In this series, we’re rating the greatest, or most memorable, Cowboys of all time at each number available. That’s right, from one to 99, multiple Cowboys have occupied those jersey numbers. We’re not interested in what these players did in their careers, just how they performed while they were a part of “America’s Team”. In doing research for this, you find that it’s fun because of how much of a mixed bag it truly is. In turn, some numbers have a strong lineage of great football careers that make it hard to choose and others make you question whether that number needs a winner. Either way, it’s great for offseason fodder before we gear up for training camp.
Number 51: Ken Norton Jr., LB, 1988-1993
Analysis: Though the franchise’s first Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Dave Manders, was considered, Norton Jr. was the more memorable Cowboy. In Norton’s six years in Dallas, he started 76 of 79 games, recorded 579 tackles, seven sacks, six forced fumbles, six recoveries, and one interception. Norton Jr. was part of two championship winning Cowboys teams in back-to-back years from 1992-1993. He also went to one Pro Bowl as a member of the Cowboys. Unfortunately, Norton was one of the team’s first losses in the early stages of free agency where he signed with the rival 49ers. Still, he was a really good linebacker for the Cowboys and certainly was a factor in two of their three titles of the 1990’s.
Number 52: Dexter Coakley, LB, 1997-2004
Analysis: Coakley was the Cowboys third-round pick in 1997 and came at a time where the Cowboys dynasty of the 90’s started to fade. Still, Coakley made the All-Rookie team and was a beloved member of the team. In eight seasons, he started all 127 career games he appeared in, notching 545 tackles, 10 interceptions, four pick-sixes, 7.5 sacks, six fumble recoveries, and five forced fumbles. Though Dallas lost all three playoff games of Coakley’s career, he was selected to three Pro Bowls. Linebacker Dave Edwards is the next in line, with a long career spanning the mid 60s to mid 70s, but he never received post-season awards like Coakley, overshadowed by Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley.
Number 53: Bob Breunig, LB, 1975-1984
Analysis: Super Bowl winning center Mark Stepnoski gets consideration here but Breunig ultimately gets the win for his longevity. He was drafted in the third-round of the Cowboys’ “Dirty Dozen” draft that was widely considered one of the best classes in NFL history. He started his career stepping in for Cowboys legend Lee Roy Jordan. Breunig recorded 18 tackles in one game against the Eagles and led the team in tackles for six seasons. Breunig started 125of 135 career games, had nine interceptions, eight fumble recoveries, and 1.5 sacks. He was Super Bowl winner in 1977 and was a three-time Pro Bowler.
Number 54: Randy White, DT, 1975-1988
Analysis: The rules are such that we have to pick one winner but this one was hard not to put Chuck Howley up there with him. Both guys were phenomenal players that are in the Cowboys Ring of Honor, it’s a shame that Howley isn’t a Hall of Famer. White will get the nod in this one and it’s the gold jacket that puts him over. White was the second overall pick in 1975’s Dirty Dozen draft. He started 165 games, appeared in 209, recorded 52 sacks, with one interception. The “Manster” was a key member of the Doomsday Defense that wrecked NFL offenses for years. White was a nine-time Pro Bowler, seven-time All-Pro, and Super Bowl champion. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
Number 55: Lee Roy Jordan, LB, 1963-1976
Analysis: There is no debate at 55 as it’s Jordan every day and twice on Sunday. Jordan was drafted sixth overall in 1963 to the Cowboys but was also drafted 14th overall in the AFL draft. Choosing the Cowboys, Jordan paired with Chuck Howley and Dave Edwards to form one of the best linebacker corps in the league. Jordan started 173 of 186 career games and has the franchise record for 743 solo tackles accredited to him. He also recorded 32 interceptions for a whopping 472 returns yards and three scores. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, All-Pro, Super Bowl champion, and Ring of Honor member.
Number 56: Eugene Lockhart, LB, 1984-1990
Analysis: Most folks will remember that Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson wore this number but he’s not the one who wore it best. Henderson had too many off field problems and his career in Dallas was short-lived though he did win the 1977 Super Bowl with the team. Nope, it’s “Mean Gene” Lockhart that gets the nod here though we also considered Bradie James, who did start many more games than Lockhart. Lockhart led the Cowboys defense in tackles as a rookie stepping in for Bob Breunig. Lockhart was a part of the 1984 All-Rookie team and would follow that up by leading the Cowboys in tackles in 1985, 1986, and again in 1988. He led the Cowboys defense in tackles four of his seven seasons in Dallas. On an abysmal 1-15 team in 1989, Lockhart amassed a ridiculous 222 tackles which led the NFL and was a Cowboys club record. Lockhart was named an All-Pro in 1989 having 16 games where he registered double-digit tackles and set the Cowboys club record of solo tackles at 154. Eugene Lockhart was clearly a bright spot on some of the worst Cowboys teams in history.
Number 57: Vinson Smith, LB, 1990-92, 1997
Analysis: The first player on this list that doesn’t have the stellar resumé of the rest of these guys. Smith started 29 of 59 career games in Dallas. He recorded 177 tackles, four fumble recoveries, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Smith won a Super Bowl in 1992 with the Cowboys, starting 13 games that season.
Number 58: Mike Hegman, LB, 1976-1987
Analysis: Mike Hegman is the winner for this number hands down. He was a primary backup and special teams linebacker until he was thrust into the starting role after the departure of Thomas Henderson. Hegman is most famous for a fumble recovery off of Terry Bradshaw that he returned 37 yards for the score in a Super Bowl XIII loss to the Steelers. The back half of Hegman’s career was riddled by injuries that kept him out of action. Still, Hegman started 119 of 170 games he appeared in, recorded 15.5 sacks, nine fumble recoveries with two scores, and seven interceptions. Though he had his nicks and bruises he was a reliable contributor on the defense for over a decade. Hegman was a member of the Doomsday Defense that won Super Bowl XII by crushing the Broncos.
Number 59: Dat Nguyen, LB, 1999-2005
Analysis: Nguyen’s career is so similar to Sean Lee’s except that Nguyen was never truly appreciated by mainstream media for how good he was. Nguyen only played a full 16 games three times in his career but when he was on the field, the Cowboys defense was much better than the opposite. Nguyen was undersized but he didn’t let that keep him from making an impact for the Cowboys defense. Nguyen started 65 of 90 career games as a Cowboy, had 389 tackles, 21 passes defensed, seven interceptions, six sacks, six fumble recoveries, and four forced fumbles. Bill Parcells paid him his best compliment: “He’s a football playing dude, that guy . . . You bet he could have played for any of my teams”. Nguyen was part of 1999’s All-Rookie team and though he never made a Pro Bowl, he was an All-Pro selection in 2003. Nguyen led the team in tackles twice when they were still a 4-3 and even led them once after Parcells’ transition to a 3-4. He was an unsung Cowboys hero an fan favorite.
Number 60: Don Smerek, DL, 1981-1987
Analysis: Only the second defensive lineman in this set of 10 numbers that has been dominated by linebackers. In fact, even Randy White started out as a linebacker for the Cowboys at first. Smerek was a career rotational defensive lineman that was often given chances to start but injuries held him back. In 1981, Smerek was the victim of a road-rage incident that resulted in Don being shot in the chest though he survived. Though he only started four games of his 69 career games in Dallas, he was able to find a role as a pass rush specialist. He recorded 85 tackles and 14.5 sacks but only played a full season once in his career. Injuries caught up with him and he decided to retire in 1987.