State Your Case: John Niland

Dallas posted a 91-33-2 record during his career

(Published March 2020)

The final year of the split drafts before the AFL-NFL merger was 1966 – and it was distinguished by a lack of greatness.

Both drafts lasted 20 rounds. The NFL selected 305 players and the AFL 181. Yet that talent pool produced only one Hall of Famer – guard Tom Mack, the second overall pick of the NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams.

But you can make a case there should be a second Hall of Famer from that draft class. A second Top-5 draft pick by an NFL team, in fact. A second guard, in fact.

John Niland has been forgotten too long.

The Dallas Cowboys selected Niland with the fifth overall choice of the 1966 draft from the University of Iowa. How promising a pro prospect was he? Niland started at tackle for Iowa before earning All-America honors at guard as a senior. In 1989 he was named to the school’s all-time team and in 2006 was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

And there was no letdown in his play as a professional.

Niland started five games at tackle as a rookie as an injury replacement, including the 1966 NFL title game against the Green Bay Packers, then moved into the starting lineup in 1967 at left guard. In his nine seasons, the Cowboys went to the playoffs eight times and won seven NFC East titles. They appeared in six NFL/NFC title games, winning two NFC crowns and one Lombardi Trophy.

Dallas posted a 91-33-2 record during Niland’s career and boasted one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL, thanks in large part to the pulling ability of Niland. The Cowboys led the NFL in rushing three times, finished second twice and in the Top 5 in eight of Niland’s nine seasons. And that was with Don Perkins, Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas providing the legs on the ground, not Hall-of-Famers Tony Dorsett or Emmitt Smith.

Niland was Nate Newton before Nate Newton and Larry Allen before Larry Allen. He was voted to six consecutive Pro Bowls from 1968-73 and was named first-team all-pro in both 1971 and 1972. Niland did not go to the Pro Bowl in his final season in Dallas in 1974 but was voted first-team All-NFC by United Press International.

The Cowboys traded Niland to the Philadelphia Eagles for a third-round pick in 1975. It turned out to be his final season. His career ended in 1976 when he tore up a knee during training camp.

Niland went to as many Pro Bowls as his contemporary Gene Hickerson (six) and more than contemporaries Larry Little (five) and Jerry Kramer (three). Those three guards are all in the Hall of Fame. Niland has never even been discussed as a finalist.

But there was never a rush to enshrine the other three guards. Little was a first-team all-decade choice for the 1970s, but he wasn’t elected to the Hall until his eighth year of eligibility. Hickerson and Kramer were both elected as senior candidates, Hickerson after a 29-year wait and Kramer after a 44-year wait.

Niland has been waiting now for 39 years to have his career analyzed, discussed and debated by the Hall-of-Fame selection committee. One of the best guards of his era deserves that.

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