No one has documented the history of pro football better than NFL Films. I’m a long-time fan of Ed Sabol, who founded NFL Films, and his son Steve, the creative genius of the company. Both are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their work there.
But NFL Films really fumbled the ball in its documentary a few years back on “The Great Wall of Dallas,” the story of one of the best offensive lines in NFL history. Their names were a blur of greatness – all-decade center Mark Stepnoski, six-time Pro Bowl guard Nate Newton, four-time Pro Bowl tackle Erik Williams, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Mark Tuinei…
That group formed the backbone of an offense that produced three Super Bowl championships in a span of four seasons in the 1990s and sent quarterback Troy Aikman, halfback Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The documentary interviewed the Triplets. It interviewed coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones. It interviewed actors (Gary Busey), authors (Jeff Pearlman) and television commentators (Pam Oliver). John Madden, Jon Gruden and Hall-of-Famers Deion Sanders and Randy White also had speaking parts.
But there was one person noticeably absent from the film. He was not interviewed, nor did his name ever come up during the one-hour documentary – offensive line coach Tony Wise, the architect of that unit.
That was a whiff on the part of NFL Films.
“Tony Wise should get a lot of credit for having the best offensive line ever in professional football,” Johnson told "The Franchise." (https://fb.watch/1JiUiDJdWH/)
Wise and Johnson were assistant coaches together at Pitt in the 1970s. Wise was the offensive-line coach at Johnson’s very first head-coaching gig at Oklahoma State in 1979. He was with Johnson at Miami in the 1980s when the Hurricanes won national championships. And Wise was among the host of Miami assistants who followed Johnson to Dallas in 1989.
Johnson trusted him implicitly.
In the 1991 draft preparations, Johnson met with his coaches and scouts for some hypotheticals. The Cowboys had three first-round draft picks, and offensive tackle loomed as a need. There were three tackles projected to go high in the draft – Antone Davis and Charles McRae, both of Tennessee, and Pat Harlow from Southern Cal.
So Johnson asked Wise which one he preferred.
“Frankly, coach, I like the kid from Central State,” Wise said.
Johnson said the “kid” from an NAIA school was not going to go in the first round, so he again asked Wise which of the three name tackles from those major colleges he preferred.
“Frankly, coach, I like the kid from Central State,” Wise repeated.
So the Cowboys did not take any of the name tackles in the first round but did take the tackle from Central State in the third. Erik Williams would wind up going to more Pro Bowls than Davis, Harlow and McRae combined.
“Erik Williams is the best offensive lineman I’ve ever seen,” Irvin raved in the documentary.
Wise knew what a quality blocker looked like. More importantly, he knew how to coax the maximum out of his troops.
“We had a defensive free-agent (Tuinei) playing left tackle,” Johnson said. “We had an overweight offensive guard (Nate Newton) that they (Tom Landry staff) wanted to get rid of. We had an undersized guard playing center (Mark Stepnoski). We had a seventh-round tackle that we moved to guard (Kevin Gogan). Then we had a third-round pick from Central State of Ohio playing right tackle.
“That was our offensive line. There weren’t a whole lot of first rounders in there. Or second rounders. There weren’t a lot of big-name players. But Tony Wise turned that group into the best offensive line in professional football.”
John Gesek arrived in the NFL in 1987 as a 10th-round pick by the Raiders. The Cowboys traded for him in 1990 for a fifth-rounder. He became the Swiss army knife of the line, starting one Super Bowl at guard and another at center.
Newton and Tuinei were undrafted. Like Williams, Stepnoski was a third-round pick. Wise liked him – even if he was woefully undersized by NFL standards to play the interior at 6-2, 269 pounds. But Stepnoski was one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy as a senior at Pitt and a two-time academic All-America. He played guard at Pitt but wouldn’t play there in the NFL.
“I asked Tony, `Can you make him into a center?’” Johnson recalled, "and Tony said, “Yeah, I can.’”
Stepnoski was a master technician – a blocker who could win battles with his footwork and leverage. He would wind up going to five Pro Bowls at center.
“I’ll show you films of 'Step' blocking Reggie White and Jerome Brown,” offered Wise of a few Pro Bowl opponents to whom Stepnoski was spotting 30 and 40 pounds.
Newton and Tuinei would start on all three Super Bowl champions. So would Williams. He did not finish the 1994 season because of a car wreck in late October. Without Williams, the Cowboys failed in their quest to win a third consecutive Super Bowl. With a healthy Williams again in 1995, the Cowboys claimed that third Lombardi Trophy.
But Wise was gone by then. So was Johnson. Wise left after the first Super Bowl championship in 1992, following Dallas assistant Dave Wannstedt to Chicago in 1993 when he became the head coach of the Bears. Johnson left after the second Super Bowl in 1993 following a fallout with owner Jerry Jones.
But what they left behind in Dallas was the best offensive line in the NFL – one of the best the game has ever seen. The blocking front will not be forgotten any time soon. It’s too bad NFL Films forgot Wise. His role in constructing and developing the “Great Wall of Dallas” cannot be minimized.
I love NFL Films...but Films whiffed on this one.