Has heavy workload worn on Smith?

ON THE NFL

September 22, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Tony Dorsett spent much of his career complaining that Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry didn't give him the ball as much as he wanted it.

Yet Dorsett still carried enough to become a Hall of Famer and the third-leading rusher of all time with 12,739 yards.

He rushed for 1,307 yards in 1985 when he was 31.

That Landry rationed his carries may have contributed to his longevity. He carried more than 305 times in a season only once. That was in 1981 when he carried 342 times.

The current Cowboys regime has taken a different tack with Emmitt Smith.

He's already topped 342 carries four times in his six years and has a total of 2,007 regular season carries. Dorsett carried only 1,545 times in his first six years, although the 1982 season was shortened by a strike.

Counting his pass receptions, Smith's 2,642 touches are the most ever for a running back in his first six years.

But there are questions now whether all those carries have taken their toll on Smith, 27.

As the Cowboys struggled to a 1-2 start, the most alarming statistic was the fact that Smith had 70, 82 and 101 yards the first three games. Last year, he had 163, 114 and 150 yards in the first three. His per-carry average in the first three games dropped from 6.3 yards to 3.7.

Of course, he had some handicaps this year. Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek are missing, so teams can jam the line and play the run. It hasn't helped that the offensive line has been slowed by injuries and Smith has had his own injury problems.

Smith left Wednesday's practice with a sore ankle, although he's supposed to be ready to go in today's game at Buffalo. It could be he's more injury-prone after the battering he has taken over the years.

"I'm not used to being banged up this early in the year," Smith said. "I look up and see eight-man fronts all the time. We're not running the ball like we should. I just hope we get it figured out soon. Nothing is a given anymore. Teams are picking up on things we have been successful doing in the past."

It could be that when Irvin returns and Smith and the line get healthier, Smith will find his form.

"It's too early to panic," he said.

If Smith doesn't get in a groove soon, the Cowboys will have plenty to panic about.

Vote of confidence

It seems early in the year for owners to start giving out that dreaded vote of confidence.

But two coaches got one last week, so they can probably start packing their bags.

They were Barry Switzer of the Cowboys and Jim Mora of the Saints.

Dallas owner Jerry Jones said he could "easily think of Barry as coach of the Cowboys 10 years from now."

Ten years? That probably means Switzer won't be around next year.

New Orleans owner Tom Benson said of Mora, "There's no one out there, inside the NFL or outside the NFL, who could take Jim Mora's place."

He'll probably think of someone in January. After all, Benson tried to lure Jimmy Johnson to New Orleans last year.

Mora, meanwhile, is keeping his spirits up. He recently put a notice on the pressroom wall with the old joke about when the late Bear Bryant was asked to contribute $10 for a sportswriter's funeral and said, "Here's $20. Bury two."

Mora, who'll bring the Saints to Baltimore next week, said it was done in jest.

"We need more levity around here," he said.

The long season

After attendance dropped in the exhibition season this year, the NFL is thinking about a cure that's worse than the illness.

The league is floating the idea of playing two exhibition games with an 18-game regular-season schedule.

The problem with an 18-game schedule -- besides the extra injury toll on the players -- is that there are only 16 weeks between Labor Day and Christmas.

Playing regular-season games in the north in January isn't a good idea -- especially for teams out of the race -- and moving the start of the regular season up to August presents problems, too.

In August, it would be hard to attract the big TV ratings the NFL usually gets, because so many fans are on vacation.

While baseball is barely a blip on the TV radar screen on a national basis, it can provide stiff competition in August on a regional basis.

The Ravens have found that out while competing with the Orioles. When a Cowboys-Colts game does almost as well in the ratings in Baltimore as a Ravens-Oilers game, it's a sign that playing regular-season games in August probably isn't a nifty idea for teams that share a market with a contending baseball team.

The NFL should worry more about marketing the 16-game season it has now.

This season isn't off to a boffo start. Five games will be blacked out today because they're not sold out, bringing the total to 18 games that weren't sold out the first four weeks.

The 18-game season is a quick fix that isn't the answer.

The Drive

Marty Schottenheimer, the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, has won 11 straight games against AFC West teams and is 5-2 in his past seven games against the Denver Broncos.

So what was the topic of conversation before today's Broncos-Chiefs game?

What else? The Drive.

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