Standing on a lacquered wooden bench near a corner in the Cowboys locker room, he held court after a convincing win, playing lord of the manor as reporters shoved microphones and cameras in his face. It's a character that fits him, the king--the man who carries a small, leather-covered ball in one hand and the hopes of his teammates, his club, his city in the other. It's an alter ego he's embraced repeatedly while helping to fortify an already proud franchise. It's also a role, for some inexplicable, frustrating reason, that he hasn't had much opportunity to revisit this season.
As the pack pushed forward, drawing closer to Emmitt Smith like hungry strays, he talked politely of how it used to be, of how the running would beget Troy Aikman's passing which would beget the game-finishing drives. He talked, and it made you remember when that was the norm, not the exception, when they delivered those knockout plays instead of absorbing them. Then, the Pokes were as good as they were feared. They marched to victory with an ease the rest of us reserve for getting cold beer from the fridge.
That, of course, was then.
Things are vastly different now, and the difficulties--from a horrid defense to a dismal passing game--have been well documented. So Smith took particular delight fielding questions about winning--smiling a little more broadly, trumpeting the team's praises with a little more inflection in his voice. And why not? After being partially forgotten in the offensive game plan for much of the season (he totaled only 395 yards on 101 carries entering the contest, good for just 16th in the NFL), he'd unleashed a 24-carry, 112-yard performance against Arizona in a game that was never in question.
"I felt like we could move the ball on them," Smith says, brandishing that familiar toothy grin with each sentence. Coal-colored stubble spots his face and head. "They had the 30th-rated rush defense in the league, and if you can't take advantage of that, you've got some problems."
Even if it was the submissive Cardinals who inspired it all, this is what Smith wanted, what he'd yearned for since training camp--a return to the ground game, where the responsibility to make things work was his. Because, make no mistake, when Dallas was at its best, when Aikman was arching majestic spirals down the sideline and Michael Irvin was hauling them in, it was Smith's talent that made it possible. He softened defenses, wore them down with thick thighs and singular ability, kept them off-balance by making them worry about him. Somewhere along the line, buried beneath hundreds of newspaper stories and an ongoing quarterback controversy, neophyte coach Dave Campo forgot all that, forgot what the Boys do best.
Until Sunday. Until he went back to the ground, making you remember how good the Cowboys' offense can look when glued to the back of a No. 22 jersey. Then you wondered, well, why are we only now remembering all this? Why now, in week 8? Why didn't this epiphany present itself against the Giants or the Niners or the Eagles? When did we, or more important, the Cowboys coaching staff, forget about the stocky bowling ball destined for Canton?
On a team where an absence of talent and a lack of consistent big-play capability are clear, particularly with the receivers and tight ends, it would make sense to give the 31-year-old the ball more. Wouldn't it? Really, upon whom else can they truly depend?
Consider, the Cowboys are 52-14 all-time when Smith eclipses the 100-yard barrier and are undefeated this season when they simply attempt more rushes than passes. Even if he isn't the back he used to be, even if he doesn't bust out the 80-yard jaunt anymore or juke as many tacklers, you have to like those odds. They say--no, they shout--run the ball. Run with Emmitt. Run, Emmitt, Run.
"I feel that we had a good game plan today," says Cards defensive lineman Russell Davis, apparently woozy in the brain from too many collisions. "We had to shut down their running game for us to be successful. Emmitt Smith is the heart and soul of that team. As Emmitt goes, the team goes. When you run well, it opens up everything else. You saw the scoreboard; 48-7 is pretty embarrassing."
Perhaps Campo will get it now. Perhaps he'll make this a regular occurrence again and forget about all the Aikman/Cunningham hoopla, hiding his aging signal callers behind a run-first offense. That's what they did in Cincinnati--Corey Dillon led the Bengals to their first win by setting a new NFL record with 278 yards rushing in one game--where effective passing is merely a forgotten fantasy. (Note to Davie: Hope you noticed how 200 total yards on the ground and a 41-point win can make the dogs stop barking, even when the air attack--9-for-15, 154 yards--was frightfully ordinary.)
"I'm not satisfied," Smith cautions the flock. "I'm never satisfied. When we start putting things back to back, I'll start getting real glad. When you run the ball like we did today--run, run, suck them in--you can go deep and make things happen. I expect us to play like that every week."
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Now, like he said, you can't be too excited about what transpired versus the Redbirds because Ray Charles might churn out a c-note if he ever strapped on the pads against 'Zona. No, you can't get too excited about whom they beat, but you can be encouraged about how they won. Because that's the thing they've been missing, the right formula, the proper plan. They ran until the Cards weren't sure anymore and then took the big play when they could get it--witness James McKnight's pleasant 48-yard reception. This is the method that worked so well in the past, when they won all those games almost on reflex.
Somebody said as much to Smith, said it looked like the offense of old. Told him, at one point, the Boys had clipped off 10 consecutive rushing plays. Then the interrogator asked when was the last time Dallas had done that.
"We did that in the Super Bowl one time," he says quickly, recalling it fondly. "No, not 10. We just happened to get [into the end zone] before that. But it was the Super Bowl."
You remember, don't you?