Former running back Emmit Smith holds many rushing records, but how would a running back of his caliber fare with today’s Dallas Cowboys?
Former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith’s name adorns NFL rushing records. In his 15 NFL seasons, Smith set and still holds records for most career yards (18,355), most career touchdowns (164), most seasons and consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing (11).
As a Cowboy, Smith won four rushing titles and three Super Bowls. Only he and running back Jim Brown won three rushing titles before the age of 25. Current Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott had a chance to become the third in 2019. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Emmitt played for America’s Team again, conjuring up some of those exciting moments?
In his first four seasons in Dallas, Smith rushed for 5,699 yards on 1,262 attempts, an average of 4.5 yards per carry. He played in 60 games and caught 189 passes, adding 1,235 yards to his production. With such statistics, Cowboys fans can only wish for another opportunity to have a record-setting Hall of Famer in the backfield. Or, can they?
Since Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott shocked the NFL with a rookie season beyond expectations for a fourth-round pick, the Boys first-round, fourth-overall pick has been held at arm’s length from the spotlight. Truthfully, the way Zeke has been treated stinks of self-validation. It’s as if the Cowboys front office has pumped Prescott in attempts to validate their own genius.
In his first four seasons in Dallas, Elliott rushed for 5,405 yards on 1,169 attempts, an average of 4.6 yards per carry. He played in only 56 games and also caught 189 passes, adding 1,619 yards to his production. With such statistics, Cowboys fans can only wonder why the second coming of Emmitt has been suppressed.
If you don’t like math, here’s a quick summary: In their first four seasons, Zeke rushed for 294 fewer yards than Smith. But, he played in four fewer games and had 93 fewer rushing attempts. He had a higher yards-per-carry average and with the same amount of receptions had 384 more receiving yards.
In 2016, Zeke missed the NFL’s rookie rushing record by 177 yards. He received only 12 carries in game 15 against the Detroit Lions and was held out of game 16 against the 7-9 Philadelphia Eagles. And although Zeke won his first rushing title as a rookie, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott was given rookie-of-the-year honors. Dak finished 19th among NFL quarterbacks in yards.
Zeke has continued thriving among his rushing peers. Despite missing six games in 2017, he nearly reached 1,000 yards for the season and finished in the top-10 of running backs for total rushing yards. In 2018, he won his second rushing title. In 2019, his 1,357 yards were 183 shy of rushing title winner Derrick Henry.
In 1990, quarterback Troy Aikman commanded the offense in Dallas. The statistical comparisons between Aikman and Prescott, like Smith and Elliott, are close to similar. Offensive balance is where the early 90’s Cowboys diverges from the current team.
The two graphs below illustrate the Cowboys pass and rush attempts from 1990-1993 and 2016-2019. The Cowboys have been most successful when the lines are closer together, meaning equity among passing and rushing. In ’92 and ’93, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. In ’16 the Cowboys were 13-3, clinching a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In 2017, they finished 9-7 when Zeke, who averaged 98.3 yards per game, missed six games.
The graphs also show the Cowboys have been less successful when further apart. The Cowboys finished 7-9 in 1990 but reached 11-5 as the gap narrowed. The biggest difference between the graphs, however, is the closing of the gap from 90-93 and its opening from 16-19. In fact, the 2019 8-8 season is not only a reflection of the season-to-season pattern but also each game during the 2019 season. When Dallas ran as much as they passed, they won. When they passed far more than they ran, they lost.
Incredibly, former Dallas head coach Jason Garrett claimed that opponents stopped the run. His misconception provoked questions regarding Zeke’s 2019 contract, which made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL. Here’s an interesting find in response to those questions: Of the top-5 rushers in 2019 and the top-5 highest-paid running backs of 2019, Zeke had a significant advantage in part of his game, which improved from 2018.
I owe my two sons credit for inspiring this find. They often commented that Zeke never gets stopped for a loss. Of course, he does. But sometimes perception does lead to reality. In this case, their perception turned out to be a significant sign of Zeke’s ability. You may have noticed how well he keeps his knees off the ground or how patient he is when looking for a hole or how he manages to shift his body for a short gain instead of taking a loss.
Compared to the highest-paid and top rushers in the league, Zeke has an incredibly lower rate of rushes for no gain or a loss: 11.3% of his rushing attempts. He far surpasses top-five rushers Derrick Henry (17.49%), Nick Chubb (17.79%), Christian McCaffrey (17.77%), and Chris Carson (17.99%), as well as Le’Veon Bell (19.59%), David Johnson (18.09%), and Kenyan Drake (26.83%), who along with Zeke and Henry make up the top-five in annual salary for 2019.
Emmit Smith had unique gifts too. Of course, he did. Why else would he still hold numerous NFL records? Unless, of course, we assume his records reflect the opportunities he’s been given. Maybe some players receive more opportunities. Maybe some players start getting held back with only 17 carries against Michigan State, their team losing a close game and a possible Heisman Trophy for their star back. And maybe, being reprimanded for expressing his postgame opinion taught him to be silent when a fourth-round pick is getting the attention he deserves.