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Emmitt Smith tops depth chart at running back on All-Time Cowboys team

The Dallas Cowboys have been lucky enough to have some of the best running backs in league history, including the all-time leader in rushing yards.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys Emmitt Smith, left, shows off the second of his three Super Bowl rings in New York's Central Park Monday May 13, 1996. Joining Smith are Cincinnati Bengals Jeff Blake, center, and Pittsburgh Steelers Kordell Stewart at an NFL "Play Football" promotion to demonstrate elements of the league's youth initiative. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

In continuation of the All-Time Cowboys series, we shift focus to the running backs. Ezekiel Elliott is the latest in a long run of top running backs to put the star on the side of their helmets. The Cowboys started their franchise with two backs splitting time between L.G. Dupre and Don McIlhenny. Eventually the Cowboys went with a combination of Walt Garrison, Calvin Hill and Robert Newhouse. 

Much like the quarterback position, the running backs for America’s Team garner plenty of the spotlight. The two most well known RBs are arguably Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith. Up until Dorsett, the team’s all-time leading rusher was fullback Don Perkins who played from 1961-68. He rushed for 6,217 yards while being named first team All-Pro on three different occasions. Dorsett would eventually shatter his mark, and Smith would go on to shatter the NFL record.

Here is what a two-deep depth chart would look like at running back for the All-Time Cowboys.

First Team

Emmitt Smith (1990-2002)

The Dallas Cowboys traded up to 17th overall in the first round to select Emmitt Smith in the 1990 NFL Draft. Smith was coming off three consecutive All-American selections for the University of Florida. He finished as a top 10 finalist for the Heisman Trophy Award in his freshman and junior seasons. 

At the time, he and Hershel Walker were the only two freshmen to finish inside the top 10 in the Heisman voting. Smith would establish 58 school records during his three years in Gainesville before heading to the NFL. 

One year after Dallas had landed their franchise QB when they selected Troy Aikman with the first overall pick of the 1989 Draft, Smith would join the Cowboys and become the engine that powered them to win three Super Bowls over Smith’s first five years as a professional. In that time, Emmitt became one of the elite running backs in the league. 

Still, to this day, fans of the NFL from the 1990s are arguing over who was better between Barry Sanders and Smith. For a player viewed as too small and slow for the NFL, Smith proved to be one of the most durable backs in the history of the league. He holds NFL records for the most carriers in a career (4,409), touchdowns (164), and, of course, yards (18,355). His single-season touchdown record of 25 was eventually broken by LaDainian Tomlinson.

Emmitt would provide some memorable games over the years. In 1993, after sitting out the first two games over a contract dispute following the Super Bowl win in 1992, Smith would return and win the league’s MVP award. 

In the final game of that season, with the NFC East title and a playoff bye on the line against the New York Giants, Smith would play with a separated shoulder and still manage to account for 229 yards in a career-defining performance. Smith would go on to be named Super Bowl MVP that year, as well. 

In his final year as a Dallas Cowboy, Smith finally broke his childhood idol Walter Payton’s record to become the all-time leading rusher in NFL history. He would play two more seasons in Arizona before retiring from the game as one of the all-time greats.

Accomplishments:

  • Three-time All-SEC

  • Three-time All-American

  • 1989 SEC MVP

  • Heisman Trophy Finalist

  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year

  • Eight-time Pro Bowl Selection

  • Four-time first-team All-Pro

  • Two-time second-team All-Pro

  • Four-time rushing champion

  • Three-time Super Bowl Champion

  • Super Bowl XXVIII MVP

  • 1993 NFL MVP

  • 1990’s All-Decade Team

  • NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team

  • Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor

  • Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee

  • College Football Hall of Fame Inductee

  • NFL’s All-Time Leading Rusher

Second Team

Tony Dorsett (1977-87)

In college at Pittsburgh, Tony Dorsett was a man among boys. No freshman had been named to the All-American team since 1944 until Dorsett was selected in 1973. His 1,586 yards were the most ever by a freshman running back. By the time he ended his career, TD earned himself multiple individual awards and a National Championship at Pitt. To date, that 1976 Panthers team is the last to win a title. 

After finishing his college career as the then all-time NCAA leader in rushing yards, Dorsett would be selected second overall in the 1977 NFL Draft by the Cowboys after Dallas swung a trade with the expansion Seattle Seahawks to move up.

Dorsett made an immediate impact on the team when he rushed for over 1,000 yards in his first nine games. That initial success was a Cowboys record that stood until Elliott came along. Dorsett was named Rookie of the Year and helped the Cowboys win the Super Bowl in his debut season. 

Dorsett would play for Dallas until 1987 when he was traded to the Denver Broncos ahead of the 1988 season. The Cowboys had struck success at landing another franchise runner when a young Herschel Walker joined the team and eventually replaced Dorsett, but not before Dorsett had contributed 12,036 rushing yards as a Cowboy. Dorsett’s career mark of 12,739 is still 10th most in NFL history.

Dorsett is perhaps most remembered for one play: a 99-yard touchdown run against the Minnesota Vikings in 1983 on Monday Night Football. The primetime scamper was an NFL record until Derrick Henry matched that mark in 2018. What made the play even more memorable was the fact that the Cowboys only had 10 players on the field. Dorsett didn’t even need a full team to show why he was an all-time elite runner.

Accomplishments:

  • Three-time All-American

  • National Champion

  • Heisman Trophy winner

  • Number 33 Pitt Panthers jersey retired

  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year

  • Four-time Pro Bowl Selection

  • First-Team All-Pro

  • Two-time second-team All-Pro

  • Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor

  • Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee

  • College Football Hall of Fame inductee

Do you agree with Emmitt over Dorsett? Share your No. 1 RB in Cowboys history with Patrick on Twitter @PatSportsGuy.

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