In the gathering Texas darkness, they walked off the field together as winners, Dallas Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson and his running back Emmitt Smith. Johnson had his arm wrapped around Smith's neck, just where he wanted it, because he had something to say to Smith, right there, right then, even with the roar of Texas Stadium in their ears and half the Minicams in the free world in their path. Johnson leaned over and shouted into Smith's ear, "I love you!"
"I love you, too!" Smith yelled back.
"You mean a lot to me, you know!" Johnson yelled.
"I know!" Smith yelled back.
Playing with a nagging tight right hamstring and the most famous shoulder separation in recent sports history, Smith, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, on Sunday showed America once again that the big game is his playground by leading Dallas to a 38-21 win over the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football Conference Championship Game. Before leaving the game with 10 minutes to play. Smith had 88 yards rushing, 85 yards receiving, two touchdowns and huge impact. In short, another momentous day at the office. To wit:
•On their first scoring drive the Cowboys faced third-and-six at their own 29, and everyone in the place knew it was the sort of situation in which quarterback Troy Aikman likes to dump the ball off to Smith and let him sniff his way through the defense for the first down. Smith caught the pass near the line of scrimmage, juked two 49crs and eluded a leg whip by a third, and glided for 28 yards. Eight plays later his five-yard slash over right tackle put Dallas in front 7-0.
•On the Cowboys' second scoring drive, with the game tied 7-7 in the second quarter and the ball at the San Francisco four, Aikman had fullback Daryl Johnston lined up shallow and Smith deep in the backfield. At the snap Smith sprinted toward right end, and Aikman quick-faked a pitch to him. The Niner defenders, glued to Smith, followed him, almost as one. But Johnston took the inside hand-off and waltzed into the end zone.
•On the Cowboys' third scoring drive, which began at the Niner 24, Smith burrowed left for four yards and then for five more. After Johnston got Dallas a first down, Aikman found Smith on a little circle route out of the backfield. Although the Cowboys run that play often, the thoroughly befuddled 49ers didn't cover Smith, and his 11-yard touchdown catch made the score 21-7 after 24 minutes.
On those three drives Smith accounted for 102 of Dallas's 179 yards, scored or set up three touchdowns and did all that without ever taking anyone's breath away. Smith, as an individual player, is a lot like the Cowboys as a team—inexorable, indomitable, bound for greatness.
"Emmitt rarely makes a play that makes you go, Wow!" Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner says. "It's his total package. His great games arc games where he just wears you down, play after play, over and over. This is what great runners do. They dominate games. And nobody dominates games in the NFL like Emmitt has recently."
That's music to Smith's ears. These days, with the money so big and the fame so overwhelming and the off-field opportunities so enticing, sports run the risk of creating a generation of Shaquille O'Neals—players who are just as interested in making rap CDs and movies as they are in leaving footprints in the sport that made them famous. But the thing that turns Smith on the most is his desire to be a tremendous player, and that's refreshing. He wants to make a mark on this game that few players will ever equal.
At 24, Smith has already rushed for 5,699 career yards and won three straight NFL rushing titles, and he wants a fourth next year badly. No back had ever missed two games in a season and gone on to win a rushing title until Smith did it this year. And no back had ever won a rushing title and played in the Super Bowl in the same year until Smith did it last year—a feat he is repeating this year.
Smith, Aikman and Dallas wideout Michael Irvin have become potent forces in offensive football, in part because of this hunger for greatness. "Our stars are still at the point in their lives where football's the most important thing," Turner says. "With Emmitt, there's nothing else yet. That's a big part of his drive." Smith agrees. "I think of being the greatest," he said a bit sheepishly last week at the Cowboy training complex. He started to smile, inching forward in his chair as if he didn't want to say it too loud, almost as if he were thinking, I'm not worthy. I'm 24 years old, and I'm not worthy.
"I think about it all the time," he said. "I'm chasing after legends, after Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett and Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson, after guys who made history. When my career's over, I want to have the new kids, the new backs, say, 'Boy, we have to chase a legend to be the best.' And they'll mean Emmitt Smith."
To achieve that he'll have to be durable, of course. That has been his trademark in four NFL seasons, during which he has averaged 406 combined rushing attempts and receptions a year. It's easy to look at his prolific performance so far and project him as one of the greats, taking into account that he has never had knee surgery and that Dallas has the perfect offense for a back to put up big numbers.
To put Smith's pursuit of Payton's career rushing record (16,726 yards) into perspective, think of it this way: Smith trails Payton by 11,027 yards; Smith rushed for 1,486 yards this year, and he needs eight more seasons like it to pass Payton. Playing for Johnson, Smith will have the chance to attain his goal. "I don't save players," Johnson says. "I don't coach games thinking about next year."
The only question, given Smith's size (5'9", 203) and straight-ahead style of play, is whether he will be able to survive the pounding. After Sunday's game Smith dressed slowly. He eased his shirt over his aching right shoulder. He carefully pulled his pants over the ice bag strapped to his right hamstring. He winced as he put on his right shoe, and he winced even more when he bent to tie the lace.
"One more week," he said, thinking ahead to this Sunday's Super Bowl against the Buffalo Bills. "I could have played more today if the situation had called for it. I'm not hurt bad. I wanted to leave some tread on my tires for Buffalo."
But the wear and tear has to be a concern. "There's no player he reminds me of more than Larry Brown," says former Cowboy safety Cliff Harris, now a Dallas businessman, referring to the brilliant Washington Redskin back of the early 1970s whose overuse led to premature burnout. "Larry played too tough for his body—like Emmitt does—and he took some terrible hits. He was through by 29."
"I can't look at the game that way," Smith says. "I play with the hand dealt to me. I look at the future and wonder what it'll be like. Eventually, I'm going to have arthritis. Eventually, I know I'll have to live with pain. That's a part of all this. I want to do everything in football—and in life—that I can. I still believe, no matter how many times I carry the ball, that I can be one of those guys who walks away from the game whole. If I stay healthy, I think I've got a great chance of accomplishing what I want to accomplish."
And if he stays healthy, the Cowboys have a great chance to stay atop pro football. In Sunday's game the 49er defense chose to focus heavily on the Cowboy wideouts, rolling double coverage alternately to Irvin and Alvin Harper. "They wanted to see if Emmitt, with his shoulder, could beat 'em, " Irvin said afterward. "They were doubling the outside receivers, challenging Emmitt, making it hard for Troy to get the ball to me and Alvin. But you don't challenge Emmitt. Emmitt beat 'em. Emmitt ate 'em up."
After the game San Francisco's old sage of a tight end, Jamie Williams, was worried about Smith's health. "Is Emmitt O.K.?" he wondered.
"He'll be fine," a writer told him.
"Then Buffalo's in trouble," Williams said.
Smith gave the Niners the slip, but warmed to Johnson's embrace.
PETER READ MILLER (OPPOSITE)
[See caption above.]
Smith would seem to need only durability to break Payton's mark.