It was amazing to hear some of the other Cowboys, in the wake of an embarrassing loss, talk about the progress they had made in the running game. Dallas, looking on the bright side after losing to the Giants? There's a lot of that positive thinking around the Cowboys camp these days. Said offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese last week, not meaning to deliver a backhanded compliment but doing so nonetheless, "Emmitt's still plenty good enough to win with in this league."
Smith never used to be described as good enough. He was always the best. Last year, however, that changed. His average per carry was a career-low 3.7 yards. He blames the bone chips and other assorted maladies. "Never felt right all year," he says. "Never. A couple of times last year I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I fell down. Just fell flat down. Once, the night before a game, I got up, went to take a step and just dropped. Until now nobody knew that but me. I thought my legs were asleep, but it was something more than that, because I got up on the bed, rubbed my legs and tried again. And I fell down again! I got up onto the bed again and waited and waited, stretched my legs and finally I made it into the bathroom."
Playing with discomfort "is all part of the job," Smith says, "and I honestly feel it has nothing to do with this year. I know my body, and this year I'm right." In fact, he entered this season feeling so right that he set some lofty goals: an average of 125 rushing yards per game, 15 touchdowns and 45 to 50 catches.
Five games into 1997 he is averaging 85 yards per game. He has no touchdowns, stunning for a man who entered the season with 108 rushing touchdowns in his first 108 NFL games and who as recently as 1995 ran for a league-record 25. But scouts who watch Dallas—and who know that the Cowboys are the only team in the league without a rushing touchdown this season—aren't pointing the finger solely at Smith. "It's definitely not all his fault," says one NFC scout who dissected Dallas's first four games. "I'd say it's about 70 percent offensive line, 30 percent Emmitt."
For the sake of comparison, SI analyzed tapes of two games, the Cowboys' 1994 and '97 season openers, both against Pittsburgh. Many of the Steelers' defensive faces have changed—they had six new starters in 1997—but their defensive scheme didn't. The outcomes were similar: Dallas won 26-9 in 1994 and 37-7 this season. But the differences were startling, and not only in Smith's numbers: 31 carries for 171 yards in '94 versus 26 carries for 69 yards on Aug. 31.
The biggest change involved the play of the Cowboys' line. In the '94 game Smith took his first hit, on average, about 2½ yards downfield. In the 1997 game the initial hit came just beyond the line of scrimmage. The '94 tape showed a line that was peerless and a Smith who was faster and stronger.
Who's at fault? Assessing the blame is an inexact science, and opinions vary. Here is ours.
The offensive line, 50%. It's not bad, just mortal. Think of the right side of the Cowboys' line on short-yardage or goal line situations in 1994: 332-pound guard Derek Kennard, 324-pound tackle Erik Williams and, at tight end on short-yardage situations, 325-pound rookie guard Larry Allen. Those 981 pounds of heavy equipment just paved defenses. Center Mark Stepnoski, meanwhile, was smart and strong for his size (269 pounds).
Now look at the '97 line, which has repeatedly been victimized by run blitzes and eight-man fronts. In place of Stepnoski, who left as a free agent after the '94 season, Dallas starts second-year man Clay Shiver, who gets beaten consistently. It was remarkable to watch Stepnoski, in the '94 Steelers game, manhandle nosetackle Joel Steed, who three years later did the same to the 294-pound Shiver.
Williams, once regarded as one of the best right tackles in football, hasn't been the same since he severely injured his right knee in a midseason 1994 car accident. His run-blocking is very good, but in the passing game, he has to resort to underhanded stuff—punching, hands to the face—to protect quarterback Troy Aikman. Allen is arguably the best guard in the league, the best run-blocker of the bunch and quick enough to plug his gap when blitzers attack. He's so quick, in fact, that he may be moved to left tackle in 1998 (provided, of course, the Cowboys can re-sign him) to replace 37-year-old Mark Tuinei, who is showing his age.