Years as workhorse back have Smith riding bench

QUICK KICKS

November 27, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It never happened to the likes of Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett and Franco Harris.

But Emmitt Smith, who is generally rated in their league among the best running backs of all time, was benched Sunday, in his seventh season at age 27, by Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer.

After gaining 18 yards in 11 carries in the 20-6 loss to the New York Giants, Smith came to the sidelines after losing a shoe. He was never put back in.

Switzer, who compared it to changing pitchers in baseball, said: "It doesn't make any difference who you are or what you've been. Coaches make decisions, and we think the bottom line is to win. We put a guy out there thinking he'll have a chance to do something. Emmitt's hurt. I think he is a step slower. I think there's no question he hasn't been himself."

Smith, who won the rushing title in four of his first six seasons while averaging 4.5 yards a carry, is averaging 3.7 this season.

Although he requested an MRI Monday on his ailing right ankle that revealed there's no structural damage, there's little question that the wear and tear has taken its toll.

Smith had no comment Monday at Cowboys headquarters but didn't complain after the game.

"I'm not going to create a big commotion," he said.

He then added, "I'm quite disappointed, very disappointed."

But it was probably just as much the resting of an injured player as a benching.

"He's been hurt all season," said running backs coach Joe Brodsky. "He got hurt in training camp, and he kept getting it hurt. He won't say anything to anyone about it."

The problem is the Cowboys have never gotten a quality backup for Smith.

Sherman Williams replaced him, carried once for 8 yards, missed a pass-blocking assignment that led to a sack and lined up once in a wrong formation.

Smith will be back in the starting lineup for the team's Thanksgiving Day game against the Washington Redskins, but the Cowboys have to wonder if Smith will ever be the back he once was.

The Cowboys just let Smith carry too much of a load over the years. Except in 1993, when he missed the first two games in a holdout, he's carried at least 365 times in the regular season since his second year. He's also caught at least 49 passes. He's also carried 279 times in the playoffs and caught 37 passes.

Smith loved the role of being the main man, but he's paying the price for it now.

Typical Tomczak

Mike Tomczak likes to damn himself with faint praise.

"I've said I'm not a perfect quarterback, but I'm not the worst that has ever played the game," the Pittsburgh Steelers journeyman said Monday after the Steelers edged the Miami Dolphins, 24-17.

It was a typical game for the quarterback who threw three interceptions against Cincinnati two weeks ago in a 31-24 loss and completed seven passes in a 28-3 victory over Jacksonville last week.

He threw an interception that Calvin Jackson returned for a touchdown and lost a fumble as the Steelers fell behind 14-3.

But with the game tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers ran the ball seven straight times to set up a third-and-eight at the Miami 20.

He called time out, and the Steelers called a play they had worked on all week, a naked bootleg with only one receiver, Ernie Mills, in the pattern. Terrell Buckley and Louis Oliver ran into each other and Mills was wide open.

"We kind of caught them off balance. It was wonderful," Tomczak said of his only fourth-period November pass completion.

"I'm a fighter," Tomczak said.

Meanwhile, Dan Marino brought the Dolphins back to the Steelers' 7 but couldn't tie it despite three chances.

For one game, Tomczak not only wasn't the worst ever, but he also bested one of the best ever.

Esiason his old self

Boomer Esiason, who was supposed to be washed up at age 35 when he was benched after three games, has suddenly found the fountain of youth.

He's passed for 522, 260 and 337 yards the past three weeks and suddenly has the 6-6 Arizona Cardinals in the playoff hunt.

Don't laugh. If the Cardinals win three of their last four against Minnesota, Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia, they'll probably make it. They've beaten the Redskins and Eagles.

Esiason said he's reminded of the team chemistry the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals had when they went to the Super Bowl.

"Sitting in those films and watching guys make plays, nobody is frowning or pouting that they're not getting the ball. There is genuine sincerity for each other. LeShon [Johnson] had a fumble, and everybody felt bad about that. But the next series, LeShon is 30 yards downfield blocking for Rob Moore. Those things lead to winning," Esiason said.

But Esiason is preaching caution. "We have not arrived. We're going well and we have a nice thing going, so I just caution everybody not to bite into any of that stuff. You have to do it for the long-term a la the Cowboys, the 49ers, the Bills. Those are the teams that can deal with what's in the future," he said.

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