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Back in the Saddle

By riding into town with a fat new contract, Emmitt Smith gave a lift to the faltering Cowboys

Each time Emmitt Smith flashed his super bowl ring at the Dallas Cowboy fans in the end zone stands at Phoenix's Sun Devil Stadium, the group erupted. Their cheers washed over Smith as he waited to be interviewed on TNT after Dallas's 17-10 win over the Cardinals on Sunday night.

An hour earlier Smith had run the ball just as he had during the past two seasons, when he had won consecutive NFL rushing titles. With oomph! "That's what it felt like," guard Nate Newton said. "Just like the good old days. When Emmitt runs and he hits the line, you feel something powerful crunching up in there. When he did it for the first time tonight, I said to him, 'Welcome back, baby!' "

The prodigal back had returned and, for the defending Super Bowl champions, not a moment too soon. When Smith ended his 64-day holdout last week and signed a four-year, $13.6 million contract that made him the highest-paid runner in football history, the Cowboys became whole again. With Sunday's win, Dallas is 1-2 and two games behind the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Fast.

This club was being torn apart by Smith's stalemate. At a team breakfast on the morning before their Week 2 game against the Buffalo Bills in Dallas, the Cowboys were watching ESPN's Sports Reporters show, during which a panelist discussed the potential for a racial schism on the team. Dallas, the panelist suggested, would be willing to pay Troy Aikman, who is white, the going rate for a star quarterback, $5 million a year, but it wouldn't pay Smith, who's black, $3.5 million a year, the going rate for a star running back. Wide receiver Michael Irvin says his jaw dropped. "I looked around," he says, "and here we were, blacks and whites sitting together, hearing this, and everybody shook his head. We couldn't believe it. We're a harmonious team."

That was before the Cowboys bumbled to a 13-10 loss to the Bills. The locker room seemed to spin out of control after that game. Defensive end Charles Haley cratered a wall with his helmet and, while walking near the locker of Smith's replacement, running back Derrick Lassie, hollered, "We're never going to win with this rookie running back!" Coach Jimmy Johnson almost broke down, and owner Jerry Jones said, "It killed me to lose that game."

The defeat, however, turned out to be a blessing. Over the next three weeks the Cowboys have an open date, then face the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts. If the Cowboys had gone into the game against the lowly Cardinals at 1-1, Jones might have figured, We're fine; Emmitt plays at my number, $2.75 million a year, or he doesn't play. To see the light, Jones needed the jolt that an 0-2 record provided.

"As crazy as it sounds, we knew the only way we could get our team back was to lose," said one player on Sunday night in the noisy Dallas locker room. "We weren't trying to lose, but we knew if we won a game, Jerry would figure we could get along without Emmitt. And we know we're not the Dallas Cowboys without Emmitt."

So the deal was done, resulting in the biggest contract ever—by far—for a Cowboy: a $4 million signing bonus ($1 million of it deferred until '94), and annual salaries of $3 million, $2.2 million, $2.4 million and $2 million. "I wanted to be the highest-paid running back in the league because I think I'm the best at my position," Smith says. "It wasn't, Who's better, me or Thurman [Thomas]? If Barry Sanders gets a better deal, that won't matter. I'll honor this contract just like I honored my first one."

On Sunday—fittingly, a beautiful sunny day in Phoenix—all bad feeling seemed forgotten. Haley apologized to Lassie for having skewered him a week earlier, and Smith played cheerleader to his understudy. "Thank you, Jesus," a relieved Lassie said. "It's like a 10-ton truck's been hanging over my head, held by a string."

Thus liberated, Lassie scored twice, on eight-yard and two-yard runs, and Dallas led 17-0 before Smith even entered the game. The Cowboys played as well as they did last January, on both sides of the ball. Smith's night, all in the final 22 minutes: eight carries for 45 yards, one catch for three yards and an enormous emotional lift that will carry this team for the rest of the season.