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Jimmy Johnson should've been the best NFL head coach ever.
He had all the necessary resources. He had a championship team that had barely reached its prime. He even had one of the most underrated factors in any team's pursuit of brilliance working in his favor -- there wasn't much competition standing in the way of his reaching such an iconic level.
Johnson was voted No. 13 in ESPN's "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" project, but he could've accomplished much more.
Johnson wasn't just a hard-driving, tough-talking leader when he arrived in Dallas in 1989. After leaving the Miami Hurricanes, whom he led to the 1987 national title, he was a man on a mission to prove a college coach could thrive in the NFL.
He eventually became one of six coaches in league history to win consecutive Super Bowls, and his Cowboys teams dominated the postseason. Johnson led Dallas to eight playoff games during his time with the franchise. The Cowboys won seven.
The problem Johnson has is that people too easily forget what greatness looks like when it shines for only a brief period. After taking a miserable team when he arrived and turning it into a juggernaut, Johnson's career in Dallas ended after only five seasons.
It vanished in the midst of acrimony and jealousy, a festering feud between himself and owner Jerry Jones that lingered a few years too long. Johnson wound up leaving the Cowboys just a few months after leading them to a victory in Super Bowl XXVIII in January 1994. It was the dumbest mistake Jones ever made in running that franchise.
Aside from Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh, no NFL coach in history was sitting on as much talent at the right time as Johnson. He had built the Cowboys up by using a keen eye for special skills.
Johnson's visionary prowess helped him see the fool's gold that was Herschel Walker, the underrated potential in undrafted free agents like tight end Jay Novacek, and the value in coveting speed at a time when the league was still built mainly around bulk and brawn. Like all great leaders, Johnson saw where the game needed to go before anybody else had a chance to catch up.
The Cowboys went from 1-15 in his first year to 11-5 in his third. They won the Super Bowl the next two seasons and had a great shot at a three-peat before Johnson left town.
As dominant as the San Francisco 49ers were during their championship season in 1994 -- and they were the Cowboys' only real equal during Johnson's tenure -- Dallas was no slouch. The Cowboys could've easily won that year's NFC Championship Game if he had still been at the helm.
That is the biggest rub of Johnson's exit from Dallas. He was sitting on a team that could've made a run at four or five Super Bowls, especially with a nucleus that included Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
|When Jimmy Johnson left the Cowboys in 1994, the team's Super Bowl window was still wide open.|
Even with the eventual departure of talented players through free agency, Johnson had a handle on the Cowboys that enabled them to always understand their mission. Barry Switzer, Johnson's eventual replacement, never gave Dallas the sense of urgency Johnson demanded.
It's telling that a number of off-the-field problems occurred after Johnson left Dallas. Most notably, Johnson would've dealt with Irvin's legal run-ins much better than Switzer did. There's no way of knowing whether the Cowboys would've still lurched into the long-running soap opera they eventually became, but this much is certain: They still would've balled out on Sundays.
That ability to maximize potential was Johnson's gift as a coach. Unfortunately, that's also the defining quality of his legacy. He didn't revolutionize the game (like Paul Brown or Sid Gillman), dazzle people with his intellect (as Bill Walsh did) or produce a coaching tree that yielded any quality prospects. Not one of Johnson's assistants in Dallas -- a group that included Norv Turner, Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis, Dave Shula and Dave Campo -- distinguished himself when given the opportunity to become an NFL head coach.
This should be considered further evidence of how Johnson made everyone around him better when he was in Dallas. The odds were pretty good that he could've done that for much longer than any of us realize.
And please don't suggest that his four years with the Miami Dolphins (1996 to '99) prove that he didn't have the stuff to be the best. The league's rules had changed so much by that point -- fewer draft picks, more long-term pain associated with free-agent mistakes -- that it's harder to measure what Johnson did at that stage of his career.
That would be like saying Vince Lombardi was a lesser coach because he couldn't find success in Washington after Green Bay or that Bill Belichick's time in Cleveland should diminish what he's done in New England. The best coaches are usually associated with the success they had with one team. It's hard enough to win games in the NFL. To sustain dominance over a specific period of time requires a certain level of genius.
That ultimately is what Johnson did at the start of his NFL career. It's easier to forget now because enough time has passed and he's spent more than a decade working in television. But the people in Dallas surely recall what it felt like when he ran their team. They also probably wonder how far Johnson could've taken the Cowboys if his career hadn't ended so prematurely.