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 81: Terrell Owens, WR, 2006-2008
Analysis: One interesting note about the number 81 is that no Cowboy has spent more than four seasons in the number. Nobody did it better than the man that loves he some he...or himself rather, Terrell Owens. There are a lot of reasons for T.O. to be etched in Cowboys lore for eternity. Some loyalists will never forgive his days with the 49ers and disrespect for the star, at least George Teague won’t. Others are annoyed by the constant issues he caused in locker rooms and media sideshows he brought in. Still, Owens arguably had his best three-year performance in Dallas where he averaged nearly 1,200 receiving yards per season. In fact, it took him nine years to get 8,500 yards in San Fran, Owens nearly got half of that production in just three with the Cowboys.
He started 46 of 47 games with the Cowboys, gaining 3,587 receiving yards on 235 receptions, with 38 touchdown receptions. At 34, Owens had his third-best season of his career with 81 receptions, 1,355 receiving yards, and 15 touchdowns. Owens averaged 90 yards per game in 2007 while being selected as both a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler. For all his off-field shenanigans, he never missed an opportunity to perform and did it well for a long time. This summer, Terrell Owens will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, giving the Cowboys a total of 24 Hall of Famers.
Number 82: Jason Witten, TE, 2003-2017
Analysis: What more is there to say about the G.O.A.T? Jason Witten is the exact definition of the word dependable. For 15 seasons, Witten was the constant in the Cowboys organization. He only missed one game in his entire career, owning the NFL records for most games played as well as most games started by a tight end. Witten owns the single-season record for most receptions by a tight end with 110. He owns the record for the most receptions in a single game with 18 in 2012. He’s second all-time in the NFL behind Tony Gonzalez for receptions and receiving yards for a tight end. Witten is one of only two tight ends to record 1,000 receptions. Not to mention, he’s fourth all-time in total receptions behind Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, and Larry Fitzgerald.
Those were just his NFL records and he’s got plenty of franchise records to his name as well. He’s the leading receiver in Cowboys history in both receptions and yardage. Witten was a two-time First-Team All-Pro, two-time Second-Team All-pro, 11-time Pro Bowler, and Walter Payton Man of the Year. Jason Witten is the modern day Mr. Cowboy and is the only guy close to the level of the original Bob Lilly.
Number 83: Terry Glenn, WR, 2003-2007
Analysis: Golden Richards won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys and spent two more seasons with the Cowboys but Terry Glenn put up better numbers than him in his five seasons. Glenn came over to Dallas after winning a championship with the Patriots to help out his old coach Bill Parcells. Glenn brought experience and production to a struggling franchise. He started 50 of 54 games, caught 208 passes for 3,337 yards, and 21 total touchdowns. He averaged 16 yards per catch and almost seven yards per rush on 59 rushing attempts. Glenn never won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys and his lone Pro Bowl season came with the Patriots but he was a great addition to the Cowboys. Glenn tragically passed away last year in an auto accident, he was 43-years old.
Number 84: Jay Novacek, TE, 1990-1995
Analysis: The first five years of his career were forgettable, he only had six starts for two different teams. Novacek was let loose from the Cardinals, free to sign with any team he wanted in Plan B Free Agency. The Cowboys signed Novacek ahead of the 1990 season and Jimmy Johnson named him the starter. Novacek broke out that year with 59 receptions, 657 yards, and four touchdowns. From 1991-1995, Novacek was selected to five straight Pro Bowls, he was a second-team All-Pro in 1991. In 1992, Novacek led all tight ends with 68 receptions, 630 yards, and six touchdowns. He earned a First-Team All-Pro selection for his efforts and the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII. Novacek was a key contributor on all three of the Cowboys Super Bowl winning teams of the 1990’s. Novacek started 88 games in six seasons, had 339 receptions, 3,576 yards, and 22 receiving touchdowns. Novacek also ranks third in Cowboys postseason history with 62 receptions, 645 yards, and six touchdowns.
Number 85: Kevin Williams, WR, 1993-1996
Analysis: In the 1993 NFL Draft, the Cowboys traded their first- and fourth-round picks for the Packers two second-round picks and their fourth. With the first pick in the second round, they took Williams. His biggest contributions to the Cowboys came as a kick and punt returner. In 1995, Alvin Harper went to Tampa Bay in free agency, leaving an opening at WR2 for Williams. In a game against the Cardinals, he posted 203 yards and two touchdowns, it was the sixth-best receiving performance in Cowboys history. Williams could never consistently produce as a receiver but he was the first player in franchise history to score touchdowns on punt returns (3), kickoffs (1), receiving (5), and rushing (2). Kevin Williams became a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Cowboys before he left in free agency.
Number 86: Butch Johnson, WR, 1976-1983
Analysis: Johnson was drafted in the third round of the 1976 NFL Draft. He was mainly a contributor on special teams as the return man though he did split time occasionally with Golden Richards. His most notable reception came on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach in the Cowboys Super Bowl XII win over the Broncos. Butch Johnson is second in franchise history in punt return yardage at 1,313 yards, he’s also ninth in kickoff yardage. He never earned a starting role with the Cowboys though he had his moments and contributed to a lopsided Super Bowl championship.
Number 87: Jay Saldi, TE, 1976-1982
Analysis: Number 87 is one of those numbers without a decent lineage in Cowboys history. Jay Saldi, playing behind Billy Joe DuPree, was going to find it hard to standout but he had a decent career as a special teams contributor. He was named a special teams captain in 1976 and though he only had 11 receptions all season, two of them were for touchdowns. Saldi also had the privilege of catching Roger Staubach’s last touchdown pass in 1979. His snaps would go way up in 1980 when the Cowboys moved to a two tight end set and Saldi had his best production with 25 catches, and 311 receiving yards. Injuries started to catch up with him in 1981-1982 and he was traded to the Bears in 1983. In seven seasons, he started 15 games, caught 63 passes for 704 yards and seven touchdowns.
Number 88: Michael Irvin, WR, 1988-1999
Analysis: Dez Bryant may be the franchise touchdown leader, and Drew Pearson is the original, but nobody was better than the Playmaker. It’s the Godfather series, everyone knows Part II is where it’s at. Michael Irvin was the heartbeat of the 1990’s Cowboys after being drafted 11th overall in the 1988 NFL Draft. Irvin was also the last first-round pick that Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt, and Tom Landry ever made. Irvin was the Cowboys first rookie receiver to start opening day in 20 years. He caught his first touchdown in his first game as well. He was the first piece of the puzzle that became known as the Triplets. By 1990, the package was complete with Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. In 1991, the Cowboys went 11-5 after being 7-9 the year prior. Michael Irvin caught 93 passes for 1,523 yards with eight touchdowns, earning his first of five-straight Pro Bowls, and a First-team All-Pro selection.
Michael Irvin would also rack up five-straight seasons of 1,200+ yard receiving seasons with 38 total touchdowns scored in that period. The Cowboys won three Super Bowl championships with Irvin earning two Second-Team All-Pro selections. In 1995, Irvin would set franchise records for receptions (111) and single season receiving yards (1603). He set an NFL record of 11 straight games of 100+ yards in receiving. His 47 games of 100+ yards in receiving is eighth all-time in NFL history. He’s also second in NFL history behind only Jerry Rice in postseason 100-yard performance (6), receptions (87), and postseason receiving yards (1,315). He retired with 750 receptions, 11,904 yards, with 65 touchdowns. At the time of his retirement, he had set every Cowboys receiving record. In 2005, Irvin along with Aikman and Smith were inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor. In 2007, Irvin was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is the greatest receiver in Cowboys history.
Number 89: Billy Joe DuPree, TE, 1973-1983
Analysis: DuPree was selected 20th overall in the 1973 NFL Draft. Dupree actually led the team in receiving yards as a rookie and finished second in touchdowns with five. From 1976-1978, DuPree went to three-straight Pro Bowls and was the top receiver in the Cowboys Super Bowl XII victory over the Broncos. He was one of the greatest tight ends of his era where the position was used more inline to block than anything else. He started 131 games, had 267 receptions for 3,565 yards with another 178 yards in rushing. His 41 touchdown receptions stood as the franchise record until Jason Witten broke it in 2012. DuPree is one of eight Cowboys tight ends to earn Pro Bowl honors, giving the organization a rich legacy. He was also a recipient of the NFL’s Man of the Year award for accomplishments in the community. As an interesting side-note, Mike Ditka is the runner-up for his four years as a Cowboy wearing #89. He is the guy Dupree replaced in the lineup.
Number 90: Jeremiah Ratliff, DT, 2006-2012
Analysis: DeMarcus Lawrence may be able to surpass him very soon but Jeremiah Ratliff has 90 for now. Ratliff was an undersized nose tackle that fell to the Cowboys in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft. He was originally going to play defensive end in the Cowboys 3-4 scheme but was placed on IR in his rookie season. In 2006, Jay Ratliff really started to blossom in 15 games as part of the Cowboys rotation. He tied the team lead of seven QB pressures, had 10 tackles, was third on the team with four sacks, and led the team in fumble recoveries. Finally in 2007, Ratliff took over as a full-time starter at nose tackle where he had 21 tackles, four batted passes, three sacks, and two fumble recoveries. Before the season was up, Ratliff signed an extension with the Cowboys and won the team’s Ed Block Courage Award.
From 2008-2011, Ratliff made four-straight Pro Bowls with a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2009. In that time, Ratliff notched 114 tackles, 19 sacks, 10 batted passes, eight fumble recoveries, and three forced fumbles. Ratliff’s final years with the Cowboys were strange as he openly ridiculed the medical staff, using his own medical team and lost a lot of trust from the organization. Even stranger, Ratliff was placed on PUP list after failing a physical in October of 2013, his agent Mark Slough told the Cowboys he would need a year to heal a serious pelvic injury, and the Cowboys terminated his contract. After one week, Ratliff was cleared and he signed a multi-year deal with the Bears. Three years into that deal, Ratliff was released after a DUI suspension and heated argument with the Bears’ GM Ryan Pace. Ratliff was an often grumpy and contentious character but nobody could deny that he could be disruptively dominant on the field.