In professional sports, every draft has that cautionary tale of drafting busts over all-time greats, with the “what if?” question lingering years later – the result joyful for some franchises, and devastating for others.
The Dallas Cowboys had one of their “what if?” moments in the 2005 NFL Draft. Owner Jerry Jones and coach Bill Parcells were wrestling with the decision of who should be the prototype outside linebacker to plug into Parcells’ 3-4 defense – Maryland Terrapins‘ Shawne Merriman, or Troy University’s DeMarcus Ware.
The Cowboys, as we know, went with Ware. However, Merriman — drafted by the San Diego Chargers one pick after Ware — said back in 2005 that he was actually told by both Jones and Parcells that if he was on the board at number 12, they would take him.
Good thing their thought process changed at the last minute.
While Ware has been the most consistent and best pass rusher in the league since his rookie season – he is the second fastest player to reach 100 sacks, doing it in a quicker time frame than any other sack artist in NFL history not named Reggie White – Merriman enjoyed three good seasons, was busted for steroid use, injury hit, and is now retired.
Ware has never missed a game in his eight seasons as a pro, led the league in sacks in 2008 with a ridiculous 20 (while also forcing six fumbles), and is in the discussion with Lawrence Taylor and Thomas as the three greatest pass rushing linebackers in league history.
On the Mount Rushmore of pass rushers, linebacker or otherwise, Ware has a reserved spot.
Merriman’s career, meanwhile, went out with a whimper after he was suspended for steroids in October of 2006. While he did manage 12.5 sacks in 2007 following 17 in 2006, the three-time pro bowler played in just 33 games over his last five, all predominantly injury-filled campaigns.
So with all that said, what if the Cowboys had stayed the course and indeed took Merriman?
They would have gotten three good seasons out of him before his career spiraled downhill. The Chargers would have ended up with Ware, a franchise cornerstone who has put together a first ballot Hall of Famer-worthy career. He and Shaun Phillips would have formed maybe the league’s best outside linebacker tandem, and he would no doubt still be donning the Charger blue, white and yellow today.
Make no mistake about it: the Cowboys would be rebuilding at outside linebacker right now if they had taken Merriman. But in taking Ware, they gained the anchor of their defense for the future, and a guy who will certainly end up one day in Canton, OH in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Of course, the “what if?” questions are ones that can never truly be answered, void of absolute proof as we’ll never know how things would have turned out if they had gone the other way.
But there is one thing that can be definitively answered.
The Cowboys sure are glad that Jones and Parcells had a last second change of thought on that late April Saturday afternoon in 2005.