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Dallas Cowboys still wonder 'what if' as Jimmy Johnson enters HOF

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The global appeal of 'How bout them Cowboys?' (1:05)

Darren Woodson, Nate Newton and Jimmy Johnson share their stories behind the iconic "How bout them Cowboys?" phrase. (1:05)

Former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones will undoubtedly share a moment during the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). There will be big smiles and hearty laughs for the pair, who are among the game's greats enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

But for some Cowboys fans and players, there will be a nagging thought of what could have been had Johnson and Jones coexisted for longer than five seasons (1989-93).

The Cowboys became the first team to win three Super Bowls in four years after winning the title in 1995 under former coach Barry Switzer. Many former Dallas players wonder if the number of championships could have been greater.

"No, no, no, not, 'What could've been,' [but] 'What the f--- could have been?'" Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said. "Don't say it so easily. Not a day goes by that we don't think about it."

If the NFC Championship Game win on Jan. 17, 1993, against the San Francisco 49ers was their finest moment, then one of the lowest fell on March 29, 1994. On that day, Johnson said he and Jones mutually decided he would no longer be the Cowboys' coach. After back-to-back Super Bowl wins following the 1992 and 1993 seasons, the Cowboys' relationship with Johnson was over.

"New England came in behind you and did what you did twice. We could've won four in a row. We could've won five out of six years," Irvin said. "I really do believe that. And done something that had never been done before and it will never be done again. When you have those opportunities in life, sometimes when you're young you don't even understand that depth of the value of that. And then you get more time in life, you say, 'Wow, we blew it.' You know? We blew it. We should've done more. We should've won more."

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman is often asked how many more Super Bowls the Cowboys would have won had Johnson remained coach.

"I don't know, but my guess is we probably would have [won more]," Aikman said. "But I think even saying that minimizes how difficult it is to win a Super Bowl. We would've been knocking at the door every year. We would have been in the hunt and had a chance to win it all, and the reason I say that is for two reasons: One, free agency was coming into play, but Jimmy was a tremendous evaluator of talent, so I don't know or doubt whether we would've continued to bring in young talent. Two, he was so demanding on the details, that our attention to that wouldn't have wavered."

Johnson, 78, says he does not carry any personal regret, instead lamenting how he feels bad for his former players.

"I won enough. I feel bad for them because had I stayed, I think we would've won a bunch more of them," Johnson said.

At the start of the Cowboys' 2021 training camp in Oxnard, California, and with the franchise's championship drought reaching its 26th season, Jones said, "I'd do anything known to man to get to a Super Bowl. That's a fact."

In five seasons with the Cowboys, Johnson had a 44-36 record and went 7-1 in the postseason. In recent years, Jones has expressed regret at not showing deference to Johnson, saying, "Ridiculous. My role here, my job was to keep it together."

Switzer did not understand the breakup, either, as Jones explains.

"Barry came down from Norman, Oklahoma, to talk about getting the job. And he comes in and he said, 'Where's Jimmy?' Now, Barry had coached us both. He said, 'Where's Jimmy?' I said, 'Jimmy's gone.' He said, 'Well, that's not right. Get him. Get him in here. Where's Jimmy?' I said, 'Barry, Jimmy's gone. We're sitting here talking about you being the coach.' I said, 'What in the world are you so anxious to talk to Jimmy about?'

"He said, 'I just want to get both you little a--holes on this couch and ask you both how could you f--- this up.' That was Switzer."

Jones doesn't have any answer to Switzer's question to this day, saying, "I've never been able to know why I f---ed it up."

On Thursday night, Jones announced Johnson will be inducted into the Cowboys' Ring of Honor.

In truth, Jones and Johnson were better together than they were apart.

The Cowboys have one Super Bowl victory since Johnson's departure, although Johnson is given a large portion of the credit for that team. In four years coaching the Miami Dolphins (1996-99), Johnson never got past the divisional round of the playoffs.

"I know talking to guys like Norv [Turner] and Dave Wannstedt, who were in the NFL for a long period of time, and they all say what we had really was never replicated for them anywhere else they went," Aikman said.

"We were able to capture something really special and my guess is Jimmy and Jerry would say the same thing, that they both look, 'You know what we had was really good, really special.' Had they known how special it was, both of them probably would have made different decisions. I don't know that either one would admit that, but I don't know how they couldn't lay there at night and think other than that way."