Emmitt won't recognize these Cowboys

Updated: October 1, 2003, 4:49 PM ET
ESPN

IRVING, Texas -- When Emmitt Smith returns to Texas Stadium on Sunday, he'll recognize the surroundings, former teammates and other friends in the Dallas Cowboys organization.

Beyond the obvious, though, Smith might not recognize these Dallas Cowboys.

Now defined by a coach instead of a player -- specifically, him -- the Cowboys seem to have cleaned up the "trash" that Smith felt surrounded by last season and have embraced a new attitude that is already paying off.

Smith was right when he said that things around Valley Ranch were a mess last season, he just erred by referring to himself as a "diamond surrounded by trash."

What he failed to say -- or, worse, see -- was that he was part of the problem.

From the start, the 2002 season was all about Smith and his pursuit of Walter Payton's career rushing record. The team's marketing campaign was built around it. There was even a digital yardage tracker on a billboard outside the stadium.

As Smith got closer, attention mounted. So did the pressure on coaches to make sure he got enough carries. Coaches couldn't help but be cognizant of the record chase, even if their only concern was getting the darn thing out of the way.

As for other players, they got sick of it pretty fast. Although they said all the right things then -- well, everyone except Troy Hambrick, who was trying to take Smith's job -- they felt swallowed by it.

"I think sometimes it felt as though the season was based on him getting his rushing record rather than us having a successful winning percentage," defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban said. "It was a distraction."

And now?

"We have better things to focus on as a team," Ekuban said, "and that's winning games."

To be fair, Smith was all about winning games, too. It's just that he believed the best way to do so was by giving him 30 carries, which he usually turned into 100-plus yards. Thus, a perfect win-win situation.

If the Cowboys found another way to win, Smith was cool with it. But if they tried another way and failed, well, No. 22 didn't like it. And he didn't mind letting people know it, especially coach Dave Campo.

(It's worth noting that on the memorable afternoon when the record fell, Dallas lost a very winnable game. And remember that before the finale, which Campo realized was his last game, too, Campo almost proudly said his priority was getting Smith over 1,000 yards. He fell 25 short, gaining only 13 on 18 carries.)

Jerry Jones had a good read on it all. That's why he didn't invite Smith to be part of the Bill Parcells era.

While Smith would've embodied Parcells' hard-work mantra, Jones knew the handling of Smith would've been a distraction again.

Out of respect, Parcells probably would have kept him the starter, which would have sent Hambrick squawking. There also probably would have been a running back-by-committee, which would have sent Smith squawking, too. And after every game the number of carries each got would have been scrutinized.

Thus, a lose-lose situation.

Parcells wouldn't have cared, but he would have had to deal with the fallout. It would have been a nuisance to everyone and a potentially divisive locker-room topic, something no team needs, especially not this one at this time.

"I really thought his stature would possibly limit some of the initial work that needed to be done here," Jones said Tuesday.

To his credit, Smith knew it, too, which is why he and Jones never even got around to discussing money. Both realized it would be best for everyone for Smith to zig while the Cowboys zagged.

Things have worked out quite well, at least in Dallas.

The Parcells Way has been embraced by everyone, and there's been little second-guessing about playing time or anything else. In fact, the season has been so controversy-free that Parcells even spoke Monday about waiting for adversity to strike just so he can see how the team responds.

There's a refreshing aura of hope surrounding the Cowboys now, an arrow pointing up, as Jones called it.

Smith certainly remembers that feeling. If he looks closely, he'll see it Sunday.< ^Extra points:@ WR/KR Reggie Swinton, who lost his role to rookie Zuriel Smith, was traded to Green Bay for a conditional draft pick, and OL Torrin Tucker was promoted from the practice squad. ... Jones formally announced that Tex Schramm will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime on Oct. 12, when Dallas plays Philadelphia. That date has been expected for months.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index