The draft did it for Noll in Pittsburgh. Five future Hall of Famers came out of his first four drafts, and then in 1974, his sixth year as coach, came the greatest rookie crop for one team in history: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Donnie Shell. Four Super Bowl victories in six years was the result.
In 1981, his third year in San Francisco, Walsh set the stage for the Niners' four Super Bowl wins in the '80s. He went to work on the area of greatest need—defense—and drafted three defensive backs in the first three rounds, all of whom started and eventually made the Pro Bowl. When he fortified the defense by acquiring two sturdy old pros, Fred Dean and Jack Reynolds, Walsh was on his way. And the franchise stayed on top by consistently drafting well throughout the decade.
And now the Cowboys appear ready to claim a decade as their own. The teams of the decade have had one thing in common: an All-Pro or future All-Pro quarterback already in place when they launched their run. Johnson's first draft choice in Dallas was Troy Aikman, who has already appeared in the Pro Bowl. A keynote running back was another constant. In his second year Johnson used a first pick for Emmitt Smith, who is a two-time Pro Bowl player and was the NFL's leading rusher last season.
Almost a compulsive trader, Johnson arms himself with high-round picks and uses them to deal his way up and down the board on draft day. By trading into the No. 1 spot 48 hours before the '91 draft, he landed defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who came on late last season as an inside pass rusher. Maybe he'll emerge as a real force. The Cowboys say that cornerback Kevin Smith, a first-round pick in '92, will be a terrific man-to-man cover guy. Clayton Holmes is a rookie defensive back with 4.23 speed, Darren Woodson is an oversized, 216-pound safety who can also motor, and then there are sleepers like 6'7" tight end Fallon Wacasey, a sixth-round pick in April, who blocked like a maniac in Tulsa's Freedom Bowl win over San Diego State. And they're all connected in some way to the Walker deal.
Last December, when Dallas took its young Turks to Chicago for the first playoff game in the Jones-Johnson era, it was a case of young legs versus old. The Cowboys wore down the Bears, putting together a nifty goal-line stand in the course of that 17-13 victory. "Five rookies were on the field for us during that goal-line stand," defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt says.
But the season ended with a 38-6 loss to the Lions, who exposed the Cowboys' Achilles' heel. Teams that tried to pound the ball against Dallas had problems. But spread them out and throw on them and the Cowboys were in trouble. Their game plan against Detroit's run-and-shoot was to key on Barry Sanders's running, so Lion quarterback Erik Kramer stood back in the pocket and picked them to pieces. "I kept saying to myself, They're going to run it on the next play, they're going to run it," Wannstedt says. "Pretty soon someone said to me, 'Hey, we're down by 25 points with 10 minutes left.' "
The Cowboys played every run-and-shoot team last year and lost three out of the four games. "Our cover guys were basically zone-type players," Wannstedt says. "We had only 23 sacks from our pass rush. It locked us into a certain type of coverage, and when you're playing against a wide-open offense, that's not good. Things will be different this year."
Dallas drafted for need in April, making the selections a team makes when it's thinking seriously about a run at the Big One. Four of the first five picks were for defense, including three defensive backs, and the Cowboys' second first-rounder, Robert Jones, a 236-pounder with 4.63 speed, has already been plugged into the starting lineup at middle linebacker. The defensive line, fortified by the trade for 49er pass-rush specialist Charles Haley, is deeper than it has been. And an interesting down-the-line project is end Chad Hennings, who spent the last four years in the Air Force. "Relentless," Johnson says. "We'll be alternating defensive linemen the whole game, making sure there are always fresh legs." Just as the 49ers have done for the last decade—with exceptional results.
"Are we going to make a run for it in '92? You bet we are," says Jones, the owner. "We could have traded backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein for a No. 1 pick this year or a very skilled veteran [Kansas City Chief cornerback Albert Lewis], but we turned the deals down. He stepped in and won five games for us last year. His contract is up after this season, and we could lose him in the future, but we want him in place right now."
"We're young and we're hungry, and we're developing an attitude," Wannstedt says. "But I know that we've got to go out and win a lot more games on defense than we did in the past."