1990 Review: Cowboys Bolster Backfield with Emmitt Smith

The Cowboys took Florida running back Emmitt Smith with the 17th overall pick in 1990.

From 1961 to 1989, the Cowboys never had fewer than 11 draft choices. In 1990, the Cowboys were involved in a trade in practically every round (and I’m not going to begin to try to summarize all of it– go here to get started). The end result was that the Cowboys only had six picks in the 12-round 1990 draft.

First pick: the guy who would become the all-time leading rusher in NFL history. It almost didn’t happen, though.

The top player on the Cowboys’ board was Baylor linebacker James Francis, whom the Cowboys wanted to convert to defensive end. Had Francis fallen all the way to the 13th round, Dallas would have traded with Kansas City, and Smith would have gone elsewhere. Instead, Cincinnati took Francis with the 12 pick. Dallas pulled off a trade with Pittsburgh to jump from #21 to #17, and Smith became a Dallas Cowboy.

Here is the Cowboys’ complete draft in 1990:

1(17) Emmitt Smith, RB, Florida
2(26) Alexander Wright, WR, Auburn
3(64) Jimmie Jones, DT, Miami (FL)
5(123) Stan Smagala, DB, Norte Dame
9(221) Kenneth Gant, DB, Albany State (GA)
11(277) Dave Harper, DB, Humboldt State

  • Wright was a speedster who showed a little bit of promise (he returned one kickoff for a touchdown), but he was traded to the Raiders three games into the 1992 season.
  • Jones was a part-time starter with the Cowboys for four seasons. Jones’ big career highlight was when when scored a touchdown against the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII.
  • Gant became a special teams monster who was best known for his “shark dance.” He lasted until 1995, when he signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay.
  • Smagala and Harper made the team, but Smagala lasted only two years, and Harper lasted only one.

* * *

Less than a week after the draft, Smith was already being compared with the great Tony Dorsett. Here’s a blurb from an article that ran on April 27, 1990:

It was 1987, near the end of Tony Dorsett’s final season as a Cowboy, and the camera crew outside his locker said they had an unusual question to ask.

A freshman at Florida named Emmhad just gone over the 1,000-yard rushing mark in his seventh game to set an NCAA record. One of Dorsett’s records just had been erased, and the camera crew wanted a comment.

Dorsett, who never had heard of Smith , said a few perfunctory words of congratulations, then advised Smith not to get too cocky. “Remember, Emmitt ,’ he said, staring into the camera, “someday someone’s going to come along and break your records, too.’

Three years later, Smith ‘s record still stands. And when the Cowboys open their rookie orientation camp with meetings and testing Friday, Emmitt Smith ‘s life as a Cowboy begins. To some, that means his assault on Dorsett’s team rushing records is about to get under way.

Smith makes no such claims, however.

“I’m not going to say I can come in and do wonders for the Cowboys,’ Smith said. “I will tell you that I’ll do the best I can do.’

The Cowboys expect his best to be plenty.

Shortly after Dallas had traded up to draft Smith , running backs coach Joe Brodsky was ecstatic. ” Emmitt Smith has that little innate ingredient that you’ve got to be extremely careful of or he may not get tackled. I don’t see a weak point in that athlete, and we’ve studied him a long, hard time,’ he said.

Scout Walt Yowarsky was equally glowing, referring to Smith as the “Dorsett of a new era.”

  • Wow, how prescient were THOSE remarks?

  • Jason Neighbors

    Just goes to show that even Jimmmy was not infallible in his draft choices as some fans would have you believe nowadays. We are so lucky the Bengals took James Francis. I can’t remember if he even turned out to be any good. He was certainly no Junior Seau, who also went in that draft I believe.

  • Francis was a long-time starter, but he never made a Pro Bowl. He ended up with a total of 33.5 sacks in 10 years and never had more than eight in one season (that came during his rookie year in 1990). I don’t remember much about him in particular. He’s considered a legend at Baylor, and I saw his introduction on the field during a Baylor game a few years ago.

  • Mike Little

    There are very few players that transcend era’s,especially at running back.Tony Dorsett would be one.Comparisons?Tony had more speed,and Emmitt had enough.Emmitt was a better north-south runner.Nobody could turn a corner better than Dorsett.Both had great vision.Emmitt had the obvious longer durability.We were lucky to have ’em both.

  • All very true, Mike. Both of them were so good at reading holes, but they had different strengths when it came to how they got through them (Dorsett with his raw speed; Emmitt with his ability to break arm tackles with short bursts of power). Not many franchises have had two backs that can compare with these two.

  • David H

    Yeah not too many NFL have had HOFers at RB so close to each other (Dorsett’s last season with Dallas was 1987, Smith’s first season was 1990). The Bills (OJ Simpson and Thurman Thomas) and the Bears (Gale Sayers and Walter Payton) are other teams that have had two modern-era HOF RBs, but not so close together like Dorsett/Smith. Throw in a decent Herscehl Walker in the interim, and Cowboys fans were pretty damned lucky at the RB position for about 25 years!

  • Mike Little

    The common denominater for Superbowl rings in Cowboy’s history has been a strong running game.Duane Thomas,Tony Dorsett,and of course Emmitt.The jury is still way out on this current running back by committee approach.Felix needs to be the man this coming season.Sorry Roy,no offense.

  • When considering the all-time great RBs, we shouldn’t omit Don Perkins and Calvin Hill. Perkins struggled early on behind a patch-work O-line and Hill’s potential was limited by nagging injuries. Put them behind Emmitt’s O-line of the ’90s and who knows what they might’ve accomplished!