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Should the Cowboys Be Envious of the Steelers’ Drafting Prowess? Sort Of.

Super Bowl X

Soon after last year’s draft, I got into a bit of a debate with a friend who is a Steeler fan over whether the Cowboys made a mistake by taking Felix Jones instead of Rashard Mendenhall, who was taken by the Steelers. This debate was the latest entry into a long-standing discussion that began with the Cowboys’ 27-13 win over a mediocre Pittsburgh team in 1985. I’m not sure that this debate serves any purpose, but here is a summary.

• The Cowboys hold a 14-12 regular season edge in the series, which dates back to the Cowboys’ very first game in 1960. Add in three Super Bowls, and Dallas has a 15-14 edge.
• Since 1985 (and including the game in 1985), Dallas has gone 5-2 against the Steelers, including four straight between 1991 and 1997.
• Dallas, of course, lost two Super Bowls during the 1970s, a fact that Friend holds over me whenever this debate occurs.
• Neil O’Donnell, of course, helped to give Dallas its fifth Super Bowl title by throwing a couple of passes in the direction of Larry Brown, a fact that I use in reply to point #3.

Since Super Bowl XXX after the 1995 season, the Cowboys and Steelers have only played twice. In 1997, Dallas opened its season by demolishing Pittsburgh 37-7 in a rare regular season game played in August. The blowout was one of the few highlights in a dismal 6-10 season. Seven years later, the Cowboys blew a 20-10 fourth quarter lead to the Steelers early in Ben Roethlisberger’s career, and Pittsburgh won the game 24-20. It was one of the first really bad losses in Bill Parcells’ career in Dallas.

Here is a look at how the two teams have fared overall since playing in Super Bowl XXX (note: these numbers include the years 1996 through 2007):

Pittsburgh

Overall regular season record: 116-75-1
Playoff appearances: 7
Playoff record: 9-6
Winning seasons: 8/12
Super Bowl titles: 1

Dallas

Overall regular season record: 96-96
Playoff appearances: 6
Playoff record: 1-6
Winning seasons: 6/12
Super Bowl titles: n/a

Obviously, all of these stats weigh in the Steelers’ favor. My friend argued that the Steelers have proven time and again that they draft better than the Cowboys, and this proved to him that the Mendenhall pick was better than the Jones pick for Dallas. He also argued that Dallas has been generally inferior to the Steelers because Pittsburgh has remained dedicated to developing players from within, while Dallas has relied too heavily on signing free agents.

Frankly, he’s right about the last couple of points. Besides Jerome Bettis, name a player that the Steelers have picked up from another franchise. I know there are a few, but there are not many. Conversely, Dallas has spent draft after draft trying to find defensive players while picking relatively few receivers or other skill players. Moreover, the Steelers have lost a ton of Pro Bowl-caliber players (or close to it) to free agency, but Pittsburgh seems to rebound every single time the team loses one of these players. Consider these losses: Chad Brown, Rod Woodson, Levon Kirkland, Carnell Lake, Jason Gildon, Carlos Emmons, Joey Porter, Mike Vrabel, and Kendrell Bell. Pretty stout.

After considering this, I was nearly ready to concede that the Cowboys should be envious of the Steelers’ drafting prowess, especially when it comes to taking receivers and linebackers. After all, Pittsburgh has drafted the likes of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Antwaan Randle El, and the team has done fairly well with Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington, and tight end Heath Miller.

Nevertheless, we know was has happened to Burress lately, with him showing defects even before he shot himself in the leg. Moreover, Randle El hasn’t set the world on fire with Washington and does not appear to be improving.

And to top all of this off, both Mendenhall and Jones both ended up on injured reserve after playing in only a few games a piece, so the debate has stalled for at least this season. In light of the game this weekend, though, let’s take a look at the past few drafts to see how much better the Steelers have been.

Wide Receivers

Since 1960, the Steelers have selected a total of 70 receivers in the draft. Twenty-four of these receivers developed into starters, and two (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth) have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. By comparison, Dallas has taken 53 receivers during the same time span, with 17 developing into starters and one (Michael Irvin) earning a spot in Canton.

Since 1996, the Steelers have taken a total of 16 receivers in the draft, including Ward, Burress, Randle El, and Holmes. Others include some names you probably don’t remember well: Troy Edwards, Lee Mays, Will Blackwell, Danny Farmer, Jahine Arnold, Malcolm Johnson, Willie Reid, Mike Adams, Chris Taylor, and Fred Gibson. Edwards was not horrible, but the others did very little. Pittsburgh took Texas receiver Limas Sweed in the second round in 2008, but since he has only six receptions this season, the jury is still out on him. (With the Cowboys’ luck, Sweed will eventually outperform another former Longhorn who wore the #4, but that is another matter).

During the same time span, Dallas has drafted a total of 10 receivers, including former college quarterback Isaish Stanback. These picks have produced two starters in Patrick Crayton and Antonio Bryant, along with forgettable players in the form of Stepfret Williams, Zuriel Smith, Wane McGarity, Macey Brooks, MarTay Jenkins, Skyler Green, and DeVeren Johnson.

My conclusion: Pittsburgh’s ability to select receivers is overrated but far superior to what Dallas has shown, especially in the past 13 seasons.

Linebackers

The Steelers have been amazing in their ability to produce linebackers, though the evidence suggests that this is more a matter of player development than drafting ability. The team’s two current studs—James Farrior and James Harrison—were not drafted by Pittsburgh. Farrior was instead acquired from the Jets, while Harrison was originally an undrafted free agent.

Since 1996, the Steelers have taken 16 linebackers in the draft, with seven of them developing into starters. The names include Holmes, Emmons, Porter, Vrabel, Bell, along with Clark Haggans, Larry Foote, and Lawrence Timmons.

Dallas has only picked up a total of eleven linebackers since 1996, and seven of them have developed into starters. The hits (generally speaking): Randall Godfrey, Dexter Coakley, Dat Nguyen, Bradie James, and DeMarcus Ware. Darren Hambrick was not quite a hit, but he was a starter for four seasons. The jury is still out on Kevin Burnett and Bobby Carpenter, but both have been contributors.

My conclusion: Dallas is at least on par in terms of drafting linebackers but less impressive when it comes to player development in its linebacking corps.

Greatest Cowboys By Their Jersey Numbers: #97

Part of the Greatest Players by Number Series

Jersey #97

Seven Cowboys have worn #97. Each of these players was a defensive lineman.

Aaron Fields, DE, Troy State, 2000

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: Fields was active for three games in 2000.

Intangibles: He was a free agent pickup who saw a little bit of action on special teams.

La’Roi Glover, DT, San Diego State, 2002-05

Statistics: Glover recorded 21.5 sacks and 126 tackles with the Cowboys.

Accolades: He was named to four Pro Bowls with Dallas.

Longevity: He played four seasons before moving on to St. Louis.

Intangibles: Glover was one of the best free-agent signings in team history. He stepped in during a bad period in team history and gave the Cowboys a strong presence in the middle.

Jason Hatcher, DE, Grambling, 2006-

Statistics: Hatcher has recorded 4.5 sacks with the Cowboys.

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He is in his third season with Dallas.

Intangibles: A third-round pick in 2006, Hatcher has been a backup since his arrival.  He has not been as disappointing as Bobby Carpenter, but he has not shown much progress.

Jimmie Jones, DL, Miami, Fla., 1990-93

Statistics: Jones recorded 19 sacks with the Cowboys.

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played four seasons in Dallas.

Intangibles: Jones was one of Jimmy Johnson’s Miami players who had an impact with the team. He is best remembered for scoring a touchdown when Charles Haley caused Jim Kelly to fumble near the goalline in Super Bowl XXVII.

Kevin Lilly, DT, Tulsa, 1989

Statistics: n/a

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He was active for one game with the Cowboys.

Intangibles: This Lilly should not be confused with Bob. Kevin Lilly played very briefly for San Francisco before playing very briefly with Dallas.

Kavika Pittman, DE, McNeese St., 1996-99

Statistics: Pittman recorded 10 sacks with the Cowboys.

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He played four seasons in Dallas.

Intangibles: Pittman was the highest pick for Dallas in the 1996 draft (37th overall). He was brought in as a pass rusher, and though he developed into a starter, never matured into a good player.

David Ponder, DT, Florida State, 1985

Statistics: Ponder had a half-sack in 1985.

Accolades: None.

Longevity: He was active for four games in 1985.

Intangibles: He was cut at the end of training camp in 1984 but made the team briefly in 1985.

Poll

Here is your chance to vote for the greatest player to wear #97.

Greatest #97

  • La'Roi Glover (79%, 57 Votes)
  • Jimmie Jones (17%, 12 Votes)
  • Jason Hatcher (3%, 2 Votes)
  • Kavika Pittman (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Aaron Fields (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Kevin Lilly (0%, 0 Votes)
  • David Ponder (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 72

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My Vote: Glover

La'Roi Glover

La'Roi Glover

Unlike several other draft picks and free agent pickups, Glover did not disappoint in his four years in Dallas. He gave Dallas a strong force in the middle, which was something the team missed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He had enough in the tank after the 2005 season, but he was not well-suited for the 3-4 defense that Dallas installed. He has remained a quality player in St. Louis.

Jones and Pittman were both starters, but neitehr performed at a level close to Glover. Hatcher is a decent part of the team’s rotation, but that is about it.