The Cowboys have been lucky enough to have a plethora of top-tier talent available to them throughout the franchise’s history. It’s part of the reason why the team has the highest all-time winning percentage in the NFL, and those five Super Bowl victories. With most of their success coming in the times when running backs were used much more than they are today, the Cowboys have naturally had several great running backs throughout history.
But which one of these running backs is the best? Earlier in the week, we looked at the best quarterback and the consensus seems to overwhelmingly be in favor of Roger Staubach, though the poll is still open. Today, the focus is on the guys carrying the rock up the middle.
Of course, there’s one name that I’m contractually obligated to begin with, and it’s Emmitt Smith. Arguably the greatest running back ever, Smith holds the NFL’s record for all-time rushing yards, and with the way the NFL values running backs these days, it’s a record that will likely never be broken. Smith had a whopping 11 straight seasons of rushing for at least 1,000 yards, and he led the league in rushing four times over a five season stretch.
More than that, though, Smith paced the offense for the Cowboys and was the focal point of it. Much like Ezekiel Elliott today, Smith was such a physically dominant runner that defenses tried everything to stop him, which opened things up for Troy Aikman and the rest of the passing game. An overlooked part of Smith’s career was his value as a receiver as well. Over the stretch when Smith was leading the league in rushing with consistency, he averaged 366 receiving yards a season, which was good for fifth most among running backs during that time.
All told, Smith racked up 17,162 rushing yards on 4,052 carries with 153 rushing touchdowns during his career in Dallas. He also added 3,012 receiving yards on 486 receptions with 11 touchdown catches. His career approximate value of 163 is the highest of any player in franchise history.
But Smith isn’t the only running back who put up big numbers in the star. Tony Dorsett was Emmitt Smith before Emmitt Smith ever came into the league. In Dorsett’s first eight years of his career, he had at least 1,000 rushing yards in seven seasons. The only year he fell short of the mark was in 1982, when the strike shortened the season to just nine games. Still, Dorsett was second in the league in rushing that year and had his NFL record 99-yard rushing touchdown.
Whereas Smith was known more so for his physicality and strength, Dorsett had a running style that was more predicated on speed and being able to get away from defenders in space, as seen in the 99-yard touchdown run. Despite consistently putting up great numbers and winning a Super Bowl, Dorsett never received as much recognition as Smith later did since he played in the era of Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, and Wilbert Montgomery.
Before Dorsett, though, there was Calvin Hill. The first Yale graduate to be drafted in the first round, Hill was taken as an athlete and tried at a few different spots before injuries at running back placed him there. After 942 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie year, Hill was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1969. Injuries would limit him the next two years, as he only played in 20 total games.
In 1972, however, Hill returned to form and became the first Cowboy to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He had another 1,000 yard season the next year, followed by another stellar season that fell short of the 1,000 yard mark. He then opted to join the startup World Football League, where he tore his MCL. Hill later rejoined the NFL, but not with the Cowboys. Still, as the first great Cowboys running back, Hill deserves praise. He’s also third in franchise history in career rushing yards for a running back.
There are a few other running backs who had moments of greatness in Dallas but didn’t quite last long enough to cement their legacies. Herschel Walker played for the Cowboys for three years and some change before becoming part of the most lopsided trade in NFL history (at least until Jon Gruden came back to the Raiders last year). Walker had 3,142 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns in his first three years, making the Pro Bowl and first team All-Pro twice. Walker is perhaps known more for the trade, which helped Dallas land Darren Woodson, Russell Maryland, Alonzo Highsmith, and, of course, Emmitt Smith.
Marion “The Barbarian” Barber holds a special place in many fans’ hearts. As a fourth-round pick in 2005, Barber didn’t come in with high expectations but quickly established himself as one of the toughest running backs. With a brutal style of running, which often saw him seek out contact, Barber imposed his will on defenses with pleasure. From 2007 to 2009, the first three years with Jason Garrett running the offense, Barber racked up 2,792 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns despite sharing carries with other backs. He only lasted two more years in the NFL, as his bruising style took a physical toll on him, but Barber was a force of a running back for the short time he played.
Barber’s biggest impact on the Cowboys, though, extends to another running back, DeMarco Murray. Taken in the third round in 2011, Murray was originally supposed to share snaps with Felix Jones. Things changed when Jones went down with an injury in Week 6 and Murray broke Emmitt Smith’s own single-game rushing record with 253 yards on just 25 carries. Murray quickly became the main running back, but injuries became an issue fast.
Murray finally played a full 16-game season in 2014, leading the league in rushing with 1,845 and 13 touchdowns, notching his second consecutive 1,000 yard season. But as his contract expired, the Cowboys passed on an extension, partially because of concerns that he’d flame out of the league like Barber did. They were sort of right, as Murray retired three years later. Still, he holds an important spot in franchise history, ranking fourth among running backs in career rushing yards.
Ezekiel Elliott could very well be on his way to beating out several of these players. He’s already got more rushing yards than Walker, and is just 300 yards behind Barber. Zeke has led the league in rushing both years that he’s played a full season, and led the league during the ten games he played in 2017. Like we did with Dak in our quarterbacks poll, though, Elliott won’t be included just yet.
And now, it’s time to vote:
Who is the best running back in Cowboys franchise history?
This poll is closed