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That one time the Cowboys passed on drafting Joe Montana

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Joe Montana’s legend gets better and better.

When the 49ers drafted Joe Montana, it was the beginning of a legend. The tale of a folk hero. Montana stepped on the field for Steve DeBerg in the 1980 season and became Superman in the process.

We all know what happened, but what we might find interesting is who was considering drafting him in front of the 49ers—but passed. None other than the Dallas Cowboys.

Clark Judge had former NFL vice president of communications Greg Aiello on his Talk of Fame podcast. During the days of the 1979 NFL Draft, Aiello was working public relations with the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys draft board was set up in such that best players available were always on the board, regardless of need. Some teams will remove certain players entirely if they have no need for the position. Aiello goes into detail about the setup:

“The system system devised by Tex Schramm, and Tom Landry and Gil Brandt specified that the players would be ranked according to who the best players are, regardless of position. Rank the board from one to however many they ranked, and whoever was at the top of the board when the Cowboys’ pick came that was who we were supposed to take, regardless of position.”

Montana went in the 3rd round of the 1979 NFL Draft, and Aiello was quick to point out that had anyone knew of the career he would have, he’d have been (obviously) long gone before the 3rd round. When the Cowboys pick in the 3rd round came, they took a long hard look.

“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 want to take him? He was talking about Roger Staubach who as about to go into his final season with the Cowboys and nobody knew that. He was 37 at that point and a young 37 because he spent four years in the navy before he started in the NFL. It was Staubach, the backup quarterback was Danny White and the third quarterback was a guy named Glenn Carano.”

Carano was a second round pick from the 1977 draft, from UNLV. He was the wildcard.

“Cowboys didn’t know really what the had with him. He was a highly rated talent, a second round pick, so in Tom Landry’s mind, we have three guys better than this guy ranked in the third round, Joe Montana. So we took a pass.”

The Cowboys wound up taking Doug Cosby instead. Who is Doug Cosby? Well, remember the 1981 NFC Championship game where the score was 27-21, Cowboys? Cosby caught a touchdown pass to contribute to that score and set up what would later be known as The Catch.

Would Montana had thrived on the Cowboys? Who knows, but it’s not so much the fact he was passed on, but it was the Cowboys, the hated rivals of the 49ers passing on him.

Deviating from their strategy of best player available came back to bite them.