MINNEAPOLIS — NFL coaches spend every waking moment thinking about their teams from the early part of July until the last second of their final game. They know their players as well, or unfortunately maybe even better, than they know their own kids.
So it seemed logical that, if a coach had a running back named Smith, one who could be depended on to pile up yardage, score touchdowns, catch passes and generally frustrate defenses, he would try to get the ball in the hands of that back as often as possible.
It was certainly logical to Minnesota Viking Coach Dennis Green Sunday. With the Dallas Cowboys poised to stop the air show betweeen quarterback Jeff George and star receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter, Green used running back Robert Smith to perfection and that proved to be the difference as the Vikings won a wild-card playoff game over Dallas, 27-10, in front of a Metrodome crowd of 64,056 to set up a second-round matchup with the Rams in St. Louis next Sunday.
But the logic seemed to stop on the Minnesota side.
Over on the Dallas side, there was also a back named Smith. Maybe you've heard of him. Goes by the first name Emmitt. He is the third leading rusher in NFL history, coming off a regular season in which he rushed for 1,397 yards. He is also the all-time career leader in postseason rushing yardage.
This was Smith's second game this season against the Vikings. In the first, he rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns in only 13 carries before leaving prior to halftime of a Monday night game because of a fractured right hand.
On Sunday, Smith, his hand healed, seemed ready and able to do it all over again. But after rushing six times for 72 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, he again found his day cut short. But this time, it was because of a decision by the head coach, not the team doctor.
Reacting to a Viking front that often included eight men, Dallas Coach Chan Gailey only called on Smith for nine more rushing attempts which resulted in only 27 more yards. And a game in which the Cowboys led 10-3 in the first quarter turned into their eighth consecutive loss on the road this season.
"They were throwing people up there just daring you to throw the football," Gailey said. "I thought Troy [Aikman] threw the ball very, very well today. We just dropped too many passes in critical situations to keep drives alive."
Others had dared the Cowboys to run this season as well, but their powerful offensive line had been up to the challenge.
All the blame for Sunday's loss can't be heaped on the game plan. The Cowboys also fumbled twice and had a pass picked off.
As for the other Smith, the guy in purple who got the chance to run the ball, he gained 140 yards in 28 carries, had another 58 yards with three catches and thus opened up the down-field passing game for George.
"I knew if we stuck with the run, we would run the ball effectively," said Robert Smith--the only Smith who could make that statement Sunday.
Robert Smith was sidelined three games in November after having hernia surgery and is only now returning to peak form.
"He didn't have the leg drive that he has now," Green said. "He feels great, he feels frisky, he wants the ball and he knows he can break tackles."
Emmitt Smith's big moment came on the Cowboys' opening drive when he went down the left sideline for 65 yards to the Minnesota three-yard line. But the Cowboys had to settle for an 18-yard Eddie Murray field goal.
After Minnesota's Gary Anderson answered with a 47-yard field goal on a day when he would become the NFL career leader in postseason points with 128, Emmitt Smith pushed the Cowboys into their final lead with a five-yard touchdown run, making a sharp cutback to shake off a posse of tacklers.
The Vikings' Smith tied the game in the second quarter when he took a short pass from George and went down the left sideline for a 26-yard scoring play. As he would most of the afternoon, George resisted the temptation to force a ball to Moss or Carter when they were tightly covered, opting for Smith as a safety valve.
"I was just basically running down the sideline as a decoy," Smith said. "I can't say enough about Jeff and his ability to take advantage of what defenses give him. He saw that there was nobody out there and, as soon as I turned around, the ball was there."
Before halftime, George struck again, this time to his big-play receiver Moss. George threw a long pass that Moss and Dallas defensive back Kevin Mathis battled for. As he has done so many times in his two spectacular seasons, Moss won the battle, controlling the ball and smoothly backpedaling a few yards into the end zone to complete a 58-yard scoring play.
Although the the Cowboys only trailed 17-10 in the third quarter, Gailey called on his Smith for only three carries, the result a loss of four yards.