The Legend Of “Nine-Toed” Deion Sanders: How One Freak Injury Saved The Dallas Cowboys From Salary-Cap Ruin
It was ridiculed and mocked at the time. Valuable print space was used up to debate its merit.
It was a toe injury to the greatest cornerback to ever play the game. And it very well might have saved the financial backside of the mighty Dallas Cowboys.
A salary-cap ceiling moving ever lower during the late 1990’s finally came crashing down on the Dallas Cowboys in 2001, all but nullifying any chances an already depleted roster had of competing for anything other than a top-five draft pick. A mind-boggling $26 million was spent on players not even on the roster, as the team rid themselves of long-term contracts by the boatload.
To the observer steeped in analytics, the development seemed nothing more than due justice for a franchise enthralled with paying big bucks to its big stars. And back in those days, they had a lot of them. Troy, Emmitt, Michael, Deion, and a whole host of semi-stars that, many would tell you, were receiving far more than their worth.
Such was the state of the Cowboys, with team owner Jerry Jones doling out every available dollar in order to keep the nucleus of the great Cowboy teams of the 1990’s intact, trying to make one last run at glory.
Glory never seemed farther away than in 2001, the Cowboys headed for a second consecutive 5-11 campaign that is memorable only for an infamous quarterback carousel. Money was restricted, and so too was talent. And by starting rookie quarterback Quincy Carter on opening day, the Cowboys were primed for disaster.
Yet, as bad as it was, and as dark as the hour seemed to be, one event from only a few years before suggests that circumstances could have been even worse.
How bad did Jerry Jones want to win the Super Bowl in 1998?
Enough to turn what amounted to a $26 million hole three years later into a $40 million deficit. If Jerry had gotten his way in this particular instance, the 2001 Cowboys wouldn’t only have been compelled to get rid of Troy Aikman, Leon Lett, and Chad Hennings on the basis of limited salary-cap space, but several other high-priced veterans as well. The names of safety Darren Woodson, center Mark Stepnoski, offensive guard Larry Allen, defensive end Greg Ellis, and running back Emmitt Smith pose as the most likely candidates in such a scenario.
Not that the Cowboys’ top man would ever pause to ponder the ramifications of tomorrow. As the twentieth century was fast winding down, Jerry Jones was consumed with winning. And winning immediately. If you had asked the three-time Super Bowl champion owner, he would have expressed surprise that he hadn’t won more.
To Jerry, misfortune had dogged his every step since his Cowboys claimed Super Bowl XXX to wrap-up their 1995 campaign. A high-profile scandal cost Michael Irvin the first four games of the 1996 season, causing Dallas to limp out the gate to a 1-3 start. With him back in the lineup, Dallas roared to a 9-3 finish before disposing of Minnesota in the first round of the postseason. Then up in Carolina for the Divisional Playoff matchup, Irvin was lost for the game on the second play, and All-Pro cornerback “Prime Time” Deion Sanders joined him soon after with another ailment.
With Jay Novacek having sat out the entire season with a back injury, and headed for retirement, and Emmitt Smith still dealing with the effects of a tender ankle, Jones’ Cowboys were as good as dead that day. The 26-17 defeat ended the Cowboys’ attempt at becoming the first team to win four championships in a five year span.
Two years later, a new head coach – Chan Gailey – had seemingly revitalized the organization, as Dallas stormed through October and the early weeks of November to grab the NFC East lead. Leon Lett was on his way to another Pro Bowl, rookie defensive end Greg Ellis kept making big plays, and the Cowboys had settled down after a slow start to forge a 6-3 record heading into Arizona for a divisional bout with the Cardinals.
That day not only changed the season for the Cowboys, but prevented Jones from making a payout he would have likely lived to regret.
Jones was infatuated with paying star players. And early during the 1998 season, no star loomed larger on the Dallas roster than Deion Sanders, already recognized as the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player. With All-World speed and a lightning-quick burst, Sanders was turning the football world upside down while dominating as a cornerback, punt returner, and even as a wide receiver. In the season’s first six weeks, Sanders posted returns of 60, 59, 43, and 39 yards. And his two touchdown (one on offense and one on defense) performance on Monday Night Football single-handedly vaulted Dallas past the New York Giants in Week 3.
So dominant had Sanders been during the first half of the season that Jones contacted Sanders’ agent, Eugene Parker, and started negotiations on a new contract that would make the 31-year old cornerback a Cowboy for the remainder of his career. It didn’t take long for both parties to settle on a signing bonus of $20 million. Jones, on top of that, then offered a yearly rate of $9 million. Deion said he preferred $10 million.
When Jones wouldn’t budge, Sanders sought to use the remainder of the 1998 season to prove his value to the team.
And then it happened….
During the first quarter under a bright Arizona sky, Sanders suffered what was referred to as a “turf toe” injury. Though he returned in the fourth quarter and helped the Cowboys hold on to beat the Cardinals 35-28, the ailment was far from being healed. The next week versus Seattle at Texas Stadium, he managed only 15 plays until the pain forced him to the sideline. He would not play for six weeks.
For Deion, this story carries with it a moral about the dangers of greed. He played one more season in Dallas, but was never the same dominant player as before. Even though he wasn’t on the team’s injury report, the toe was still bothering him, relegating a once-great player to the status of merely a good one. He was released after the 1999 season. By squabbling over a few million, Sanders had allowed $20 million and change to slip right through his fingers. And his toes. He had only himself to blame.
For Jerry Jones, the memory of Deion’s infamous toe injury poses as a multi-faceted event of equally disturbing proportions. Jones, being the glass-half-full person that he is, concentrates on the glorious positives of what might have been had Prime Time not morphed into what Randy Galloway referred to as “Nine-Toed Deion.” He can’t help but think that a 1998 squad with Sanders in the lineup for all sixteen games would have challenged Atlanta for a first-round bye, thereby foregoing a Wild-Card trap game against Arizona at Texas Stadium that ultimately proved to be Dallas’ undoing. He can’t help but think that a healthy Deion would have clamped down on rookie phenom Randy Moss on Thanksgiving Day and helped tilt a 46-36 Minnesota victory over to a marquee win for Jones’ team on national television. Going full-throttle ahead, Jones probably believed it even possible, if not probable, for his Cowboys to march all the way past Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII at season’s end.
But, as history strongly indicates, none of that ever happened. The 1998 Cowboys were a 10-6 one-and-done wonder in the playoffs that crashed before an expectant home crowd, benefits of a weak cast of wide receivers and a defense with a Nine-Toed cornerback.