The Dallas Cowboys put the period on their dynasty run on January 28, 1996, having just won their third Super Bowl in four years. For context to this article and the writer behind it—I was born just seven months later.
When I came into this world, the lore and legend of what America’s Team was able to accomplish in the 90s was over before my life even started. Since then, my fandom surrounding the team was cemented in players like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, and Marion Barber. My professional career has run parallel to a new era of players in Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Micah Parsons.
The Cowboys have had playoff success, and teams that could have won it all but have always come up just shy of the goal line. During the span of my life on this floating rock (27 years), Dallas has not returned to an NFC Championship game. Not since the years and the teams that Jimmy Johnson built.
With Johnson finally coming home to have his name forever enshrined in the team’s Ring of Honor, I wanted to look back on the top moments of Johnson’s time dawning the Star. I’ve read and heard numerous stories about the famous head coach with enough knowledge to speak about him. However, ranking my top five moments would be with an asterisk considering I never experienced them with my own eyes.
So instead, I’ve requested the help of someone who’s had a front-row seat from beginning to end and everything in between of Jimmy Johnson’s legacy—Brad Sham, the voice of the Dallas Cowboys.
Sham has been with the Cowboys since 1976, calling games on the airwaves of 105.3 WFAN The Fan. If there’s anyone who knows everything to do with Jimmy Johnson, it’s Mr. Sham.
Here are his top five moments, providing a little context surrounding their significance.
5. Flirting with Jacksonville in 1993 to trigger his departure after five years
Not all of the top moments have to be positive. As far as a moment with the biggest ripple effect, there’s no moment greater than when Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones mutually decided it was in the best interest of the Cowboys for Johnson to step away.
For years, there have been countless debates among the media and Cowboys fans alike for who’s to ultimately blame for Johnson’s exit. This isn’t the space to dwell on those debates; rather, focus on what could have been the tipping point for a relationship already on thin ice.
In December of 1993, the Cowboys were on their way to another playoff berth with a repeat of a Super Bowl victory on their minds. However, with the Jacksonville Jaguars announced as the next expansion team in the NFL, Johnson was on record during an interview with ESPN saying he was “intrigued” if there was any interest from ownership to be their first head coach/general manager.
Johnson was later asked about his statement, and he said,
“I was asked about Jacksonville, and what I said instead of the standard line was that any time you have a job, you’re willing to listen to other opportunities.”
The Super Bowl-winning head coach was still under contract with the Cowboys through the 1999 season, so if he wanted to leave for Jacksonville, as we saw with Sean Payton going to Denver, there would have to be an exchange of draft compensation.
In 2016, during an interview with then FOX Sports commentator Joe Buck, Johnson mentioned after the 1993 Super Bowl victory he was asked by Peter King if he was returning to Dallas for a run at a third straight Super Bowl. Johnson said he told King he couldn’t tell him if he was staying or not.
By that point, it certainly sounded like the relationship between Johnson and Jones was irreparable, and the Jaguars' “flirtation” could have been the straw that broke the camel's back. It’s a shame it ended this way because many players and fans alike are left wondering just how many Super Bowls Johnson and Jones could have won together if everything worked out. The team has been trying to chase the same success ever since.
A moment like this could have soured what was once considered a lifelong friendship until the end of time, and Johnson would have never seen his name in the Ring of Honor. Credit to Jones and coach Johnson for burying the hatchet and their differences and giving him a night to be honored and cement his name into Cowboys history.
4. Being introduced as Tom Landry’s successor in 1989
Jimmy Johnson’s moving on from Dallas had the greatest ripple effect, but there was no greater impact on the Dallas Cowboys than Jerry Jones buying the team and making Johnson the head coach.
Tom Landry was synonymous with the Dallas Cowboys, so picturing one without the other seemed sacrilegious. However, the move had to be made because Landry’s teams just were not the same as they were in the 1970s when he won two Super Bowls.
When Johnson took over, he was bringing a fresh new attitude from the college level that would eventually shape the culture of the teams he coached. In the same interview with Buck, he asked Johnson what the pressure was like to fill the shoes of a great coach like Landry.
“I really didn’t think about it,” Johnson said. “People don’t realize, as great a coach as Tom Landry was, and I don’t want to take anything away from all of his accomplishments, I mean they won three games. They were a bad, bad football team and so a lot of people were ready for a change.”
Johnson was right—things needed to change. He also talked about the mentality of the players he inherited and how that was the first thing that needed fixing.
Former #Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson talking with @Buck about the pressures of following in the footsteps of Tom Landry.— Brandon Loree (@Brandoniswrite) December 29, 2023
Taking nothing away from Landry’s accomplishments, but Dallas was a bad football team that needed change—Jimmy knew that
( : Undeniable w/ Joe Buck) pic.twitter.com/Wny9mhTC45
Jimmy Johnson was never trying to be like Tom Landry. His style of coaching and brand of football was something the Cowboys needed at that time, which helped lead them to back-to-back Super Bowls.
At first, it was, “How will Johnson ever match the success of Landry?” Now it’s become “Who will be the head coach in Dallas that replicates the success of Jimmy Johnson?” That’s quite the legacy to leave.
3. Orchestrating the Herschel Walker-Minnesota trade in 1989
It’s only fitting that “The Trade” is right in the middle of the top five. In a never-ending debate, people will point to the Herschel Walker trade as the landmark moment of Johnson’s legacy, turning America’s Team to a true contender.
On October 13, 1989, in the middle of the Cowboys season and Johnson’s first as head coach, he was finalizing a deal that would send their cornerstone running back to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for players and future picks that would result in Pro Bowl/Hall of Fame players.
Former #Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson talking with Dan Patrick (2020) about the famous Herschel Walker trade.— Brandon Loree (@Brandoniswrite) December 29, 2023
To Johnson, it’s just one of 51 other trades he made throughout his five years in Dallas. To others, it’s THE trade that set a dynasty in motion
( : @dpshow) pic.twitter.com/CCMvSApf8z
Some don’t realize that even before the Cowboys had a deal with the Vikings, it was the Cleveland Browns who were at the eleventh hour of a deal to acquire Walker. Johnson went to Jerry Jones, saying he thought he could get more from someone else.
They eventually pivoted from Cleveland and set their sights on Minnesota. Johnson was ahead of his time because he never cared about the players they were getting in return for the deal. Every player Dallas got from Minnesota was either released or traded. Johnson didn’t value what they could potentially bring to the team—he was focused on the draft picks.
Johnson was ahead of his time when it came to the evaluation of the NFL draft and what those picks meant in their true value. The former Cowboys head coach came up with the famous “Johnson Value Chart” that’s still used in War Rooms to this day in regards to making trades with other teams for draft picks.
Johnson was able to trade his best player in exchange for picks that would later become Emmitt Smith (All-time rushing leader), Russell Maryland (Pro Bowler), Kevin Smith (All-Pro cornerback in 1996), and Darren Woodson (Franchise tackling leader) to name a few.
When people ask Johnson about the trade and what happens to the team if they don’t make the move, he’s quick to point out it was just one trade, and he made 51 over the course of his five years in Dallas.
It may be just one trade to Johnson, but many fans consider it the trade that put the dynasty in motion.
2. His radio appearance ahead of the 1993 NFC Championship game: “We will win the ball game.”
When playing backyard baseball, kids may "call their shot" by pointing toward the outfield to make a home run call. For Johnson, this was the equivalent.
From the jump, the 1993 season was anything but a cakewalk for Dallas. Not only were they trying to hoist a Lombardi Trophy for the second season in a row, but they also had to deal with a two-game holdout from Emmitt Smith and injuries to Troy Aikman and Smith mid-season. You even had the infamous Leon Lett Thanksgiving game sprinkled in the middle.
Somehow, some way, the team ended the season on the road against the New York Giants with a chance to win the division. On the literal shoulders of their All-Pro running back, who suffered a separated shoulder in the game, Dallas went on to win, setting up a favorable playoff run.
Before the #Cowboys played the 49ers in the 1993 NFC Championship, Jimmy Johnson went on the radio to say some of the most iconic words in team history:— Brandon Loree (@Brandoniswrite) December 28, 2023
“You can put it in 3in headlines, we will win the ball game.”
He wrote the check. The players cashed it #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/T2NnSyv7vs
After beating the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round, the road to the Super Bowl was yet again blocked by the San Francisco 49ers. The only difference is that this time, it was in Dallas as opposed to the Bay area.
The head coach wanted there to be chaos for the players to rally around. Part of what made Johnson such a great leader in the first place was his belief and confidence in his players, mixed in with a little swagger. Making a bold claim before the game was even played put a target on the back of him and his team, but he felt it would be the spark they needed to loosen up and ultimately win the game.
Dallas would go on to face the Buffalo Bills yet again and win their second Super Bowl.
1. Winning his first Super Bowl in 1992 and “How ‘bout them Cowboys!”
As the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson had a clear goal in mind, which he achieved during the 1992 season. Despite facing challenges in the 1989 and 1990 seasons, Johnson persevered, and all of his teachings, philosophies, and leadership skills were fully realized by the 1992 team. This team embodied everything that Johnson had been working towards, and it was a testament to his coaching abilities.
The triplets of Aikman, Irvin, and Smith were a force to be reckoned with on offense and were at the peak of their powers. The Cowboys' defense was feared by opposing offenses and led by players like Charles Haley, Ken Norton Jr., Jim Jeffcoat, Darren Woodson, Larry Brown, Russell Maryland, Tony Casillas, and others.
Johnson had been waiting for three seasons to have a team carved in his image—a team that was young and all about speed. Dallas won a record 13-3 games and faced the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round.
Finally getting over the hump of Philadelphia, the rival was feared no longer, with Dallas winning comfortably 34-10. After that, one more box needed to be checked, and that would be playing the San Francisco 49ers, who were the old guard of the 80s.
Dallas would win the game 30-20, and with all the confidence in the world, they knew the Super Bowl was theirs having just beat the toughest team in the NFL. Before heading to Arizona to face the Buffalo Bills, Johnson delivered the most iconic moment in franchise history after the Championship game.
In 1989, Johnson and Jones took over the Cowboys and appealed to the fans for trust in the process, promising that wins and championships were on the horizon. By 1991, the draft picks from the Herschel Walker deal began to pay off, and the team's players were transforming into all-star performers. The ‘91 season served as a window into Dallas' potential, and the 1992 team was the culmination of everything that Johnson had invested in the team up to that point.
Although the Cowboys won another Super Bowl in 1993 and then again in 1995 under Barry Switzer, the 1992 season will always be remembered as the mountain top for the franchise at that time. Their success is largely attributed to the leadership of coach Jimmy Johnson, who made a promise to turn the team around and he delivered on his word. This is the reason why he is now being inducted into the Cowboys' Ring of Honor as one of the team's greatest coaches.