Emmitt Smith was a remarkable running back. And it wasn’t just because he had such a large assortment of skills from his incredible vision and elusiveness to his physical play, but also because he was just so incredibly durable that he was like Forrest Gump where he was running and running and running.
Eventually, he stopped running and he finished his career as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and that’s all I have to say about that.
Okay, actually, it’s not. Today, we’re going to revisit the running game of the Dallas Cowboys in the post-Emmitt era and take a look at each player who led the team in rushing in every year after Smith’s time in Dallas ended after the 2002 season.
2003 Troy Hambrick
Signed as a UDFA in 2000, Hambrick was mainly a special teams guy who only carried the ball six times his rookie season. Eventually, he started seeing more action, even having some ponder whether he should be the starter over Smith during Emmitt’s twilight years. Hambrick eventually got his chance in 2003, after Smith left for Arizona, and he carried the ball an impressive 275 times. He only carried the ball at a paltry 3.5 ypc so despite the heavy workload he never reached the 1,000-yard mark. In a weird sequence of events, Hambrick was waived in 2004 and eventually ended up playing one final season with the Cardinals where he once again backed up Smith.
2004-2006 Julius Jones
One of the reasons the Cowboys moved on from Hambrick was because of the excitement around Notre Dame running back Julius Jones. The rookie took the reins early, out-touching veteran Eddie George who joined the squad that same year. Jones put up an impressive 819 yards his first year despite only playing in half the games. His yardage totals improved in each of the following two seasons reaching 1,084 yards in 2006.
Not-so-fun-fact: Emmitt Smith rushed for 1,000+ yards in 11-straight seasons from 1991 to 2001. Over the next 11 years, only once did a Cowboys running back hit that mark and it was Julius Jones in 2006.
2007-2009 Marion Barber III
Jones finished off his rookie deal with a Cowboys career low of just 588 yards. That’s because third-year back Marion Barber III got the lion’s share of the carries. Jones started every game in 2007 whereas Barber came off the bench; however, it was Barber who inflicted the most damage, even earning a trip to the Pro Bowl despite not starting a single game. The front office loved “The Barbarian” so much that they re-signed him to a seven-year, $45 million deal in 2008. Eventually, his production started to decline and he was released in 2011 where he played one final season with the Chicago Bears.
Cowboys fans were saddened to hear the news of Marion Barber’s passing. Rabblerousr and I discuss the latest news out of OTA’s as well as paying our respect to Barber in out latest edition of The Star Seminar.
2010 Felix Jones
Barber’s final season with the Cowboys was spent on the lower end of a timeshare with third-year back Felix Jones. A first-round pick in 2008, Jones had displayed gradual increases in production as the team trusted him with more carries. In 2010, he was given his chance with a career high 185 carries that he turned into 800 rushing yards. That was the peak of his career as his numbers slowly dwindled the following two years before eventually leaving Dallas to play one final season in Pittsburgh.
2011-2014 DeMarco Murray
Barber’s release was a cap-saving move as the Cowboys found themselves with a surplus of running backs with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice in the mix, but then another back was added in 2011 when Oklahoma rookie DeMarco Murray joined the party. A third-round pick by Dallas, Murray only played through his rookie deal before signing with the rival Philadelphia Eagles for more money, but he still left his mark. In 2011 as a rookie, he set the team’s single-game rushing record with 253 rushing yards. He also set the Cowboys single-season rushing yard mark a few years later with 1,845 yards in 2014 where he would go on to win Offensive Player of the Year.
2015 Darren McFadden
Murray’s departure left a big hole at running back, but the front office was confident they could fill the void with third-year back Joseph Randle combined with free agent signing Darren McFadden. Randle was the guy early, but eventually it was the veteran McFadden who took command. McFadden rushed for 1,089 yards in 2015, which was only the second time in his career that he reached that mark. The Cowboys cheap approach was effective, but their offense could never gain any traction due to losing quarterback Tony Romo for most of the season.
2016-present Ezekiel Elliott
After going several different routes in seasons past, the Cowboys decided not to mess around when they made Ezekiel Elliott the fourth-overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Ohio State star hit the ground running, churning out 1,631 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in a season where he averaged over 108 yards per game. The Cowboys have leaned heavily on Zeke over the years as he already has 1,650 carries so far in his career. The wear could be catching up to him as his yards per game has dropped every year since his rookie season.
Here is a year-by-year breakdown of the Cowboys rushing leader since Smith’s departure in 2003.