I was always a fan of Barry Sanders growing up. His electrifying, razzle-dazzle, elusive runs made watching Detroit Lions football bearable on Thanksgiving Day. Unfortunately, he retired at the relatively young age of 31, and thus he doesn’t belong in this discussion.
Emmitt Smith does belong, however. He belongs at the top of the list of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL.
Obviously, if you grew up in the 1990s you are all too familiar with Smith, The Triplets (Smith, Michael Irvin, and Troy Aikiman), and America’s Team. Three Super Bowl titles and a very visible owner heavily influenced the hype machine. Emmitt Smith was right there in the middle of all the hype.
Smith, who many people forget went to college at the University of Florida, has more rushing yards than anyone in history by a significant margin with a total of 18,355, which is nearly 2,000 more than Walter Payton’s total. He also totaled 175 touchdowns. I think where Smith’s greatness defines him more than the other two running backs in today’s debate (Jim Brown and Walter Payton) is the fact that he achieved incredible success in the postseason. Some of his other teammates – namely Irvin – were flashier, but Smith was Mr. Consistent and was perhaps the key in winning those three Super Bowls. He totaled 19 touchdowns and accumulated 1,586 rushing yards over his postseason career.
I have vivid memories of Sanders growing up, and while some like to compare Sanders and Smith, there really is no comparison for the same reasons there is no comparison to Brown and Payton. Brown, who Bleacher Fan argues for today, was known to just run over you and was very hard to tackle. Payton, nicknamed “Sweetness” and being advocated by Sports Geek, was known for the stiff arm and the “stutter step.” I wish I had gotten to watch both of them play during their Hall of Fame careers.
But Smith was none of that. He didn’t have the “on the field” flash that the others did. I recall watching Cowboys games growing up and while Irvin was getting his flashy receptions and running his trap while doing it, Smith was quietly accumulating yards. He took advantage of a very strong and BIG offensive line, running behind guys like Pro Bowlers Nate Newton and Larry Allen, a very good fullback in Daryl Johnston, and an outstanding blocking tight end in Jay Novacek. He wasn’t the fastest guy on the team by any stretch, and he certainly wasn’t the biggest. That’s what makes him so great. He was durable. He was a grinder.
It’s true that he played longer than Payton and Brown, but so what? That’s another part of his greatness. Playing 15 years as a running back in the NFL is quite an accomplishment in itself. But the truth lies in the numbers. And Emmitt Smith is riding those numbers all the way to the top.