Carrying the Load

Smellin' of Troy: After one good game, is everything coming up Hambrick for the Cowboys? Not so fast.
Mark Graham

Legends don't wait in line. That's just the way it works. Tony Dorsett was out at Valley Ranch recently. He was standing with various media members and waiting patiently to sign the guest book and get a little visitor sticker that would allow him entrance to the Cowboys facility. The woman behind the front desk had no idea who he was; she just blinked at him like he was another reporter, another inconvenience. Dorsett stood there quietly, somehow resisting the urge to spike a football on her head and announce his majesty.

"Uh, if your jersey is hanging in the lobby," Boys PR honcho Rich Dalrymple said, coming to the rescue and pulling Dorsett from the line, "I don't think you have to sign in."

That's the way it works for legends. They get respect. People (but not some daft employees, evidently) pay attention to them. Especially when they speak. At least they should.

Dorsett's cover that day was transparent. Officially, he came bearing gifts in the name of Snickers, there to bestow some bullshit award on players who didn't particularly want it in the first place (in a terrific moment of tact, kicker Billy Cundiff decided not to show). In reality, Dorsett was there to kick around and hand down free advice. He wandered over to Troy Hambrick's locker, and unlike the receptionist, Hambrick immediately stood and paid homage. Old School and New School embraced in one of those awkward handshake/hug things, and they talked for a little while before Dorsett took his leave to entertain the salivating journos who had encircled him like a pack of hungry hyenas.

Before he could open his mouth, Dorsett was battered with the obvious question: What does he think of Hambrick? And here's where being a legend truly paid off, because he didn't have to answer in the hackneyed manner beloved by the current Cowboys. He didn't have to hold his tongue or mute his words. He didn't have to because he's Tony f-ing Dorsett, get it?

"He's running with authority for the most part," Dorsett said, letting his answer take shape the way his runs used to--slowly at first, then gathering speed. "He's a big, strong, fast guy, and if he puts all that together, he could be a great back in this league. But I always say that backs have to pass the test of time. You see backs who, man, they have two, three years, and then they're gone--a flash in the pan. Now, the job is open. It was open when Emmitt left. It was open in training camp. It's open now. It's time for him to put up or shut up."

Bless him. Had he never gained a yard, Dorsett would warrant Hall of Fame status for that last sentence alone. Too bad he can't/won't suit up. Instead, that duty falls to Hambrick, who, until Sunday's game against the Jets, performed only well enough to make nearly everyone wonder why head coach Bill Parcells wouldn't play "change of pace" back Aveion Cason more. 'Nough said. But against New York, Hambrick was something he hasn't often been in his four-year career, and something he certainly hasn't been this season--spectacular. Hambrick tied a career high with 127 yards on 24 carries, rushing for a touchdown and garnering some of the respect he's demanded for so long.

His performance comes as a surprise, even for those who lobbied for Hambrick to succeed Emmitt Smith despite the fact that he'd gained just 924 yards in the previous three seasons. Predicting that Terrell Bolton would continue to serve as police chief in the wake of countless scandals would have been smarter. Save for a few flashes of brilliance here and there (mostly there), there was nothing in his past to indicate that he'd be able to handle the job. But you were tired of Emmitt--he was too old, too used up--and you wanted to move on. Give the new guy a shot. Get Hambrick extra carries and he'd, uh, run with them. Those were the arguments espoused on talk radio and in bars throughout the area. But in the first two games this season, in which he gained 53 and then 60 yards, his proponents had become apologists. To his credit, Hambrick offered no excuses, only the truth.

"Last year, we knew one thing: Emmitt was gonna get his carries," Hambrick said. "It's different now. The ball is being spread around a little more. It's hard, man. Talk to my body. I'm beaten up. Twenty-two carries was a good amount of carries, but I'm banged up. I'm still trying to work with the line and get things together.

"But being the main guy, yeah, it's harder than I thought it was gonna be. It's hard when a defense prepares for you. They key in. You gotta work harder to get those yards. Last year, I'd come in for Emmitt and get some yards. But now, they know what you can do and what you're gonna do. You hear them call out the play: Watch the counter, watch this, watch that. But then you gotta run it up in there anyway. That's hard."

But now what? Just when I--and maybe even you--was ready to bitch about his lack of achievement, he turns in a mighty effort that was damn near flawless. He broke a big run, scored a touchdown and, most important, helped protect the lead in the fourth quarter by grinding out yards and wasting away the clock. What was once so plain--Hambrick as the model for the ordinary back--is now in question. Perhaps he can get going, run away from his unspectacular history and into the brilliant future you've all eagerly anticipated.

"I think he's better when we keep him inside running straight at them," Parcells said. "I think the better plays for us are basically when we run over with Larry [Allen] and Flozell [Adams] and pound in behind those guys. I think I have a pretty good feel for Troy. When he gets his shoulders turned downhill, he's a pretty good back. When he's going to the sideline, before he can make a decision, well, then, he's a pretty big guy who's not gonna outrun a lot of people. But there have been backs like Troy that have been very, very successful. O.J. Anderson at the end of his career was exactly like that. When they get their shoulders turned downhill, they can push it."

That was honest, even slightly encouraging. Who can argue with Parcells on matters of football? Hambrick has been mainly average, but if Big Bill sees potential, it must be there.

There ought to be caution here, because one game hardly makes a career or earns the confidence of your teammates. Nor will three or four solid outings guarantee Hambrick a spot in the Ring of Honor. He needs to do this over a period of time; the remainder of the season would be a good start. If he does that, this team will be far better off than anyone could have anticipated.

Nothing has changed, then. Hambrick is exactly where Dorsett said he was: with an opportunity that demands his full and constant attention. Either he puts up (again and again) or he shuts up.

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