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Randy Moss and the Dallas Cowboys: The Butterfly Effect

Christian Blood@@cowboysguruContributor IIINovember 21, 2010

Randy Moss in the process of torching the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving 1998.
Randy Moss in the process of torching the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving 1998.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

“With the eighth pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys select …”

Pause right there a moment. As former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue spoke those words, never before has a an NFL franchise’s fortunes shifted any greater, for better or worse. 

For this was the now-infamous Randy Moss draft that might not mean so much now, but it certainly made a stamp on the Dallas Cowboys.

The biggest question of that particular draft was who would be chosen first, Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning or Washington State signal-caller Ryan Leaf. The next biggest question was exactly how far Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss would fall in the first round.

As the Cowboys made that first choice, I was standing at a gas pump off North Santa Rosa St. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Obviously running behind, I cranked up the volume in my pickup truck and rolled the windows down so I could easily hear the choice.

Having known who Randy Moss was for several months, the selection should have been obvious. Moss was easily the best non-quarterback in the draft and possessed a freakish blend of height and speed that nobody had ever seen before.

There was certainly baggage and immaturity that were concerns to most teams that might have a shot at Moss, but nobody could deny his talent, period.

If you remember watching the inaugural Motor City Bowl on ESPN the previous December, you knew that Moss was going to live up to the hype.

His 80-yard touchdown reception from Chad Pennington less than a minute into the game was my father’s introduction to Moss as I eagerly pointed him out as we watched that game in a San Francisco hotel room that Friday night.

History has spoken regarding Dallas’ selection of North Carolina defensive end Greg Ellis with that eighth choice in the first round.

As a Dallas fan at that time, you were quite aware that changes were coming to the Cowboys. Just months before, the Cowboys had failed to even make the playoffs for the first time since the run of playoff wins and Super Bowls had begun in 1991.

Players were getting into trouble after hours, others were leaving via free agency and still others had simply retired. Ellis filled a need and was regarded as being among the top two or three pass rushers available in the draft, and with no Charles Haley anymore, this selection made sense.

I was disappointed that Dallas didn’t take Moss that day, but still felt that Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones had made the right decision.

By Thanksgiving later that same year, everyone knew that despite Jones’ best intentions, it wasn’t exactly the best call in any way.

Now, I don’t need to recap the utter destruction that Moss has bestowed upon the Cowboys in literally every game he’s played against them, no matter what team he’s been on.

I will, however, dig into the butterfly effect that ensued because Jones failed in simply choosing the best player available with the eighth selection in 1998.

Let’s say the Cowboys go ahead and choose Moss in 1998. Not only is Dallas spared the utter humiliation of Moss’ three-catch, three-touchdown performance against them in that memorable 1998 Thanksgiving Day massacre, but possibly a surprising playoff disappointment.

The Cowboys ran the table in the NFC East in Chan Gailey’s first year as head coach replacing the washed-up Barry Switzer. As they stood, the Cowboys went 10-6 but lost to then-division rival Arizona in the first round of the playoffs at Texas Stadium.

Dallas had beaten the Cardinals twice that regular season but could only muster a single touchdown in losing 20-7. You think that happens with Randy Moss lining up opposite a still-thriving Michael Irvin at wide receiver?

You think the Cowboys would have gotten blown out at Denver against the defending world champion Broncos in Week 2 that year?

And is it safe to suggest that Minnesota, the team that dared to select Moss all the way down at 21 in the first round, does not go 15-1 en route to a surprising NFC Championship Game loss to “Cinderella” Atlanta? I feel rather comfortable with that idea.

A Cowboys team that was still good, but not great, might not have finished 10-6 in 1998. I would bet something more like 12-4 or 14-2…or 15-1?

This tragedy really starts unfolding in 1999 and not so much because the Vikings and Moss beat Dallas two more times including the postseason. Off to a 3-0 start, Irvin would suffer a career-ending injury Week 4 at Philadelphia in a game Dallas appeared able to win.

With Irvin gone for good and only first-year free agent acquisition Rocket Ismail left as a deep threat, the Dallas offense was pretty much doomed. Do the Cowboys even bother with Ismail if Moss is now in his second year catching passes from quarterback Troy Aikman? No.

And how about that “Greatest Show On Turf” bursting onto the scene that same year? Can one be certain that the Rams even reach the Super Bowl with another offense like the one Dallas could have had standing in the way?

Remember that the Cowboys did make the playoffs in 1999, even without Irvin for most of the season. And what if Irvin had not been injured in the first place? Did Jerry Jones cost himself that fourth or possibly fifth Super Bowl as an owner by not taking Moss?

I personally doubt it, given Dallas’ other weaknesses and fading eventual Hall Of Fame players still on the roster…but I’m not positive in any way.

Having tried for years to replace Alvin Harper as Irvin’s balancing act, Jones had gone through options including Kevin Williams, Deion Sanders, Anthony Miller and others heading into the 2000 season.

Knowing that Irvin was now gone, Jones pulled the trigger on a trade with Seattle for Joey Galloway, hoping to team him up with Ismail.

On paper, this didn’t look bad at all. Speed certainly would not be missing from the Dallas wide receiver corps, even though it was very expensive.

Dallas gave up two first-round draft picks in this deal without realizing that Aikman would play his final game before season’s end.

With Galloway blowing his knee in the 2000 season opener, a blowout loss to upstart Philadelphia in Irving, he would not even play a complete game in his first season in Dallas.

Talk about suddenly being up the creek without a quarterback! If ever an NFL GM needed a crystal ball, this was certainly it.

With no first-round pick, no money to spend and no quarterbacks to speak of aside from Pennington (who threw to Moss at Marshall, ironically) in the 2000 draft, Dallas had no way to prepare for the future.

By the time the difficulties of the future had actually arrived in 2001, the Cowboys had no cards to play. Not that missing out on Michael Vick was any heart-breaker, but Drew Brees went in the second round that year.

If Dallas had a first round pick in 2001 while knowing Aikman was, I’d bet that Brees is a Cowboy…and he’s won a Super Bowl in Big D by now.

And in future years, assuming Dallas would have still needed pass rushers, guys like Dwight Freeney could have been acquired as opposed to clowns like Dwayne Goodrich a couple of years before.

And let’s also remember that even if Irvin was done by ’00 or ’01, Chad Ochocinco was available in the upper second round in 2001. Moss and Ochocinco?  

Only after Bill Parcells arrived in 2003 did the Cowboys finally start righting the ship—and they were still looking for a franchise quarterback as recently as 2006!

Remember Moss entered the NFL in 1998. That’s basically eight years of turmoil and endless experiments at quarterback resulting in few playoff appearances and no wins, and because of what?

The passing of a guy named Randall Gene Moss in the 1998 NFL Draft.