P Jimmy Johnson was a supernova among the shining lights of Pro Football Hall of Fame candidates. He exploded onto the NFL scene out of the University of Miami, a career college coach replacing legend Tom Landry in Dallas, and within five years won two Super Bowls and set his team up for another.
But Johnson burned out in Dallas. He and owner Jerry Jones clashed, and when he left after those two Super Bowl wins, he never really recovered the same glow in his four seasons with the Miami Dolphins.
And that fall to Earth in Miami more than anything kept the coach from advancing in Saturday’s Hall of Fame balloting.
The 46 media members who make up the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee instead picked stars who both burned brightly and did so for a long time to make up the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.
Running back Jerome Bettis, wide receiver Tim Brown, defensive end and linebacker Charles Haley, linebacker Junior Seau and guard Will Shields will be inducted from the list of modern-era candidates.
Minnesota center Mick Tingelhoff will be inducted to the Hall of Fame as a senior candidate. And former general managers Bill Polian and Ron Wolf were selected to the Hall from the newly formed contributor category.
Eight men. All deserving. All will be enshrined Aug. 8
(More on them in a moment.)
Johnson also would be deserving if only he could have stayed in Dallas and rode the dynastic tidal wave he begat out of a team that was in the middle of a talent drought before he arrived. As it was, Johnson coached the Cowboys to two Super Bowls after he took over a team that went 1-15 his first season.
But that picture of Johnson holding the Lombardi Trophy aloft in one hand while embracing Jones was fleeting. And it has become his Hall undoing.
You must know Johnson did it his way. He did it quickly crafting the famous — or infamous in Minnesota — Herschel Walker trade and hitting on draft picks as if someone had fed him lotto numbers in advance.
But we all know Dallas wasn’t big enough for Johnson’s and Jones’ ego, and so a split came after the 1994 Super Bowl. That didn’t end Johnson’s chances because the Cowboys he built went to two more NFC title games and won another Super Bowl the next two years.
It was Johnson’s Miami years, from 1996 to ’99, that doomed his chances Saturday.
He was 36-28 with the Dolphins. He didn’t recreate the Dallas magic. He didn’t get the Dolphins to the Super Bowl. He didn’t even win a division title.
Dallas J.J. is worthy of the Hall of Fame.
But Dolphins J.J. was not.
That doesn’t mean Johnson wasn’t respected in the room by selectors.
“If I had to pick a guy to coach to win one game, he’s in the conversation,” one selector told me.
I recognize that for multiple reasons Johnson’s Miami time is more Hall of Good than Hall of Fame work. But I didn’t make that point during the meeting because I didn’t want to hurt J.J.’s chances. It didn’t matter.
Johnson, one of 15 finalists, was eliminated when the field was trimmed to 10. He was eliminated on the first vote. He was eliminated with Terrell Davis, another great who was outstanding for four years but injured his knee and was never the same his final three seasons.
A phrase that was repeated a handful of times during Saturday’s meeting was about “availability being an ability.”
Shields checks the box. He played from 1993 to 2006 and never missed a game. He played 232 consecutive games, including the playoffs. Oh, yes, and he was among the best in the game, earning 12 Pro Bowl and seven All-Pro honors.
Junior Seau, who like Johnson was uninspiring during his time with the Dolphins, didn’t need those three years in South Florida to help his case. He played 20 seasons. He went to 12 Pro Bowls and was All-Pro eight times.
Bill Belichick, who was with the Giants when Lawrence Taylor was there, said those two linebackers were in a class by themselves. “His best was better than your best,” Belichick said of Seau.
Johnson, by the way, coached five Hall of Famers in Dallas. There was quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, guard Larry Allen and receiver Michael Irvin. Those four were joined Saturday by linebacker Charles Haley, whom Johnson wisely added in 1992.
Haley was already a winner with San Francisco. He had won two Super Bowls with that team and was among its career sack leaders — today he still ranks third all-time for the 49ers.
But Haley was the final piece of the Dallas Super Bowl puzzle. The Cowboys won three of them with Haley.
And that will put Haley in Canton, Ohio, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is headquartered, with five Super Bowl rings — more than anyone else.
Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis were great and they were great for a long time. Brown was an all-purpose yards master. Bettis was a short-yardage battering ram who also happens to be the NFL’s sixth-leading rusher of all time.
The selectors place a premium on winning to go along with excellence. And Wolf and Polian were winners.
Polian built Super Bowl teams with Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis. He was six times the NFL Executive of the Year. Wolf inherited a scrap heap of a Green Bay franchise in 1991 and built a dominant NFL power.
That spoke nothing of the work Wolf did with Al Davis in Oakland and Los Angeles with the Raiders. Wolf was associated with 14 championship winning teams during a career that spanned from 1963 to 2001.
Johnson, like the other candidates who didn’t make it this year — including fellow coaches Don Coryell and Tony Dungy — can have another go at it next year.
Unfortunately for J.J., the record of what he did with the Dolphins isn’t going to change.