In 1992, the New York Giants limped to a 6-10 record under beleaguered head coach Ray Handley, who was fired following the season. In came former Cowboys running back and assistant coach Dan Reeves, who had led the undermanned Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances. In 1993, Reeves had the Giants, whose roster still boasted several key veterans of Bill Parcells' championship teams, playing according to their old form. They jumped out to a 5-1 record, losing only a squeaker to reigning AFC champ Buffalo.
Even with their considerable early success, New York didn't look like they could compete with division rival Dallas, the reigning Super Bowl champions. This suspicion was confirmed by the two teams' first meeting, at Texas Stadium, a contest in which the Cowboys overwhelmed the Giants 31-9, and battered Phil Simms, who had to give way to rookie signal caller Kent Graham.
With that victory, the Cowboys improved their record to 6-2 after enduring a painful and highly-fraught 0-2 start during which Emmitt Smith was in Florida, holding out for a contract worthy of a two-time rushing champion. Once he returned to the team, however, they began to fire on all cylinders, ticking off impressive victories over San Francisco and at Philadelphia before destroying the Giants in Dallas.
Yet, the Giants managed to stay within striking distance of the Cowboys. In late December, New York had a one-game advantage with two games left to play, but week 17 loss at Arizona (in 1993, each team had two "byes") while the Cowboys were dominating the Redskins 38-3 evened the two squads at 11-4 heading into the season's final showdown, a rematch at Giants Stadium.
What happened on that cold, damp early January afternoon in the Meadowlands? Make the jump...
Many pigskin prognosticators predicted another Cowboys rout. Indeed, as the game neared halftime, such predictions proved accurate, as the Cowboys built a 13-0 halftime lead with Emmitt Smith running for 109 yards and catching a five-yard touchdown pass from an efficient Troy Aikman (who would finish 20-24 passing). New York, on the other hand, had held the ball for only eight minutes, managing just two first downs in an opening frame in which they were outgained 238-68.
But not all was rosy for the Cowboys. Late in the first half, on what proved to be his longest run of the game, a 46-yard burst off right tackle, Smith was tackled by Giants safety Greg Jackson, falling hard on his right shoulder. Instead of popping right back up, as he usually did, Smith stayed on the Giants Stadium turf, which was essentially asphalt painted green. Team trainers escorted a ginger Smith to the sideline. "Something happened in my shoulder that I never felt before," he said later, "I had never known pain like that."
When X-rays showed a separated shoulder, the Cowboys' doctors and trainers told Emmitt there was nothing they could do for him. He had two choices: sit out the rest of the game or play with his shoulder in its present condition. Smith didn't bat an eye; he told them he was going to play. At halftime, the training staff got creative, fashioning a special pad for his shoulder by taping together a pair of knee pads and cutting a hole in the middle of them.
A doctor gave Smith a shot and a pill to help dull the pain, but it only took a little of the edge off of it. Smith recalls, "They told me, ‘Now, you're going to have some discomfort,' and they were right. The whole second half, I'm saying, ‘No pain, no pain,' trying to convince myself." One look at Smith's face during that fateful second half told the real story, however: there was pain - a lot of it.
To complicate matters, the Giants began to get their act together, buoyed by a bizarre play in which rookie return specialist Kevin Williams made a daring dash for the ball on a bouncing punt that resulted in a fumble at Dallas' 39-yard line. The Giants capitalized on the mistake, covering the 39 yards in 11 plays, with fullback Jarrod Bunch diving in from a yard out to make it 13-7. Suddenly, a terminal New York squad had a new lease on life.
The Giants defense made a stop on the next series with defensive end Keith Hamilton batting away a third-down pass to force a punt. The offense then gave the game to running back Rodney Hampton, who made a series of key plays, including a 34-yard pass reception down the right side with Charles Haley of all people in pursuit. The Dallas defense stiffened, forcing New York to settle for a 29-yard David Treadwell field goal to make it 13-10 with 1:20 to go in the third quarter.
After an exchange of punts, the Giants got the ball at their own 15-yard line with 5:35 left in the final quarter and proceeded to mount an excruciating 69-yard drive. An 11-yard run by Rodney Hampton gave them the ball at the Cowboy 22-yard line with 1:09 remaining, but then Reeves got conservative. Instead of going for the touchdown, he called three runs, which netted eight yards, and sent in the field goal unit. Treadwell tied the score on a 31-yard kick with 10 seconds left.
New York's first overtime possession was derailed by a 15-yard chop-block penalty. After the Giants' punt, Johnson asked Smith once more if he could go; Emmitt, who had launched a second-half tirade at Johnson during which he told his coach that, if he was going to be in the game, he needed to be used as a weapon, not a decoy, said, "Let me play until I can't play." And indeed he did, touching the ball nine times (including the final five plays) and gaining 41 yards on the 52-yard drive that resulted in Eddie Murray's 41-yard game-winning and division-clinching field goal with a little more than four minutes left in overtime. One play before the field goal, he used his useless right arm to deliver a stiff-arm to the Giants' All-World linebacker Lawrence Taylor, gaining a few extra yards on a 10-yard run.
In total, Smith had what was, to that point, his busiest day as a professional, running 32 times for 168 yards (earning his third consecutive league rushing title in the process) and catching 10 balls for another 61 yards. All with a severely separated shoulder. Of his 229 total yards, Smith gained 78 after the injury. He also gained the respect of both locker rooms; even the Giants, who had continued to hit him as hard, and as often, as they could after the injury, acknowledged that what he had done was amazing.
John Madden, who was covering the game with Pat Summerall, certainly thought so. He made a special trip down to the locker room to congratulate Smith on his effort - the only time he did that in his broadcasting career. Speaking about Smith's effort for an NFL Network piece on the game, old school Cardinals offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf said that, as a former player, "To watch a guy like that sacrifice himself like that for the betterment of his team...I was just filled with admiration."
The victory gave the Cowboys a first-round bye and the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Against Green Bay two weeks later, Smith rushed for 60 yards and caught two passes for 27 yards. In the NFC championship game against San Francisco, he rushed for 88 yards, caught seven passes for 85 yards and scored two touchdowns. The following week, in the Super Bowl against the Bills, he rushed for 132 yards (taking over the game on a third quarter drive in which he ran the ball on seven snaps of an eight play, 64-yard touchdown drive), caught four passes for 26 yards, and scored two touchdowns.
A month later, he had surgery on his injured shoulder.
Had the Giants, Packers, 49ers or Bills wanted to limit Emmitt, they would have to take aim a little lower than his shoulder. His shoulder only delivered (and took) hits; Smith's considerable power came from his heart. "My heart," he said after the game, "is as big as the world."
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Next Friday: the top-rated regular season game in Cowboys history.