He has had games in which he glided and swerved and put double-century rushing numbers in the book so effortlessly that you thought he was playing a different level of football than the people trying to tackle him. He has had games in which his gains came in tightfisted little chunks and he seemed to be accumulating yardage by sheer force of will. But in his spectacular four-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, Emmitt Smith has never had a better afternoon than the one he had in that heavyweight championship of a game the Cowboys played on Sunday against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium.
"A heavyweight championship fight? Make that a great heavyweight fight," said Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson after his Cowboys won 16-13 in overtime. "People fighting for a yard, working the clock, clawing and scratching for inches. And how about Emmitt? Wasn't he something today?"
It was all on the line: The winner takes the division title and the home field for the entire postseason, the loser gets in as a wild card. And Smith, playing the last two quarters with what the Cowboy medical staff called a No. 1 separation of the right shoulder, put up the following numbers: 168 yards rushing on 32 carries, another 61 yards on 10 pass receptions. He handled the ball on 42 of Dallas's 70 plays, and he gained 229 of its 339 yards. And in the overtime, with his right arm dangling uselessly between plays, Smith got the call on nine of the Cowboys' 11 snaps and gained all but 11 of their 52 yards on the drive that positioned them for Eddie Murray's winning 41-yard field goal with just over four minutes left in the extra period.
"Emmitt was hurting, he was done," right guard Kevin Gogan said afterward. "He sucked it up for his boys. I don't know how he did it."
"In the huddle he told me, "Run behind me and pick me up. I don't want to lay on the ground,' " left guard Nate Newton said, his eyes brimming with tears. "Man, was he ever hurting today."
The injury came on Smith's longest gain of the day, 46 yards, late in the second quarter, which ended when safely Greg Jackson slammed him to the artificial turf. "A power right—we pull around and Emmitt breaks through the hole," Newton said. "When Emmitt didn't get up, I knew it was bad. It takes an awful lot to keep him on the ground."
Smith left the game. Dallas ran off half a dozen more plays and kicked a field goal that made the halftime score 13-0. That capped two quarters of domination by the Cowboys, who were putting together an apparent repeat of the 31-9 beating they inflicted on the Giants in November, except that they did most of their damage in the air that day. On Sunday it was the Emmitt Smith show—tough, punishing, ball-control football. In the first half, Dallas ran off 41 plays to New York's 15, gained 13 first downs to the Giants' two and piled up 238 yards to 68 for New York. One play early in the third quarter changed all that.
On a Giant punt from midfield, Brock Marion, a Cowboy reserve safety, got a piece of the ball, which then spun 18 yards downfield. Kevin Williams, hoping for the big return that would put the game away, tried to field the ball on the run and fumbled, and the Giants recovered it on the Dallas 39. The Giants were in business.
They banged in for a touchdown and then drove for a field goal on their next possession to make the score 13-10. And Dallas was in trouble. Smith was playing, but he was in obvious pain. "Each time he came in, he was squeezing the arm tighter to his body," fullback Daryl Johnston said. "You could see the pain on his face. That's why we started running outside more, so he could use the sideline and didn't have to take the big hit."
New York had a hammer of its own, 5'11", 215-pound Rodney Hampton (30 carries, 114 yards), a runner without Smith's flair but also plenty tough. On the Giants' 69-yard, fourth-quarter drive that led to the David Treadwell field goal that sent the game into overtime, Hampton ran the ball on nine of the 12 plays. When New York reached the Dallas 22 with 1:09 to play, Hampton got the call twice, with the clock running, and as it became obvious that the Giants were positioning themselves for the field goal, the crowd groaned. Throw the ball, dammit. Win the game outright.
"First of all, we were in field goal range," New York coach Dan Reeves said, defending a strategy that was endorsed by his quarterback. Phil Simms. "Second of all, we were having trouble protecting our quarterback. He'd been sacked four times. And third, the way we were going in the second half, we felt we could win it in overtime."
The major flaw in the pass protection was left tackle Jumbo Elliott, who gave up two sacks to Jim Jeffcoat—he always seems to save his biggest games for the Giants—plus a Jeffcoat force that set up another sack. Elliott has a bad back, and all week he was iffy for this game. His backup, Eric Moore, had a bad ankle. The third man, Clarence Jones, had been deactivated for the game. But another period did seem to favor New York, because the Dallas defense was starting to sag.
The Giants got the ball first in overtime, and one penalty, a chop block called against reserve center Brian Williams, destroyed their drive. It's a particularly nasty play: One guy sets up a defensive lineman, another one cracks down on his lower leg. An earlier, uncalled chop block had already cost the Cowboys Pro Bowl defensive tackle Russell Maryland—Elliott had come from the blind side and taken him out at the ankle in the second quarter. "One hell of an ugly play," Jeffcoat said after the game. "That's not the way the game's supposed to be played."
"They were doing a lot of cheap-shotting, hitting after the play and that kind of stuff," Dallas middle linebacker Ken Norton said. "They aren't usually like that. I guess they felt they needed it today. The one on Russell was real bad."
So the Giants punted to the Cowboys, who started from their own 25. What was it going to be? The wideouts, Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, had been all but taken out of the game (three catches for 50 yards, all by Irvin) by the jamming tactics of the New York cornerbacks. Troy Aikman had had an effective day (24 of 30 for 180 yards) in the controlled passing mode, but his most serious weapon, Smith, was hurting. "Everything that's gone on up to that point goes out the window," Johnston said. "It's a different game. It's who can make the tough plays."
Time for number 22. Three passes to Smith for 24 yards, another 17 on six carries, including a 10-yard dart off left guard that brought the ball to the Giants' 24. On third down the Cowboys called on 37-year-old Murray, who was cut by three NFL teams before being picked up by the Cowboys in September after Lin Elliott blew two field goals against the Buffalo Bills. "My kicking coach, Steve Hoffman, was nervous when the Giants called timeout to ice me," Murray said. "I had to calm him down. I tried to hit it a little harder to keep myself from guiding the ball. It still got a little closer to the right goalpost than I'd have liked."
Afterward, there was Emmitt again. He made a very late appearance in the post-game press conference, his right shoulder wrapped and taped so heavily that he had a Quasimodo look. "When I first hurt the shoulder, they told me it was a sprain," he said. "It felt a whole lot worse than a sprain. I thought I'd dislocated it or something. I really didn't know what I could or couldn't do. I knew I'd lost some range of motion. But I knew I wasn't coming out.
"They put a harness under my pads and taped a knee pad to the shoulder and wrapped an Ace bandage around that, trying to keep the pad on. It didn't really help much. I had to make a decision, get down or play. So I played. It was the Lord's will. He watched over me."
"How about the stiff-arm you threw with your right arm on that last drive?" someone asked him.
"I wasn't thinking," he said. "It was just a reaction."
So Smith became only the fourth man to win three straight NFL rushing titles, joining Steve Van Buren, Jim Brown and Earl Campbell. "Winning this game, plus winning the third rushing title," he said, "well, those are things you can someday look back on and say, 'Emmitt, you did a hell of a job.' "
A heavyweight championship fight all right. Ali versus Frazier, except that boxers get six months, a year, to recover before they have to get it on again. But these two heavyweights, the Cowboys and the Giants, might have to step into the ring again in two weeks if New York beats the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions beat the Green Bay Packers in this week's wild-card playoff round.
Will Emmitt be ready in two weeks? The word from the Cowboy trainers' room: one week, no; two weeks, probably. The word from Smith: "There's no way they'll keep me out of it."