EMMITT SMITH ANSWERED HIS CRITICS ON THANKSGIVING, BUT DALLAS IS STILL A PUZZLE

December 09, 1996

It was a one-week fix, Dallas's 21-10 Thanksgiving Day victory
over Washington, a game that answered one question but left a
lot more hanging. The game was won in the traditional Cowboys
manner--get a lead and then hold on to it with a pounding ground
game--a tradition that started with the arrival of Emmitt Smith
six years ago. And that was the one question that was answered:
Yes, Emmitt can still get up for a game when he wants to, when
he has to, when he's mad enough. He proved it by rushing for 155
yards on a day when the Cowboys needed him because their passing
game was ineffective. But these are the questions that remain.

--Was that the real Emmitt, or was this a one-game phenomenon?
Did his big day mean his chronically sore ankle has miraculously
healed, or was this an eruption of pure fury from a proud
athlete stung by his fourth-quarter benching the previous week
in a loss to the Giants and maybe stung even more by hints that
there was more wrong than just a bad ankle? One newspaper even
ran a chart showing the way a running back declines after the
age of 27, which happens to be Emmitt's age.

--Where did the passing game go? Troy Aikman completed 9 of 19
for only 63 yards, which represented his most meager full-game
output since the Cowboys became a playoff team in 1991.
Afterward he shrugged and said, "As long as we won." Then he
mentioned that Washington played front-and-back coverage on
Michael Irvin, his go-to guy, and took Irvin out of the picture.
The implication was that with Irvin accounted for, not much was
left.

--Finally, was this really such a great victory for the Cowboys?
They gained only 247 yards against a team that ranked dead last
in the NFL in defense. The Skins actually led in the third
quarter and were very much in it in the final period, even
though their most dangerous wideout, Michael Westbrook, went
down on the second play of the game and his replacement, Leslie
Shepherd, was lost early in the second half. Dallas, naturally,
stacked the deck against tailback Terry Allen, the NFC's rushing
leader, forcing Gus Frerotte to throw to second-year tight end
Jamie Asher and a wideout corps of 35-year-old Henry Ellard,
32-year-old Billy Brooks and 31-year-old Flipper Anderson. And
Frerotte was going against the league's No. 1 pass defense.

Washington wins when it gets on top early and can hang on. Its
defense cracks. So if you're Redskins defensive coordinator Ron
Lynn, still smarting from the memory of Arizona's Boomer Esiason
throwing for 522 yards against your defense three weeks earlier,
what do you concentrate on when you're facing Dallas? Do you
focus your efforts on Emmitt, coming off one of his career
lowlights, a guy so iffy that no one knew he was going to start
until the warmups, or do you try to stop Aikman and Irvin?

Lynn crossed his fingers and played the pass. But Emmitt was
still Emmitt, at least on Thanksgiving. He answered all doubts
with his fifth carry of the day, a 10-yard burst outside left
tackle in which he switched into overdrive and made three
tacklers miss him. That was the thing he couldn't do against the
Giants when defensive end Chad Bratzke nailed him for a
three-yard loss and knocked him out of his shoe, the play that
sent him to the bench.

"When did I know I was O.K.? Well, not right away," Emmitt said
after last Thursday's game. "I really didn't know how long I
could go, how long it would be until someone rolled up on my
ankle. Then in the third quarter someone did fall on it, and I
said, 'Damn, there it goes.' But I got up, and the next play I
broke the 42-yarder."

As for Aikman and his receivers, they still have a lot to answer
for. Aikman is no Brett Favre, improvising on the go; he expects
his pass catchers to be where they're supposed to be and is not
effective when they're not. He needs a precision tight end, a
Jay Novacek. Instead the latest candidate is Johnny Mitchell, a
guy with breathtaking speed and sloppy work habits, a classic
coach-breaker.

"A lot of talent," someone said to Aikman.

"And he's the first to let you know," Aikman said.

So the Cowboys soldier on, tied for the NFC East lead but still
facing a showdown season-ending game in Washington on Dec.
22--when the Redskins will probably have their troops back. And
then we'll see.

--PAUL ZIMMERMAN

Dr. Z's weekly Internet NFL preview is at
www.sportsillustrated.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER After a fourth-quarter benching against the Giants, Smith exploded for 155 yards against the Skins. [Emmitt Smith and others in game]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)