Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith became the first Dallas Cowboy to lead the NFL in rushing by gaining 160 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in the Cowboys’ week 16 31-27 victory on December 22, 1991.
Few NFL teams can match the Dallas Cowboys’ pedigree when looking at the running back position. Don Perkins was Dallas’ main backfield man in the 1960s, and his exceptional quickness and ability to find the hole earned him a spot in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. In back to back seasons multi-talented Calvin Hill (1969) and smooth as silk Duane Thomas (1970) were running backs picked by Dallas in the first round of the NFL Draft, and each had very productive seasons for the Cowboys. Walt Garrison and Robert Newhouse were hard running Cowboys’ fullbacks who gained yards by dishing out as much punishment as they took. Spectacular Tony Dorsett was the Cowboys’ first round choice in 1977, and his superb speed and vision helped lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl 12 title and send Dorsett to Canton.
On this day in 1991, Cowboy all-time great Emmitt Smith did something that none of the great backs in Cowboys’ history ahead of him had done. Smith gained 160 yards on 32 carries and scored two touchdowns in Dallas 31-27 victory over Atlanta at Texas Stadium, allowing the Florida native to beat out fellow superstar Barry Sanders of Detroit for the NFL rushing title by 15 yards (Smith had 1,563 on the year).
Smith was the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1990, and he started the 1991 season in a way that made it clear he was looking to do bigger and better things in the year to come. The Cowboys’ back gained 112 yards in each of his first two games, and exploded for 182 against Phoenix in week four to show the NFL that he would be a force to be reckoned with. A week six 122 yard effort at Green Bay gave him four 100 yard plus efforts in the first six weeks of the year, and he closed the season by exceeding the century mark in rushing yards in four of the last five Cowboys’ contests. For good measure Smith also gained 105 yards in Dallas’ 17-13 playoff win at Chicago, Dallas first post-season win since the 1982 playoffs.
The 1991 rushing title was the first of four for the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, as Smith was the pacesetter for yards gained on the ground in the Cowboys’ Super Bowl championship seasons of 1992, 1993 and 1995. Smith would gain over 1,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons from 1991 through 2001, and finished with an NFL best 164 rushing touchdowns in his magnificent career.
Perhaps Smith’s backfield mate for the glory years in Dallas put it best when describing the impact #22 had on the Cowboys and the NFL:
“I speak for all the guys who have blocked for Emmitt Smith. We did it because of what kind of person he was, not just what kind of football player he was. You talk about great players making everyone around them better. That couldn’t be more true of anybody than Emmitt Smith.” — former fullback Daryl Johnston, now a TV color analyst.