Congrats to Cortez Kennedy — the Big One Who Got Away

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The NFL announced its latest group of Hall of Famers today.  Some Cowboys fans may wonder what happened to Charles Haley’s candidacy, but I was intrigued by the selection of Cortez Kennedy, who in different circumstances might have been a Cowboy.

Kennedy played for Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami, and was a junior when Jimmy joined the Cowboys in 1989.  Kennedy was an All-American that year, and one of the top prospects in the 1990 draft.

Back in those days I was a regular reader of The National, a short-lived sports news daily.  Think USA Today, but with sports only.  The National’s NFL man was one Chris Mortensen, the now and long time NFL insider at ESPN.  In the days prior to the ’90 draft Mortensen reported that Jimmy was working feverishly to move up and draft his old tackle Kennedy.  He failed.

On draft day, scuttlebutt around Valley Ranch had the Cowboys working to move up from the 21st pick, which they had acquired in the Herschel Walker deal, to draft one of Lamar Lathon or James Francis, two big linebackers they coveted.   Dallas failed in this endeavor too.  The Bengals grabbed Francis with the 12th pick and the Oilers took Lathon 14th.  Jimmy finally pulled off a deal, swapping places with the Steelers to select Emmitt Smith.

Johnson left the draft with a first ballot Hall of Famer in his basket, but he could have picked two. Johnson forfeited his ’90 first rounder to pick Steve Walsh, his college QB at Miami, in the 1989 supplemental draft.  Jimmy probably never dreamed that his first team would go 1-15, and that the forfeited pick would have been the first in the draft.

Who might it have been?  We know it might have been Kennedy.  Mortensen’s reporting made that clear.  It might have been a linebacker the Cowboys rated even higher than Lathon and Francis.  Johnson admitted at some point after the draft that the top player on Dallas’ board that year had been USC standout Junior Seau, whom the Chargers drafted 5th overall.  Had Johnson showed more early faith in Aikman and kept his pick, one of these Hall of Famers would have preceded Emmitt.  (Seau isn’t in yet, having retired last year, but there’s no doubt he’ll get in once he’s eligible.)

Johnson escaped second guessing because Dallas flipped Walsh to the Saints in 1990 for 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks.  The quantity of this haul — and Aikman’s development — shielded Johnson from closer scrutiny of the quality the Walsh move cost him.  (Those Saints picks were mid-rounders.)

Jimmy built a nasty team, but how much better would those ’90s defenses have been with Cortez Kennedy playing alongside Charles Haley?  Or with Junior Seau as their quarterback?

Even the best drafters make mistakes.

Food for thought on the day when Cortez Kennedy punched his ticket to Canton.