10 Most Overrated Dallas Cowboys in Franchise History
Let me begin this by clarifying my criteria for being overrated.
To begin with, overrated does not refer to a draft bust.
This is why the following players, or others like them, will not appear on this list:
Those players either never earned starting jobs or simply never lived up to expectations. To me, they qualify as total busts.
Also, overrated does not pertain to a guy that performs extremely well at his position but might not reach the unrealistic expectations of the national media or fanbase. Consider the following names:
Roy L. Williams (strong safety)
Those players either did or still perform at a very high level even if circumstances either have or did prevent them from either playing longer or appearing as deep into a given postseason as some would have liked.
To be overrated you have to create massive expectations, based on previous performance, that are eventually exposed as beyond reasonable or unrealistic—or perhaps simply a mirage.
I've heard the ridiculous argument that Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman was overrated because he had Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and numerous Pro Bowl offensive linemen in front of him.
But that's a completely ignorant idea based on very limited understanding of football as a team sport as opposed to a game like tennis or boxing.
So here's a look at some very overrated players whose star probably shined brightly at one time, but then dimmed greatly due to numerous different situations. Most players here are historical, but there's a couple still active as well.
10. Russel Maryland: Defensive Tackle (1991-95)
Miami defensive tackle Russell Maryland became the first overall selection in the 1991 NFL draft primarily because Notre Dame standout, and later Dallas wide receiver, Raghib ''Rocket'' Ismail decided to play for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League—I recall being pretty ticked off at that news.
But then-head coach Jimmy Johnson was quite familiar with Maryland from his days as Hurricanes head coach. Johnson traded numerous players and draft picks for the right to grab either Ismail or Maryland—although Ismail was the guy he really wanted.
Maryland was definitely a key part of a defensive line rotation that helped the Dallas defense become very difficult to run against in '91. By 1992 the Cowboys would take the league's No. 1 rated rushing defense into the NFC playoffs en route to their first Super Bowl victory since January of 1978.
But Maryland would become one of numerous free-agent departures from perhaps the best NFL team ever assembled in the early 1990s. Following the franchise's fifth Super Bowl win in 1995, Maryland signed a six-year, $19 million free-agent contract with Oakland where he would never again see the same kind of team or individual success that he did with the Cowboys.
Was Maryland actually worth the top selection in that '91 draft?
Well, the second defensive tackle chosen in that draft was Eric Swann, chosen just five picks later by the Phoenix Cardinals. Over a career that matched Maryland's in tenure, the former semi-pro player with no college experience posted 46.5 sacks with a career-high 8.5 in '95.
Maryland would never post more than 4.5 (twice) in any given season and would finish with 24.5 over his career. His average of just two sacks per season over his last five with Oakland and Green Bay raise the volume that might have been slightly overrated.
9. Alvin Harper: Wide Receiver (1991-94)
Tennessee wide receiver Alvin Harper would become the second player chosen by Dallas in the 1991 draft just 11 selections after Maryland. This move was necessitated by the fact that Johnson was still building an offense that needed a playmaker opposite Hall of Fame pass-catcher Michael Irvin.
When Ismail wasn't available, Harper became a priority.
Make no mistake: Harper was responsible for at least two of the biggest catch-and-runs in Dallas postseason history. His 70-yard grab late in the 1992 NFC Championship Game still brings tears to my eyes—this was the ultimate revenge for ''The Catch'' made by San Francisco tight end Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship, also at Candlestick Park. That play by Harper effectively shifted the balance of power back to America's Team for the 1990s.
Harper would clinch another trip to the Super Bowl the following year on a key touchdown pass from backup quarterback Bernie Kosar in the 1993 NFC Championship Game at Texas Stadium—a pass that was just an inch from being intercepted at a time when the Dallas offense was clearly running on a flat tire without Aikman.
But despite numerous historic plays, Harper would end up being completely exposed as one overrated receiver.
Following the 1994 season, Harper would sign a four-year, $10 million free-agent contract with Tampa Bay as it was clear that Dallas simply didn't have the cap space to retain the four-year veteran.
At 6'4'' Harper certainly looked like a prototypical primary receiver.
But things absolutely didn't work out that way with the Buccaneers.
In just two seasons Harper would catch a meager three touchdown passes and a total of just 922 yards. Injuries were partially to blame, but it was clear right away that Harper wasn't the same player he was is Dallas—and how could he be while looking like a orange creamsicle?
In his final two seasons in Washington and Dallas, Harper would catch just two passes for zero scores and 65 yards.
I'll never knock Harper for what he helped the Cowboys accomplish over his first few seasons—but he was certainly overrated.
8. Julius Jones: Running Back (2004-07)
By 2004, Dallas was still in search of a true successor to Smith, even if then-head coach Bill Parcells was hell bent to share the load in the backfield.
Notre Dame tailback Julius Jones is probably more of a considerable draft mistake than a bust, but he was still overrated. He had the talent but he just couldn't stay on the field—and he wasn't going to have a long career anyway.
Some remember Jones as being the back Dallas selected instead of Oregon State runner Steven Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowl performer who's a member of the 10,000 yard rushing club after a nine-year career that's still going.
Jones, selected after an ill-advised trade down from the 22nd selection all the way to the 43rd in Round 2, is barely a member of the 1,000 yard rushing club, at least as single-season performances are concerned.
Jones had his moments, but sharing carries with backs like Eddie George and Marion Barber really marginalized his full potential—injuries killed the rest.
Jones had just one season of over 1,000 yards rushing in 2006, although he came very close in 2005 with 993.
But at about the time the franchise needed Jones to grab the starting job with authority, his contract was up and following a lousy 2007 campaign, Marion Barber was waiting in the wings—not that that option was much better in hindsight.
Jones signed a four-year free-agent contract with Seattle in 2008 which saw him score only six total touchdowns in his two-plus seasons in the Seahawks backfield. He failed to break 700 yards in any of those seasons.
But after being cut by Seattle in October of 2010, Jones would sign with defending world champion New Orleans a week later. He would become the first player to score a touchdown in a playoff game against the team who cut him in the same season in a losing effort to the Seahawks in the playoffs.
Nonetheless, Jones showed just enough ability as a pro to end up pretty overrated, at least in my book.
7. Troy Hambrick: Running Back (2000-03)
The reason Jones was drafted was because of Savannah State's Troy Hambrick, an undrafted free-agent acquisition by Dallas in 2000.
Hambrick will always be remembered as the running back who replaced NFL all-time leading rusher Smith in 2003. Parcells could see that Smith had an expiration date that was rapidly nearing and he wasn't going to guarantee the 13-year veteran a starting job.
Hambrick had made noise in 2002, not only on the field but also to the media. Bob Baum of the Associated Press offers the most ridiculous quote ever heard by a Cowboys player—and there's been many of those:
I have always admired Emmitt and his will and the things he's done. I just feel like it comes a time - it's not my call to say when it's time - but I'm a guy that wants to get my career off the ground and establish myself as a household name.
Well, Hambrick got his wish during the first year for Parcells at the helm.
Hambrick would carry the ball 275 times for 972 yards and five touchdowns in a season that saw the Cowboys return to the postseason for the first time since 1999.
But Dallas would draft Jones in the 2004 NFL draft and Hambrick was released. After signing with Oakland not long after his release, the Raiders immediately traded Hambrick to Arizona where he would once again back up the NFL's all-time leading rusher.
Hambrick was out of football by 2005.
6. Roy Williams: Wide Receiver (2008-10)
Texas wide receiver Roy Williams was the seventh overall selection of the 2004 NFL draft by Detroit. This move was questionable seeing as how the Lions had taken a wide receiver the year prior with the second pick.
The longer Williams' career went, the more stupid that selection in '04 actually looked.
But the stupidest of all was what Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones traded for Williams in 2008, less than four years before the former Longhorn would retire.
Even worse is the contract that Jones gave Williams immediately following the trade.
Jones gave up first-, third- and sixth-round picks just for the right to sign Williams to a six-year, $54 million contract with $26 million guaranteed.
Granted, Jones knew that then-top receiver Terrell Owens would not be around the following season. But there was no reason to panic over the wide receiver position—I don't believe there ever is in the NFL today.
Williams would never catch more than 38 passes with the Cowboys and he never broke more than—get this—600 yards.
Only playing less than half of that staggering contract, Williams was released during the 2011 offseason and would fair no better the season after in Chicago, his last in the NFL.
In case you're wondering why Dallas has literally nobody left on the team from that horrible 2009 draft, remember the name Roy Eugene Williams Jr.
5. Miles Austin: Wide Receiver (2006-Present)
We finally arrive at the first active Dallas player on this list.
Having played college football at tiny Monmouth, Miles Austin was an undrafted project in 2006 who's only real highlight as a rookie was Dallas' only postseason kickoff return for a touchdown.
But Austin, with players like Owens, Williams and Patrick Crayton ahead of him on the depth chart, wouldn't catch a regular-season pass until his second season.
But then came a regular-season game against the winless Kansas City Chiefs on Week 5 of the 2009 regular season. Starting for the first time in place of Williams, who was injured, Austin would set the club record for receiving yards in a single game with 250 on only 10 catches. He would score the game-winning touchdown in overtime on a 60-yard catch and run.
Austin would explode for 1,320 yards receiving after having had just 278 the year before as a third-year veteran in 2008.
The following offseason Austin signed a six-year, $57 million contract just ahead of his only other 1,000 yard effort in 2010.
But over the last couple of years, Austin's hamstrings and the occasional case of butter fingers have kept him from crossing 1,000 yards as a clear No. 2 wideout next to budding star and 2010 first-round draft pick Dez Bryant.
It's tough to pay two wide receivers like No. 1 options and still take care of the rest of the roster.
As a skill position player, Austin is the textbook example of overrated, a fact possibly magnified by this year's third-round selection of Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams.
I would not expect Austin and his bloated contract to be in Dallas in 2014, although anything is possible when remembering the Dallas front office.
4. Doug Free: Offensive Tackle (2007-Present)
Once upon a time, Northern Illinois prospect Doug Free looked like a lottery ticket for the Cowboys. Much like Austin, Free waited until a combination of experience and injury created opportunity for the former fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL draft.
When then-starting right tackle Marc Colombo suffered a broken fibula against the Green Bay Packers in 2009, Free was sent in to take his place. While the Cowboys would lose the game, the franchise felt that it had at least won a starting tackle for the remainder of the season—and it had.
Free stabilized the right side of the offensive line at a time when his supporting cast upfront was much better. Guys like Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode and Flozell Adams were still in the mix and this might have have ''covered'' Free to some extent.
But as the Cowboys decided to finally part ways with long-time left tackle Adams following the '09 season, Jones may have overplayed his hand.
After just a portion of a season at right tackle, Dallas decided to move Free to left tackle for the 2010 regular season while signing first-round flop Alex Barron from St.Louis to play right tackle.
Despite the fact that the Cowboys would start off 1-7 that year, Free didn't play poorly on the left side—but 2011 was another story. Having selected right tackle Tyron Smith in the '11 NFL draft to replace Barron, Free had issues in his second season at left tackle—immediately following his signing of a four-year, $32 million contract.
Dallas is trying, as you read this, to get Free to take a pay cut that would drastically reduce his expected $7 million salary for 2013. Such a move would possibly allow Free to be replaced by free-agent Eric Winston, should the Cowboys agree to terms with the former Chiefs lineman once there is resolution.
I can't say that Free is as overrated as some based on the fact that he didn't offer himself that contract and also because he's been bounced around the offensive line like a basketball at American Airlines Center.
But his performance last year combined with that top-flight salary make him one incredibly overrated football player right now.
3. Larry Brown: Cornerback (1991-1995)
Former TCU cornerback Larry Brown was drafted by the Cowboys in the 12th Round of the '91 draft and arrived with little fanfare.
But Brown would start for the Cowboys as a rookie and would be around for all the good times—and then he ran away for the money.
Like Maryland and Harper, Brown experienced his greatest personal and team success in Dallas. After leaving following the Cowboys' last Super Bowl win against Pittsburgh, it was all downhill without the supporting cast that was the class of the NFL while he was with the franchise.
Brown was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXX after intercepting Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell twice in the second half. Without those turnovers there's no guarantee at all that Pittsburgh isn't 3-0 against Dallas in Super Bowls.
Brown clearly capitalized on the acquisition of the No. 2 player on this list that I'll discuss shortly. His six interceptions in his final season in Dallas were a career high and it should be noted that his character was off-the-charts.
Brown played through unimaginable pain following the death of his infant son in November that year and still managed to occupy a starting cornerback job that should have belonged to incumbent starter Kevin Smith, a better cover corner that was injured for the season on Week 1.
That ruptured Achilles suffered by Smith just before halftime in New York was quite fateful. It not only brought the next player on this list but also created the formula to make Brown a Super Bowl MVP.
After signing a five-year, $12.5 million contract with the Raiders, Brown would play in just 12 games while intercepting just one more pass in his remaining career.
2. Deion Sanders: Cornerback/Wide Receiver (1995-1999)
As mentioned before, the season-opening injury to Smith to begin the '95 season laid the groundwork for ''Primetime'' to arrive in Dallas.
But the arrival of Deion Sanders was actually determined by events that occurred one year before.
It's no secret that Dallas owned San Francisco in repeated NFC Championship Games in '92 and '93. Even less a secret was that the 49ers brass was more pissed about this fact than they ever were happy about winning championships.
With the Cowboys heading into 1994 as back-to-back world champions, San Francisco signed every free agent it could possibly find just hoping that a little extra talent on a previously outclassed defense combined with some Dallas injuries might give the 49ers a shot.
Sanders was among those free agents signed and perhaps the biggest mistake made by 49ers management was not locking Sanders up long term. Remember that ''Neon'' Deion played on a fishy one-year contract in '94—and didn't San Francisco general manager Carmen Policy remember what happened when outside linebacker Charles Haley was allowed into the hands of the Cowboys just a few seasons prior?
Jones grabbed Sanders with a seven-year, $35 million free-agent contract that was utterly shocking at that time. But Jones would have to wait some seven games before Sanders was done with his final season of wasting time playing professional baseball—obviously Jones wanted Sanders available for 16 games per season and this was the agreement beyond that first season.
But Sanders might as well have been playing baseball anyway. Only once did he play a 16-game schedule with the Cowboys and only once did Dallas win a playoff game following the run to the Super Bowl in Sanders' first season with the team.
After 1996, injuries and age began to catch up to the former two-sport star to the point where he wasn't the shutdown corner he had been his first six or seven years in the league.
Don't get me wrong: Sanders was key to that third Super Bowl win of the 1990s. I can promise you that Brown would have never been the MVP in that game without Sanders, mainly because the Packers would have probably represented the NFC that year.
But for the money that Jones spent to bring Sanders in you would have liked to see a little more in terms of postseason success. Sanders was never a factor at all as wide receiver Randy Moss, a rookie in 1998, began torching the Dallas secondary from the very beginning.
As a free-agent acquisition, Sanders was great at the time.
But overrated he certainly was over the bulk of his time in Big D.
1. Herschel Walker: Running Back (1986-1989)
Georgia running back Herschel Walker would have probably had a very different career had he gone straight to the NFL as opposed to the New Jersey Generals of the short-lived United States Football League in 1983. His talent was never a question—but his perceived value as a professional football player would enter the ranks of ridiculous.
As Tony Dorsett was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, Dallas opted to spend a fifth-round pick on Walker in the 1985 draft. Then-president and general manager Tex Shramm felt that the USFL was nearing its end—and he was right.
The following year Walker entered the NFL and suddenly it appeared that Dallas had the best running back duo in the league, and maybe it did. But leading up to the purchase of the franchise by Jones in 1989, Dallas failed to make the playoffs in any of the first three seasons in which Walker wore the blue star.
New head coach Jimmy Johnson knew Dallas needed not just talent, but young talent. As Walker was easily the most valuable player on the roster, Johnson still recognized him as a seven-year veteran of the pro ranks that wouldn't be so valuable in the near future. Johnson felt he could possibly move Walker for some goods.
Enter the Minnesota Vikings.
Minnesota desperately wanted to reach the top of the NFC, by far the more dominant conference in the NFL. Feeling that it was only a great runner away from possibly passing teams like San Francisco, Chicago, New York Giants and Washington Redskins, the Vikings did the unthinkable.
Vikings general manager Mike Lynn offered a ton of resources for Walker. The meat and potatoes consisted of three first-round picks, three second-round picks, several other conditional picks and even players, a few of which were of short-term use.
Beyond Walker, Dallas basically gave up a couple of third-round selections and little else.
Minnesota would reach the playoffs just once with Walker, only to get blown out 41-13 by San Francisco in the 1989 divisional playoffs—so much for that missing piece of the championship puzzle.
By 1992 Walker was considered an aging journeyman already having landed in Philadelphia.
Well, by '92 the Cowboys had already transformed that trade into the best roster in the NFL and only the sad era of free agency and the salary cap prevented the Cowboys from owning most of a decade as opposed to only half of it.
Walker only rushed for 1,000 yards twice in the NFL, although his all-purpose yards generally put him well over that mark. His 84 total touchdowns are certainly impressive and there's no way to miss the talent possessed by the former Heisman Trophy winner.
But was he actually worth all of the anticipation and resources that often detailed his career?
Of course not.