Spagnola: Zeke's Next Challenge Is To Match Emmitt's Level Of Consistency

FRISCO, Texas – In 1991, Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, compiled his first 1,000-yard season in his second year in the league. He ran for 1,563 yards, at the time the second most in Cowboys history. Only Tony Dorsett had run for more.

         He also won his first NFL rushing title.

         In 2016, rookie Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards, fifth most in Cowboys history, yet setting the club rookie record and becoming just the fifth rookie since the 1970 merger to win the league rushing title. He also won the NFL rushing title, only the third Cowboys player to do so, joining Emmitt and DeMarco Murray. He also ran for 15 touchdowns, another club rookie record and fourth most in club history.

         As a 21 year old.

         Great. Fantastic. Nearly unprecedented.

         But …

         "Anybody can do it for a year," Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown says, "but if you do it on a consistent basis, six, seven years in a row, then you are on that higher rung of running backs."

         Exactly, consistency. And if Zeke has a notion to get full of himself – so far sure doesn't seem like he has, just from watching him in these past four weeks of offseason practices – here is all he needs to know if just considering Cowboys history:

         In 1992 Emmitt rushed for 1,713 yards and another NFL rushing title.

         In 1993 Emmitt rushed for 1,486 yards and a third straight NFL rushing title.

         In fact, Emmitt rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons, topped off with the once club record of 1,773 yards and still club record 25 rushing touchdowns in 1995, the last of his four career NFL rushing titles. In fact, he came up just 25 yards short in 2002, his final season with the Cowboys when he broke Walter Payton's NFL career-rushing record, of 12 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

         And do not make the mistake of saying, yeah, but Emmitt was playing on Super Bowl-winning teams. After the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX during that 1995 season, he played on only two more teams with winning records during his 13-year Cowboys career – 10-6 in 1996 and 10-6 in 1998, a span of seven seasons consisting of just one playoff victory.

         And I remember this as clear as day: When Emmitt was asked during those heydays of the '90s what were his goals, what more did he want to accomplish, he would say, and at a young age – remember, he too, entered the league at just 20 years old – "I want to be consistent." He would always say he wanted to be there for his team, not become one of those up and down guys.

         You know, we used to classify those guys as a flash in the pan, or as Bill Parcells would make popular during his four years with the Cowboys because of his infatuation with baseball, Oh, so you're going to be a one-hit wonder, meaning of course, a one-and-doner.

          Now Zeke sure seems to get it, and let's not let any of the weird off-field entanglements he seems to get himself into cloud the issue of how committed he is to improving, to prevent falling off the cliff. Remember, he hasn't turned 22 yet.

         I mean, somebody actually asked him what's left to accomplish after all he had proven during his rookie season, and with that cagey smile of his, masking his most inner thoughts, he says without blinking, "You say I've proven myself but I've got to keep doing that year in and year out."

         If that needs further pounding in, he need only take the time to look into the Cowboys record book, or I guess at his age, call it up on his phone. Emmitt's accomplishments are stout and readily available.

         Or, if he'd rather take a moment, I'm guessing Coach Brown would be a good resource on this topic. Gary had an in-state seat during Emmitt's run from 1991-1995, five of the most stellar rushing seasons in NFL history. He spent those years with the Houston Oilers, just a few hours down I-45, the Cowboys actually playing the Oilers twice during those years, and he then spent the 1998-99 seasons with the Giants. He knows Emmitt Smith.

         "His mindset is he wants to be more than he was last year," Brown says of Zeke, "a more complete player."

         Just to refresh, of Zeke's 15 rushing touchdowns, six came from at least 10 yards out, including runs into the end zone of 60, 32 and 55 yards. Oh, and who shall forget his 83-yard screen pass for a TD against the Steelers. His ability to score from afar is phenomenal, same as it was at Ohio State.

         Seemed pretty darn complete as a rookie.

         But Browns says, first and foremost, "Finish runs."

         Says not that 2016 wasn't a great season, but "we want more."

         "Better running in the second level," says Brown.

         Evidently Zeke is listening.

         "The main thing I wanted to focus on was just being more dominant in the second level," he repeats.

         So how do you do that, because from the naked eye he was pretty dominant once he cleared the line of scrimmage, almost to the point few wanted to get in the way of that runaway train.

         "You've got to finish your runs in practice," Zeke says of how he can work on improving. "Sometimes the runs might not be that clean but you've got to finish your runs in practice where you might have been tackled before."

         Plus, the Cowboys maintain Elliott will be utilized more in the passing game, too. The guy has great hands, and a pretty good catch radius. And while offensive coordinator Scott Linehan didn't want to overdo it his rookie season – remember that hamstring that slowed him in training camp – the Cowboys would use their third-down toy, Lance Dunbar, in many of the nickel situations.

         Well, there is no more Lance, and we'll see how much the Cowboys might use rookie Ryan Switzer in similar situations, but just think what could happen if Zeke touches the ball even more than he did last season.

         Zeke caught 32 passes a year ago for 363 yards. Not bad for a rookie who proved quite proficient pass blocking and picking up blitzes in the pocket.

         But just for a reference point, Emmitt, on a team with Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek, Alvin Harper, Daryl Johnston and Kelvin Martin, still had seasons with 49, 59, 57, 50, 62 and 47 catches. And think about this: The 62-catch season came in 1995 when he rushed for those 1,700 yards and 25 touchdowns.

         Sky is the limit for a guy who won't turn 22 until the day the Cowboys leave for training camp.

         "Can keep him motivated by just (working on) continuing to be better," Brown says.

         And apparently, Zeke gets that, too.

         Zeke remarked that everyone doesn't play as long as old-man Witten. That you have to take advantage of your opportunities now. He already realizes not everyone puts in the 15 years Emmitt did at running back in the NFL.

         "I've got to do everything I can to maximize these moments," Zeke says.

         And nothing will maximize these moments more than consistency.

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