The Most Obscure Dallas Cowboys Quarterback You Never Heard Of
(Note from the author: Talent evaluation was one of many problems for the Dallas Cowboys at the turn of the century, both in the draft and free agency. One of the more unknown examples of this was the intriguing tale of Paul Justin. I first came across Justin’s name while researching for the book “Decade of Futility.” And though I ultimately opted to edit it out of the book in the interests of maintaining a certain pace, the tale of Paul Justin’s short stay in Dallas remains one of my all-time favorite discoveries as a journalist.)
Jerry Jones made his mark upon the NFL universe during the 1990’s as a free-wheeling dare-devil owner of a proud franchise from Dallas, who just happened to double as the Cowboys’ general manager. He made trades, he made the rules, and he even was accused of stealing players from other rosters.
Not that Jones paused long enough to care. He was far too busy out-smarting the competition. In a league and a decade seemingly all his own, Jerry’s Cowboys qualified for postseason play eight times, while compiling three Super Bowl championships.
But, with the turn of the century, came a noticeable change of luck, a fact which is verified by this true tale hailing from the Cowboys’ ignominious 2000 campaign that witnesses Jones flailing in his first attempt at discovering an insurance policy at quarterback.
As the Cowboys learned in 1990 with Babe Laufenberg, a quality backup quarterback could be the difference between making the playoffs and not. So with plenty of cash at his disposal, Jones bought bona-fide talent to fill this role. First, there was Steve Buerelein in 1991. Then there was Bernie Kosar two years later. Then Rodney Peete. Then Wade Wilson. And, finally, Jason Garrett.
It was a simple method in Jones’ attempt to cover all of his bases, and an easy one to execute as long as the salary cap didn’t give out. Which, unfortunately, it did in a big way for the Cowboys after the 1999 season, necessitating the release of numerous starters, including cornerback Deion Sanders and linebacker Randall Godfrey.
What cap space the team managed to obtain from the retirements of fullback Daryl Johnston and wide receiver Michael Irvin was quickly absorbed by Jones’ Feb. 12 trade for Seattle’s speedy wideout Joey Galloway.
All of which left Jones in a financial bind as he sat across the negotiating table from Garrett and his agent Leigh Steinberg a few days after.
Having posted a 4-4 record in eight starts during the previous two seasons, Garrett’s stock was higher than it had ever been on the free-agent market, as multiple teams were preparing to bid for his services. All they were waiting on at this juncture was a decision from the 33-year old on whether he wanted to continue his playing career or to go into coaching.
Jones had made it clear that he couldn’t offer a deal on the same level as Garrett’s market value. But what he could offer was a spot on the Cowboys’ staff as the quarterbacks coach. Garrett promised to mull it over.
When Garrett declined on the basis that he still wanted to play quarterback in the league, Jones then shifted course, offering Garrett a contract believed to be at, or near, the veteran minimum salary in the hope that a mixture of loyalty and obligation to his first and only NFL team would compel him to re-sign for less than his worth.
Jones knew what he was doing in this regard. Garrett had taken roots in the Dallas area, having played for the Cowboys for seven seasons, had earned the respect and trust of Troy Aikman in the locker room and on the practice field, and wasn’t alone as a member of the Garrett clan within the organization either. His father, Jim, worked under Larry Lacewell as a scout for the Cowboys at the time. Surely, there were too many reasons for Garrett to stay put in Dallas, right?
But Jones forgot the strong pull of childhood memories on the Jersey shore where Jason grew up cheering for the hometown Giants. And it was with an acute sense of crestfallenness that Jones watched Garrett sign a three-year $2.94 million deal to play backup to Kerry Collins with their New York rivals.
Seeing Garrett land with the Giants was a bitter lesson for Jones of what a little money couldn’t buy. But Jones would shudder months later to think what his next low-budget offer actually did buy.
In late March Jones thought he had adequately filled the void left by Garrett’s departure when he inked 6-4, 211-pound quarterback Paul Justin to a one-year contract worth the veteran minimum salary of $440,000, plus a $60,000 bonus when he officially made the squad at the conclusion of the preseason schedule. To Jones, landing Justin was not only a bargain, but a real steal for the Cowboys. Certainly no stranger to game-action, Justin had attempted nearly 500 passes over a five-year period with the Colts, Bengals, and Rams. What made him even more intriguing from Jones’ perspective was that Justin had already familiarized himself with fragments of the offensive system which Jack Reilly would be implementing in Dallas, having played under a similar offense in St. Louis.
Justin, it was said, would compete with Mike Quinn for the No. 2 job during spring practice. Behind the curtain of high-profile off-season shakeups, this battle between two quarterbacking nomads garnered the most attention from Dallas coaches during the team’s pre-draft voluntary workouts.
By the time May rolled around, the legend of Justin was growing around Valley Ranch, as the team released Quinn outright and declared Justin the unequivocal winner. For all intents and purposes, this was one spot on the roster officially set in stone. The Cowboys were ready – and willing – to embark upon the 2000 season with Justin as Aikman’s right-hand man.
But in early June, Jones began singing a different tune, and even started making inquiries on the sly about available quarterbacks. When he realized that Randall Cunningham was still on the market, Jones wasted not a second in breaking the bank to obtain his services, signing the 37-year old to a one-year $1 million contract. That figure was exactly double the amount that Justin was due to receive upon making the team, an event that offensive coaches in Dallas were having a hard time envisioning.
Training camp arrived, with Justin third on the team’s depth chart behind Aikman and Cunningham, and well ahead of rookie free-agent signee Clint Stoerner and Arena League sharpshooter Charles Puleri. Jones and head coach Dave Campo preferred to keep three battle-tested quarterbacks on the roster, and they also wanted to give Stoerner time to develop on the practice squad. In a perfect world, that’s the way it would have played out for the Cowboys.
But that was before the bright lights of preseason football exposed Dallas’ flawed quarterback for all of America – and Japan – to see.
Justin made his Cowboys debut in Dallas’ preseason opener at Texas Stadium versus Pittsburgh and left the assembled crowd dazzled with a rare display of ineptness.
Just moments after Deshea Townsend sent Randall Cunningham to the bench with a jarring hit, Justin walked onto the crowned playing surface beneath the majestic half-dome and gave a performance that promised to exasperate both God and man.
Determined to teach the rookie cornerback a lesson about life in the NFL, Justin was quick to look in his direction, but overstepped himself by throwing an errant dart along the sideline that Townsend easily intercepted and ran back 22 yards for a touchdown. Thus was the beginning of the longest second-quarter in Cowboys history.
By the time his evening was complete at halftime, Justin was responsible for five drives that resulted in four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumbled handoff) and a three-and-out. The score, which was 14-10 in favor of Pittsburgh when Justin entered the game, had ballooned to 38-10.
Justin’s next outing in Tokyo against the Falcons did little to relieve the growing concerns of teammates and coaches. His fumble on Dallas’ own three-yard line while being sacked not only provided Atlanta with a gimme field goal, but gave Dave Campo a reason to insert Clint Stoerner into the lineup for the fourth quarter.
The final straw for Justin came a week later when Campo entrusted him with one goal during the game’s waning moments; get a first down, and thus run out the clock. Not only did Justin fail to get a first down, the Dallas offense failed to advance a single yard. On fourth-and-13 the Cowboys punted the ball back to Oakland, and then watched the Raiders march the length of the field for the game-winning touchdown.
Even with two preseason games remaining on the schedule, Campo figured he had seen enough, and tabbed Stoerner to play the entire second half of Dallas’ 36-23 loss at Denver. And before the finale against Justin’s old team, his locker had been all but cleaned out by team trainers, leaving little room for doubt as to his ultimate fate.
Hours after Dallas’ loss to the Rams, Justin was once again a free-agent, a Cowboy no longer.