History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part VI (1986 - 1990)

So, as we all know the Dallas Cowboys have a long and storied history. The team ranks:

  • 2nd in Super Bowl wins
  • 2nd (tie) in Super Bowl appearances
  • 1st in playoff victories (despite many teams having played for decades longer)
  • 1st in playoff games played
  • 2nd in playoff appearances (again, despite many teams having played many more seasons)
  • 2nd in total wins since NFL-AFL merger
  • Most profitable sports franchise in North America

In short, the Dallas Cowboys have been a great NFL franchise and their history is worth celebrating. Today we'll look at the team's most difficult period of the last 50 years. I will add subsequent chapters, hopefully every week or so and be finished by the time training camp kicks into gear. In the process, I hope to learn things I didn't know, remind myself of interesting things forgotten and relive things I'll never forget. Perhaps those who read these posts will learn a thing or two as well.

NOTE: much of the information I use in these posts comes from Pro Football Reference, which is an invaluable a shout out to those who run that site. Your work is much appreciated.

Catch up on earlier posts in this series:

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part I (1960 - 1965)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part II (1966 - 1970)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part III (1971 - 1975)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part IV (1976 - 1980)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part V (1981 - 1985)

1986 – 1990

The late-80’s were the Dark Ages for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. The decline that began earlier in the decade continued until the once-mighty franchise hit rock bottom. The list of lowlights is lengthy, head-shaking and should leave a bitter taste in any Cowboys fan’s mouth:

· Failed to reach the playoffs even once

· Finished below .500 every season

· Finished 1-15 in 1989

· Lost 42 of 52 games played over 2+ seasons (a .192-win percentage)

· Won only 4 games over the 1988-89 seasons combined

· Twice finished 5th in the NFC East

· Lost six straight games against both the Giants and Eagles

The franchise’s all-time low point came on December 24th, 1989. The week 16 game at Texas Stadium drew an announced crowd of 41,000, the lowest in the venerable stadium’s history. However, bitter cold kept many ticket buyers away. The stadium looked desolate as the Cowboys lost their 15th game of the season to the Green Bay Packers. Worse, the freezing temperatures broke sewage pipes at the stadium, turning concourses into an ice rink of frozen sewage. (Side note: rookie Daryl Johnston led the team in rushing that day; who knew Johnston one time was the team’s leading rusher?)

The team also underwent tumultuous change off-the-field. A brash Arkansas oilman purchased the team in 1989. The only General Manager, Head Coach and Scouting Director the team had ever known were all fired in short order. So was the public relations director, treasurer, photographer, publicist, travel director and payroll director. So too the editor of Cowboys Weekly and the cheerleader director. Even trumpeter Tommy Loy, whose solo rendition of the National Anthem had been a constant since the opening of Texas Stadium, was fired.

In the span of a few months the most successful North American sports franchise of the previous 25 years had been completely gutted by Jerry Jones. The reaction from fans and Dallas media was equally furious and predictable. Incredulous fans expressed outrage and vowed boycotts. The media went on a feeding frenzy, labeling Jones a carpet-bagging hick. A steady supply of newspaper and magazine articles eagerly chronicled the failings of the franchise under Jones’ new leadership. Sports talk radio seemed perpetually full of angry Cowboys fans denouncing the new owner and his disdain for the franchise’s legacy. Fans who howled for Landry to be fired a few months earlier now threw a ticker-tape parade to honor the team’s former coach.

In many way, both the new owner and his detractors were right. Jones correctly assessed that Schramm, Landry and Brandt had allowed the game to pass them by. They not only weren’t cutting edge anymore, they were far behind the rest of the league in terms of drafting, training and coaching. This was evident by the ever-declining win totals on the field, a talent-bereft roster and declining local and national interest.

The decline was so deep and swift that prior to Jones purchasing the team Dallas newspapers ran polls on whether Landry should be fired (fans said yes). Schramm had also failed to leverage the numerous marketing opportunities the high-profile franchise offered. Texas Stadium suites went unsold. Signage was forbidden inside and outside the stadium. The Cowboys wouldn’t endorse or market any of the local companies willing to pay a fortune for such opportunities.

The franchise had gotten fat and comfortable both on-the-field and off. Jones’ instincts were right that a complete house-cleaning was in order. However, his heavy-handed approach disrespected the valuable legacy left by those he dismissed. It’s ironic that Jones, who is now the primary curator of the team’s rich legacy, completely disregarded that legacy when he purchased the team.

Fans were right to be outraged. The Cowboys were one of the few things in the Dallas area that could unite people of different ages, races, faiths and income levels. The franchise had transformed the image of Dallas from "the city that shot Kennedy" to "America’s Team". And now this outsider was taking a wrecking ball to an the most reconizable sports franchise in North America.

Things only got worse for Jones when he and Jimmy Johnson decided to trade the team’s only Pro Bowl talent. The Hershel Walker trade was unanimously criticized with unrestrained venom by Dallas media. A sample:

I don’t want to pat myself on the back but I supported the trade at the time. The Cowboys were 0-5 and going nowhere. They were 3-18 over their previous 18 games. Walker wasn’t making them any better right now. I also remember reading the details of the trade and being confused but thinking "can’t they pick up a bunch of 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks over the next few years" to myself. That seemed better than continuing with the existing roster, which seemed wholly void of talent.

My opinion was a rather silent minority however. The trade simply gave angry fans and the fired-up Dallas media more chum to attack. Little did we know it was the turning point in restoring the Cowboys to their long-held position atop the league. The late 80’s may have been the Cowboy’s Dark Ages, but they would lead to a Cowboy’s Renaissance in the 90's.

On-The-Field Results

The details of what transpired on the field are downright ugly but let’s get on with it. First, the win-loss record:

The 1987 season featured more off-the-field mayhem as the players went on strike and for 3 games the NFL used "replacement players" that made the league a farce. One game was cancelled, resulting in a 15-game season. Beyond that a whole bunch of losing. I will note that by 1990 things were looking up as the team enjoyed a dramatic 6-game improvement from the previous season’s 1-win disaster.

The Cowboys outscored opponents every year from 1965 to 1986. During that time, they averaged 7 more points than opponents. By 1989 the team was being outscored by almost 12 points per game. It’s hard to overstate how truly bad these late 80’s teams were. All losing is bad. Losing big is of course worse.

Offensively the team was mediocre for a few years but then became completely inept. The Cowboys finished last in points in 1989 and last in yards in 1990. The 1989 team was shut out 3 times and held to 14 points or less 12 times. Nothing is more demoralizing as a fan than going down 10-0 in the first ten minutes of a game and realizing you have no reason to pay attention because there isn’t a chance your woe begotten offense would ever comeback from such a deficit.

The defense, for the most part, was worse. Four times the Cowboys finished in the bottom third of the league in points allowed; twice in the bottom five. My general memory of this time period is mostly our secondary chasing wide open receivers as they raced into the end zone after yet another long touchdown pass. I recall the 1990 defense’s ascent to mediocrity fondly. It seemed like the first time in forever that a Cowboy’s unit was improving rather than declining.

A few things stand out in the above table:

  • "Landry" doesn’t occupy every spot in the top row for the first time ever.
  • The primary QB, RB and WR changed frequently. This doesn’t happen when you have good players in those spots.
  • The AAV leader in 1990 was someone named Drew Danny Stubbs with a measly 9. Raise your hand if you know who Drew Danny Stubbs was…and give yourself a pat on the back if you knew he was the leading Cowboy in terms of AAV in 1990.
  • Those 1986 and 1987 teams weren’t terrible; they were mediocre but running on fumes.
  • The 1988 team might have won more games but they had the 2nd worst turnover differential in the league.
  • The 1989 team is lucky to have avoided a winless season. When you rank last in points scored, bottom 5 in points allowed and last in turnover margin you have an incredibly strong losing recipe.

Division Results

When I think of this period the primary vision in my head is the Redskins, Giants and Eagles beating the snot out of the Cowboys. Cowboys fans not only suffered the indignity of watching our own team devolve into a loser, it happened as our division rivals fielded terrific teams. Those teams, and their fan bases, took extreme joy exacting revenge on the franchise that had spent the previous 20 years largely owning the division.

Not only were the Cowboys bad, but the Giants, Redskins and Eagles all fielded top shelf teams. The NFC East in the late 80’s (and early 90’s) was an absolute beast. NFC East teams, as a group, enjoyed the most successful run of any NFL division in the Super Bowl era from 1986 to 1995. The facts:

  • Three teams combined to win 7 of 10 Super Bowls
  • Compiled a 30 – 11 playoff record (73% win percentage)
  • Compiled a 26 – 7 playoff record against non-NFC East opponents (four times NFC East teams faced each other in the playoffs; twice in the NFC Championship game)
  • 7 times placed multiple teams in the playoffs, including three teams twice.

Every NFC East game was must-see NFL. If Dallas was going to emerge from these dark times they would first have to stand up to their division rivals. It’s noteworthy that virtually every game of any note during this time came against division foes.

Playoff Results

You must make the playoffs to have playoff results. Note, this is the first – and only – period since the early 60’s the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs even once.

Key Players

This is a sad, sad table. The expansion era Cowboys had four All Pro seasons and 18 Pro Bowl seasons. The Cowboys averaged 5.7 Pro Bowl players per season from 1960 to 1985. These late 80’s teams were hard to root for. However, as we’ll see, unlike the early 80’s when older players were playing out their careers, in the late 80’s the Cowboys had a stable of talented young players who had yet to reach their potential.


A lot to digest here:

  • Three consecutive Hall of Famers drafted in the first round from 1988 – 1990. The Triplets have become Cowboys legends and rightly so Each different in their own right. Irvin was the last of 9 Hall of Famers drafted by Tex Schramm, taken # 11. Troy Aikman was the consensus #1 pick in 1989; anyone would have drafted him. The Cowboys moved up two spots to drat Emmitt Smith #17 in 1990.
  • The final draft under the old regime was quite successful; in addition to a Hall of Fame receiver they also drafted a cornerstone, Pro Bowl caliber linebacker and a very solid defensive tackle (Henning was an Air Force cadet and wouldn’t play in the NFL until 1992; it was perhaps Tex Schramm’s final out-of-the-box maneuver that paid dividends).
  • The 1989 draft was a motherlode. A Hall of Fame QB, a Pro Bowl fullback, a Pro Bowl center and Pro Bowl defensive end. In addition, second round pick Steve Wisniewski would go on to a Hall of Fame caliber career for the Raiders; he was traded for multiple picks, including the pick that brought Daryl Johnston to Dallas.
  • Mike Sherrard was a fantastic wide receiver who had a very good rookie year. He was brittle however, breaking multiple bones in his legs, including once while simply jogging on the beach.
  • Not found here is Plan B pickup Jay Novacek, acquired in 1990 from the Arizona Cardinals.

The 1989 draft ranks 2nd in franchise history in terms of AV, only 80 AV behind the team's historical 1975 "dirty dozen" draft. The 1990 draft was also very good, but almost soley due to drafting the league's all-time rushing leader, Emmitt Smith. As noted, the final "Landry/Schramm" draft brought in 3 productive players and a Hall of Famer. In total, the three drafts between 1988 - 1990 generated exactly 1,000 AV. Add the bounty of draft picks the team had in future seasons and it's understandable why the early 90's teams did so well.

Key Games

Truthfully, there were no key games. Yeah, in both 1986 and 1990 the team held onto feint playoff hopes into December but they were short-lived. There were, however, several noteworthy games that we’ll look at. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking these are in the same category as "key games" we’ve looked at previously.

Lost among the wreckage of this era is the fact the 1986 team started the season as if they would continue the team’s 20-year legacy of success. Dallas beat the Giants at Texas Stadium in the season opener, with newly added running back Hershel Walker running for two touchdowns. This week 1 win wasn’t a fluke as the Giants would go on to win 17 of their next 18 games, including a Super Bowl.

The Cowboys continued winning, taking a 6-2 record into the Meadowlands for a week 9 rematch. Both teams sported the same record and a Cowboys victory would put them into the driver’s seat for a second consecutive NFC East championship. Danny White had been terrific throughout the season, with career high numbers in touchdown and interception percentages. His 97.9 rating through 8 games topped the league and was a full 7 points higher than his career-best 1982 season.

White lasted only a single series in this game however. Tony Dorsett completely missed a blocking assignment and allowed linebacker Carl Banks to come in untouched and piledrive White into the hard Meadowlands turf. White’s wrist was broken, his season over. Steve Pelleur stepped in and had arguably the best game of his career, throwing for 339 yards in relief.

It was not enough, however. The Giants won a physical, hard fought, old-school NFC East brawl 17-14. I can’t find video of the game but my memory is the Cowboys trailed by 3 and had the ball at their own 20 with about a minute or so left. I recall them moving the ball almost at will on the Giants but had two long gains called back due to holding calls on Phil Pozderac. The team was never able to get into field goal range despite seemingly moving the ball more than 100 yards. (I could be wrong about the details but I’m fairly certain about my general memory there).

The result was the Cowboys lost the game, their starting quarterback and their grip on first place. Little did fans know it but this was the key turning point in the team’s transition from "competitive but unable to win big games" to "objectively terrible". The team would lose 6 of 7 remaining games to finish 7-9 and under .500 for the first time since 1965; each week seemed to offer a new indignity. This would begin a stretch of games where the Cowboys lost 52 of 62 games, the worst sustained performance in franchise history.


The NFL was as chaotic off-the-field in ’87 as the Cowboys were on the field. A strike loomed over the beginning of the season. Regular players played the first two games of the season but then went on strike. Unlike 1982, when the owners cancelled games, this time they used "replacement players" and pretended the games were legitimate NFL contests.

It was a disgraceful, cynical and highly effective maneuver. Within 3 weeks the players caved, gave in to the owners demands and returned to the field. The Cowboys, as always, were center stage. Tex Schramm, typically, had language included in star player’s contracts that basically forced them to play in these "replacement" games. Embarrissingly, even with Danny White, Tony Dorsett, Randy White and nearly a dozen other regular Cowboys playing Dallas still lost to a replacement squad of Redskins in week 5.
Otherwise 1987 is noteworthy for a couple other games:

The Cowboys defeated the defending champion New York Giants in a week two affair at the Meadowlands. The Cowboys won on a late Roger Ruzek field goal in a Danny White special (275 yards passing, 4 interceptions) on the strength of five defensive turnovers. The win put the Giants in an 0-2 hole from which they would not recover, finishing 6-9 on the season and far from the playoffs (so even in miserable seasons good things can happen).

The Cowboys two "replacement" wins came over the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles. Both were hardcore union cities and fans considered the contests to be "scab" games. The fact the Cowboys used their star players to win these games incensed the respective fan bases. Buddy Ryan claimed Landry and the Cowboys ran the score up on the Eagle’s replacement team.

Ryan was well known for being a general ass and demonstrated it in the team’s rematch. Philly had the game in hand, possession of the ball and after having kneeled for a couple plays…with Cowboys defenders assuming the game was over…Ryan had young quarterback Randall Cunningham throw deep on the last play of the game. The pass generated an interference call in the end zone and the Eagles scored on the following untimed play. Classless Eagles fans loved the brazen display. Cowboys players and fans were incensed. This would not be the last time Buddy Ryan and the Eagles kicked the Cowboys while down.

New York returned to Dallas in week 7 with the defending champions on life support. The Giants looked in control with a 24 – 14 lead in the 4th quarter. A 19-point 4th quarter outburst from the Cowboys, however, ended the Giants season and sent them home with the worst record ever for a defending Super Bowl champion (1-6).

The 1987 Thanksgiving Game didn’t sell out and wasn’t broadcast locally in the Dallas area for the first time since local market broadcasts were allowed. Which was too bad because the Cowboys and Vikings put on one of the best Thanksgiving games ever in a game no one remembers. Three times the Cowboys overcame 14-point deficits (14-0, 28-14, 38-24). Two late Mike Renfro touchdown receptions tied the score at 38 but the Vikings won on a 24-yard Darrin Nelson scamper in overtime. I remember my family gathered around a radio, enthralled even though the Cowboys had nothing to play for. We were just happy the team played well against a team that would reach the NFC championship.


This was when the Landry era truly bottomed out. A 2-2 start was followed by a 10-game losing streak. The Eagles and Buddy Ryan delivered another humiliating blow by overcoming a 20-0 lead and winning 24-23. Landry seemed confused late in the game when a field goal would have clinched the game. With the team already in field goal position he called a 3rd down pass which resulted in an intentional grounding call that pushed the team out of FG range. After punting the Eagles promptly marched 85 yards for the winning touchdown. Questioned about the unusual call after the game Landry implied the team wasn’t in FG range which resulted in endless debate about the head coach’s grasp of the game and his team.

The Cowboys would break the losing streak in week 15 against the Redskins. Rookie Michael Irvin’s 3 touchdown catches ended the defending champion’s bid for another playoff run. The Cowboys then lost the season finale against…. predictably…. the Buddy Ryan-led Eagles. It was Tom Landry’s final game. A more noteworthy game in Cowboys history that day was Green Bay's victory over Phoenix. After starting the season 2 - 10 the Packers second consecutive win gave Dallas the first overall pick in the 1989 draft. The Cowboys would pick Troy AIkman; the Packers Tony Mandarich. Imagine how the 90's NFL would have looked with AIkman playing for the Packers. And my guess is if Jimmy Johnson had the second pick he would have chosen Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders or Derrick Thomas (all Hall of Famers) rather than Mandarich. The possibilities are endless.


A new owner, General Manager, Head Coach and 1st pick in the draft quarterback would "lead" the Cowboys the next season. A 3-1 pre-season seemed to kindle some excitement among the fan base but those hopes were quickly extinguished in a brutal 28-0 season opening loss to the New Orleans Saints. The Cowboys were doubled up in yards (344 to 174), possessed the ball for only 15 minutes and were generally outclassed in every phase of the game. Thus, the darkest season in franchise history began. The Cowboys would be underdogs in every game and almost always lived down to expectations. Nine double digit losses. Last in the league in points scored and turnovers; next to last in yards gained; bottom five in points and yards allowed; shut out three times. A complete disaster in every way imaginable. Watching the team play was an exercise in torture; it was a question of how much a fan could endure.

The sole on-field bright spot of the season came in week nine against the Redskins. A team featuring Steve Walsh at quarterback, Paul Palmer at running back and Kelvin Martin as the leading receiver somehow beat the Redskins. The team’s arch-rival would finish 10-6 and thus the Cowboys lone win on the season prevented Washington from reaching the playoffs.

The humiliations continued on Thanksgiving when Buddy Ryan exacted yet more revenge on Dallas as the Eagles defeated the Cowboys 27 – 0. The game featured typically classless behavior from Philadelphia as the Eagles targeted kicker Luiz Zendejas and quarterback Troy Aikman in attempts to injure the players. Jimmy Johnson fumed after the game, saying "I have absolutely no respect for the way they played the game, I would have said something to Buddy, but he wouldn't stand on the field long enough. He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room". The game immediately became known as the "Bounty Bowl".

Two weeks later the two teams met again in a game hyped by the networks as "Bounty Bowl II". Surprising absolutely no one Eagles fans lived up to their thuggish reputations by pelting any and all with snowballs, ice and beer throughout the game. Those targeted included:

· Cowboys players

· Jimmy Johnson

· Back Judge Al Jury

· Announcers Terry Bradshaw and Verne Lundquist

Eagles fans even attacked their own players, pummeling Jerome Brown when he dared request the thuggery to stop.

So ugly was the incident that Philadelphia banned beer sales for the season finale and added additional security. Lundquist claimed during the broadcast that dental surgery was less unpleasant than broadcasting a game in Philadelphia.

The Cowboys endless death-march through 1989 led to merciless criticism of Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson. Unappreciated by most at the time, however, was the fact the two had pulled off the greatest trade in NFL history. The decision to ship Hershel Walker to the Vikings in a complex trade would help enable the Cowboys to return to America’s Team faster than anyone could possibly imagine in 1989.

No one cared about that, however, as the season reached its dreadful ending. The season finale was arguably the lowest moment in team history, when (maybe) 25,000 fans endured frozen sewage on the Texas Stadium concourses to watch the Cowboys lose for the 15th time in 16 games.


The 1989 Cowboys needed 10 weeks to win a single game but the 1990 team won their season opener, signaling this would be a different season. Still, the Cowboys managed only a 4-7 mark after 11 games. The NFC East continued to beat up on Dallas, with the Cowboys losing all five games against division opponents through that point. An embarrassing 24-6 Sunday Night loss to the defending champion 49ers (in which Dallas held the ball for less than 20 minutes and gained only 158 yards) seemed to indicate not much had changed from previous seasons.

The following Thursday, however, the Cowboys added yet another winning chapter to the team’s Thanksgiving book of success. The 27 – 17 thrashing of the Redskins was noteworthy for several reasons:

  • The win kicked off a 4-game winning streak; the team’s longest win streak since 1985
  • It was the first national broadcast to feature the "Triplets". Emmitt Smith ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns, Michael Irvin caught a touchdown and Troy Aikman threw for 222 yards and a touchdown.
  • The win streak would put Dallas into playoff contention and have the team playing meaningful games into late December.

It’s hard for those who didn’t go through this period to understand the difference a single season had made. Rather than going backwards (as the team had for seemingly 10 seasons) things now looked to be going forward. The team was winning and featured an exciting group of yong players. Finally, after years in the wilderness, there was reason for optimism.

Unfortunately, the team’s unhappy fortunes against the Eagles continued in week 15. Aikman was sacked on the first series of the game and suffered a separated shoulder. The injury effectively ended both the quarterback’s and the team’s season. Backup Babe Laufenberg proved wholly inept (hard to believe, I know) compiling a 17-passer rating in the final games of the season. The Cowboys finished 7-9, the team’s fifth consecutive losing season after 20 consecutive winning seasons.

I can tell you as a fan the way the season ended did not dampen my enthusiasm. By now the ramifications of the Hershel Walker trade were well understood. In addition, another trade that gets little notice now had nearly as much of an impact. This gets a little complicated so let me set it up.

  • The NFL then had a "supplemental draft" that was used for players who for whatever reason were ineligible for the regular NFL draft. Generally, only one or two players would be available each year and is held after the regular draft.
  • In 1989 Jimmy Johnson chose Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft. This was curious (and foolish) for two reasons. First, the Cowboys had just spent the #1 pick in the draft on Troy Aikman; drafting a second rookie QB made no sense. Second, the Cowboys surrendered their 1st round pick in the 1990 draft for the right to select Walsh. The Cowboys were likely to own a high pick as they were seen by many as a poor team (predictions that proved painfully true).
  • Amazingly, Jimmy Johnson made it all work by trading Walsh in early 1990 to the Saints for a 1st and 3rd rounder in 1991 and a 2nd rounder in 1992.

Thus, despite giving up what would be the first overall pick in the 1990 draft the Cowboys had a bounty of future picks. The Walker trade, the Walsh trade and numerous other trades made by Johnson provided the Cowboys with 3 first round picks, 7 picks in the first 3 rounds and 11 in the first four. Dallas would also have two picks in each of the first three rounds of the 1992 draft. They already possessed a QB, RB and WR that looked like keepers. The combination of young players and a bounty of future draft picks was intoxicating. There were plenty of reasons to again be optimistic about the Cowboy’s fortunes.

I can also tell you that non-Dallas fans did not share this viewpoint. I lived in Washington DC at this point, I was in my early 20s and lived and worked among a large group of rabid football fans, many from outside the capitol. Most still considered Jimmy and Jerry a joke and figured the team had no future. I just kept my mouth shut while secretly wishing for the best. Even I wouldn’t have believed that reality would far exceed my own hopes.

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