Countdown to Canton: Emmitt Smith's First Days with the Dallas Cowboys

In the first part of this Countdown to Canton series, we flashed back to Emmitt Smith's first days of playing organized football on throughout his college career. Now, we review how Smith came to being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys--a selection that, for several reasons, may never have led the NFL's all-time leading rusher into playing for America's Team.

In 1990, the Cowboys selected Smith with the 17th overall pick in the NFL Draft. The record breaking running back from Florida was considered by many scouts to be too small and too slow to succeed in the pros. Dallas Head Coach Jimmy Johnson refused to believe anything but his own eyes.

"There were all these people saying, 'He's too slow,' or 'He's too small.' All I know is that every time I saw a film of him, he was running 50, 60, 70, 80 yards for a touchdown. That looked pretty good to me."

Fortunately, Johnson saw Smith as a player who could serve as the cornerstone of his offense and traded up to draft him. This trade, which included picks leftover from the infamous Herschel Walker deal, occurred only after Johnson lost out on drafting the player many say he most coveted that year: Baylor linebacker James Francis.

Ah, how sweet fate can be!

Thank you, Bengals!

We should first thank the Cincinnati Bengals for taking Francis off the board. If they had not done so, Johnson would have likely selected him, letting Smith go to one of the teams slotted to pick after the Cowboys. Evidently, even when the Bengals took Francis, Johnson still pursued him, as detailed here in this Mickey Spagnola article.

Johnson was infatuated with Baylor linebacker James Francis. He thought he could get by with Plan B free agent Keith Jones at running back. So Johnson spent the early portion of that first round trying to trade up from 21 to 13 with Kansas City to grab Francis, knowing he was going to go well before the Cowboys ever picked with the choice they received from Minnesota in the Walker trade since the team with the worst record in the NFL the previous season (1-15) actually already had spent what turned out to be the first pick in the 1990 draft selecting quarterback Steve Walsh in the 1989 supplemental draft.

Cincinnati pre-empted the trade. They grabbed Francis one pick ahead of Kansas City. And even when the Cowboys went back to the drawing board, Johnson still hadn't given up on Francis, then calling the Bengals trying to swing a trade. Cincinnati didn't want to budge.

Other than Johnson missing out on Francis, you have to wonder what the Cowboys would have done had they not spent their first rounder in the '89 Supplemental Draft on Steve Walsh.

Chances are, with the first overall pick, Johnson would have selected Miami defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, who went third overall to Seattle. Had the Cowboys wanted to go running back that high, the Jets took Penn State's Blair Thomas second overall after Indianapolis' opening selection of quarterback Jeff George. Hindsight is 20/20, but Thomas was the highest rated back by many scouts that year.

If Jerry Jones had not pulled the trigger on the Hershel Walker deal, he and Jimmy Johnson would not have had that 17th pick to begin with--not to mention, they would have already had their feature tailback on the roster in Walker.

Thank you, Steelers!

The results of the Walker trade allowed the Cowboys to swap spots with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 21 (originally the Vikings' pick) up to 17. Ready the Advil!


Cowboys — Traded Herschel Walker, 1990 third round pick (#54-Mike Jones), 1990 fifth round pick (#116-Reggie Thornton), 1990 tenth round pick (#249-Pat Newman), 1991 third round pick (#68-Jake Reed)

to Vikings for Jesse Solomon, David Howard, Issiac Holt, Darrin Nelson, Alex Stewart, 1990 first round pick (#21-Eric Green), 1990 second round pick (#47-Dennis Brown), 1990 sixth round pick (#158-James Williams), 1991 first round pick (#11-Pat Harlow), 1991 second round pick (#38-Darryl Lewis), 1992 first round pick (#13-Eugene Chung), 1992 second round pick (#40-Matt Blundin), 1992 third round pick (#71-Kevin Turner) on 1989-10-12

Steelers — Traded 1990 first round pick (#17-Emmitt Smith) to Cowboys for 1990 first round pick (#21-Eric Green), 1990 third round pick (#81-Craig Veasey) on 1990-04-22

Also of note, there were six running backs selected in the first round of the 1990 draft. After Thomas went to New York atop the draft, Smith, Darrell Thompson (19th to Green Bay), and Steve Broussard (20th to Atlanta) were all selected before the 21st pick, where the Cowboys would have drafted had they not completed the trade with the Steelers.

Yes, Emmitt could have been a Falcon. Even worse, he could have been a Packer.

So, if the Cowboys stood their ground at 21 and they still wanted to go running back, the other names available were Rodney Hampton and Dexter Carter. These last two picks of the first round were respectively drafted by the Giants (24) and the 49ers (25). Two more backs, Reggie Cobb (30) and Heisman Trophy runner-up Anthony Thompson (31), were drafted within the first six picks of the second round.

Of these players, Johnson would have most likely have gone with Hampton. Not a bad choice, but he was no Emmitt Smith.

Thank you, new draft eligibility rules!

Prior to 1990, juniors were not eligible to enter the NFL Draft. Emmitt Smith would have had to spend a fourth year with the Gators, so who knows what would have gone down over the course of a season.

Smith was ready for the pros, and his timing was perfect. The 1990 NFL draft was the first in which juniors were allowed to pass up their final year of college eligibility and enter the draft pool. Smith and 37 other juniors came out early.

He was an incredible yardage machine, having rushed for more than 100 yards in 25 of his 34 games at Florida, and in 70 out of 83 high school and college games combined. But pro scouts are funny people. Size, vertical leap, speed—those are the things that get the exclamation points in their notebooks.

Without this new rule going into effect, the Cowboys had enough picks in the 1991 draft to grab Smith anyways. In the first round alone that year, they nabbed Russell Maryland first overall and then Alvin Harper with the 12th. Of course, if they were to use a pick on Smith, it's likely that Maryland or Harper wouldn't have been Cowboys. But enough with the conditionals already!

NFL.com ranks Emmitt Smith as the 9th best draft pick ever (video link)!

Thank you, Jimmy Johnson!

I know, I know...Jerry Jones makes the final call and all that jazz. But you've got to believe that being a new, young owner and coming off a 1-15 season, any personnel moves had the heavy influence of Head Coach Jimmy Johnson. After all, it was his job to discipline the players, spend time developing them, assess their progress and expected contributions to the team.

Having coached at Miami, Johnson had seen Emmitt Smith's abilities. He had an eye for talent and was bound to get his running game on track that year, as explained further in this NFL video: Jimmy Johnson - 1990 Coach of the Year.

Behind Smith's rookie campaign (241 carries for 937 yards with 11 touchdowns), which netted #22 a Pro Bowl bid and the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, Johnson's Cowboys improved from a 1-15 1989 season to a 7-9 1990 season in which they nearly made the playoffs. With the offense already equipped with young stars in quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin, and tight end Jay Novacek, a solid running game proved to be the last big piece of the offensive puzzle.

Next in this series, we will watch Emmitt Smith play his part in a new Dallas dynasty.

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