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Spagnola: Amazing Legacy Of Cowboys' RBs


This occurred to me the other day, during this NFL dead period, with really nothing much of anything going on and seemingly one and all news-source providers coming up with this list or that list – top 100, top 10, bests and worsts.

One list after another because, after all, as former colleague Chris Arnold was wont to say, "Everybody likes a list."

So with some idle time on my hands, came up with the idea of trying to rank the 10 best running backs in Dallas Cowboys history, maybe a group taken for granted over the previous 58 seasons of NFL football.

See, the Cowboys certainly have been noted for their quarterbacks, going from Don Meredith to Craig Morton to Roger Staubach to Danny White to Troy Aikman and eventually to Tony Romo, with Dak Prescott currently emerging in this uncanny line of succession. That's two Pro Football Hall of Famers, three Ring of Honor members and 20 Pro Bowl selections.

Then somewhat the receivers, you know, starting with Bob Hayes and then famously on to the "88s," with Drew Pearson then Michael Irvin and finally Dez Bryant. That numbers two Hall of Famers and three Ring of Honor members, along with 13 Pro Bowl appearances.

For sure, pass rushers, the likes of Bob Lilly, George Andre, Jethro Pugh, Harvey Martin, Randy White, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Charles Haley, DeMarcus Ware and the budding DeMarcus Lawrence. That's three Hall of Famers, with a fourth (Ware) in a matter of time, three Ring of Honor members with surely a fourth on the way (Ware) and a robust 41 Pro Bowl appearances.

And for like the first 30 years of this franchise's history, the Cowboys were known for their middle linebackers, beginning in the beginning with Jerry Tubbs in 1960, who gave way to Lee Roy Jordan. Then came Bob Breunig and Eugene Lockhart. Basically, four starting middle linebackers covering the Cowboys' first 31 seasons. That counts one Ring of Honor member and eight Pro Bowls.

But possibly taken for granted always has been the running backs. For if this were college ball, the Dallas Cowboys might have become known as "Running Back U."

Think about it now.

Start with Don Perkins, the Cowboys' leading rushing in every one of his eight seasons from 1961-68. He was a six-time Pro Bowler. Then came Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas, Hill a four-time Pro Bowler.

Then after a brief interlude, Hill leaving after the 1974 season for the World Football League riches with the Hawaii Hawaiians, never playing a down yet getting paid through a personal services contract, the Cowboys hit it big in 1977, trading up with Seattle for the No. 2 pick, none other than Tony Dorsett.

In 1986, the Cowboys took advantage of the flyer pick they gambled in 1985 when selecting Herschel Walker, though knowing he was the property of the United States Football League's New Jersey Generals, then owned by, uh, some guy named Donald Trump. When the USFL folded in 1986, the Cowboys owned Walker's NFL rights, and for two seasons paired Dorsett with Walker. Let's see, Dorsett ended up in the Hall of Fame, Ring of Honor and four Pro Bowl appearances with Walker in two Pro Bowls, not to mention bringing the Cowboys a bounty of draft choices when traded to Minnesota in 1989.

So the shrewd Cowboys, in need of a running back in 1990, and failing on repeated draft-day attempts to acquire Baylor linebacker James Francis, traded up from the 21st pick they acquired in the Walker trade to grab Pittsburgh's 17th and settled for Florida running back Emmitt Smith.

You kidding me?

That's how you acquired the NFL's all-time leading rusher, a Hall of Famer, Ring of Honor member, eight-time Pro Bowler, a four-time NFL rushing champ, a three-time Super Bowl winner, and how about this 1993 season: Emmitt leading the league in rushing, named the NFL's MVP and Super Bowl MVP for the back-to-back Super Bowl champion Cowboys.

Let's see, Smith also leads all NFL players with 164 rushing touchdowns, and his 175 total career TDs are second to only the 208 of Jerry Rice.

And since Emmitt's final season with the Cowboys in 2002, when he broke Walter Payton's previous NFL all-time rushing record, the Cowboys have produced two more NFL rushing champs: DeMarco Murray in 2014 with a Cowboys' single-season rushing record of 1,845 yards, and then Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 with 1,631 yards. That's along with four more Pro Bowl appearances by running backs: Murray (2), Marion Barber (1) and Elliott (1).

Can you say, Cowboys know running backs?

If we add all this running back lore up, the Cowboys have produced:

The NFL's all-time leading rusher, Emmitt with 18,355 yards, and the league's ninth all-time leading rusher, Dorsett with 12,739.

Two Hall of Famers, Smith and Dorsett.

Three Ring of Honor members, Perkins, Dorsett and Smith.

Six NFL single-season rushing champs.

And if we throw in the Pro Bowl honors earned by the likes of fullbacks Walt Garrison (1) and Daryl Johnston (2), Cowboys running backs have produced 33 Pro Bowl appearances.

And all this does not account for the notable contributions from the likes of Dan Reeves, Robert Newhouse and Julius Jones.

Plus, and this will be up to Zeke, the Cowboys' future at running back would certainly seem bright, assuming Elliott stays healthy and manages himself off the field. But think about this: In two seasons, just 26 games – missing six last year during his suspension – Elliott has rushed for 2,614 yards and 22 rushing touchdowns, or .84 rushing touchdowns a game.

No Cowboys running back has rushed for more yards and averaged more touchdowns per game than Elliott has during the first two seasons of their careers, and remember, Zeke only played those 26 games. Dorsett, in 30 games his first two seasons, rushed for 2,332 and 19 touchdowns (.63/game). Emmitt, in his first two years (32 games), rushed for 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns (.72/game).

See what I mean about Zeke?

And it's up to him, at all of 23 years old come July 22, to enhance this amazing legacy of the Dallas Cowboys running backs.

Now then, as for that list, since we all like lists, here is my list of the top-10 running backs in Dallas Cowboys history, taking into account not only production, but quality and what these guys meant to the franchise.

While No. 1 is rather obvious, who falls behind Emmitt Smith on the Cowboys' Top 10 list of running backs, including Ezekiel Elliott, who has been rather productive in two years.