SAN FRANCISCO -- You could call it a new order if it weren't one of the oldest NFL orders: the Cowboys as champions. A flashback to the '70s if ever there was one, huh? And next week we'll all be doin' the hustle.
Anyway, there they were yesterday, stomping and hollering in a hot locker room after beating the 49ers to win the NFC and qualify for the Super Bowl. The quarterback, Troy Aikman, celebrating with a pinch between his cheek and gum. The owner, Jerry Jones, pumping hands and draining a Bud like any bubba in the nosebleeds. The effusive, hole-opening offensive guard, Nate Newton, filling reporters' notebooks.
"Emmitt, baby, Emmitt," he kept saying amid the sweat and din, as if it were his mantra. "You're talking about the franchise, baby, right there. Emmitt."
And where was this "franchise"? Packed away in the sealed-off quiet of the trainers' room, as horizontal as the table he was upon, hooked up to an IV. Then another.
"Emmitt's just beat," a team spokesman said. "Just plum wore out, you know?"
Not as worn out as he left the Niners, though, on a gray but relatively orderly afternoon that carried less rain and slop than predicted. A number of elements combined on the chemistry of the 30-20 win, but at the core of it -- the core of the Cowboys' entire resurgence, really -- was a 5-foot-9 running back on whom more than a dozen teams passed in the first round of the 1990 draft.
That Emmitt Smith was the game's best back was a basically unarguable fact long before yesterday. He has won the league rushing title two years running, and caught a thousand yards of passes. But if any shred of suspicion remained, Smith delivered his valedictory on Candlestick's freshly sewn sod -- and the Niners paid dearly for it.
Sure, the Cowboys won for a lot more reasons than one player's big day. Aikman was brilliant and nerveless, completing 24 of 34 passes. The Niners lost four turnovers (to the Cowboys' none) and had a long touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. Someone named Alvin Harper made the plays and someone named Jerry Rice didn't.
But the central thread, unmistakeably, was Smith, who ran or caught the ball on 31 of the Cowboys' 68 plays, totaling 173 yards and becoming more of a presence as the game began tilting toward the Cowboys from a 10-10 halftime tie.
The Cowboys won it with two long touchdown drives on their first two series of the second half, one a nine-minute, 14-play Picasso. Smith was the centerpiece of both drives, sweeping around right end for 13 yards, another sweep right for 4 more, off left tackle for 4, catching a screen pass, breaking a tackle and going for 16. Then: another screen, a defensive breakdown, no coverage, touchdown.
"It's what we do, as anyone who's seen us all year can tell you," Newton said. "We just kept hammering away, usually with Emmitt. Three yards, 5 yards, 10 yards, 3 yards. Nothing flashy, not all our yards at once. Just real steady, real consistent. And, finally, the other team gets worn down. That's us. It starts with Emmitt."
Describing his style isn't the easiest task. He isn't graceful like O. J., he doesn't glide like Dorsett and he isn't a bull like Jim Brown. But the first tackler always misses him, and sometimes the second. His cutbacks are sharp and sweet. His little genius is finding another seam to explore, another hole to wriggle through.
"What can you say about him?" Niners linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "He's a great back. Their whole game is ball control, and, sure, they get a lot of big plays from Aikman. But they control the ball with Emmitt."
The irony was that the Niners controlled Smith for the first 20 minutes. "Like a lot of teams," said Cowboys center Mark Stepnoski, "they concentrated on him because they knew they had to stop him to win. But we'll always keep coming with Emmitt."
Smith and Newton were beside each other on the sidelines in the second quarter.
"We've got to get the running game going," Smith said. "I need some holes, man."
Newton nodded. "Don't worry about it," he said. "They're coming, they're coming."
And indeed they were, leaving the Cowboys one win shy of a turnaround as stunning as any in NFL history, from 1-15 to Super Bowl champs in four years.
"And, hey look, when did we start winning again?" Newton was saying, to a new circle of reporters now. "It's no coincidence, you know. The Cowboys started winning again when Emmitt Smith got here."