NFL Draft Historical Rumors: What if the Cowboys Drafted Randy Moss in 1998?

Jordan Cohn
April 21, 2020 - 1:53 pm

The first time Randy Moss took the field against the Cowboys, in a primetime Thanksgiving afternoon matchup between Minnesota and Dallas, he only caught four balls.

This first was a 51-yard touchdown in the first quarter, fewer than two minutes into the game. The second was a 56-yard touchdown with around three minutes remaining in the first half. The third was a successful two-point conversion about halfway through the third quarter. And his final reception came when he hauled in a 56-yard score at the very end of the third quarter.

So, three total catches in the box score, four in total. 163 yards. Three touchdowns. 20 total points. Complete domination.

This was a pattern that emerged over the course of Moss’s career when he played against the Cowboys. Perhaps Dallas brought out the best in him. And perhaps it was their own fault, because they had a golden opportunity to add them to their corps.

So why didn’t they?

In the 1998 Draft, Dallas had a few obvious positional needs to fill. The team had gone 6-10 in the 1997 season, ending a run of incredible success that banked on the dynamic offensive trio of QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin. From 1991 to 1996, all years in which the Cowboys either won the NFC East or clinched a playoff berth through the NFC Wild Card, Jerry Jones’ squad posted the second-most points scored and fourth-most total yards using their consistent offensive machine. Only the 49ers, led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, could boast a better statistical offense. The defense was also consistently a top-five unit as well, carrying the load in 1996 when the offense started to falter.

After their lackluster 1997, in which they ranked 22nd in offensive scoring and 20th in total yards, you could see one weakness in the offense that was becoming increasingly evident. Michael Irvin had posted another terrific season with 1,180 yards, but was on the wrong side of 30. Anthony Miller, the team’s second leading receiver, was 32 years old and called it quits in the offseason. Clearly, a young and explosive wide receiver was a positional need.

The 1998 draft class provided a few intriguing receiver candidates, among them Tennessee’s Marcus Nash, who led the SEC with 1,170 yards and 13 touchdowns, as well as Washington’s Jerome Pathon, whose 1,245 yards was fourth in the country and first in the Pac-10.

But in terms of pure talent and upside, it was tough to argue against Marshall’s Randy Moss as the top receiver in the draft. Moss had led the nation with 1,820 yards and a mind-boggling 26 touchdowns in 13 games, albeit in an underwhelming Mid-American Conference.

In the ten years prior to the 1998 NFL Draft, the highest-drafted offensive skill player out of the MAC was O.J. Santiago, taken in 1997 by the Falcons. The wide receivers out of the MAC over that timespan were all fifth-round picks or lower, and the best showing of any of them came from 1990 selection Reggie Thornton. Thornton’s career consisted of one catch for 38 yards across six games… and that’s it.

O.J. Santiago
Kent State's O.J. Santiago was one of the notable MAC products in the NFL before Randy Moss was drafted. Photo credit Getty Images

But what Moss did for Marshall seemed to ascend far above what other MAC receivers had been capable of doing. MAC receivers weren’t nationally renowned as a star wide receiver under normal circumstances. MAC receivers weren’t typically recognized as All-America talents once, let alone multiple times. MAC receivers weren’t legitimate contenders for the Heisman Award.

Playing in the MAC, though, wasn’t the biggest deterrent. Instead, it was the wideout’s off-field issues that made general managers and coaches wary of his NFL prospects. He had originally planned to go to Notre Dame out of high school, but saw his potential and future flash before his eyes after his involvement in a racially charged fight landed him in jail. After rebounding from that incident and heading to Florida State, he tested positive for marijuana and was subsequently kicked off the football team and tagged with another jail sentence. He skipped the NFL combine after his agent said that he had six teeth extracted, but several rumors emerged that it may have been due to his unwillingness to take the drug test.

There were those in the Cowboys organization who wanted to put all of these off-field issues aside and acknowledge that the addition of Moss could provide them with an elite talent opposite the aging Irvin. According to Todd Archer of ESPN, longtime Cowboys scout Jim Garrett -- Jason’s father -- tried his best to persuade the team’s executives to use their first round pick on him.

“Men, this is not the Boy Scouts we’re dealing with,” Garrett said. “This is pro football. Draft him.”

Moss enjoyed his visits with the Cowboys as well, saying that the experiences he had on those visits “had [him] believing that [he] was going to be a Dallas Cowboy up until draft day.”

So, naturally, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys selected defensive end Greg Ellis with the eighth overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. Not a receiver. And certainly not Randy Moss.

Granted, Dallas had their struggles on the defensive line, as they allowed the ninth-most rushing yards in the NFL in 1997 and saw their sack rate drop into the bottom half of the league. Ellis was a consensus All-American and led the Tar Heels with 9.0 sacks, 32 pressures and 18.0 tackles for loss. It was a good fit for another asset that the team was looking for.

Though Ellis was a consistent and reliable player, spending more than a decade with the team, he was obviously never the game-changing talent that Moss was. The Cowboys were also in the bottom half of the league six times between 2000-2010 in points allowed, meaning that Ellis alone wasn’t enough to bolster the Cowboys to an elite level.

Moss tumbled down the draft board and wasn’t even the first receiver selected in the draft. That honor belonged to Kevin Dyson, taken by the Titans at 16th overall. It was the Vikings who scooped him up with their No. 21 selection, and the rest is history.

What if the Cowboys had listened to Garrett and others and taken Moss within the top 10?

For one, they wouldn’t have gotten scorched by the Hall of Famer time and time again. In a 1999 postseason matchup with the Cowboys, the second time Moss had faced off with his draft day adversary that season, Moss reeled in five catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. In the following season, Moss let loose for 91 yards and two touchdowns. The next game they played, in 2000? 144 yards and two touchdowns.

All in all, in eight career games against Dallas, Moss had 789 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns, leading his teams to a perfect 8-0 record against the Cowboys.

Randy Moss
Randy Moss torched the Cowboys throughout his career. Photo credit USA Today

But nevermind what damage the Cowboys could have been spared if they hadn’t played against him… what could he have provided for them?

Irvin’s 1998 season was his final productive year, with 1,057 yards but only one touchdown. He retired following a career-ending injury in the 1999 season, at which point 30-year-old Rocket Ismail became the lead receiver. The Cowboys had signed Ismail to a seven-year, $21 million contract before in free agency prior to that season, but he was only able to play for three years of that deal due to age and injuries, including an ACL tear in 2000 and a herniated disk in 2002.

From 2000 to 2005, five different wideouts led the team in yearly receiving yards, including the undrafted James McKnight, the late Terry Glenn and former first overall pick Keyshawn Johnson. All of them were 28 or older at the time of their signings and cost the Cowboys unnecessary extra money that didn’t quite warrant its return. Some draft picks, like Antonio Bryant, didn’t quite bring the team the value that was needed to warrant their value on the draft board.

The Cowboys were in the bottom-three teams in points scored from 2000-2004 (excluding the Texans, who entered the league in 2002), which surely would have been overturned by having one of the greatest offensive playmakers of all time as a part of their corps. Had they not used so much spending money and trade capital on adding aging receivers like Glenn, Johnson and Joey Galloway, the Cowboys could have focused on rebuilding other needy areas of the roster.

The Galloway signing is one that particularly stands out. In the Cowboys’ trade for Galloway in 2000, the Cowboys surrendered two first-round draft picks to the Seahawks, which netted them MVP-caliber running back Shaun Alexander. Galloway didn't last long in Dallas, as a lack of productivity saw him swapped for Keyshawn Johnson after just a few seasons. Could the Cowboys have held onto the picks they expended in acquiring Galloway and boasted an offensive core of Randy Moss and Shaun Alexander to replace the 90s duo of Irvin and Smith? After all, Smith was past the age of 30 when Alexander was selected in the 2000 NFL Draft.

One can only wonder. Would the Vikings have found anywhere near the success that they were able to achieve, including three straight playoff berths from 1998 to 2000? Would Daunte Culpepper have ever reached his full potential that saw him reach three Pro Bowls? Would the Giants and Eagles have been able to run through the NFC East in separate years and make it to two Super Bowls between 2000 and 2005?

Would the Cowboys’ overall playoff struggles and Super Bowl drought, in existence since 1996, even be a thing today?

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