Why Do Emmitt Smith And Barry Sanders Get Criticized So Much?
How many times have you heard this question? Who’s the better running back and why: Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith?
My first response is why even ask the question? I mean, really, you can’t go wrong with either of those guys in your backfield. I’ve been watching football since 1969 and those two are among the very best I’ve ever seen. Why would anyone have anything critical to say about either one?
Well, they do. So here’s my view of these two NFL greats.
First, even though Detroit (with Sanders) and Dallas (with Smith) built their respective offenses around “their guy,” each back had a very different running style. Barry was the better open-field runner. He could break a long-gainer at any moment, but he would also lose yardage occasionally. Emmitt was more of a between-the-tackles runner–not that he couldn’t break a big run, too. But his style was more of the 4 or 5 yards per carry variety. He’d wear down the defense.
So many times I’d hear people say “Emmitt was fortunate to have a great offensive line” or “If Barry had that Dallas line in front of him he could have gained 2000 yards every year.” Maybe. Maybe not. First, it wasn’t as important for Barry to have a great O-line because of his running style. Second–and this is a really important question–was the Cowboys’ O-line as great as everyone says and remembers? Let’s take a look.
Smith was an incredibly productive running back. In 1990 Smith gained 937 yards and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 1991 Smith led the NFL in rushing, gaining 1,563 yards, and was named to the All-Pro team. Repeat the accolades for 1992: Smith gained 1,713 yards (to lead the league again), had 18 touchdowns, averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and made All-Pro.
What a record of accomplishment! Yet, during those years none–I repeat, none–of the Cowboys’ O-linemen was named All-Pro. That’s three consecutive years of outstanding rushing–4,213 yards cumulatively–without Smith running behind even one All-Pro offensive lineman!
You can make the argument that Smith did have a great O-line in front of him during the following 5 or 6 years (from 1993-’98). The Dallas O-line just may have been the best in the game during that time. But, I ask: So what? Many other great backs ran behind similarly great O-lines. Like who you ask?
Franco Harris in Pittsburgh ran behind a great offensive line, led by Hall of Fame (HOF) center, Mike Webster.
John Riggins in Washington ran behind a great offensive line, led by HOF guard, Russ Grimm, and possible future HOF tackle. Joe Jacoby.
Larry Csonka in Miami may have had the best offensive line ever, led by possibly the best-pulling guard ever, HOFer, Larry Little. He also had a HOF center, Jim Langer, and a possible future HOF guard, Bob Kuechenberg.
In Green Bay, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung ran behind arguably the best tackle ever in HOF player, Forrest Gregg. They also had HOF center, Jim Ringo, and recent inductee HOF guard, Jerry Kramer.
And perhaps the best of the best–Cleveland’s Jim Brown, whom many consider to be the best running back ever–had three HOFers blocking for him: Lou Groza and Mike McCormack (at tackles) and Gene Hickerson (at guard).
So while, yes, a great line can make a running back look great, it’s also true that a great running back can be great without a great line. In the early years of his career Emmitt Smith proved that you can be the best without having a great O-line. In fact, he made the O-line look better than it was.
The same thinking applies to defense, too. Does anyone discredit Jack Lambert’s achievements (Pittsburgh middle linebacker) because he played behind arguably the best D-line ever? No!
And what really astounds me is when people are critical of Emmitt Smith. This man ran for over 1000 yards 11 years in a row! He’s the all-time leading rusher in NFL history. He has three Super Bowl rings. Yet there are those who say he wasn’t that good. I shake my head!
Barry Sanders (20) is carried off the field by teammates following their win over the New York Jets Sunday, Dec. 21, 1997, in Pontiac, Mich. Sanders became only the third player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season(MLive with AP Photo/Jeff Kowalsky)
There are those who criticize Barry Sanders, too. They will say things like this: ‘He never took his team to the Super Bowl.’
But we all know that many great running backs never took their teams to a Super Bowl. Why? Their teams weren’t championship quality. Let’s face facts: the Lions weren’t a great team at any point during Sanders’ career. No one man can do it all by himself, folks.
People also say this about Sanders: ‘He lost yardage on too many plays.’ Really? Other great running backs, including Chicago HOFer, Gale Sayers, lost yards on plays.
What’s really important–just as with Smith–is what Sanders accomplished during his career.
Sanders played for 10 seasons. He gained over 1,000 yards in every single one of those seasons. And, in 1997, he became only the third running back in NFL history to gain over 2,000 yards in a season.
Still, some criticize him for walking away from the game ‘too soon.’ If he had stayed in the game, they argue, he would have beaten out Emmitt Smith for the all-time rushing yardage title.
That may be true, but it’s clear Barry valued another alternative–retiring.
Maybe he felt blessed to have played for ten seasons relatively injury-free and thought it was best to call it a career rather than risk injury. Whatever his reason(s) we need to respect Barry for making a call that he felt was best for him.
While I’m sure some fans will continue debating who was the better running back–Smith or Sanders–I’m just grateful to have had the chance to watch these HOFer’s in action.
We may never see their likes again.