Tom Landry made decision for Cowboys to pass on Joe Montana in 1979

Getty Images

The Cowboys weren’t the only team to pass on Joe Montana in 1979. He was, after all, the 82nd overall pick that year.

But according to the system devised by Tex Schramm, Tom Landry and Gil Brandt, the Cowboys took the best player on their draft board regardless of position. With 76th overall pick that year, the Cowboys had Montana at the top of their draft board.

They also had Roger Staubach, Danny White and Glenn Carano already on their roster at the position.

Greg Aiello, who retired from the NFL last month after serving as the league’s senior vice president in charge of communications, was in his first month working for the Cowboys when Dallas passed on Montana.

I’m wide-eyed and in the draft room,” Aiello told Clark Judge of The Talk of Fame Network, “and I was a graduate of Note Dame. So I had a particular interest as we got into the third round — and our pick was coming up — in the guy at the top of our board, Joe Montana. I was curious what we were going to do.

“. . . Nobody, of course, knew that Joe Montana was going to become one of the all-time greats and a Pro Football Hall of Famer or he would have been already taken before the third round. Nevertheless, here we are. Here’s our pick, and there’s Joe Montana’s name at the top. And I remember Tom Landry saying, ‘Well, we have three quarterbacks better than him right now.’ In other words, why would we want to take him? He was talking about Roger Staubach, who was about to go into his final season, but nobody knew that, and he was 37 at that point and was a young 37 because he spent four years in the Navy before he started the NFL. The backup quarterback was Danny White, and the third quarterback was Glenn Carano, who’s best known now for being the father of the great mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano, but at that time, he was a second-round pick of the Cowboys in 1977 out of UNLV, and the Cowboys didn’t know really what they had with him. He was a highly rated talented, a second-round pick, so in Tom Landry’s mind, we had three guys better than this guy ranked in the third round, Joe Montana. So [the Cowboys] took a pass and violated our own system and took the next guy on the board, who happened to be Doug Cosbie, who it would turn out was a very good pick. He was an outstanding tight end. Ironically, in the famous ‘Catch’ game, Doug Cosbie caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Danny White in the fourth quarter to put us up 27-21, and it looked like we were about to win that game. Unfortunately, we know what happened. Two teams and two quarterbacks went in different directions as a result of that game.”

Landry made the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, but his decision that day proves even the best get it wrong every now and again. It also again shows just how hard it is to evaluate quarterbacks, something that hasn’t gotten easier over the years.

29 responses to “Tom Landry made decision for Cowboys to pass on Joe Montana in 1979

  1. All things considered, tough to fault them for the choice in that context. Every other team had passed on Montana at least twice by that point, and I’m sure most of those teams weren’t as solid at QB as the Cowboys.

    I was a fan of White as a kid. I think he’s still one of the greatest “almost but not quite” QBs. Maybe something like the Matt Ryan of his day.

  2. Montana would’ve been a bust in Dallas, his skills didn’t fit their offense. Having a coach who designs the offense around the QB’s strengths makes all the difference, see Foles this year suck running the Wentz offense, then wins a Super Bowl when Pederson changes the offense to fit Foles.

  3. not a landry fan but isn’t it convenient that he’s in the grave and can’t refute it. bill polian claims he had montana first overall.

  4. Danny White was the king of very good.
    As a long time Bears fan, I can only wonder why they thought Mike Phipps was a better choice than Joe Montana

  5. And Montana is bad in their system and becomes a career back-up. Or good enough not to be able to draft Aikman. Or he becomes a better version of Joe Montana and the Cowboys win 6 SB’s.

    You can play this game forever.

    Love the facts but the unnecessary ‘what if’s are pointless.

  6. The new generation doesn’t know that Danny White was the starter for three NFC championship games was one play away from going to the Super Bowl in one of them, which he probably would have won.

  7. Landry’s logic was sound. You had, arguably, one of the best in the game in Staubach. For all anyone knew he could have played 3-4 more years. Behind him was the very capable and solid Danny White, then there was Carano who they invested in. Why take another QB who would hold a clipboard?

    Montana was the perfect instrument for Walsh’s West Coast Offense.

    Everything happens for a reason.

  8. Not a fan of either team but old enough to remember both teams well. White was stronger and had a better arm. Montana was just the perfect fit with Walshs offense. There are no guarantees Montana would have started in front of White. It is what it is and to imply Landry screwed up somehow is unfair.

  9. Every one missed on Joe. It’s the same as Brady. Russell Wilson was 3rd round. 21 teams passed on Aaron Rodgers including the Cowboys and Vikings both twice.

    Evaluating college QBs to determine potential at the NFL level is something that the NFL scouts, coaches and GMs haven’t figured out at all. If someone could it would be a huge advantage.

  10. Except he didn’t get it wrong….. He had Roger The Dodger still in his prime as well as a young Danny White on the roster. This attempted smear on Tom Landry would be like saying Belichek “got it wrong” for not drafting Russell Wilson a few years ago while he still had an in his prime T
    Brady. Yeah…. No.

  11. Joe Montana was the reason Elite is connected to QB’s. I honestly never thought he would be surpassed… Then came Brady. I am NOT a Patriots fan but just look at the history of that team before and after…

  12. “I honestly never thought he would be surpassed… then came Brady.”
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    Yeah… then came… the bogus, phantom pass interference calls, the offensive line holding no-calls, the inflated footballs, the destroyed cellphones, the videotaping of opponents, the complaining and crying to officials, etc..

  13. Sorry, Montana is no longer the GOAT. Let’s compare career records (regular season and playoffs):

    Brady: 223 – 65
    Montana: 133 – 54

    If Brady wins 10 more games, he will have 100 more career wins than Montana. Brady also has a chance to double Montana’s then-record of 16 playoff wins (Brady has 27). It’s always fun to have these debates, but the numbers don’t lie.

  14. Hindsight is 20/20. Montana had a relatively weak arm and that may have been the reason he was only a second round pick out of Notre Dame. Montana was not Bill Walsh’s choice to be starting QB in his rookie season. Steve DeBerg was. Steve DeBerg lost his job as starter when the 49ers kept losing close games in 1979 and finished 6-10 for that season. Bill Walsh said that Steve DeBerg would play just well enough for us to lose. The rest, they say is history.

  15. Interesting story. But I do side with Landry here. He liked all 3 of his QBs. Perfectly understandable that he passed over Montana. People seem to forget the last part of The Catch game. The Cowboys were in great position to win that game when White fumbled after a sack one play after he hit Pearson with a long pass to the 44 of SF. All he needed was one more pass of about 15 yds or so. The Cowboys could have won then and White could be a SB winning QB. But that’s not how it went.

  16. “If” Montana was picked by Dallas I wonder “if” someone else would have developed into a SB caliber QB in SF under Bill Walsh? If not would Bill Walsh be considered a failure? Would fans know the name Bill Walsh?

    “if” changes everything and makes everything questionable.

  17. 8oneanddones says:
    April 2, 2018 at 10:06 pm
    Sorry, Montana is no longer the GOAT. Let’s compare career records (regular season and playoffs):

    Brady: 223 – 65
    Montana: 133 – 54

    If Brady wins 10 more games, he will have 100 more career wins than Montana. Brady also has a chance to double Montana’s then-record of 16 playoff wins (Brady has 27). It’s always fun to have these debates, but the numbers don’t lie.


    Nice try.

  18. Alex smith is a system qb,for people to try and claim the greates qb of all time was only that because of the system just show the stupidity of some fans. Now would Montana bomb it down field no! But that doesn’t make him a system qb,regardless of the system he was the 1 who knew how to look a wr open,he was the 1 who threw the ball accuratly he was the one who could read a defense he was the one who when the game was on the line had the balls,to shove it down the polenta throat. So I implore you to remember just cause a qb doesn’t have the strongest arm in NFL doesn’t mean he wouldn’t thrive in any offense cause he would,he could still identify the open wr he stil would have the no game is to big mentality. He still would be able to fool cb by looking wr open. I mean it’s like the Brady argument Brady may not win all the Super Bowls with another coach but if you think he wouldn’t of been still a top 2 or 3 qb during his time it’s a easy out for people who don’t really know what it takes to be a qb.

  19. Montana struggled in the playoffs against NFC teams while lighting it up in the Super Bowl. Make no mistake, the toughest teams back in the 80s and early 90s were in the NFC. Montana did not beat a single team in the Super Bowl that won a Super Bowl in another year. Brady meanwhile beat the Rams (previously won super bowl 2 years earlier) and Seahawks (previous year).

  20. Sorry Montana may have ended up with better results at the end but i STILL wouldn’t swap staubach out for him. Staubach DEFINED that team.

  21. 9er’s Montana was the GOAT. Unlike TB, Montana didn’t have 2 Superbowls gifted to him by two teams, SEA and ATL, who did not know how to close.

    White was great! I watched a lot of Dallas games as a kid, even being on the West coast. Who remembers Dallas’ great FB Newsome!

  22. Story

    (I don’t know if it’s true but it could be)

    1989 Super Bowl. Cincy has scored and is ahead with less than 2 minutes left and the 49ers on their own 7. The Cincy offense is standing on the sideline and someone says “we’ve won the Super Bowl”.

    Someone else (reputedly Chris Collinsworth) says “Don’t be so sure – have you seen who’s playing QB for San Francisco?”

    Don’t know if it’s true, don’t know if it isn’t, truth to tell – it doesn’t really matter – but it very well could be.

    Moral of the story – The BEST QB is the one who not only inspires his teammates with the game on the line and a long way to go but who also scares the opposing D out of maybe 1/4 step – all that is needed.

    Right now that is Brady (3-28 – 2 minutes to go 3rd quarter)

    Who’s next? DeShaun Watson, if the Texans don’t screw it up.

  23. yea, i always thought montana was the best, but brady has just blown him out of the water and with tougher competition. montana had the luxury of being surrounded by star players before true free agency. brady has to start over every year. and brady has taken a beating playing so long with patchwork protection, montana was brittle couldn’t stay on the field. understand the sentiment for yesterday’s player, but the numbers don’t lie and brady did it on a much tougher road. it ain’t close.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.