The Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct the 2020 class on Saturday due to the ceremony being canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the Dallas Cowboys organization, it will be a glorious time with former head coach Jimmy Johnson getting his spot among the NFL's all-time greats.
Johnson enjoyed much success on the college level as a player and a coach. Along with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Johnson was a member of the 1964 National Championship team at the University of Arkansas. After five years as the head coach at Oklahoma State (1979-1983), Johnson became the head coach at Miami in 1984. After going 8-5 in his first season, Johnson went 44-4 over the next four years as the head man for the Hurricanes including a perfect 12-0 season in 1987 and bringing the university its second national title.
The time in Johnson's football life that gets the most recognition, not surprisingly, is his five-year run with the Dallas Cowboys. In 1989, after the aforementioned Jones bought the Cowboys and fired legendary coach Tom Landry, Johnson was hired to coach America's Team.
His first season was a disaster as the Cowboys went 1-15. Before that season was over, however, Johnson and Jones pulled off a trade that sent Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings and they acquired a plethora of picks. He used those picks wisely over the next several drafts by selecting Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Alvin Harper, Erik Williams, and many more.
In 1990, Johnson led the Cowboys to a 7-9 record, but the next season would be the start of greatness for the Cowboys in the 90s. The Cowboys finished 11-5 in 1991 and beat the Chicago Bears in the playoffs before being eliminated by the Detroit Lions.
With expectations in Dallas at the highest they had been in over a decade, Johnson led the Cowboys to a franchise-best 13-3 record in 1992 which was culminated with a 52-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. Despite starting 0-2 in 1993 in large part due to the absence of Smith who was trying to secure a long-term contract, Johnson got the Cowboys to 12-4 and a second consecutive Super Bowl title with a 30-13 win over the Bills.
In March of 1994, it all came to an end for Johnson in Dallas. After tensions with Jones got too thick, Johnson parted ways with the Cowboys. It was a shock to fans of the organization and the NFL in general with a long-term dynasty seemingly right at Johnson's fingertips. The Cowboys won another Super Bowl in 1995 under Barry Switzer but the magic they had with Johnson was never recaptured.
Johnson would coach again in the NFL from 1996 to 1999 with the Miami Dolphins but didn't have anywhere near the success he had in Dallas.
Since Johnson coached his last game with the Cowboys many have wondered what could have been, especially some of his best players. Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, who Johnson also coached at Miami, believes the Cowboys would have continued their dominance had Johnson never left.
“We could've won four in a row. We could've won five out of six years,” Irvin said. “I really do believe that. And done something that had never been done before and it will never be done again. When you have those opportunities in life, sometimes when you're young you don't even understand that depth of the value of that. And then you get more time in life, you say, ‘Wow, we blew it.' You know? We blew it. We should've done more. We should've won more.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who Johnson drafted with the top pick in 1989, is often asked, much like Irvin, how many more Super Bowls the Cowboys could have won with Johnson.
“I don't know, but my guess is we probably would have won more,” Aikman said. “But I think even saying that minimizes how difficult it is to win a Super Bowl. We would've been knocking at the door every year. We would have been in the hunt and had a chance to win it all, and the reason I say that is for two reasons: One, free agency was coming into play, but Jimmy was a tremendous evaluator of talent, so I don't know or doubt whether we would've continued to bring in young talent. Two, he was so demanding on the details, that our attention to that wouldn't have wavered.”
Johnson is at peace with what he accomplished as a coach. However, he feels sadness for his players and how they weren't able to have much success after his departure.
“I won enough,” Johnson said. “I feel bad for them because had I stayed, I think we would've won a bunch more of them.”
No one will ever know what would have happened had Johnson had a run like Landry did in Dallas. Nonetheless, what he was able to do in just a short time with the Cowboys will be remembered forever once his bronze bust is revealed in Canton on Saturday night.