (Northern Colorado)
WR Sebron Spivey (Southern Illinois)
LB Russ Swan (Virginia)
LB Kirk Timmer (Montana State)
OL Gary Walker (Boston University)
DE Randy Watts (Catawba)
C Gary Westberry (Hampton)
FB Gerald White (Michigan)
C Mike Zentic (Oklahoma State)
* * *
Nobody remembers the replacement players’ wins over the Jets or Eagles. However, plenty still remember the team’s lost to the Redskins on Monday Night Football. Here’s a summary of the debacle.
I really mean no disrespect whatsoever to players recognized with the Most Obscure Player Award. It was one of the first ideas I came up with when I launched this blog in 2006, and I am just now getting around to finishing the series. It is just a way to identify some long-forgotten members of the team.
In the years I have written this blog, I have had a few other bloggers link to posts. Unfortunately for me, relatively few of the 833,000 visitors on here have left comments.
And only one of those visitors was a current or former member of the Cowboys. That was a former defensive back named Johnny Holloway.
He left a comment on here in 2008, and Fred Goodwin of Dallas Cowboys Books Blog recognized him. I just happened to have a video of Holloway’s only interception as a professional, which occurred against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1986.
I posted the story in March 2008. The video no longer works, and unfortunately, I cannot seem to find the video file.
Anyway, we are now up to the 1986 season for the Most Obscure Player Award, and I just have to give it to Mr. Holloway. He played one year in Dallas, managing one interception while playing in 16 games. He served as a replacement player with the Cardinals for three games in 1987.
The person who made the comment? Johnny (or Jon) Holloway.
So just for one year covered in this series, I am changing the award to the Player to Remember Award. It is not accompanied with a mop graphic.
And thanks for the comments, Mr. Holloway. Once I find the video file with the interception, I will post it again.
Did You Know…
That Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder’s father played for the Dallas Cowboys?
I didn’t, so on the day after Father’s Day, David Ponder is our Most Obscure Player of 1985.
David Ponder was a defensive tackle who played at Florida State from 1980 to 1983. He was not drafted in 1985 and signed a free agent contract with the Cowboys.
Ponder played in only four games with the Cowboys. One of those was the 44-14 win over the Washington Redskins during the famous “Happy Birthday, Joe Theismann” game to open the season. Ponder recorded a half-sack during that game, and this was his only official statistic as a professional.
He apparently remained in the Dallas area, as Christian was born in Dallas and raised in Grapevine. Christian later played at Florida State before being drafted in 2011.
* * *
Here is a story about Christian Ponder signing with FSU in 2005. It mentions David Ponder’s all-important contributions to his college fraternity.
Florida State’s decision is very good news for Pi Kappa Alpha. David Ponder was not only a great player for the Seminoles, he was also a popular leader and Brother of Delta Lambda Chapter. David was an active member of the Pike rush committee, and won the FSU Intramural All-Greek Heavyweight Wrestling Championship for the Pikes. In 1984, David received the coveted Ken Spence Award honoring the varsity athlete who best exemplifies the qualities of loyalty and devotion to Pi Kappa Alpha.
* * *
Another point of obscurity: Ponder was one of two players who first wore a jersey number in the 90s. Ponder wore #97, while Kevin Brooks wore #99.
The Cowboys faced several issues in 1984, and many of those related to personnel. The team’s talent level had fallen, and stars such as Drew Pearson and Harvey Martin were replaced with more mediocre players.
Poor drafts did not help matters. Dallas spent its first pick on Texas A&M linebacker Billy Cannon Jr., who lasted only half of one season because of injuries. The picks that followed included Victor Scott, Fred Cornwell, Steve DeOssie, and Steve Pelleur. Although the latter two started some games, these players hardly provided the foundation for the future.
The team’s second pick in the fifth round was Iowa fullback Norm Granger. He had gained just over 1,000 total rushing yards in four seasons at Iowa but was considered an important part of the Hawkeyes’ Rose Bowl team in 1982. He was also co-MVP of the 1983 team.
Dallas already had two fullbacks in Ron Springs and Timmy Newsome, so having a third fullback was hardly a necessity. Early reviews of Granger were positive.
Regarding Granger, Dallas assistant coach Al Lavan said, “He’s got exceptional hands, just exceptional. He’s about a step ahead of most other rookies at this point.”
Results: Granger played in 15 games, mostly on special teams.
Rushing attempts? Zero.
Kickoff returns? Two.
Total return yards? Six.
* * *
In 2004, Granger served as an honorary captain in a game between Iowa and Iowa State. Iowa won, 17-10.
* * *
Granger lost his Rose Bowl ring shortly after the game in 1982. Twenty-five years later, it was recovered when a collector saw it being sold on eBay.