When Jimmy Johnson finally gets inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor on Saturday night, it will be a long-overdue celebration for all who enjoyed the franchise’s success in the 1990s. It’s appropriate today to show appreciation for the man who made being a Cowboys fan cool again.
While Johnson wasn’t the architect of Dallas’ “America’s Team” moniker, or its legacy for an NFL franchise, he restored that reputation more than anyone or anything in the modern era. The 90s dynasty helped usher in future generations of Cowboys fans and keep the brand as strong as ever.
There were plenty of reasons to love those Cowboys teams. They dominated the league for five seasons, winning three Super Bowls, appearing in four NFC Championship Games, and claiming five-straight NFC East titles from 1992-1996. While Johnson was only coach until 1993, Dallas’ success during that run came largely on the back of his work since joining the organization in 1989.
Johnson brought us Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. He unlocked the greatness of Michael Irvin. He gave us Charles Haley, Darren Woodson, “Moose” Johnston, Jay Novacek, and so many other guys who became household names because of the privilege of playing for those Cowboys teams.
Johnson wasn’t just brilliant in his construction of the team, be it the infamous Herschel Walker trade or other savvy moves, but also in leading it. His no-nonsense approach gave Dallas a killer instinct despite the fanfare and media attention, a trait sorely lacking in the Cowboys' more recent contending rosters. When Johnson left after the 1993 season, the shift in the team’s attitude was noticeable even with continued success. Troy Aikman’s frustration with the new coaching regime under Barry Switzer is well-documented.
There’s a reason Johnson’s recently published book is titled Swagger. That’s what he brought to his players, the entire organization, and even Cowboys fans. You didn’t have to follow football in the 90s to want to wear Dallas gear. Those blue and white Starter jackets looked good on anyone.
The 90s were marked by three franchises from the three biggest sports. Football had the Cowboys, basketball had the Chicago Bulls, and baseball had the New York Yankees. As modern media and marketing took off in that decade, these were the defining teams of the time and the foundation for the future of how America digests sports.
If not for the franchise reboot that Johnson and Jerry Jones delivered in the 90s, who knows where the Dallas Cowboys brand would be today? By the late 80s, it had been a decade since the team’s last Super Bowl appearance. They hadn’t made the playoffs or even had a winning season since 1985. Memories of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach were still sweet, but a critical generation was coming who’d never experienced them.
While the glory of “America’s Team” wouldn’t have died easily, it could only have stayed on life support for so long. Imagine if the 49ers had won three straight Super Bowls in the early '90s; a probable alternative if Dallas hadn’t been there to stifle them. Between the Joe Montana and Steve Young eras, they’d have become the gold standard for professional football.
The Dallas Cowboys would have still mattered. Just look at how fandom for teams like the Dolphins, Eagles, and Raiders has endured despite relatively lesser success. But the franchise wouldn’t be the same today, not even close, without the renewed greatness that Jimmy Johnson brought.
That’s why fans of that era have been so obsessed about him getting into the Ring of Honor. To have Johnson’s players there, and not the man who made them great, would have been an all-time blemish on the Ring and Jerry Jones’ ownership. Tom Landry set an incredibly high bar for coaching in Dallas and the league as a whole, and Johnson met that challenge. Had his relationship with Jones not eroded, Johnson might have even raised it.
Thankfully, the wrong is about to be righted and the Ring of Honor will be made whole before we start getting into later eras of Cowboys greats. It’s a vindicating moment for Jimmy Johnson and every fan he brought in, or perhaps even retained, for the Dallas Cowboys. Some of us wouldn’t be here today without him. So on Saturday night, let’s all be there for him. Make social media rumble with Cowboys pride and appreciation for one of the greatest coaches in NFL history.
Thank you, Coach!