Meredith the original unappreciated great quarterback


There's a group of quarterbacks in the NFL today that can give a nod to Don Meredith -- as in, a nod of understanding.

The legendary quarterback and Monday Night Football broadcaster's passing this week at the age of 72 brought about stories of his personality in the booth, his status as the Cowboys' first franchise player, and his popularity with the Baby Boomers. Too bad he wasn't always popular with his own team's fans when he played. He might have been the most criticized player -- not just quarterback -- in Cowboys history, enough to make the game no fun anymore (he retired at the top of his game at 31 years old).

He also might've been the first of the franchise quarterbacks who set the bar so high that he could never please his own fans. Donovan McNabb, anyone? Drew Bledsoe? Phil Simms? Meredith's career in Dallas definitely set the tone for the perennial disappointment in both Danny White's and Tony Romo's careers.

Associated Press
Don Meredith wasn't always appreciated by Cowboys fans. Even when the three-time Pro Bowler performed well, it was never good enough.
Don Meredith vs. NFL starting QBs in 1968
  Pass Yds Yds/att TD-INT Rating
Meredith 2,500 8.1 21-12 88.4
'68 QBs* 2,236 7.0 17-15 73.5
* Started at least 10 games

There have been many quarterbacks who haven't done enough in fans' eyes, despite playing at a very high level. McNabb might be the ultimate example. Dealt within his own division this past spring, there weren't too many tears falling when the first video of McNabb in Redskins maroon and gold hit flatscreens.

Like McNabb's Eagles teams -- which went to five NFC Championship Games but just one Super Bowl -- the mid-to-late '60s Cowboys had a run of Homecoming runner-ups. Meredith got burned for it, and then some. "Dandy Don" started hearing it full force in 1965, when the 7-7 Cowboys finally showed promise after five seasons of ineptitude. It didn't stop until he retired in the summer of 1969.

In fact, Meredith's best season came in his last, when he was arguably the NFL's top quarterback of 1968. But because of his sense of humor and his poor performance in a playoff loss in Cleveland, he was criticized heavily (anyone thinking Romo right about now?).

Meredith led the Cowboys past the Vikings in the 1968 Playoff Bowl and won MVP, despite receiving zero votes from members of the Dallas-Fort Worth area media. It wasn't until after he retired that he was remembered for being a great person and quarterback.

Simms was lucky. Unlike Meredith, the 14-year veteran finally did get respect from the Giants faithful while still wearing his uniform. Well, at least in Year 14. It took that long for Giants fans to appreciate what they had. Despite winning Super Bowl XXI with an incredible 22-of-25 passing performance (his 88 percent completion percentage is still a record) and being the first Giants quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season (in 1984), he could never do enough.

In the '80s, there was Scott Brunners, who had the advantage of not being a first-round draft choice, then there was Jeff Hostetler, who led the Giants to a win in Super Bowl XXV in place of an injured Simms. It wasn't until Dan Reeves took over in 1993, and Hostetler signed with the Raiders, that Giants fans fully embraced the best quarterback in franchise history.

Cowboys fans realized how good Meredith was when the guy they wanted to start so badly, Craig Morton, failed to deliver a Super Bowl win as well. There were problems beyond quarterbacking on those Dallas teams, and Morton didn't quite inspire the way his predecessor did. Like Hostetler, Morton did play well in the instances that Meredith was hurt in the late '60s. But that was the story with Meredith, and two decades later with Simms. They were victims of their own toughness.

The original Cowboy
History shows that Bob Lilly was the first player drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, but in fact it was Don Meredith who was the original Cowboy, Gil Brandt says. More ...

» Photos: Meredith through the years

The exact same can be said about a couple of NFC West quarterbacks from recent memory. Rams fans might love Kurt Warner now, but in 2003 they were definitely ready to get a taste of Marc Bulger. Nevermind that Warner always hung in the pocket and played the entire second half of the 2003 season opener with a concussion. His numbers were down, and the Bulger bandwagon began.

Steve Young was as brave as they come, whether it be thumbing his nose at the quarterback slide or hanging in the pocket just long enough to deliver the perfect deep ball -- and taking a beating for it. Despite his grit in a season in which he won league MVP honors, Young heard a smattering of boos after fumbling three times in the 1992 divisional playoff game against the Redskins.

Meredith's grit was legendary, maybe even other-wordly.

Against Washington in 1966, he drove the Cowboys 85 yards for a game-winning field goal with a punctured lung. He could hardly breathe, much less call signals in the huddle. But he still threw for 406 yards that day.

Legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry often said Meredith was "the toughest player I ever coached." It's not often a quarterback is considered the toughest guy on the field.

"Expectations for Texans are bigger than anywhere else," said senior analyst Gil Brandt, who drafted Meredith in his first year as vice president of player personnel with the Cowboys in 1960. "People expected more out of him than he delivered, but I do think he was a great player. He proved that by being named to the Pro Bowl a couple of times."

When Dallas got good, the expectations got bigger. Despite being a Pro Bowler in 1966, Meredith's mistakes were often seen as the reason for defeat. His interception at the end of the NFL Championship Game that season was the cubic zirconium on the engagement ring -- it wasn't the real reason they lost. The defense allowed 34 points, and Meredith's pick was a desperation throw on fourth-and-goal. Yet, that play would be shown over and over on local TV, NFL Films and every "Lombardi's Packers" lovefest you'll ever see.

Why did Meredith and these select few elite quarterbacks get so much venom from the media and their own fans? Expectations. Most of these guys were good out of the gate, or showed flashes of complete brilliance.

Exhibit A: Bledsoe's 1994 campaign when he led the then-hapless Patriots to the playoffs in only his second season.

We're seeing some of this today with Carson Palmer, who set a standard so high in 2005 and 2006 that he and the Bengals are now chasing their own tail. Now he's expected to do that every year, despite knee and elbow injuries, good-but-inconsistent skill players, and an offensive line that's suspect. Palmer's huge contract and demeanor don't always sit well with fans. Meredith's laidback demeanor, a la Romo, often sends the wrong message.

It's almost random how some teams' fans embrace their star quarterbacks, while others don't. Followers of the Giants weren't in love with Simms as their first-round pick in 1979. Niners fans never thought Young was good enough to fill Joe Montana's shoes until he won Super Bowl XXIX.

Whatever the reason for the disapproval ratings, Meredith might have been the godfather of the franchise player who -- in fans' eyes -- kills the franchise. Sometimes it takes a few new calendars to realize what you have. It will be interesting to see who the next unappreciated great player will be, who becomes the next whipping boy for a fan base.

Here's hoping it's nobody.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.



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