Three years. Two rushing titles. One Super Bowl championship. How much was that worth? Playing for the Cowboys was no different from playing at Florida, which was no different from playing at Escambia, which was no different from playing in the peewee leagues. He still was the dominant player on the field. How much was that worth?
"I see him make cuts now that I saw him make when he was in the peewees," Mary Smith says. "They say he doesn't run fast, but I've never seen him have to run any faster than he does, have you?"
The dominant player on the field simply wanted to be paid like the dominant player on the field. And if he wasn't, he would not be on the field.
The Buffalo game was the turning point. There are two games that will be talked about forever in the tale of the Cowboys' up-and-down ride to their second consecutive Super Bowl win, and the Buffalo game is one of them. The Cowboys lost 13-10, second game of the season, and legend will show rookie running back Derrick Lassic fumbling twice and defensive end Charles Haley slamming his helmet into a wall and coach Jimmy Johnson being almost unable to speak, stunned and angry at what had happened, and Jerry Jones blinking at last, heading toward the nearest bank machine with his card in hand. This was the game when the luxury became a necessity. "The leverage pendulum swung because of the loss," Jones said in simple business-speak.
The Cowboys' offer jumped in a hurry to $13.6 million for four years. The loss to Buffalo was a financial catapult. Smith still wasn't happy, but the sight of his teammates and friends in disarray took hold. Over dinner at an Atlanta steak house, he agreed to the offer that made him the highest-paid running back in history. He was in uniform by Dallas's next game, in Phoenix, running for 45 yards on eight tune-up carries in a 17-10 win. He was back full-time the next week against the Green Bay Packers, and the Cowboys were rolling again.
"The loss in Buffalo meant everything," Howell says. "If the Cowboys hadn't lost that game and if Jerry hadn't moved, I don't think it would've been done. You had to figure Dallas was going to beat Phoenix anyway. If the Cowboys had beaten Buffalo and then Phoenix to go 2-1, it just wouldn't have happened."
No team had ever lost the first two games of" its season, then won a Super Bowl. Was Emmitt Smith worth the money? He was an every-week constant. He gained more than 100 yards in total offense in 10 of his 13 starts. He touched the ball 355 times and fumbled it away only twice. He ran For 1,486 yards, inexorably rolling to his third consecutive rushing title, becoming only the fourth player in history to accomplish that feat. He was Player of the Week, Player of the Month, MVP, Player of the Year.
The Cowboys' staff sometimes worried that it was using him too much, but who could resist? Every time the plan was made to rest Smith, a situation arose in which he was needed. What should we do now? Get the ball to Emmitt. Let him roll, There was a bump in the team's progress when Smith suffered a bruised right quadriceps in Atlanta in week 12 of the season—another loss followed on Thanksgiving—but then he was fine again, and Dallas was fine. His health was the Cowboys' health, simple as that. His presence was the team's presence.
This was illustrated in the other game that will be discussed forever in the Super Bowl run, the regular-season finale against the New York Giants. Who can forget the pictures? Smith's right shoulder was hurt in the first half—"hit the same way Nancy Kerrigan was hit on the leg," he says—and his right arm seemed almost useless. Still he played. The outcome of the game meant the NFC East championship, a week off and home field advantage in the playoffs. How much harder would it have been to reach the Super Bowl on the road? The game went into overtime, and Smith played all the way, grimacing, fighting his body's resistance. It was Escambia vs. Rickards, the ankle taped tight, again. Determination on a national stage. In the Cowboys' 16-13 overtime win, he carried 32 times for 168 yards, caught 10 passes for 61 yards and scored Dallas's only touchdown.
"I never felt pain like that before," Smith says now. "I can't describe it to you. You have to be in my shoes or see the expression on my face to know what it's like. Every time I got knocked down, it hurt. Every time, I had to get back up."