Emmitt Smith

Back in 2010 I wrote a couple of columns for a now defunct American Football site. I am resurrecting a couple of the posts I made- the last sentence of this one hasn’t dated well!

The first member of the draft class of 1990 to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be so honoured this weekend. This article will explore the phenomenon that was and is Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all time leading rusher.

When I began to take notice of more than just the teams that were playing I found myself coveting running backs from other teams that I would like to be playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Although the Cowboys had Herschel Walker he did not seem to catch my imagination the way that Walter Payton of the Bears or Marcus Allen of the Raiders did. Payton was on the Bears team that seemed to have it all- an intense coach (Mike Ditka), an off beat quarterback (Jim McMahon), a massive offensive lineman (William ‘the Refrigerator’ Perry); on top of all of that not a week seemed to go by without Payton having a 100 yard game and scoring a touchdown (obviously the weeks did go by but as a child they never seemed to register). Marcus Allen just seemed to be the most explosive back; knocking the run defense this way and that. Then along came a running back that seemed ready to launch the Lions into contenders- the great Barry Sanders- drafted in 1989 he had a breakout rookie year that promised much. His rookie game was phenomenal- his first carry was 18 yards, and his fourth ended in a touchdown. That year I cam close to changing my football affiliation, all for the love of Barry Sanders. With Sanders in the backfield the Lions became playoff contenders, he was selected to the pro bowl every year of his professional career- he was the ultimate running back (but more of Sanders later).

Having decided my love of the Cowboys was not worth discarding just for the sake of one man I did not have to wait long for an answer to my prayer. Emmitt Smith was drafted at number 17 in the first round (he had fallen because of concerns over his height- he was only 5’ 9”). A quick resume of his career is perhaps in order at this point.

  • He retired with 18,355 career rushing yards (an NFL record)
  • 164 career rushing touchdowns (#1 in NFL history)
  • 175 total career touchdowns (#2 in NFL history)
  • 21,564 total yards from scrimmage
  • 3 Superbowl rings
  • MVP in Superbowl XXVIII
  • First player in NFL history to have over 1,400 rushing yards in 5 consecutive seasons
  • First player in history to have 11 consecutive 1,000 yard seasons
  • 1993 NFL MVP
  • 78 games with 100+ rushing yards (#1 in NFL history)

In short, as a running back Emmitt Smith did it all. The one stand out game for me that showed his greatness was where Smith played with a separated shoulder. It was the season finale of 93/94 and the Cowboys were playing the Giants and needed to win to make certain of the division championship and a first round playoff bye. Smith rushed for 168 rushing yards as the Cowboys beat the Giants, 16-13. Smith received the ball a team record 42 times – 32 carries, 10 receptions – producing 229 of Dallas’ 339 yards. With all of the team’s success he also ensured he gained the NFL’s rushing title for the season. All of the aspects that made Smith great were encapsulated in this game- his team spirit; his individual talent; his bravery; running ability and never say die attitude. Dallas may have found a way without him, but it’s doubtful. Smith made Dallas better. He and Sanders traded rushing titles throughout their playing days. One major difference between Sanders and Smith was their team mates. Ask most people outside of Detroit who was on the Lions’ team in the early 1990s and they might struggle. However, ask most people who were Smith’s team mates and you would get at least two names listed- Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin; you are then able to go onto people like Daryl Johnston, Ken Norton and so on. Smith was a star among many, some might say that the fact that he still managed to shine shows just how good he was, but the question remains for me: what would have happened if Dallas had drafted Sanders and Detroit had Smith? Were Dallas great because they had Smith, or was Smith great because he played in Dallas? The debate is academic, but such was the abrupt nature of Sanders’ retirement we will never know if he would have broken the rushing record. He deserves credit for making a mediocre team better, whereas Smith made an excellent team exceptional. They both were as good as each other, but Smith must hold the edge for all that he achieved (not least because he achieved it playing for my team). Smith’s record in the playoffs was amazing- he played in 17 post season games, rushing for 1928 yards (an NFL record) and 22 touchdowns (an NFL record). This is what sets him apart, yes he played for a great team, but they would not have been as great without him. He is the NFL’s all time rushing leader and in my opinion the greatest running back to play the game (he was not explosive in the same way as Allen or Sanders) but he could read a defense and force extra yardage, or throw a block, stiff arm an opponent, catch out of the backfield, and oh yes… win Superbowls.

When he is inducted this weekend, I wish I could be there to cheer and acknowledge the contribution Smith made to my Cowboys, and the NFL as a whole- there will probably never be another like him (though hopefully Felix Jones will prove me wrong).