For Cowboys fans, we love to tell the story of Emmitt Smith’s valiant performance against the Giants in Week 17 of 1993 for not only the division crown, but homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs. He played with a separated shoulder and told himself “No pain” after every hit he took. You can read it in a book. You can watch it on three different documentaries on NFL Network. If you’re a Cowboys fan, you know about it.
Before you click away to get back to arguing with your sister-in-law on Facebook about the presidential election, let me impart this one fact on you. It’s another reason to never again pay attention to Skip Bayless. Back in the ’90s, he used to have a newsletter called “The Insider.” Only a combo team of a neurosurgeon and gastrointestinal doctor could tell you what Skip Bayless’ concept of “inside” meant. This koos alleged in his one-sheet press that Emmitt Smith trumped up the painfulness of his injury. There. That’s something you didn’t know about Emmitt Smith’s gutsy performance: a gutless journalist said it was fake.
Now, we can take you back to January 2nd, 1994 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Cowboys were 11-4 and tied with the Giants for the division lead and the #1 seed. The 49ers would only finish 10-6 as the #2 seed, so whoever won this contest would get homefield advantage. It was very critical. Yeah, the loser would get to host a home playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, but the Cowboys hadn’t won two consecutive road playoff games since 1975. The last time the Cowboys had a chance at two road playoff games back to back was in 1991, and the Lions slaughtered them in the divisional round.
Getting that bye was necessary.
Dallas faced the #1 defense in the league that featured Lawrence Taylor in the Hall of Famer’s final season. While the Cowboys trounced the Giants 31-10 earlier in November, no one else had scored more than 20 points against this Giants defense. The yards and the points didn’t come easy for Dallas in the first half. Even though the score was 13-0 Cowboys at halftime, Giants safety Greg Jackson scored the biggest blow to the Cowboys offense. On a 46-yard Emmitt Smith gallop, the fifth-year Super Bowl champion ran down the league’s leading rusher for the third year, driving Smith into the merciless Meadowlands astroturf.
“Smith is down! Smith is down!” Brad Sham declared on the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network.
Emmitt rolled around on the ground a couple of slow revolutions before lying still. The trainers trotted out to his position and then helped him into the locker room. It was late in the second quarter. The Cowboys could afford to roll without Smith until halftime. Dallas players were chuckling as they headed into the shed.
Halftime x-rays revealed no break, so the doctors concluded it was a sprain and severe shoulder separation. Trainers Kevin O’Neill and Buck Buchanon helped patch together a harness to protect Smith’s shoulder, which consisted of a knee pad with a hole cut in the middle of it and shoestring to hold it together. “You’ll feel some discomfort,” they said. Doctors gave Emmitt Vicodin for his “discomfort.”
Teammate and lead blocker Daryl Johnston tried to talk Smith out of returning in the second half. The Cowboys were up 13-0. There was no need to sacrifice this one game if it meant the league-leading rusher couldn’t play in two weeks. The team had a handle on things, Johnston reasoned, so it was best for Emmitt to rest. But the future all-time rushing leader remained heroically obstinate.
A fold in the space-time continuum must have transported the 2010 Cowboys to this day, because Kevin Williams fumbled a punt two minutes into the third quarter. New York fullback Jarrod Bunch punched in a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to six points. This was classic NFC East football. It was barely above 40 degrees on the East Coast in a low scoring affair featuring the stoutest defenses in the league. If a team ever needed to run the football, it was today.
The Cowboys needed Emmitt Smith, and he knew it. Other backs were faster and stronger than Emmitt, but only he could not be denied. Dallas continued to rely on Emmitt Smith to move the football, yet points weren’t going on the scoreboard. The Cowboys couldn’t add to the 13 they scored in the first half. #22 took shots and hits on his excruciatingly painful shoulder for seemingly nothing.
What moving the ball and feeding Emmitt the rock was doing was kill the clock. As long as the Cowboys controlled the time of possession, they would win. Unfortunately, Giants kicker David Treadwell nailed a money shot 32-yard field goal with 10 seconds left to force overtime.
When will this interminable game end? Emmitt Smith thought, only if his internal dialogue were written by Dick Cavet.
In overtime, the Cowboys stuffed the Giants on their first possession. Now, it was time to move the ball and win the game. The Cowboys brain trust knew to whom to go. After all, Emmitt told head coach Jimmy Johnson that he should be allowed to play until he physically couldn’t. Why not feed Emmitt the rock? The Cowboys were at their own 25. If nothing else, they needed to control the clock and not give the Giants good field position.
The first play was a run to Emmitt Smith for two yards.
The second play was a dump off to Smith for six yards more.
Emmitt caught another pass for 11 yards on third down to convert.
Smith took crippling hits that forced tears from his eyes for a lousy yard.
Defensive holding helped advance the Cowboys’ drive to the New York 45. The Cowboys replaced Emmitt on this down and gave the ball to Lincoln Coleman for a yard. Coleman was lucky to see the field, since Emmitt tried to wave him off. However, Jimmy Johnson’s will prevailed.
Troy Aikman dumped it off to Emmitt Smith again for seven yards to the New York 37.
Emmitt ran the ball off right tackle for three yards to the New York 34.
The physical tribulation Smith endured was so bad that uncontrollable sportsmanship swept over the Giants. Even they were asking if Emmitt Smith was okay. The humanity was boiling over; the heroism too blatant to deny.
Smith took the ball straight up the middle for ten yards, and then to the left for one yard more. And then another yard more. Finally, the Cowboys were at the Giants’ 23 yard line.
It was close enough for Eddie Murray to attempt a game-winning field goal. The ball sailed through the uprights, not giving the Giants the same result Scott Norwood did in Super Bowl XXV. The Cowboys sealed their spot as the #1 seed. Emmitt’s performance was not in vain.
After the game, John Madden, who was doing the color commentary for CBS Sports, walked down to the locker room to personally congratulate Smith, for he had never seen such a performance in his years as the Raiders’ coach or CBS’s commentator. Smith bit completely through his mouthpiece by the time the game was over. Emmitt took awful shots at the bottom of piles that would produce agonizing screams, yet he endured with “No pain” as his mantra. Now, the Cowboys team didn’t have the pain of having to play on the road in the playoffs. For the first time since 1977, they were the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
The plane ride from New York to Dallas was more tortuous for Emmitt than some of the fates suffered in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. When the team landed in Dallas, Emmitt landed in the Baylor University Medical Center and spent fifteen hours connected to an IV pumping him with pain medication. Perhaps now there truly would be “no pain,” for the league’s leading rusher for 1993. He only led Rams rookie Jerome Bettis by 35 yards 1,318 to start the day. After Smith set the Cowboys’ single game record for most plays by an individual — 42 –, he had 1,486 yards to become the league-leading rusher for the third year consecutively. Only Steve Van Buren, Earl Campbell, and Jim Brown had done it before Emmitt, yet none of them had done it with the valor, courage, and relentlessness Emmitt Smith displayed on January 2nd, 1994.