Cowboys' fortunes rest on Smith's shoulder

January 17, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

IRVING, Texas -- Let's start with a basic, unassailable truth: Without a healthy, hearty Emmitt Smith, the Dallas Cowboys are a poor imitation of their Super selves.

Forget about their 11 Pro Bowl players, their boldness, their speed. Forget about their trash-talking coach and their peerless collection of offensive weapons. Smith is their heart. Their human mantra. They couldn't even beat the Redskins or Falcons without him this season.

It was, then, no coincidence that the Cowboys were less than formidable yesterday against the Green Bay Packers on an overcast postseason afternoon when Smith's famously sore right shoulder was, in the words of quarterback Troy Aikman, "giving him a few problems."

Smith was not ineffective, compiling 87 yards of offense, but he ran with palpable caution in the first half, then took a shot on the shoulder early in the third quarter and left the game for good.

The Cowboys were able to get away with it against the Pack, but their defense provided the oomph in their 27-17 win. Their offense was inconsistent and error-prone.

"There is no way," Smith said, "that I could see us beating the 49ers next week if we play like this again offensively."

So, we have the two essential questions regarding Sunday's NFC championship game at Texas Stadium: Can Smith's shoulder hold up for a whole game? If not, can the Cowboys possibly keep pace with the revved-up 49ers?

Jimmy Johnson certainly thinks so. The Cowboys coach said last week that he would have a similarly potent team even if he had never gotten his hands on Smith and Aikman. He has whiffed too much hair spray.

Clearly, the Cowboys would have big problems if Smith is unable to play to his MVP form. Just as they would have a big advantage against the 49ers defense, which plays the run poorly, if Smith is healed and dangerous.

Even somewhat compromised, as he was yesterday, he made a major, almost typical contribution in the first half. He had a 14-yard run on the Cowboys' first touchdown drive. He gained 22 yards with a swing pass on a long drive that led to a field goal. He wasn't running quite as hard, and even settled for the sideline on one play, but he was responsible for 1 of every 3 yards the Cowboys gained in the half. That's his rate for the season.

"He seemed fine, he seemed fine," Aikman said hesitantly.

He was not.

"I was basically out of sync out there," Smith said.

Why?

"I don't know."

There were plenty of reasons. He had not taken a serious hit in practice in the two weeks since the Cowboys' last regular-season game against the Giants, in which he separated the shoulder by falling awkwardly on the ball. He was wearing different, more protective shoulder pads. And he was in pain.

"I took a hit on the first play," he said, "and I thought, 'OK, this is going to be a real long day.' I could feel it, sure. I would have these bursts of pain when I got hit there. But it wasn't nearly as painful as two weeks ago. Not even close."

But with the Cowboys up 17-3 early in the third quarter, he took a particularly hard hit while blocking. That was that. He came back for a couple of plays, then put on a baseball cap and became a fan. He traded in his shoulder pads for an ice pack midway through the fourth quarter.

"I didn't like seeing him getting banged around out there," Johnson said. "He got stung a couple of times pretty good. But each time, he was OK after a few seconds. He was fine."

Smith concurred. "I could have played more," he said. "But we had the game in hand. It was just what I had hoped for -- that we would get ahead and I could come out. In that sense, it was the perfect game. We won, and I didn't reinjure my shoulder. Now, it has another week to heal. It was much better today [than against the Giants] and with another week of treatment and rehab, maybe it'll be 100 percent."

Countless questions exist. Did Smith really come out yesterday because he was taking it easy, or did he reinjure the shoulder? If so, is there any chance of his being 100 percent for the 49ers? And even if he's totally healed by Sunday, can his shoulder hold up for four quarters of pounding? If not, at what level must he play for the Cowboys to have a chance? Eighty percent? More? Less?

No less than the outcome of the Super Bowl may rest with the answers to these questions. Without Smith, the Cowboys sleepwalk. With him, they're the best team in football. Followed closely by the 49ers.

"We have to be at our best to beat the 49ers," Aikman said.

Famous sore shoulder and all.

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