Jones says Coakley is a keeper

Wednesday, August 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING – Cowboys owner Jerry Jones does not believe in paying linebackers big money because he believes other positions are more critical to winning.

But he's going to change his philosophy for at least for one Dallas linebacker.

Jones said he expects to sign weakside linebacker Dexter Coakley, whose contract expires at the end of the season, to a long-term deal that will keep him in Dallas.

Jones did not indicate whether the Cowboys would attempt to sign Coakley during the season. With their salary-cap issues, the Cowboys would likely have to restructure several contracts to get a deal done before season's end.

Last season, Coakley became the first Dallas linebacker to make the Pro Bowl since Ken Norton in 1993.

"There are exceptions to every rule," Jones said. "For exemplary players, there are exceptions. Dexter is an exemplary player."

The list of starting linebackers the Cowboys have let join other teams through free agency includes Jack Del Rio (1992), Norton (1994), Dixon Edwards (1996), Robert Jones (1996), Darrin Smith (1997) and Randall Godfrey (2000).

Coakley, 27, said he's happy his name won't be added to the list.

"I feel good about that. Obviously, it's an accomplishment for me and the whole linebackers corps because this situation has never come about before," said Coakley, a third-round pick in 1997 from Appalachian State. "To be the first one to really break that mold is great. I'm glad to be considered that kind of player."

During the off-season and training camp, Coakley said he has forced himself not to ponder the future and whether Dallas would re-sign him. He saw what it did to Godfrey, a close friend, and he didn't want to let it become a distraction.

"I didn't allow it to affect me," said Coakley, "because I've always been an underdog. I've always felt like I had to prove myself, and that's what kept me from getting complacent."

Pat Dye Jr., Coakley's agent, said the Cowboys have not yet broached the subject of a new contract.


The NFL's highest-paid linebackers for the upcoming season:

Team2000 salary

Levon Kirkland
Pittsburgh$5.3 million

Junior Seau
San Diego$4.2 million

Michael Barrow
NYGiants$4.0 million

Jessie Tuggle
Atlanta$3.8 million

Hardy Nickerson
Jacksonville$2.9 million

William Thomas
Oakland$2.9 million

Source: NFLPA

Coakley, a restricted free agent after last season, received a one-year contract worth $1.27 million from the Cowboys, making him the first million-dollar linebacker in franchise history.

Pittsburgh's Levon Kirkland, who will earn $5.3 million this season, is the NFL's highest-paid linebacker. Only three other linebackers will earn more than $3 million this season.

In their scheme, Dallas puts a higher premium on defensive linemen and cornerbacks than it does linebackers and safeties.

Still, the Cowboys rewarded safety Darren Woodson with a six-year, $18 million contract in 1996 because they considered him a special player. Coakley is especially valuable in the Cowboys' scheme, which favors speed over size.

"It would be a change from the past," Dye said. "Hopefully, they will see fit to try to keep him around.

"He's a Pro Bowl player on the field and his intangibles and leadership skills off-the-field are the kind of attributes that you want to try to build a team around. He's respected by his teammates and the coaching staff."

One reason is Coakley's work ethic. He hasn't missed a scheduled workout in four years.

Another reason is Coakley's productivity.

Coakley, named a starter a few days into his first training camp, became a more complete player in 1999. He had 131 tackles, a sack, six tackles for loss and four interceptions last season.

He yearns to keep improving. And he wants to do it in Dallas.

"I enjoy playing for the Cowboys," he said. "I enjoy the whole family atmosphere with the ownership. The camaraderie with my teammates. I do want to stay here."