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15 Mar 2013

The Jimmy Johnson All-Stars

by Tom Gower

Three years ago, we started a series on "coaching all-stars," the best player-seasons in the history of some of the NFL's best and/or most famous coaches. For this latest installment, our subject is Jimmy Johnson.

For this series, we have profiled some of the most prolific and/or successful coaches in recent NFL history. Johnson does not quite fall into that category. He coached in the NFL for only nine seasons, all as a head coach. The last coach we profiled was Norv Turner, who has served as a head coach for 15 seasons. In fact, 2013 will be Turner's twenty-third consecutive season as a head coach or coordinator. Nevertheless, Johnson earned his spot on this list by making an impact.

After playing for Arkansas' national championship football team, Johnson became a college coach and ascended the collegiate coaching latter, first serving as the head coach at Oklahoma State before moving on to the University of Miami. He inherited a program at Miami that was coming off a national title and turned them into a juggernaut notable for trouncing the competition and loudly proclaiming the trouncing before, during, and after it happened.

His Arkansas roommate Jerry Jones hired him to coach a woeful Dallas Cowboys team beginning in 1989. A 1-15 record followed that first season, but Johnson used his excellent knowledge of the collegiate game, masterful psychological skills, and a preference for speed, speed, and more speed to turn things around. Plus, oh yeah, the draft picks from the incredibly lopsided deal with the Vikings for Herschel Walker, the Cowboys' only star when Johnson arrived. Lopsided Super Bowl victories followed in 1992 and 1993, but Johnson's relationship with Jones grew steadily worse and led to his departure.

Johnson's second and last coaching gig came in Miami in 1996. He inherited a playoff team led by a late career Dan Marino that had generally struggled thanks to a mediocre defense and had not returned to the Super Bowl since their trip there in 1984. His four seasons in Miami included roughly the same level of success the Dolphins had achieved before he got there: three trips to the playoffs, two playoff wins, zero trips to the conference championship game. Johnson then left coaching and is now safely ensconced in FOX's studio show on Sunday, apparently content with his role and relationship with the game and league.

As his first and last coaching seasons were only a decade apart, we do not get the same mix of players over time that we did with a Dick Vermeil or Dan Reeves. At the same time, though, we do get an interesting mix of players.

"SKILL PLAYERS"*

QB: Troy Aikman, 1993 Cowboys
RB: Emmitt Smith, 1992 Cowboys
FB: Daryl Johnston, 1993 Cowboys
WR: Michael Irvin, 1991 Cowboys
WR: Tony Martin, 1999 Dolphins
TE: Troy Drayton, 1997 Dolphins

Dan Marino late in his career was better than you thought. He finished third in DYAR and second in DVOA in 1996, and first in the league in DYAR and seventh in DVOA in 1997 before declining his last two seasons. Aikman in 1992 and 1993 was roughly as good as either Marino season. He had 2% more DVOA in 1992 than Marino had in 1996, but a much better DVOA in 1993, when Dr. Z also named him to his All-Pro team. Aikman in 1993 is my preference, but any of the four would be a worthy choice.

Running back was simple: pick Emmitt Smith's best season. While we do not yet have DVOA for 1990, I am fairly confident that is not it. 1992 and 1993 were very, very close. He held out the first two games in 1993, but had a better DVOA and was slightly more efficient running the ball. In 1992, he had more DYAR on more carries, but a lower DVOA. I went with 1992 based on his postseason production, as he had 22-to-25 carries for 108-114 yards and a rushing touchdown in all three postseason games. At fullback, Johnston's 1993 season was an easy call.

The first wide receiver spot was similarly straightforward: pick Michael Irvin's best season. Unfortunately, that was not quite so simple. He led the league in DYAR from 1991 to 1993 (each season he accumulated between 460 and 473 DYAR) while posting a DVOA between 27.0% and 35.0%. I chose his breakout and All-Pro season of 1991 to avoid having all three Cowboys stars share the same season, but all three years were similarly outstanding. Picking a second receiver is more problematic. The choice came down to Alvin Harper's 1993 season (seventh in DYOA, but less than half Irvin's targets) or Martin. While the passing offense was not as efficient as it had been, he led the Dolphins with 67 catches for 1,037 yards and finished in the top fifteen in DVOA and DYAR.

I thought Jay Novacek would be a lock at tight end, and most likely for his All-Pro 1992 season. Novacek's more efficient Dallas campaigns came after Johnson left, though, while Troy Drayton led the league in DVOA and DYAR in 1997 with better numbers than Novacek posted even after Johnson's departure.

*-"Skill players" is a convenient, widely-understood way to refer to these positions. Other NFL players are skilled, too.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT: Richmond Webb, 1996 Dolphins
LG: Nate Newton, 1993 Cowboys
C: Mark Stepnoski, 1992 Cowboys
RG: Kevin Gogan, 1993 Cowboys
RT: Erik Williams, 1993 Cowboys

If it seems like there are too many Cowboys on the offensive line, well, there are not. Emmitt Smith was a very very good back in his own right, but the Cowboys' offensive line in the Super Bowl years is up there with the Chiefs' line in the early 2000's as the best in recent NFL history even though Larry Allen did not arrive until 1994. Williams was probably the best of them, at least until he was seriously injured in a 1994 car accident. Outside of Webb in 1996, the Dolphins' line did not draw league-wide acclaim, nor did it seem to deserve to. Marino had a very low sack rate in 1997 and 1998, though that was not too unusual (his raw sack rate in 1988 of under one percent is the best in NFL history), and they came out average or below by Adjusted Line Yards and rushing DVOA in Johnson's tenure.

DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN

LDE: Tony Tolbert, 1992 Cowboys
LDT: Russell Maryland, 1993 Cowboys
RDT: Daryl Gardener, 1999 Dolphins
RDE: Jason Taylor, 1998 Dolphins
OLB: Robert Jones, 1998 Dolphins
MLB: Zach Thomas, 1999 Dolphins
OLB: Ken Norton, 1992 Cowboys

Somewhat surprisingly, 1992 was the only season Johnson's Cowboys team came out above-average by DVOA. He did manage to build a very good defense in Miami, but only by the time the offense had started to decline in his third season there. The 1998 Dolphins were the star Johnson defense, ranking first in the league (first overall against the pass, sixth against the run) in DVOA. The team leader in sacks for the 1992 Cowboys and 1998 Dolphins was a former-starter-turned-important-situational-player both seasons: Jim Jeffcoat and Trace Armstrong. Taylor would have his best seasons after Johnson left, but had 9.0 sacks in 1998 and the Dolphins led the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs marked left end and left tackle. Tolbert was a fine player who finished second on the team in sacks. Russell Maryland does not rank at the top in the annals of first overall picks, but he was a fine player for the Cowboys for several years. Daryl Gardener was a rock in the middle of some stout run defenses that ALY rates highly and was an honorable mention on Dr. Z’s All-Pro team. His partner Tim Bowens was also a very good player and made the Pro Bowl in 1998.

Running a 4-3 in both Dallas and Miami, Johnson benefited from having very good middle linebackers. The best was Thomas, who made the All-Pro team in 1998 and 1999. Outside linebacker was more of a challenge. Ken Norton Jr. played there for several seasons, then made the Pro Bowl when he moved inside in 1993. Jones played in the middle in 1992 for Dallas before being displaced by Norton and played on the outside for Johnson after being reunited with him in Miami. The other spot came down to Norton or Dixon Edwards, who became a starter in 1993 when Norton moved inside.

SECONDARY

CB: Sam Madison, 1999 Dolphins
CB: Larry Brown, 1992 Cowboys
FS: Thomas Everett, 1993 Cowboys
SS: Brock Marion, 1998 Dolphins

The Dolphins made a remarkable turnaround in 1998, going from the league's third-worst pass defense by DVOA to the best. In 1998, Sam Madison became a full-time starter in his second season. The two changes do not appear to be coincidental, as the Louisville product quickly earned a reputation as one of the best cover men in the league.

Beyond Madison, the other secondary choices are not obvious. No other corner drew leaguewide acclaim. Terrell Buckley was just as big a part of 1997's terrible pass defense as he was of 1998's excellent outfit. Kevin Smith had the best career of any Cowboys cornerback under Johnson, but did not become a starter until 1993 and his best years were later. Lacking a clear choice, I will go with another representative from Johnson's other excellent pass defense.

Safety presents a similar sort of puzzle. Darren Woodson became an excellent player, but in 1993 he was in his first year as a starter. He would make the All-Pro team the next year, but I am not sure he was an instant success in his rookie year. Everett makes it on the basis of his Pro Bowl nod. Marion was another player Johnson originally drafted in Miami, and some of the improvement from 1997 to 1998 is probably related to his arrival.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Olindo Mare, 1999 Dolphins
P: John Kidd, 1996 Dolphins
RET: Kelvin Martin, 1992 Cowboys

Mare pulled off the double feat of being named the All-Pro kicker and leading the league in our FG/XP value. He led the league in field goals made and attempted, finishing a perfect 17-for-17 inside 40 yards and a respectable 12-for-19 from beyond it.

Kidd led the league in punting at 46.8 yards per kick in 1996. The Dolphins led the league in both punting and kicking, suggesting the kick coverage units were outstanding in their own right.

While the team finished below average on kickoff returns by our numbers, Martin led the league in Punt Return value in 1992. The Cowboys had slightly better combined return numbers in 1991, but split the duties with Martin returning punts and Alexander Wright bringing back kicks.

It is difficult to know what to make of Johnson's overall tenure. Most of this difficulty is due in my mind to his short Dallas tenure. While hiring Barry Switzer may have been Jones's attempt to show "any idiot can coach this team to a Super Bowl," a number of players noted Johnson's psychological tricks had started to wear thin on a highly-stressed roster and Switzer's more relaxed style was perhaps a necessary change.

How many Super Bowls would the Cowboys have won if he stayed? If Jones had been a more relaxed owner, would the Cowboys after 1994 have remained like they did, a steadily less-talented team as free agency departures took their toll? Johnson had some success in Miami, suggesting he could have done a better job of drafting than the Cowboys did. A path not unlike Mike Shanahan's in Denver seems possible, though Aikman did not retire after the second Super Bowl win like John Elway did. Johnson may then have been able to establish a dynasty even better than the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady one.

His record in Miami is more mixed. As I noted in the introduction, his teams were not noticeably more successful than the Dolphins teams that came before him. Without a boon like the Herschel Walker trade (and the masterful job he did of manipulating the draft board and drafting with the resources acquired from it), he was not able to build a powerhouse on both offense and defense. Had he stayed on after Dan Marino retired, would he have been able to do a better job of finding a quarterback? We will never know.

As to the team we can construct from his best teams, his times in Dallas peaked with the 1992 and 1993 Cowboys, and those squads form the core of our team. The 1992 Cowboys are the tenth-best team in DVOA history (1991-2012), so they are a fairly worthy core. Beyond adding a second receiver who could handle the majority of the load, Johnson's Dolphins tenure does not add much to the offense. Defensively, the Dolphins are more important, but that says as much about the nature of Johnson's Dallas teams as anything else.

Beyond the triplets of Aikman, Smith, and Irvin and a few others, the Cowboys' excellence under Johnson was based on their depth of talent rather than their number of top-end stars. Pro Bowl appearances can of course be an inconsistent guide to player quality, but not until 1993 did any Cowboy defenders under Johnson earn the honor. 1992 is the only year our numbers like. Charles Haley is the only defender to draw any serious Hall of Fame discussion, and his best years came outside our sample size. Taylor, Thomas, and Madison provide a needed leavening of star power.

On the whole, I find Johnson's coaching all-stars list not particularly interesting, even in comparison to that for Tom Coughlin. Their coaching tenures are in some ways vaguely similar, with a first building job leading to a particular peak followed by a second stint elsewhere, though I find Coughlin's Giants tenure much more intriguing than Johnson's briefer Miami tenure.

Previous coaching all-star teams:

Posted by: Tom Gower on 15 Mar 2013

23 comments, Last at 19 Mar 2013, 4:01pm by Lance

Comments

1
by Travis :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 1:19pm

Somewhat surprisingly, 1992 was the only season Johnson's Cowboys [defense] came out above-average by DVOA.

DVOA doesn't yet go back that far, but the 1990 Cowboys (5th in the league in yards allowed per play) probably had an above-average defense.

Eugene Lockhart deserves some sort of honorable mention for making the 1989 All-Pro teams (AP 2nd, Sporting News 1st) from a 1-15 squad.

He coached in the NFL for only eight seasons.

Nine (Cowboys 1989-93, Dolphins 1996-99), though you might as well ignore 1989 from an evaluation standpoint.

2
by Tom Gower :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 2:47pm

You're right, I should have mentioned Lockhart. I just wasn't sure there was anything more to his season than ringing up a ton of tackles as a non-terrible MLB on a terrible team.

3
by andrew :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 8:57pm

Other all-stars I'd like to see:

Don Shula
Chuck Knox
Denny Green
Jimmy Conzelman

I'd also love to see Wade Phillips and Norv Turner, but the series is supposed to be on the "best coaches"... or at least above average...

5
by Tom Gower :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 10:05pm

I did Norv last month. Everybody but Conzelman's on the list of possibilities. I guess I could add him, too, but (a) we prefer guys who coached in the DVOA era and (b) I don't know really know enough about his teams to do a good job of picking players.

6
by andrew :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 12:30am

Sorry missed/forgot Norv.

I added Conzelman after trying to find an answer to the question as to who coached the most different NFL teams (he holds the mark with seven). I guess it would be kind of awkward to have to consider him (the coach) when he was also a player on his first four teams...

In the modern era, the answer is Wade Phillips.

17
by snarfsnarfington (not verified) :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 11:05am

Bill Cowher would be nice.

4
by Independent George :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 9:01pm

Come on, guys. You've got to give us Kotite.

7
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 7:04am

Chuck Knox (he of the blue socks) would be an interesting one although unfortunately his career lacks a lot of visibility - particularly form a DVOA perspective.

I didn't realise he was in continuous employment for 22 years - coached 334 games - puts him #7 all-time. Rams (73-77), Bills (78-82), Seahawks (83-91), Rams (92-94).

Just reading his wikipedia entry he sounds like he was a good coach and a good man just didn't get the end results. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Knox

"In five seasons as the Rams head coach the team had won five straight NFC West titles with five different starting quarterbacks (John Hadl, Ron Jaworski, Pat Haden, James Harris, and Joe Namath) and had a regular season record of 54-15-1 but a play-off record of only 3-5."

8
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 7:10am

One presumes Mike Holmgren has a lot of available data to cover his Packers (92-98) and Seahawks (99-2008) tenures. He has 12 playoffs seasons to his name so there'd likely be some interesting players to choose between.

13
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 11:34pm

I was thinking Holmgren too, but maybe Bill Cowher first.

18
by snarfsnarfington (not verified) :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 11:08am

I would looooove to see Cowher's defense.

9
by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 1:29pm

Bowens over Maryland and you have to find a spot for Haley, without him Johnson doesn't have a pair of rings. He might have been the most consistently disruptive player of the early 90s, a menace on the field, in the locker room and in the car park.

10
by Ryan D. :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 1:32pm

Just for the sake of discussion, how about a John Fox team?

QB - Peyton Manning 2012
RB - Deangelo Williams 2008 (273-1515-18)
FB - Hoover 2002/04 (Tebow 2011 if you're feeling funny)
WR - Steve Smith 2005 (103-1563-12)
WR - Muhsin Muhammad 2004 (93-1405-16)
TE - Jacob Tamme 2012

LT - Ryan Clady 2012
LG - Mike Wahle 2005 or Zane Beadles 2012
C - Ryan Kalil - 2010
RG - Keydrick Vincent 2009 or Chris Kuper 2011
RT - Jordan Gross - played RT in 2003/05/07

DE - Julius Peppers 2004/08
DT - Kris Jenkins 2002/03
DT - Brentson Buckner 2002
DE - Elvis Dumervil 2012

OLB - Von Miller 2012
ILB - Jon Beason 2007/08/09
OLB - Thomas Davis 2008 or James Anderson 2010

CB - Champ Bailey - 2011/12
FS - Deon Grant - 2002
SS - Mike Minter - 2002/03
CB - Chris Gamble - 2005

K - John Kasay - 2008 (27 of 28 from inside 50 yards)
P - Todd Sauerbrun - 2002
RET - Steve Smith 2002 or Trindon Holliday 2012

Just for fun, subtract the RB, FB, and TE, and play 5 WRs with Steve Smith 2005, Muhsin Muhammad 2004, Eric Decker 2012, Demaryius Thomas 2012, and Wes Welker 2013. You think Peyton Manning 2012 would have fun with that offense?

12
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 11:27pm

That's a pretty good lineup, but maybe we should wait until Welker actually plays for Fox before putting him on any list.

15
by Ryan D. :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 9:18am

Welker would only need to outperform Keyshawn Johnson's 70-815-4 from 2006 to be Fox's 5th best receiver ever. Barring injury, that seems like a very attainable goal.

14
by theslothook :: Sun, 03/17/2013 - 12:41am

I would have definitely gone with ken lucas over Chris Gamble - probably ken lucas of 2006.

16
by Ryan D. :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 10:36am

I'm sure it was scheme related, but I just never liked watching Lucas play 10 yards off-coverage on a 3rd-and-6. I always thought Gamble was better, based on nothing more than my untrained eye. Both Lucas and Gamble had their best year in 2005 based on more traditional stats. You could probably take either from that season, but I would take Gamble.

11
by BDC :: Sat, 03/16/2013 - 7:05pm

Minor typo, Marino and company went to the SB in 1984 season, not 1994.

19
by Dean :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 1:22pm

I'd be curious to see just how impressive this list would be if you could also add players Johnson coached at The |__|.

20
by Travis :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 3:39pm

Limiting this only to players Johnson coached at Oklahoma State (1979-83) and Miami (1984-1988):

SKILL PLAYERS

QB: Vinny Testaverde, 1998 Jets
RB: Cleveland Gary, 1992 Rams
FB: Alonzo Highsmith, 1989 Oilers
WR: Michael Irvin, 1995 Cowboys
WR: Eddie Brown, 1988 Bengals
TE: Alfredo Roberts, 1991 Cowboys
3WR: Brett Perriman, 1995 Lions
4WR: Brian Blades, 1989 Seahawks

Early-career Bernie Kosar would be the backup QB. Surprisingly weak at RB and TE.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT: Paul Blair, 1986 Bears
LG: Mike Sullivan, 1993 Bucs
C: Gregg Rakoczy, 1988 Browns
RG: Paul O'Connor, 1987 Bucs
RT: Leon Searcy, 1999 Jaguars

Searcy's the only real starter here. O'Connor only played in replacement games.

DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN

LDE: John Washington, 1990 Giants
DT: Jerome Brown, 1990 Eagles
DT: Cortez Kennedy, 1992 Seahawks
RDE: Dexter Manley, 1986 Redskins
LLB: Winston Moss, 1991 Raiders
MLB: Mike Green, 1985 Chargers
RLB: Leslie O'Neal, 1990 Chargers

An incredible defensive line. O'Neal's a 3-4 ROLB and a 4-3 DE, but he's far better than any alternative.

SECONDARY

CB: Reuben Henderson, 1981 Bears
CB: Greg Hill, 1986 Chiefs
FS: Bennie Blades, 1991 Lions
SS: Bubba McDowell, 1991 Oilers

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Carlos Huerta, 1996 Bears
P: Jeff Feagles, 2008 Giants
RET: Eddie Brown, 1988 Bengals

No real alternates at kicker or returner.

21
by Dean :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 3:53pm

Thanks. If there's anyone we can count on for detail, Travis, it's you. Well done. I do disagree about Rakoczy - he had a couple pretty good years for Cleveland.

I'm most surprised by the lack of DEs. You'd think someone better than John Washington would be around. Huerta was a great college kicker even if he didn't have the leg strength to stick in the NFL.

22
by Travis :: Mon, 03/18/2013 - 4:28pm

Washington was the only primary LDE I could find. If you want to choose the two best defensive ends instead of 1 left and 1 right, choose O'Neal or Kevin Fagan instead.

23
by Lance :: Tue, 03/19/2013 - 4:01pm

Re "Surprisingly weak at RB and TE."

I grew up in Stillwater, but I suppose it was long enough ago that my chronologies are murky. I was sure that Johnson had at least coached one season with Thurman Thomas but both he AND Barry Sanders came in the subsequent Pat Jones years.

Given how run-of-the-mill those OSU teams were, one wonders how he managed to nab the Miami gig...