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Top Five Running Backs in Dallas Cowboys History

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Don Perkins

Jonathan Bales

A couple of weeks ago, I published my list of the five best quarterbacks in the history of the Dallas Cowboys.  Many of you were surprised to see Tony Romo at No. 3 on that list, but he’s earned it.

Like Cowboys quarterbacks, the list of the top running backs in team history is dominated by two players: Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.  I list them here because it’s really no spoiler.  When you think Cowboys running backs, you think Smith and TD.  Actually, I think those two players have done so much for the position that people forget how mediocre some of the other backs in team history have been. . .

5. Don Perkins

Perkins played eight seasons in Dallas and totaled 6,217 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns.  He averaged only 4.1 yards-per-carry during his time in Big D, but he certainly played in a different era (1961-1967).  Some forget that Perkins also transitioned from tailback to fullback in the second half of his career.

4. Marion Barber

Barber at No.4!?  Well, take a look at some of the other running backs the Cowboys have put on the field over the years and tell me who should surpass Barber.  He has 4,109 rushing yards to date and has already totaled 50 touchdowns.  His career may be on the down, but he was certainly exciting to watch for a few years.

3. Calvin Hill

Hill played just six seasons in Dallas but ran for 5,009 yards and 39 touchdowns.  His 4.3 yards-per-attempt is second-best of anyone on this list (behind only Tony Dorsett).

2. Tony Dorsett

The Heisman Trophy winner averaged just shy of 1,100 yards rushing and eight total touchdowns per season over his 11-year Cowboys career.  He averaged an impressive 4.4 yards-per-rush over that time, and he reached 1,000 yards in every season except the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.  He’s ranked No. 53 on The Sporting News’ list of the top 100 players of all-time.

Then there’s this. . .

1. Emmitt Smith

The numbers are insane.  18,355 career rushing yards.  164 career rushing touchdowns.  3,224 career receiving yards.

Here are highlights from Smith’s career and what I had to say about Emmitt in a segment of out “22 in 22” Tribute Series to Smith.

Emmitt Smith is one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, yet I can envision that, 50 years down the line, people will not consider him as such.  He rarely cracks people’s lists of the top three running backs of all-time (or even the top five, for that matter).  I don’t even know of a person who considers the NFL’s all-time leading rusher to be the league’s best ever running back.

The problem (for others, not for Emmitt) is that Smith wasn’t flashy.  He wasn’t big.  He wasn’t tremendously fast.  He wasn’t even very charismatic off of the field.

Instead, Emmitt possessed the “boring” qualities of running backs (but ones that are just as vital as those above, if not more so): great vision, incredible balance, and remarkable short area quickness.  Of course, there’s also the off-field characteristics, such as determination, but I want to focus on why Emmitt’s on-field play was truly under-appreciated.

Fast forward to the nine second mark in the above video.  See the move Emmitt made?  You may have actually missed it.  That quick juke isn’t the flashy, in-your-face Barry Sanders-esque sort of move, but it was probably even more effective.  That’s a move that can’t be taught.  It was instinctual.

Now forward to 35 seconds.  That play, more than any other I can remember, perfectly exemplifies Smith’s incredible sense of balance.  To this day, I have not seen a running back that could have stayed on his feet after absorbing that hit.  Except Emmitt.

Now move to 2:58 into the video.  I don’t have much to say about that juke, other than it is one of the best I have ever witnessed.

Finally, forward to 3:27 for a series of astounding plays.  Emmitt had one of the most devastatingly effective stiff arms I’ve seen.  It wasn’t a reckless punch, but rather a controlled, precise jab straight to his target.

Two stiff arms are followed by a play, at the 3:42 mark, where Emmitt again displayed his out-of-this-world balance.  If it doesn’t appear that difficult, that’s because he was that good.  The best make it look easy.  Emmitt made it appear as child’s play.

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5 Responses to Top Five Running Backs in Dallas Cowboys History

  1. Jason Neighbors says:

    5. Duane Thomas
    I know he only played two seasons for us, but he was instrumental in both Super Bowl runs. This guy had the talent to be a great running back.

    4. Hershel Walker
    I don’t know how you can leave Walker off the list. He made the Pro Bowl 3 times with the Cowboys, iirc. He was the Cowboys entire offense. Sure, the Cowboys were better off without him considering the draft picks they got, but very few players are worth what the Vikings offered in possibly the most one-sided deal in NFL history.

    3. Don Perkins
    Ring of Honor. Several Pro Bowls.

    As you say, 1 & 2 is not even open to argument.

    I like Marion Barber a lot, but I just don’t see him having reached the personal or team accomplishments of the three I listed. Btw, really enjoy the site. The Cowboys should hire you for their website.

  2. Hey Jason,

    I didn’t put Thomas and Walker on there due to reasons you mentioned…not enough time on the team. You could argue Walker was so good during his short time that it didn’t matter, and perhaps I should have put him on the list for that reason.

    And than for the compliments. Keep coming and commenting with anything you’d like to see or how I can improve DCT.

  3. Vince Grey says:

    Have to agree with Jason: Walker over Barber, though it’s a close call. OTOH, I’ll go with you on Calvin Hill over Duane Thomas, though again, that’s a very close race. But, Thomas was better, albeit for a shorter run.

    Two honorable mentions: Walt Garrison, who did nothing great but everything solid and actually played better hurt than healthy (!), and Preston Pearson, who’s still today the absolute best pass catching RB the Cowboys have ever had, and it’s a distant drop to #2.

    Emmitt at #1 is a no brainer. I’ll put his 6 year run from 1990-1996 up against anyone not named Jim Brown, and Smith is the best post-season RB of all time, IMO.

  4. Fred Goodwin says:

    Glad to see folks showing some love for Don Perkins, my all-time favorite Dallas Cowboy!

  5. Rick says:

    Well, no comments on 1 and 2. I don’t see how anyone can argue those 2 But I think there is ONE here all are fogetting. Robert Newhouse. He was a solid fullback for many years here Excellent blocker, decent runner and pass catcher. He was a bull with strong thick legs and complimented the fater running backs very well. Herschel was an outstanding all around player, but not a very good lateral runner. he was a north wouth dude, and nothing more. Excellent pass catcher though

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