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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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: