IRVING, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys put together their best quarter of the season and nearly pulled off the biggest comeback in team history, Emmitt Smith wasn't part of it.
Instead, he was on the sideline with his helmet off Thursday when the Cowboys scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a 26-24 loss to the Denver Broncos.
What made his absence so strange was that two of the scores were 1-yard runs by Smith's backup, Troy Hambrick. Those short TDs are the signature play of Smith's career. He has 43 1-yarders among his 145 scoring runs, the most in NFL history.
"No one asked me to go into the game, but I didn't press the issue," said Smith, who hasn't scored this season.
Smith, the second-leading rusher in NFL history, gained just 9 yards on nine carries, the second-lowest non-injury total of his career. He lost 12 yards on his first two carries and had 1 yard on seven attempts at halftime.
Smith tweaked the knee injury that forced him to miss two games earlier this month on the opening drive of the third quarter. He wasn't hurt too badly, though, because he returned for two drives later in the period. He didn't play at all in the fourth quarter.
Hambrick takes over
Hambrick, who spent last season on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie, switched from fullback to featured back during the rally.
But with the Cowboys trailing 26-3, running wasn't much of an option. In fact, the only two times Dallas handed off the rest of the game were Hambrick's two scoring runs.
"I felt like the man was in there from the start of the drive, he should have been in there for the touchdown," Smith said.
Smith has 486 yards this season, jeopardizing his streak of 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. He last missed it in his rookie year, 1990. Smith must average 86 yards the final six games to make it.
The slowdown also affects Smith's pursuit of Walter Payton's career rushing record. He's 1,074 yards behind.
As one of two holdovers from Dallas' Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, he's had trouble dealing with the revolving door at quarterback. The Cowboys (2-8) have used four starters and still haven't found a competent heir to Troy Aikman.
The lack of a passing threat allows defenses to concentrate on stopping the run. Smith has mentioned that often when he complains about the team's plight. Offensive coordinator Jack Reilly's play-calling has been another of Smith's targets.
He's also said several times this season that he's tired of auditioning players and wants more emphasis on winning. When he said it again early this week, coach Dave Campo said that if Smith doesn't like what's going on he should retire.
Smith and Campo insist there's no controversy, yet there could be an interesting battle brewing.
Dallas' rebuilding plan could use the salary cap freedom Smith's departure would provide. However, the team's reputation and relationship with fans would be hurt if he left on a sour note, especially with Payton's record so close.