Often when greatness arrives, you recognize it instantly. In Barry Sanders' first NFL contest (1989) he gained 7.89 yards per carry; Edgerrin James carried 26 times for 112 yards in the 1999 season opener.
But Emmitt Smith's greatness wasn't so apparent when his career began 20 years ago. The back whom many considered "too slow to play in the NFL" got off to a rather slow start. In his first contest, No. 22 gained just two yards on two carries. Three Dallas rushers: Tommie Agee (13), one-time Super Bowl star Timmy Smith (six) and FB Daryl Johnston (three) all carried more than Smith that day. The following week: six carries, 11 yards. Was this kid really a capable replacement for Herschel Walker? At this point, Cowboys fans were still unsure.
Then things took off in Week Three of the 1990 season …
In a game against the rival Washington Redskins, Dallas' 21-year-old workhorse gained 63 yards on 17 carries and scored from two yards out (the first of his 164 career rushing touchdowns) in the fourth quarter to bring the Cowboys within six points; Dallas eventually lost the game, 19-15. The contest marked the first double-digit carry effort for a back who later would be defined by his unmatched durability.
Smith scored in each of the next two weeks, a stretch which also included a 23-carry, 112-yard effort in a win over the Buccaneers to open the month of October. The fall of 1990 was filled with ups and downs until Smith again met the Redskins — this time on Thanksgiving Day. With Dallas sitting at 4-7 — their season all but over - they turned to Smith. Late in the contest, with his team clinging to a 20-17 lead, the rookie took the ball and broke free on a 48-yard scoring run which ignited the Texas Stadium crowd. The Cowboys had lost to Washington in seven of their previous eight meetings, but Smith's 132 yards that afternoon turned the tide, and restored a little respect to a club that had been the NFL's worst franchise in each of the two years before his arrival.
Smith's Week 14 performance against the Phoenix Cardinals is one of the classic rookie RB efforts in NFL history. He scored twice in the first quarter, and again in the third and fourth quarters — the first four-TD day for a Dallas player since the team's 1971 title-winning season.
Dallas dropped its final two games to finish 7-9. It didn't measure up to head coach Jimmie Johnson's expectations, but it was a far cry from 1-15. Smith wasn't responsible for the six-win turnaround, but already at that point, fans understood that the Cowboys had collected all of the pieces they needed for their Super Bowl puzzle. Smith was the final piece, and would arguably prove to be the most important once Norv Turner took command of the offense the following season.
Smith fell 70 yards short of Tony Dorsett's club rookie rushing record, but his 937 yards were good enough to earn him the 1990 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Unlike Sanders, James, Dorsett, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson — all Associated Press Rookie of the Year winners — Smith's first season was relatively quiet. Those backs entered the league with trumpets roaring to announce their arrivals; Smith's entrance was a steady drum beat that began softly but slowly got louder and stronger … and kept playing long after the sound of the trumpets had died down.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).