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Cowboys' Smith Wants to Be Emmitt

December 28, 1996|RICHARD JUSTICE | WASHINGTON POST

IRVING, Texas — If only Emmitt Smith could be compared to someone other than Emmitt Smith. If only there were another running back who had accomplished as much, played in as many big games or earned the admiration of so many, then perhaps it wouldn't be so difficult being Emmitt Smith in 1996.

Perhaps there wouldn't be so many nagging questions. Has he lost a step? Have seven years of pounding finally taken a noticeable toll? Has the dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys begun with the decline of their once peerless running back?

Smith has been forced to answer these questions repeatedly this season and did so again this week as the suddenly vulnerable Cowboys prepared to play the Minnesota Vikings Saturday afternoon in an NFC wild-card game at Texas Stadium.

"It's been a difficult year, no question about it," Smith said. "I had some nagging injury things that didn't have a chance to heal. It's tough when you're not right physically. Right now, I'm feeling pretty good. I think we can still make a run at this thing."

For the first time in at least four years, the Cowboys aren't consensus favorites to win another championship. Asked about being underdogs, guard Nate Newton snapped: "I don't think the rest of the league looks at us like that. They know what we're about."

Others may wonder. Saturday's game wasn't declared a sellout until Thursday morning, just eight hours before it would have been blacked out on local television. The Cowboys have been criticized this season for looking bored with success, but their fans may be guilty of the same thing.

"Maybe we should be playing on the road," Newton said. "We know fans would come to see us. We're America's Team. We're not Dallas' team."

This season's problems have been with an offense that has scored five touchdowns in its past six games and was carried to a fifth straight NFC East championship by the National Football League's second-ranked defense.

Still the most star-studded offense in the NFL, the Cowboys enter the playoffs having gained 400 yards just once and more than 300 yards only eight times. Far from the relentless running game that was once their signature, the Cowboys have gotten a puny 3.7 yards per carry from Smith. That's the worst of his career and a full yard less than last season. After four NFL rushing titles in six years, his 1,204 yards were a distant eighth behind leader Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions (1,553).

The offense had problems from the start. First there was Michael Irvin's five-game drug suspension. Then there was tight end Jay Novacek's career-threatening back injury. And there were injuries up and down the offensive line.

And there was Emmitt Smith. He suffered ankle and knee injuries in a meaningless pre-season game and began a season at least than full speed for the first time in his career. He suffered a frightening neck injury in the regular season opener.

The problem is, Smith has played through all sorts of injuries in previous years. He once played an entire game with a separated shoulder and prided himself on being someone who played all game every game.

This season, with everything else collapsing around him, Emmitt was never Emmitt. His year wasn't made any easier by the signing of a contract that will pay him $48 million over eight years.

When a 27-year-old quarterback has a bad season, it's a slump. When it happens to a 27-year-old running back with more than 2,500 carries, it's the beginning of the end.

"No one wants to see the facts," Newton said. "Emmitt got hurt in the last preseason game. His ankle was real bad, but Emmitt wanted to be Emmitt. He just kept going out there. But it's not the same."

Smith shrugged and said: "No one likes hearing that you're over the hill. A whole lot of factors played into this season."

In search of a fifth rushing title, Smith disappeared off the board early after rushing for 100 yards in just one of the first five games. His problems culminated on Nov. 24 when Cowboys Coach Barry Switzer abruptly benched him in the second half of a loss to the New York Giants.

Smith carried the ball 11 times for 18 yards that day, and even though his lack of production was contributing to his team's struggles, the move seemed to be an unnecessary embarrassment for someone of Smith's stature.

Of all the images that have followed the Cowboys this season, none is likely to endure more than Smith sitting stoically on the end of the bench, huddled under a parka.

Switzer waited two days before even offering Smith an explanation. But if the Cowboys do win their fourth Super Bowl in five years, they may point to that benching as the turning point. After the game, Smith missed three consecutive days of practice for the first time in his career and then broke out against the Redskins, rushing 29 times for 155 yards.

His benching -- and the attention it attracted -- shocked the Cowboys back to their basics. After averaging barely 20 carries per game in the first 12 games, Smith has gotten the ball 28 times a game in the past three.

He took last week off before a meaningless game against the Redskins and enters the playoffs as rested and ready as at any time this season. If Smith is rested and ready, the Cowboys likely are as well.

"It boils down to going out and playing," Smith said. "Just sit back, relax and play your game. Don't try to make the big play. Let the big play come."

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