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Emmitt Smith laments that Cowboys aren't in Super Bowl LI, but likes Falcons' chances

Emmitt Smith
Focus On Sport | Getty Images
Emmitt Smith

CNBC.com caught up with former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith last week. The NFL's all-time leading rusher (1990–2004, 18,355 yards) and three-time Super Bowl champ (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX) took time out from his busy schedule to discuss football, including the current Cowboys and his pick to win Super Bowl LI.

CNBC: To quote your former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, "How 'bout them Cowboys?" How disappointed were you when they lost to the Green Bay Packers in this season's playoffs?

It was a heck of a game, but such a depressing game. That loss hurt and lingered for three days. It was like a serious hangover. Because in my mind, short of getting to the NFC [National Football Conference] Championship Game and winning it, it was a disappointing season. From where we were [NFC-best 13–3 regular-season record, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs], the expectations were beyond. I realized how bad it was when my son said, 'Dad, I don't think I want to go to the Super Bowl.'

CNBC: What's your take on the Cowboys' rookie backfield phenom, Ezekiel Elliott?

Oh, it was great watching him. I'll admit, there was a time I didn't realize or recognize Zeke's ability, because I hardly ever saw him play [at Ohio State University]. Then I got a chance to see him up close and personal. ... I went, 'Whoa! He's a game changer.' [Elliott led the NFL in rushing, with 1,631 yards, and was a first-team Pro Bowl selection.]

CNBC: How about Dallas' other rookie sensation, quarterback Dak Prescott?

I followed him at Mississippi State. When the Cowboys drafted him [in the fourth round, the 135th pick overall], I was excited, because he was a good quarterback in the SEC [Southeastern Conference] playing against tough competition. But the question remains for any quarterback coming out of college: Can he transition to the next level? Dak cleared that up for me in the pre-season. Watching his efficiencies, moving the ball around, his accuracy. That told me, this kid has it and he pays attention to details.

CNBC: Will the Cowboys be contenders again next season?

I'm not ready to go that far yet, because the Cowboys haven't made any major decisions yet on who they're going to let go to free agency, who they're going to retain and who they're going to bring in. The chess game has started, but nothing has actually taken place. [Free-agent signings begin March 9.]

CNBC: If you're the Dallas general manager, what do you do with veteran quarterback Tony Romo?

I keep him. It's better for me to have two No. 1 quarterbacks. Some teams have just one guy, and if he goes down — as we saw with [Oakland Raiders QB] Derek Carr and [Tennessee Titans QB] Marcus Mariota [both suffered a broken leg in week 16] — that's a problem. So if you know that's a possibility, why risk it?

CNBC: Regardless of your son's decision, are you going to Super Bowl LI?

I don't know yet.

CNBC: Who's your pick to win it, the New England Patriots or the Atlanta Falcons?

I don't have a dog in this fight ... but I like Atlanta. I'd like to see [team owner] Arthur Blank win a Super Bowl. If this game gets into a shoot-out, I think the Falcons can hang with them. If it gets close and tight, I think the Falcons can still hang with them, because they have a running game as well as a passing game. I'm not sure if the Falcons' defense is as strong as it needs to be, but that offense is high-powered. Still, [Patriots head coach Bill] Belichick had two weeks to prepare, and that can be a problem [for the Falcons]. He's a smart guy, a very good football coach, one of the best in the game. [And he's won four of six previous trips to the Super Bowl as head coach of the Pats.]

You look at what they do, and they do it very, very well — and so often with no-name players. That's their hallmark. I don't care who it is. That's what they do. As much as I don't want to, you've got to give credit where credit is due. The consistency of that organization over the period Robert Kraft has owned it has been phenomenal.

CNBC: What do you make of the kerfuffle surrounding the Patriots' supposed revenge factor against the NFL for suspending QB Tom Brady this season over "Deflategate?"

This Super Bowl has nothing to do with a football that was deflated two years ago, period. Brady missed the first four games of this season, and the Patriots still won [them]. I would say this: Even if Tom Brady was playing with a Nerf football, if the [receiver is] standing 25 yards over there with nobody around him, it doesn't matter. You didn't cover the guy.

— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com