The Triplets 2.0

Dak, Zeke and Dez are Dallas' new Aikman, Smith and Irvin. They're embracing the legacy, and it's embracing them.

By Dan Pompei

December 9, 2016

Brad Rempel / USA Today Sports

FRISCO, Texas — Once, there were three great Cowboys.

The quarterback was blonde of hair, blue of eyes and square of jaw. It was as if he were cast by a Hollywood filmmaker to be the captain of America's Team. The running back had the gall to think he could be the most productive runner in league history before he ever had his first NFL carry. He told teammates that. And damn if he didn't live up to his word. The wide receiver had a self-appointed nickname: The Playmaker. He worked harder than anyone, and partied harder than anyone, too. He wore fur coats, diamonds and sunglasses.

"The Triplets," they called them.

Today, there are three potentially great Cowboys.

The rookie quarterback is a prodigy and an accidental superstar. He has stunned the world simply by doing everything the right way. The first-round running back with the crop top and thick beard leads the NFL in rushing yards and jersey sales as a rookie. He shows off his abs and leaves cleat marks on defenders. The wide receiver is gifted almost beyond understanding. With a background you wouldn't wish on anyone, he plays every game as if the moon were full.

"The Triplets," they're calling them.

It's an interesting term for these groups of three.

The originals did not look alike, act alike, play the same position or come from the same school. Nor do the present-day versions.

But, as the term implies, they are of the same blood.

Emmitt Smith talks about having a "kinsman's respect" for Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. Aikman considers Irvin a brother and speaks of how proud he is of the man and father Smith is.

Paul Buck / Getty Images

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott spend more time together than most married couples. They practice together, attend meetings together, then go have dinner together. Prescott says his relationship with Dez Bryant is "amazing," and that he "loves Dez like a brother." Of Prescott, Bryant says, "I'm being honest. I don't want to say anything bad about anybody, but he's a lovable guy. Everybody loves him. Not taking away from the guy who was there before him; it's just who he is."

Every so often when Prescott, Elliott and Bryant are playing at AT&T Stadium, they look up and see three names side by side in the Cowboys Ring of Honor:

88 MICHAEL IRVIN 1988-1999

8 TROY AIKMAN 1989-2000

22 EMMITT SMITH 1990-2002

They can be forgiven for momentary daydreams.


In the early 1970s, many of America's oil barons were looking to get out. Oil production had peaked in the U.S. and then dipped, and shortages prompted price increases. Layoffs swept the industry.

That's when Jerry Jones asked to be dealt in. A wildcatter is what he would be. With the wink of an eye and a slick smile, he leveraged himself and started drilling in Oklahoma. He hit a gusher, and before long he was buying America's Team.

In that black gold was a valuable lesson.

"If you can go in a different direction than the others, that's an advantage," he says.

More than 40 years later, Jones applied the lesson to his Cowboys. Jones wanted to recreate the Triplets, but he also wanted to take his team in a new direction. Specifically, he wanted to buck the trend of spread offenses that was sweeping the NFL. He wanted an offense that could lead the NFL in percentage of runs.

Now that's exactly what he has. That, and an 11-1 record, the best in the NFL.

Jones knew he could get better value with draft picks used on players who fit better in a throwback offense, and he knew defenses wouldn't be as prepared to handle an offense that wanted to maul them rather than toy with them.

So the Cowboys invested heavily in offensive linemen. Then in 2015, they planned on selecting running back Todd Gurley before the Rams surprisingly chose him with the 10th overall pick. The next year, the Cowboys were picking fourth. That all but assured them the first crack at the best running back, and they picked a bruiser in Elliott from Ohio State.

The next step was to find an eventual successor to Tony Romo. The Cowboys struck out in an attempt to trade up for Paxton Lynch, and then watched Connor Cook go off the board before they could pick him. So they settled for Mississippi State's Prescott.

Jones had his new Triplets.

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Bryant, who had been the team's first-round pick in 2010, welcomed Prescott, Elliott and the other rookies to Dallas, approaching each in the locker room with a handshake. What Prescott remembers about meeting Bryant is how his hand got lost in Bryant's massive hand. Those big hands, he thought, were going to be useful.

Prescott also recalls meeting Elliott. After medical exams at the combine in Indianapolis last winter, NFL prospects piled into a van to return to their rooms at the Holiday Inn. Prescott worked his way to the back of the bus and found an open spot. In the seat next to him was Elliott. They introduced themselves, and both felt an immediate chemistry. Elliott was so comfortable he dozed off on the short ride.

Aikman remembers seeing Smith for the first time, too.

"Polka-dot outfit and flattop haircut," Aikman says. "Not sure either was in style, but Emmitt pulled it off with ease, which is how I would soon learn he did everything."

That was in 1990, a year after Aikman had joined the Cowboys and two years after Irvin had. Then-Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson had traded up in the draft to select the last of the original Triplets.

When Irvin and Smith came together for the first time as Cowboys, Smith referenced their college teams' battles. Irvin told him it wasn't about the University of Miami and the University of Florida anymore. 

"We stopped talking about the things that separated us and found things that united us," Irvin says.

Linda Kaye / AP Photo

In Smith's second season, the Triplets became dominant. Smith led the league in rushing, Irvin led the league in receiving, and all three were selected to the Pro Bowl. But their season ended with a loss to the Detroit Lions in the divisional playoff round.

A couple nights after that loss, Irvin was asleep at 3 a.m. when his phone rang. It was Smith, who was driving on a lonesome highway from Dallas to Pensacola, Florida. He needed to talk with one of his football brothers.

"I'm thinking about this," he told Irvin. "Next year is going to be different, I promise you."

Irvin replied, "You are right. From this point on, we are going to win Super Bowls."

The next season, the Cowboys won the first of three Super Bowls in four years. In the process, the Triplets helped create a template for how the Cowboys were supposed to win. 


It was early August in Oxnard, California, and Kellen Moore, who had been taking most of the first-team reps at quarterback for the Cowboys, was off to have his broken ankle casted. Next man up would be the rookie.

Near the end of one of Prescott's first practices as the first-team quarterback, the Cowboys offense ran through a two-minute drill. With 12 seconds left, the ball was on the 42-yard line.

Prescott told Bryant he would hit him on a slant and instructed him to go down as soon as he caught it, so Prescott could clock it and Dan Bailey could attempt a game-winning field goal. Bryant nodded. The quarterback and receiver connected on the slant. But instead of going down, Bryant tried to score. He was stopped well short of the end zone and time ran out. The offense failed.

Prescott sprinted to Bryant and put his hand around the back of his neck.

"You are the baddest man on the field, the best player on the team," he told him. "But you have to listen to me. I told you that you had to get down. Look what just happened. We have the best kicker in the league."

Bryant listened intently, then looked him in the eye. Instead of shoving the rookie and storming off, he said, "I got you, man. It won't happen again."

"The way he handles business is like a vet. Nobody views him as a rookie or even a young guy."

— Dez Bryant on Dak Prescott

In the NFL culture, a two-time Pro Bowler being told what to do by a rookie is highly unusual, if not completely unheard of. But Prescott has been guiding and calming Bryant ever since, including when Bryant has been peeved at officiating decisions and when he has found himself in conflicts with opponents.

"The way he handles business is like a vet," Bryant says. "Nobody views him as a rookie or even a young guy. You have to give him the utmost respect because of how he handles himself. The way he can adapt to everything and everybody is bigger than what he brings to the field. That's how you get guys around you to play their best. He is the leader."

Michael Ainsworth / AP Photo

Prescott has shown it with Elliott as well.

It is safe to assume that the night before the Cowboys played the Browns, Elliott had some opportunities to enjoy Cleveland, which is just a two-hour drive from his college town.

Brad Sham, the voice of the Cowboys for 38 years, wandered down to the team meeting room at the hotel that night. Most of the players, it seemed, had taken to the streets. But there, watching college football on the projection TV, wearing sweats, was Elliott. Next to Prescott.

"To me, it was not an accident Dak had him there watching the game," Sham says.

On a prior road trip, to Seattle, Elliott had used his free time to visit to Herban Legends—billed as the first recreational weed shop in Belltown. Jones was not pleased.

"He is a natural leader. I like how he takes control of the game. I like that no matter what happened the play before, he is so poised. He attacks the play the same way every play."

— Ezekiel Elliott on Dak Prescott

Elliott also is being investigated by the NFL after an allegation of domestic violence, and Ed Werder reported on ESPN this past summer that the Cowboys were concerned about a "pattern of disturbing behavior." 

Many around the team believe Prescott has been a good influence on Elliott. They are roommates on the road. On a recent weekday in the Cowboys locker room, they sat hip to hip, Elliott eating out of Dak's large purple plastic bag of fun-size candy bars like the big kids they are.

Certainly, they are complementing one another on the field, too. Both are candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year and MVP. 

The fourth pick in the draft has no problem deferring to the 135th. 

"You have to have the understanding he is the leader," Elliott says. "And he is a natural leader. I like how he takes control of the game. I like that no matter what happened the play before, he is so poised. He attacks the play the same way every play."

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Those could have been Irvin's words about Aikman years ago.

"I gave Troy all respect," Irvin says. "When Troy said something, that was the only thing that could calm me down. I love to see Dez and Dak have that rapport, and for Dak and Zeke to have that relationship."

Image title

Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

While Prescott and Aikman both have textbook leadership qualities, they are not the same types of leaders. Aikman, according to Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones, was more of a CEO, above it all, whereas Prescott leads but remains one of the guys.

"I wasn't in need of the attention or the spotlight," Aikman says. "I just felt my job as a quarterback was to somehow tie it all together and make it work. I was extremely motivated on the practice field and driven and almost obsessed to not waste a day and to be as good as we could possibly be.

"Very early in my career I realized we were not going to throw the ball like the Dolphins or the 49ers, so any legacy or respect I was going to earn was going to be through winning. So I was hell-bent on making sure everybody in the locker room was doing all they could to help us win."

When Prescott was a kid, he was a Cowboys fan. Smith was his favorite. Now? "I want to be like Troy," he says.

Prescott has a leadership advantage that Aikman did not—the presence of Jason Witten, a 14-year veteran and one of the most respected players in the NFL. Right now, this is Witten's team more than anyone else's. And Witten gives Prescott his seal of approval to run it.

"As a veteran leader, when you see someone come into that position, you kind of evaluate," Witten says. "You look at every box you consider with a professional football player. Sunday afternoons. Practice. Meetings. The media. Workouts. Locker room. Dak checks them all."


Elliott hopes to be the new Smith, but the reality is he is more like Irvin.

It was Irvin who gave the Cowboys offense of the '90s its nasty, physical edge.

"Zeke talks about how physical they are going to be," Irvin says. "I love that. They need that. Somebody can out-scheme you and out-design you. But physical is physical. I can't go on a chalkboard and come up with a way to stop physical. I played the same kind of physical game at the wide receiver position."

Elliott's running style is different from Smith's.

"Elliott is bigger, stronger and—who knows?—he might be a step faster," Johnson says. "Because of his power, he'll take on tacklers and run over people. Emmitt, you never got a shot on him."

Smith was destined to set records of longevity; Elliott doesn't look much beyond the blocker in front of him.

"I'd like to figure out what he did to make him last that long," Elliott says. "Everyone wants to play for a long time. But I don't know if I can do 15 years."

Smith does not see himself in Elliott. "But I don't spend time comparing the two of us," he says. "I appreciate God's gift right before my eyes. I am watching a young man who has been blessed from God above with a talent that is synonymous with excellence. I'm appreciating the moment."

Irvin was the outlet that provided the juice that flowed through his offense. These Cowboys plug into Elliott. "He's very much a spark, and that would remind you of Michael," Jerry Jones says.

In early November, the Cowboys were scheduled to play in the early afternoon time slot for the first time in seven weeks, so throughout the week coach Jason Garrett had stressed the importance of a good early-morning start at the hotel. Around sunup, while many of the Cowboys were hitting snooze buttons, Elliott took to the hallways, banging on doors, yelling and doing jumping jacks.

Elliott also fires up his team with his "keep feeding me" celebration after a long run. The Triplets and three teammates taped a spoof for the Cowboys' website about their "secret breakfast club" in which Elliott shovels cereal in his mouth with an oversized spoon.

Irvin used to eat his cereal the same way, going through an entire box at a time as soon as he got home from school. Except the cereal was in a bowl of tap water, not milk. And this was no spoof. As the 15th of 17 children, Irvin had to get it before it was taken from him. He knew a beating would be in the offing when one of his older siblings had nothing for breakfast the next day, but his desire was strong.

"He was deprived of so much as a boy that it created a competitor unlike any I've ever seen," Aikman says. "He was not going to be denied."

Irvin and Elliott want everything they can get. And more.


As much as Elliott is reminiscent of Irvin, so is Bryant. He wears Irvin's No. 88. Both wide receivers are 6'2". Each was the first of his respective Triplets. Bryant has extreme passion too and, like Irvin, has had some missteps.

Irvin was charged with drug possession. He got into a quarrel with teammate Everett McIver over who should get their haircut first, and Irvin cut his neck with a pair of scissors.

Bryant was charged with domestic violence after an incident with his mother. As a rookie, he refused to follow tradition and carry the shoulderpads of veteran Roy Williams.

Irvin is proud that Bryant wears his number.

Gus Ruelas / AP Photo

"I love Dez," Irvin says. "He is like me, in some ways to a fault. We both have what I call a reptilian brain. Whenever you challenge Dez—he's like me—his reptilian brain takes over. We're going to fight right now. He sees everything as a challenge.

"I tell him, 'Make sure you aren't fighting the rest of your guys—that you are using the rest of your guys to fight with you.' It can be a great asset, but I've talked to him about trying to point it in the right direction."

When the Cowboys played the Vikings, Irvin was broadcasting from the field for NFL Network. He was there to greet Bryant with a hug on the sideline after Bryant tied his mark for career touchdowns.

Irvin has had a lot to say to Bryant, and Bryant knows Irvin has his best interests at heart. "Have you ever heard the same thing over and over from different people, but then it comes from one person, and it sticks?" Bryant says. "That's what happens when Mike tells me something. I listen to everything. He won those championships. That's my dream."


What does it mean to be a Triplet?

"I always took great pride in being a Triplet," Aikman says. "I never wanted to distance myself from that. I never wanted autonomy from those two. I embraced it. I think the world of both of them. So that term was very meaningful to me."

Each of the Triplets attended the others' inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When Smith gave his speech, he asked Aikman and Irvin to stand. "Without you," he said, "there is no me. That is why we are called the Triplets. You cannot have one without the other."

In 1996, Irvin stood trial for felony possession of cocaine. The sordid case included testimony about junkie strippers, alleged witness manipulation and a Dallas cop/jealous boyfriend who wanted to kill the star football player.

Irvin had told his teammates to stay away from the courthouse, and for nine days, they had. This was his mess, and he didn't want them to be tainted by it.

Then, on the 10th day, there was a buzz in the courtroom. Irvin turned around to survey the crowd.

"I thought, If that was a family member of mine, I would go," Aikman says. "Not that I would condone the behavior, but I would be there in support. I felt Michael was as much family as my own blood family. I needed to go. I knew there would be backlash, but I wasn't concerned about it."

Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

At the end of the day, as jurors filed out, the Cowboys wide receiver embraced his quarterback.

"I was in a hellstorm, and he was the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys," Irvin says. "As strong as I like to think I was going through all of that…yeah, that meant everything to me. … I get emotional still, well over 20 years later, when I talk about it. Against everybody's wishes, he showed up."

"I always took great pride in being a Triplet. I never wanted to distance myself from that. I never wanted autonomy from those two. I embraced it. I think the world of both of them. So that term was very meaningful to me."

— Troy Aikman

Two decades later, it was Prescott who helped a teammate who was down. The day before the Cowboys played the Steelers, Bryant learned his father had passed away.

So much was going through his head. Bryant wasn't sure if he could pull himself together and play a game—a stupid game. His phone buzzed. A text from Prescott. 

The text, which he saved, read:

"Dez I heard about your loss. I want to let you know I've been through it. First and foremost, I want to let you know nobody, I mean nobody, can tell you how you are supposed to feel. There aren't any words to comfort someone except he is in a better place than this world and there is not anything to say to make you feel better right now. Please know I'm here for you brother. I love you man and anytime you want to talk about this or anything, my ears are open. I know I'm young, but I've been through damn near everything so I don't hesitate. Today is your day. This game is the only thing that gives me peace. That's why I'm so passionate about it, and I know you are the exact same way. Let's go have a day and honor your dad."

LM Otero / AP Photo

It was just what Bryant needed. The message helped him turn down the noise in his mind, and helped him start to heal the hole in his heart.

"Usually for games I'm pumped, I'm amped, I have a million things running through my head," Bryant says. "That Pittsburgh game...I never felt that way ever before. I was calm. I played my best football. I ran the best routes I ever ran with the Cowboys. A lot of credit goes to Dak."


One of the meeting spaces in The Star, the Cowboys' incredible new facility, is called The Triplet Room.

In the room hangs a photo of Irvin, Smith and Aikman, taken from behind. It was shot by team photographer Ron St. Angelo at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1992.

Courtesy of Troy Aikman

The same photo also has had a place in the game room of Aikman's home. Aikman isn't much for reminding himself or those around him about how great he was, so it has been the only picture from his playing days in his house.

Irvin also has just one photo in his house from his playing days. It's the same one. He has it in his game room where he shoots pool. It's also in a frame on his desk, and it's the screensaver on his computer.

The picture tells more stories than a shelf full of books could. It talks about commitment and sacrifice and teamwork and passion. It tells the tale of three Super Bowl rings. And two or three more that could have been. Of bloody, muddy 49ers wars. It talks of running as a trio in the Texas summer heat, and of surviving on frozen fields in places like Green Bay, where the feeling was gone from toes and fingers. It explains scars, broken bones and torn ligaments, and recalls times when they couldn't tell if they were looking at three fingers or two. It narrates a fast climb, and a slow descent.

The picture shows what a bond that could never be broken looks like.

Sharon Ellman / AP Photo

Part of what made the original Triplets special is they endured. They were teammates for 10 seasons until Irvin retired after a spinal injury.

Bryant, Elliott and Prescott are under contract through 2019. Jerry Jones says he intends to keep the new Triplets together for a long time and sees no reason why that can't happen.

Someday, there will be a photograph of Prescott, Elliott and Bryant. Just think of the stories it may tell.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei