For Emmitt Smith what was becoming a troublesome end to the regular campaign at least ended on a note of personal triumph. With just under six minutes remaining of the game in Arizona, the Dallas Cowboys' peerless running back scampered three yards into the end zone to set a record of 25 touchdowns in a single season.
The Cowboys have been spluttering into the play-offs with all the aplomb of a car with frozen points, but they returned to something approaching their vintage early season form against the Cardinals, winning 37-13 to secure home field advantage throughout the post-season.
In the immediate post-match euphoria even that was overshadowed by Smith's achievement in eclipsing the mark set by John Riggins when playing for the Washington Redskins in 1983. "As the game went on, I was thinking I might not get it," Smith said. "But my team-mates gave me an opportunity and I'm thankful for that. To achieve a personal goal like this for a guy who was supposed to be too small and not strong enough coming out of college six years ago, it's special, it really is."
Smith, who saves some of his touchdown balls and sells others through his merchandising company, made it clear that the record-setter would not be on offer. "I will keep this one. This is one ball that won't be sold. If the Hall of Fame in Canton wants it, they're going to have to fight me over it."
Smith rushed for 68 yards from 24 carries to take his season's tally to 1,773, his best return after seven years in the league. "Emmitt is always great. He's been playing much more hurt than people know," Barry Switzer, the Dallas head coach who has been under increasing pressure in recent weeks, said.
Switzer was also delighted by another record-setting performance, that of his wide receiver Kevin Williams. He posted a new team mark for all- purpose yards of 307, which consisted of 203 yards as a receiver (including two TDs), 80 as a kick-off and punt returner and 21 as a rusher.
Williams, who has been regarded as something of a weak link in a stellar Cowboy offense, enjoyed his moment. ."That was real sweet today," he said. "They called my number a couple of times and I stepped up to bat and cashed that check."
The result sends the Cowboys into the play-offs in reasonable heart, all the more so because of the San Francisco 49ers' slip at Atlanta on Christmas Eve. As a result, the Cowboys will host the NFC Championship game provided they get that far.
Notwithstanding their hiccups of late, that still looks the likeliest prospect, with the 49ers their most probable opponents, though the Green Bay Packers have a puncher's chance of gatecrashing the big game.
For the Cardinals, games in 1996 begin in July, by which time it is by no means certain that Buddy Ryan will still be their head coach, or that they will still be playing in Phoenix. Ryan, after a moderately promising opening year, has shown himself to be so incompetent as an assessor of talent and an offensive strategist that his days are surely numbered.
With the regular season now over, several of his fellow head coaches may soon be joining him in dusting down their cvs, among them Jim Mora of New Orleans, Rich Kotite and Dan Reeves of the two New York teams and, most remarkably and despite Miami's presence in the play-offs, Don Shula. One head coach definitely staying put is Ray Rhodes. The remarkable turnaround he has wrought in Philadelphia this season secured its just reward when he was named Coach of the Year yesterday.
Wild-card fixtures, page 22Reuse content