Cowboys run into the future
The seemed to be spiraling out of control after the 1989 NFL Season. Not only did the team have a league-worst 1-15 record but finished in last place in the NFC East Division for the second straight year.
The new regime of Owner-General Manager Jerry Jones and Head Coach Jimmy Johnson, who came aboard before the season started, felt otherwise and were optimistic about the growth of the team. Troy Aikman, their young quarterback who was drafted number one overall in the 1989 NFL Draft showed signs of improvement and quickly began to develop into the team’s leader.
The Cowboys defense, which had held opponents runners to less than 100 yards in each of the final eight games of the year, had also shown signs of improvement. Many reports indicated that Dallas had an intense interest in Baylor linebacker James Francis in the upcoming draft.
The glaringly obvious need for the Cowboys, however, was at running back as Dallas ranked 24th in rushing in 1989. The leading ground gainer Paul Palmer gained only 446 yards and two touchdowns in ’89. He gained the majority of his carries only after Dallas shipped all-world running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota for a king’s ransom of players and draft picks.
All signs for Dallas’ solution for this position seemed to point to one man, . Referred to as the best back in the 1990 draft by Jones, Smith was a two-time All-America selection at the University of Florida. Despite the fact he played only three seasons, he left the school as the Gators’ all-time leader in rushing (3,928), rushing touchdowns (36), and total touchdowns (37).
Many scouting pundits regarded Smith as the most gifted pure running back since Walker. What made him unique was his combination of tremendous running instincts with his superior strength and elusiveness. The only thing that many scouts tabbed as a negative was his speed.
That did not worry the Cowboys.
“You look at his records the last three years. He’s had 60-, 70- and 90-yard runs,” commented Johnson at the time. “So, he had the speed in a great defensive conference (the SEC) to break them all the way. He’s a very productive back.”
The first running back off the board on Day 1 of the draft on April 22, 1990 was Penn State’s Blair Thomas who went second overall to the New York Jets. Dallas, who stood at the 21st position in the first round, held their breath in hopes that their target would still be around when it came to their pick.
To alleviate concerns that the Cowboys may miss out on Smith, Dallas relinquished a third round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in order to move up four spots to the number 17 position. This was a smart move due to the fact that both the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers, who Dallas leapfrogged, had strong needs at running back as well and eventually selected a player at that position.
Dallas was ecstatic with the man they always coveted; the next step was to sign him. The only problem was that all the praise the Cowboys heaped upon the running back turned out to be a big chip for Smith at the bargaining table. A lengthy contract dispute ensued.
As a result, Smith’s 48-day holdout from the start of training camp turned out to be the longest in team history by a first round pick. He missed all of training camp and the preseason. Cowboys’ fans began to get nervous when Smith enrolled at the University of Florida for the fall of 1990. Finally both sides reached an agreement and Smith signed a four-year deal for an undisclosed amount of money.
Smith didn’t rest on his laurels during the long holdout. During that time he kept a strict routine of distance-running and sprint work to keep in shape. But having just signed five days prior to the start of the regular season, the Cowboys were not eager to play Smith in the opener against the San Diego Chargers. As a result, he saw only two carries in the game.
He started his first NFL game the next week against the New York Giants to become the first rookie running back to start for the team since Ron Springs in 1979. Although he had just six carries for 11 yards, it was evident that Smith was becoming more comfortable with the Cowboys game plan.
In week three of the season, Smith finally gained traction with a 17-carry, 63-yard performance on the road against the rival Washington Redskins. That game included the first rushing touchdown of his career. From there he continued to improve and eventually logged three 100-yard games on the season. A focal point on offense, he was responsible for three of Dallas’ six longest plays from scrimmage. His 241 carries for 937 yards and 11 TDs earned him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Every year going into the draft, each team, along with their fans, have visions of their first round pick blossoming into a star player and perhaps a Pro Football Hall of Famer. More often than not, those hopes do not pan out. In fact, when looking at all first round picks from 1980 to 1990, there were a total of 300 players selected. Of that sum, only 21 were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. Emmitt is one of those 21, and it seems anyone could have predicted that from the start.
Choudhry is a researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame's staff in 1994.
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