20-year rewind: How the Cowboys passed on Randy Moss

Moss says he never played for Hall of Fame jacket (1:29)

Randy Moss explains how ecstatic he is about being selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and why he played for the love of football. (1:29)

Somehow, the VHS tape got lost in the shuffle. Maybe it happened in the move from Valley Ranch to The Star in Frisco, Texas, but that tape is in a box somewhere. That tape is mentioned every spring.

On it are the discussions leading into the 1998 draft, which tell the story of how the Dallas Cowboys came to pass on wide receiver Randy Moss.

Twenty years ago, the Cowboys passed on Moss with the eighth overall pick in the first round, a decision they paid for every time they played against the receiver, and a decision that might have hastened the end of the Triplets’ Super Bowl chances.

“I don’t know that we were the only ones who passed on him,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “According to Randy, we were.”

No, the Cowboys weren’t the only team to pass on Moss, who was drafted No. 21 by the Minnesota Vikings. Nineteen other teams passed on Moss, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer. The Cincinnati Bengals passed on him twice to take linebackers Takeo Spikes (No. 13) and Brian Simmons (No. 17).

But nobody remembers that. They just remember the Cowboys' passing on Moss.

"I don't know that we were the only ones who passed on him. According to Randy, we were." Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones

Moss’ draft slide had to do with off-field concerns. He signed out of high school with Notre Dame but never attended the school after he spent three days in jail for his involvement in a fight. He went to Florida State but was dismissed from the school for testing positive for marijuana.

He ended up back in his home state of West Virginia, at Marshall University, where he became one of the most prolific wide receivers in college football history. In 1997, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist and finished fourth behind Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf.

Without question, Moss was the best receiver in the draft. While he could outrun any defender, he could not outrun his past.

Which brings us back to the tape.

'Draft him'

Back then, the Cowboys would tape their draft meetings to allow them to review what they thought of players to keep scouts and coaches from having selective memory when it came to who did or did not like whom.

According to several people involved in the process, it was clear head coach Chan Gailey and wide receivers coach Dwain Painter did not want Moss. The off-field concerns were too much. The Cowboys had also had issues with players such as Michael Irvin and Erik Williams.

A year earlier, Jerry Jones hired Calvin Hill to run a player-development program designed to help troubled players. Jones was sensitive to the issues his team was having, so that added weight to Moss’ problems. The Cowboys' owner and general manager might not have felt that pressure in previous or subsequent years.

"Men, this is not the Boy Scouts we're dealing with. This is pro football. Draft him." Jim Garrett, longtime Cowboys scout

“I remember Michael saying that [he] probably caused some frustration with me and probably cost Randy coming with the Cowboys,” Jones said.

As the discussion kept slanting against Moss, Jim Garrett, the longtime Cowboys scout and father to current head coach Jason Garrett, had enough. He stood up and plainly let his voice be heard.

“Men, this is not the Boy Scouts we’re dealing with,” the elder Garrett reminded the room. “This is pro football. Draft him.”

Said Jones, “He’s legendary for having said that. And he said it like he was Billy Graham.”

A game-changer

Darren Woodson was entering his seventh season in 1998. Secondary coach Mike Zimmer would often ask Woodson for opinions on draft prospects. More specifically, they would always be defensive prospects.

“So he turns on the film, and I’m thinking it’s going to be a defensive guy and it’s Randy Moss at Marshall,” Woodson said. “He’s this tall, lanky kid, and I’m like, ‘This is different.’ And Zim just told me, ‘Look, man, this kid is a game-changer.’ This is Mike Zimmer, who never showed me the other side. So I’m thinking this is the guy we’re going to draft.”

The Cowboys brought Moss to Dallas for a pre-draft visit. He was there with guys such as Andre Wadsworth, Curtis Enis, Grant Wistrom and Greg Ellis, who ended up as the Cowboys’ top pick. They stayed at the DFW Airport Marriott North, with everybody mingling in a suite that overlooked the runways.

On the visit, players met with the coaches and coordinators, went over the schemes and got a feel for one another. Then there was a meeting with Jones.

“It’s the guys they’re serious about drafting, and Jerry told all of us, ‘If you’re there, there’s a great possibility we’re going to get you,’” Ellis said. “I guess Randy took that and ran all the way home with it. Understand there were 19 others there for a visit for a reason, so they could get them, too.”

But Moss’ trip was a little different. He hung out with Deion Sanders at the cornerback’s home, further convincing him that he would soon be wearing the star on the side of his helmet. Moss, now an ESPN analyst, declined to comment for this story, but before playing the Cowboys for a final time in 2010, he said he “always carries a certain chip on my shoulder for the Cowboys.”

“The love that I received and the conversations that I had for those 48 hours had me believing that I was going to be a Dallas Cowboy up until draft day,” Moss recalled in 2010.

By the time the draft rolled around, the Cowboys’ decision was made. No one quite remembers if Moss was on or off the Cowboys’ draft board, but he wasn’t even a fallback option. The choices were clear. There was no draft-room debate.

It was Wistrom or Ellis.

When the St. Louis Rams took Wistrom with the sixth overall pick, Ellis was the guy.

"When they didn't pick me, I was kind of more depressed because [my mom] was more depressed, and I took that to heart," Moss said in 2010. "That my mom didn't really care too much about the Boys and just seeing her facial expression and how she looked, I really took that to heart, man, and I told myself, 'Anytime I play the Dallas Cowboys, I'm never going to forget that look.'"

'We couldn’t match up'

In seven regular-season games against the Cowboys, Moss caught 35 passes for 662 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 18.9 yards per catch was the most he averaged against an opponent. His 10 touchdowns were the third most he recorded against a team in his career. He had more against only the Buffalo Bills (12) and Green Bay Packers (14).

In his first game against Dallas, on Thanksgiving in 1998, he caught only three passes. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they all resulted in touchdowns. He gained 163 yards. He also picked up 50 yards in a pass interference penalty.

“The guy changed the game,” Woodson said. “The way we played back then, we weren’t much of a Cover 2 team. We didn’t double guys. We just played guys pretty much head up, one-on-one. Let Kevin Smith or Deion out there by themselves. But this dude, he made us rethink our entire defensive philosophy and even change it. We couldn’t match up.”

"I didn't have a Randy Moss career. A lot of people didn't have a Randy Moss career, but I think my career was a solid one and well-respected around the league." Greg Ellis, former Cowboys defensive end

Ellis was on the field that day too. He started at defensive end and finished with one tackle and two pass deflections.

“I remember the first time we played Randy at the old stadium, and Randy, he was having a serious game, and I was like, ‘Slow down, man. What are you doing?’” Ellis said.

In 1998, the Cowboys still had Irvin, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston, Larry Allen, Nate Newton and Williams from their Super Bowl days on offense. They thought they had pieces in place to remain a top offensive unit. The defense needed help, which is why it came down to pass-rushers Wistrom or Ellis.

“It would be unfair in any way to say we’re disappointed with how we did with the pick,” Jones said. “I want to remind everybody we did get Greg.”

In 11 seasons with the Cowboys, Ellis recorded 84 sacks. He led the team in sacks six times -- only DeMarcus Ware and Harvey Martin led the team more times in franchise history. In 2007, Ellis had 12.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl.

“Coming into it, [Moss] really wasn’t a conversation for me because I was more concentrated on, ‘OK, I want to earn my keep,’” Ellis said. “For me, when you’re a high pick it’s, ‘Make sure I’m not a bust. I just don’t want that label.’ But [the Moss angle] kept coming up, of course. It’s something that’s always talked about forever and a day. ...

“I didn’t have a Randy Moss career. A lot of people didn’t have a Randy Moss career, but I think my career was a solid one and well-respected around the league. I’m all right with it.”

Ellis was out for a walk when the phone call came recently to remind him of the anniversary of his draft.

“Twenty years?” he said. “Time flies.”