Emmitt Smith, NFL Running Back for the Ages? I Say Yes. Others Say No. Let’s Set the Record Straight
Emmitt Smith could do it all–run, catch, and block. He’s the NFL’s all-time rushing leader and a three-time Super Bowl champion. So why does Smith get bashed? Here’s why. And here’s why I don’t buy it.
Let’s begin by taking a look at Emmitt Smiths’ accomplishments. He played for 15 seasons and 226 games. He scored 175 touchdowns (2nd all-time), 164 rushing touchdowns (1st all-time), gained 18,355 rushing yards (1st all-time) and caught 515 passes for 3,224 yards.
Career highlights and awards include being a 3× Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl 28 MVP, 8× Pro Bowler, (1990–1995, 1998, 1999), a 4× first-team All-Pro (1992–1995), a 2× second-team All-Pro (1991, 1996), the 1993 NFL Most Valuable Player, the 1993 Bert Bell Award winner, the 1990 NFL Offensive ROY, a 4× NFL rushing yards leader (1991–1993, 1995), a 4× NFL rushing TD leader (1991–1993, 1995), a member of the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team, a member of the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, and he’s in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.
With all of that, he still gets bashed! Why? Well, three reasons–based on pure emotion–are impossible for me to counter. First, many fans dislike the Cowboys and anything or any player associated with the team. Second, Smith is often compared to Barry Sanders, the shifty and popular running back, who played during the same era. Finally, Smith broke Walter Payton’s all-time rushing yardage record. Payton was, and remains, a fan-favorite.
But other reasons that fans bash Smith can be refuted by recounting events and reciting stats. Here are three.
First, some fans contend that Smith only cared about his stats and wasn’t a team player. Well, I think it’s bogus to conclude that Smith only cared about himself. Here’s an example. On January 2, 1994, the Cowboys played the division-leading Giants in New Jersey. The Cowboys needed to win that game to grab the division title and secure home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Cowboys jumped out to an early 13–0 lead, but Smith sustained a separated shoulder just before halftime. Then, soon after at the start of the second half, the Giants tied the game, 13–13. Knowing his team needed to win, Smith sucked it up and (to put it mildly) performed. He not only finished with 229 total yards, but Smith also handled the ball on nine of 12 plays during the team’s game-winning drive. If that’s not being a team player, I don’t know what is!
Second, fans sometimes say that Smith had the advantage of playing on a great team with incredibly talented teammates. While true, you can say the very same thing for at least half the players in the NFL Hall of Fame. For example, does anybody discredit Jerry Rice because he had two Hall of Fame QBs throwing to him for the majority of his career?
Furthermore, many of those very same ‘extremely talented teammates’ played for the Cowboys the year before Smith joined the team. Dallas went 1–15 that year. But Dallas went 7–9 during Smith’s rookie year and 12–6 (including two playoff games) in his sophomore campaign. In Year 3, America’s Team went 16–3 and won the Super Bowl!
Of course, Smith didn’t do that all by himself. But he was a significant reason why the team achieved success. Why do I say that? In Year 4, Smith was involved in a contract dispute with owner Jerry Jones and sat out the first two games of the season. The Cowboys lost both of those games! Smith returned in Week Three. Dallas won 15 of the next 17 games and went on to win another Super Bowl!
Third, fans contend that Smith was successful because he ran behind a great offensive line, perhaps ‘the best ever line.’ Really? Does anyone discredit Jack Lambert’s achievements (Pittsburgh middle linebacker) because he played behind arguably the best D-line ever? No!
Many great backs ran behind great offensive lines. So why does Emmitt get knocked for having an excellent line while others don’t?
Franco Harris in Pittsburgh ran behind a great offensive line, led by Hall of Fame center, Mike Webster. John Riggins (Washington) ran behind a great offensive line, led by HOF guard, Russ Grimm, and possible future HOF tackle, Joe Jacoby. Buffalo’s OJ Simpson benefited from running behind “The Electric Company” led by HOF guard Joe DeLamielleure. Larry Csonka (Miami) may have had the best offensive line ever with arguably the best-pulling guard ever, HOFer Larry Little. He also had HOF center Jim Langer and a possible future HOF guard, Bob Kuechenberg. In Green Bay, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung ran behind perhaps the best tackle ever in HOFer Forrest Gregg. They also had center Jim Ringo, and guard Jerry Kramer, both HOFer’s. Cleveland’s Jim Brown, whom many consider the best running back ever, had three HOFers blocking for him–Lou Groza and Mike McCormack (at tackles) and Gene Hickerson (at guard).
The 1970s Raiders also had an outstanding offensive line, led by tackle Art Shell and guard Gene Upshaw, both HOFer’s. But they never had a running back who could rack up the yardage that Emmitt Smith did. Marv Hubbard and Mark Van Eagen were both excellent backs, but they weren’t on the same level as Emmitt Smith.
And here’s the kicker! From 1990–92, when Smith gained 937 yards, 1,563 yards, and 1,713 yards respectively, none–I repeat, none–of the Cowboys’ O-linemen was named All-Pro! Yes, Smith did have a great O-line from 1993-’98–a line that I think was the best O-line in the game at that time. But that’s just six years of the 15 years Smith played in the NFL. For 60% of his career, Smith ran behind an average offensive line.
Consider this. Only one offensive lineman who played for Dallas in those years–Larry Allen–became a HOF player. But Allen didn’t join the Cowboys until 1994 and didn’t become a full-time starter until 1995. That means Smith had already played five full seasons before Allen started paving the way.
By 1999, the Cowboys were no longer a playoff team. Larry Allen alone (among Cowboys’ offensive linemen) was named All-Pro. Yet, Smith continued to be productive, gaining 1,397 rushing yards that year.
Was that Cowboys line as good as people say, or was some of it media created? Up until former Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden started announcing, not too many fans took notice of offensive lineman. Madden, a former offensive lineman himself, put them in the spotlight. Madden took great pleasure in promoting the Washington Redskins “hogs” during the 1980s, and he took the same joy in promoting the great wall in Dallas during the 1990s. Suddenly offensive linemen were in the limelight.
While it’s true that a great offensive line can make a running back look better, isn’t it also true that a great running back can make an offensive line look better? What offensive lineman wouldn’t love to have an Emmitt Smith running behind them.? Wouldn’t it inspire them to know that their block might spring Emmitt for a big gainer? Guard Nate Newton has stated that he was a below-average player until Emmitt Smith joined the team.
What’s my conclusion? While I know that many great athletes have their critics, it seems to me that Emmitt Smith has more than most. And while it’s impossible to counter emotional jibberish, it’s easy to show that other major criticisms just don’t hold water.