Historic Drafts: The 1989 Draft – Determining the Future for Two Historic Teams by Gareth Evans

Historic Drafts: The 1989 Draft – Determining the Future for Two Historic Teams by Gareth Evans
Reading Time: 6 minutes.

The 1989 NFL Draft is famous for Five Hall of Famers taken. Four in the first five picks, with the giant Tony Mandarich, taken second by Green Bay, as the odd one out.

The Background

Week 16 of the 1988 season had a big impact for the two teams. Two teams who arguably could lay the biggest claim to the tag “America’s Team”. Going into the final game of the 1988 season, the hapless Green Bay Packers, twenty years after winning their last Super Bowl, were 3-12. And looked to be a sure thing for the No.1 overall pick in 1989.

On 18th December 1988, Don Majkowski led the Pack to a shock 26-17 win. Thus the Packers finished 4-12. Meanwhile, at Texas Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys’ 23-7 loss to Philadelphia gave them the worst record in the league. And with it the No.1 pick in the following year’s draft.

Big changes were afoot in Dallas that offseason. Jerry Jones paid $140million to buy the Cowboys. Then fired Dallas football legend Tom Landry and hired University of Miami’s Jimmy Johnson as the then only second head coach in the team’s history. Jones and Johnson had been college teammates at the University of Arkansas.

Dallas rebuilds around 1989 Draft top pick Troy Aikman and trades Herschel Walker

UCLA’s Troy Aikman was taken first by Dallas (Image credit: Fox Sports)

Dallas were armed with the top pick in the draft, an exciting new head coach and ambitious owner. The Cowboys secured their quarterback for the next decade in UCLA’s Troy Aikman as the No.1 overall pick.

New coach Jimmy Johnson realised how poor his team was. Because of which he felt a blockbuster trade was needed to speed the process towards his pursuit of the Super Bowl. Star running back Herschel Walker was to be the sacrificial lamb. He was traded to Minnesota in a complex deal resulting in Dallas receiving the Vikings’ first and second round picks for the 1990, 1991 and 1992 drafts in return. It gave Jones and Johnson the licence to rebuild an ailing franchise. Running back Emmitt Smith, cornerback Darren Woodson and defensive tackle Russell Maryland were among the picks secured. All would ultimately help the Cowboys win Super Bowls in 1992, 1993 and 1995. Their 1989 top pick Aikman was the field general pulling the strings.

Emmitt Smith was secured as the first-round pick for Dallas the following year. With Michael Irvin on board as the team’s top pick (No.11 overall) in 1988, Dallas had an impressive triumvirate (‘The Triplets’) leading their offence. Worth noting that the hugely underrated fullback “Moose”, Daryl Johnston, was selected by Dallas in the second round out of Syracuse. He would become the first fullback ever to be selected for the Pro Bowl.

Green Bay misses an opportunity in Tony Mandarich

Mandarich turned out to be a bust (Image credit Si.com)

With the second pick in the draft, Green Bay had several needs to fill. There was an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Barry Sanders would have given them yards on the ground. Derrick Thomas some much needed impetus in the pass rush. While Deion Sanders could have ignited both their secondary and special teams.

Instead, they decided to shore up the offensive line with the man labelled by Sports Illustrated as “the best offensive line prospect ever”. Mandarich was a 6’6” 330lb man mountain. Whose astounding performances in the pre-draft workouts convinced Green Bay they could build an offense around him and quarterback Don Majkowski. Sadly, it transpired years later Mandarich had abused steroids. It became apparent much earlier that his poor attitude meant Green Bay had drafted a bust.

Where the Cowboys had used Aikman (with a change of leadership and the Walker trade) to propel their charge towards a title, the Packers’ No.2 pick essentially added three more years of mediocrity. A trade of their own, for a Falcons second-round pick called Brett Favre and the free agency signing of Reggie White, would ultimately lead them to a Super Bowl title. It could have happened earlier. Missing one of the four Hall of Famers in the top five was a huge, missed opportunity in 1989.

Barry Sanders makes draft history

Barry Sanders was one of the greatest running backs in college and NFL history. Image from USAToday Sports)

Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders would not normally have been eligible for selection. Up until 1989, only seniors were allowed into the draft. Sanders’ college, Oklahoma State, had been found guilty of breaching NCAA violations and placed on probation for five years. This meant Sanders was able to declare for the draft as a college junior and subsequently, the rule was lifted.

Barry was taken at No.3 on the back of one of the greatest college football seasons for a running back in history. In 12 games, he ran for 2,850 yards and 42 touchdowns. His impressive form continued into the pro ranks. Winning the Rookie of the Year award and NFL MVP in 1997. Sanders was one of the most dynamic players in history, featuring on many highlight reels. A member of the 2,000 yard club. He was arguably one of the greatest running backs in college and the professional game, and one of the greatest never to win a Super Bowl. All in all, a superb pick for Detroit at No.3.

The late, great Derrick Thomas

Derrick Thomas was a dominant pass rusher for Alabama and Kansas City (Image credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press).

With the No.4 pick, Kansas City picked Derrick Thomas. The best pass rusher in the draft, to bolster their offensive line. Thomas had been part of a monstrous defensive line at Alabama. One including Cornelius Bennett and Keith McCants, both top five picks in 1987 and 1990. He went on to nine Pro Bowls. Recording 20 sacks in 1990, including seven in one game against Seattle, still the single game sack record in the NFL.

Derrick Thomas tragically passed away in February 2000, as a result of injuries sustained from a car accident.

Prime Time

“Primetime” was arguably the best cornerback in NFL history

A three-sport star, Deion Sanders excelled at baseball, football, and track & field at Florida State. He was an electrifying cornerback and return specialist. He gained the nickname “Prime Time” from a high school teammate after scoring 30 points in another sport, basketball. Sanders was a prodigious talent who built on the Prime Time nickname and virtually turned it into a brand. Like Mandarich, he was heavily talked up before the draft. Unlike Mandarich, he delivered.

There is a great story about Sanders on thespun.com. Apparently the New York Giants (picking at No.18) asked him to take a written test before the draft. Sanders, on being asked, replied, “I’ll be gone before (your pick). I’ll see y’all later, I ain’t got time for this.”

Sanders won Super Bowls with the 49ers and Cowboys in successive seasons. He remains the only athlete to score a touchdown in the NFL (for the Falcons) and hit a Major League home run (for the Yankees) in the same week. He is arguably the greatest cornerback and one of the best defensive players in NFL history.

Other notable picks in the 1989 Draft

Running back Eric Metcalf was one of the better picks in Cleveland Browns’ history. Taken at No.13. Metcalf was one of the best all-purpose yards players in the NFL. Safety and the fifth Hall of Famer in the Class of 1989 Draft, Steve Atwater, was taken by the Broncos at No.20. Andre Rison, a five-time Pro Bowler. One of a select group of Grey Cup and Super Bowl champion winners went to Indianapolis at No.22.

Undrafted gems

Grambling State safety Bennie Thompson, selected by New Orleans and kicker David Treadwell, selected by Denver both made the Pro Bowl. Jason Garrett, former Cowboys backup quarterback and head coach, was signed out of Princeton by the Saints.

Banner Image: 1989 Draft marquee pciks. Image from NFL Network twitter.

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