Emmitt Smith dishes on Elliott, Cowboys’ rough year on defense, talks McCarthy’s future

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Todd Brock
·7 min read
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Emmitt Smith is the last Dallas player to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl. He went to three of them with the Cowboys of the 1990s. And he believes that despite a disheartening 6-10 campaign this season, the Cowboys of the 2020s are on the doorstep of returning.

“I don’t think we’re far away from becoming a very, very good team,” Smith says. “I really don’t.”

The league’s all-time leading rusher sat down recently with fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Morten Andersen on the ex-kicker’s podcast, “The Great Dane Nation Podcast.” Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, the eight-time Pro Bowler was asked if Dallas fans have already seen the best that current Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has to offer.

“I don’t think you have,” Smith said of the five-year veteran who has won two rushing titles. “I think with Ezekiel Elliott, many people forget that Zeke had COVID-19 before the season even got started, and no one knows what COVID-19 will do to your body until you go through it. If you look at his body and play through the first five, six weeks of the season, his body structure, his weight looked a little bit different than the latter part of the season. Physically- you just look at him- he looks a lot leaner in the latter part of the season than he did in the first part of the season.”

Elliott had a down year, failing to crack 1,000 yards on the season and not topping 100 yards in a game until Week 11. He found the end zone as a rusher just six times and posted his lowest yards-per-carry tally of his career. Of arguably more concern, though, were the six fumbles he had in 2020, including five in the team’s first six games.

“Now, in the first part of the season, obviously, he had some fumbling issues,” Smith told Andersen. “Granted, they get paid on the other side of the ball like we do; not to make any excuses, but I do believe that Zeke will be better for what he has gone through this year. He will prepare and probably start to take care of himself differently for what he has gone through this year. And I think with Tony Pollard, there’s a great one-two punch.”

But the 2020 Cowboys took more punches than they delivered. And that, Smith says, is the far bigger obstacle to the team’s chances of returning to championship form.

“Defense. Defense!” the Super Bowl XXVIII MVP stressed. “We couldn’t stop a soul. We couldn’t get off the field on third down. And I understand early in the season, when we turn the ball over, the defense is out there quite a bit, and I understand that piece. But still, our defense was so much more solid last year, and I think that’s a product of the defensive change versus the players. I think you’ve got players that [are] not suited quite nicely for this style of defense. And so when you bring in new coordinators, do your players actually fit your style? And do your players actually understand your style and understand your defense totally? And do they have the discipline to make the fits work? Or are they creating more issues? And I saw our defense creating more issues, running out of zones and creating bigger zones for guys to run the ball with. That’s a problem. And that has to get corrected this offseason.”

Head coach Mike McCarthy has already taken steps toward that end, replacing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan with former Falcons coach Dan Quinn. Defensive line coach Aden Durde and secondary coach/defensive pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. will also look to revamp the Dallas defense in McCarthy’s second season.

Smith’s coach, Jimmy Johnson, took the doormat Cowboys from worst in the league to the division round of the playoffs in just his third season. The Hall of Famer believes McCarthy may be on a similarly short leash when it comes to securing his place in Dallas.

“I think this year was an experimental year for Mike McCarthy,” Smith said, “to see exactly what he had: coaching style, defensive-wise, player- or personnel-wise, and all those kind of things, including coordinator-wise. And I think if he wants to right this ship, he’d better make some significant adjustments this offseason.”

The club will have the opportunity to do that with new talent come April. The Cowboys are projected to have a total of ten picks in the upcoming draft. And Smith emphasizes using those picks wisely to shore up the underachieving defensive unit.

“I think it begins with the draft. Drafting defensive players,” Smith posited. “Because think about it, Sean Lee is getting a little long in the tooth. No disrespect to Sean Lee; he’s going to give us his effort. Leighton Vander Esch obviously has sustained a number of injuries over the last two years; don’t know how long and productive he will be. Jaylon Smith is going to give us his all. These guys, they’re going to fight. They’re going to do what they’ve got to do, but you’ve got to bring in some guys to replace and back these guys up. You just cannot depend upon them all season long.”

Few players were as dependable as Smith. Over his 15 seasons as a pro, Smith missed just 11 games due to injury, and most of them came in his final two years as an Arizona Cardinal. So the workhorse knows how to maintain a long career as an NFL running back.

Smith believes that Tennessee’s Derrick Henry is currently the best rusher in the sport, but has solid advice that Elliott- who missed the first game in his career due to injury in Week 15- could no doubt benefit from, as well.

“Take care of your body. Make sure you’re getting your massages twice a week. I recommend you get a massage on Monday after a game and on Friday before the weekend comes. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and hydrating,” Smith suggested. “Get your proper rest. Now, once the season is over, make sure you get some rest as well. And don’t rest long; I mean, rest two weeks or something like that. Then make sure you’re doing some hot yoga or some things, light things that are not so taxing and draining on your body physically. But it’s giving you the foundation that you need to continue to build upon these building blocks that you’ve already established. Find a good chiropractor, to make sure that your body is aligned and functioning properly.”

Smith admits he enjoys acting as a mentor for today’s crop of players, just as older Cowboys legends like Roger Staubach did for him in his day.

“Lean on me. That’s what I’m here for.”

It’s been a quarter-century since Smith plunged into the end zone in the final quarter of the Cowboys’ most recent Super Bowl appearance. Maybe leaning on him now will indeed help the current squad get back there.

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