Emmitt Smith is not the best running back in the NFL. However, there is a generation of people who do not appreciate the talent within the league leader in rushing yards. There is a reason Emmitt Smith is in the Hall of Fame and it is not just because he lucked into playing for the Cowboys during their Super Bowl trifecta.
Emmitt James Smith III was a hall of fame running back who played for the Cowboys and Cardinals during his 15-year career. He is the all-time league leader in rushing yards with 18,355 and holds more NFL, University of Florida and high school rushing records than God himself.
I grew up watching Emmitt play and will be the first to admit he is not the most talented or skilled running back I’ve ever seen play or that has played in the NFL. However what has been driving me nuts, and the reason why I’ve embarked on writing this article is the constant slights I see hurled in his general direction by twenty-somethings that were either still in diapers or just a sparkle in their father’s eye when Smith played in the NFL.
Highlights Do Not Do Him Justice
An entire generation that never watched a snap of football before the mid-2000’s roll their eyes and remark “Of course he did this or that, look at the line he had.” Or that his eleven years in a row of 1,000 yard plus seasons are of no consequence and that he’s “overrated” despite being the all-time league leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and putting up over 21,000 yards from scrimmage.
I know a good deal of this is because he played for the Cowboys. If Emmitt had played for a less hated team or a team that wasn’t in the spotlight (deservedly or not) as much I think he wouldn’t be hated on as much. The Cowboys of the 90s, Emmitt’s Cowboys, are a lot like the Patriots of nowadays. They had a lot of success and spawned a lot of hatred because of it.
Most of the people I see firing shots at Smith are younger and I’m positive most of them weren’t watching football in 1990. I know most of the NFL’s viewership these days is a younger demographic. Whether it’s shorter attention spans or the watered down product on the field that has resulted from rule changes or just from life in general (having kids, a wife, responsibilities, etc), viewership in my generation and older are in decline. And for the younger viewers of today, you simply cannot know what Emmitt was like as a player watching an old youtube video or the occasional highlight on ESPN from back in the day.
Emmitt Smith was a Tough SOB
You’ll never know about the time he separated his shoulder against the Giants and refused to leave the game, running play after play in agony to grit out a win in overtime to guarantee the Cowboys a first-round bye in the playoffs and a division title in 1993. Smith finished that game with 168 rushing yards and 10 catches for 61 yards and a touchdown in one of the truly impressive displays of mind over matter.
You never saw how Jerry Jones wouldn’t negotiate a new contract with Smith and how that same season the Cowboys started 0-2 and gave running back Derrick Lassick the start while Emmitt held out. Defying the “Anyone could run behind that line” argument, Lassick put up 75 yards in game one and 52 yards in game two before Smith came back and put up 1,486 rushing yards in the remaining 14 games to finish the season and help the Cowboys win their 2nd Super Bowl in a row.
Personally, I’ve been watching football for 30 years now this August and I would never disrespect Vince Lombardi or Joe Namath or anyone from before my time for having success in their era. Do I think that Lombardi would be able to coach today’s NFL players? Nope. Would Joe Namath crap out his internal organs after being sacked by JJ Watt if Namath were to play in today’s NFL? Yeah probably.
There are many legendary NFL players that I never got to see play because they were before my time and you won’t see me throwing shade at them. I get it, I was a twenty-something know it all myself once upon a time and at that point my hatred for the Patriots caused me to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to try and prove to the world that Tom Brady was a system quarterback and that anyone with a pulse could’ve won those super bowls.
I was wrong. I watched Brady play out of his mind to win those titles. And as a kid I watched Smith put in the work that puts him in the greatest running back conversation and anyone who dismisses his work or calls it overrated wasn’t watching the same thing I was, more likely though they just weren’t watching at all since it was before their time.
The Journey of Emmitt Smith
We’ll do this chronologically and work our way through Emmitt’s football career and on this journey. I’ll touch on the “But the offensive line” shenanigans and most other common slights I’ve seen hurled in Smith’s direction along the way. Let’s go back to the beginning with Smith’s first football experience as a player at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Florida.
Escambia High School was not known as a football powerhouse at all until Smith showed up. During his 4 years, he racked up 8,804 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns and led Escambia High to their first state football championship. Smith’s 8,804 rushing yards came in 49 games with a 7.8 yards per carry average and was the 2nd most rushing yards in the history of American high school football at that time. He had two 2,000 yard rushing seasons in high school and was the USA Today high school player of the year in 1986. He was recruited by the University of Florida and would play his college career as a Gator.
Despite not starting the first two games at Florida, Smith was able to rack up 1,341 rushing yards and was named 1987 SEC freshman of the year while also finishing 9th in Heisman voting as a true freshman. In his sophomore year, Smith was injured and missed 3 games and most of a 4th. Despite this, he still finished with 988 rushing yards averaging 110 rush yards per game.
His junior year he broke the University of Florida single-season rushing record with 1,599 rush yards, including 316 versus New Mexico, a single game record. He also broke the Florida records for longest running play in a game (96 yard run vs Mississippi State) and career rushing yards (3,928 yards).
For good measure, he broke the rushing yards per game record (126.7) and career touchdowns (36) record also. While only playing 3 years he left Florida with 58 school records despite playing on a team with a historically bad passing offense (meaning most of these records were set against eight-man boxes or worse). He was the 1989 SEC player of the year and was a unanimous first team all American. Smith averaged 5.6 yards per carry during his college career. Choosing to forgo his senior season he entered the NFL draft and was selected by the Dallas Cowboys.
Smith’s NFL Career
Smith joined a Cowboy team that had gone 1-15 in 1989. The 1990 season, Smith’s rookie season, wasn’t much better as they finished with a 7-9 record. Despite that Smith finished his rookie year with 937 rushing yards and 11 TDs, winning offensive rookie of the year and a pro bowl bid his first year in the league.
The next 11 years in a row Smith would put up at least 1,000 yards rushing in truly one of the greatest displays of consistency and durability in NFL history. He would end up being the only running back to win a Super Bowl, regular season MVP, NFL rushing crown and Super Bowl MVP all in the same season.
He was only the 3rd player in NFL history to have five seasons in a row of 1,400 plus rushing yards and 60 plus catches. Smith is in a rare club with Jim Brown and LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players with seven straight 10 touchdown seasons to start their careers. Emmitt was also the first player in NFL history to post 11 consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons. Smith’s 21,564 yards from scrimmage in his career make him one of only four players in NFL history to break the 21,000 yards from scrimmage mark.
Common Misconceptions About Smith
As for the “anyone could’ve done it behind that offensive line” there are a few problems with that lazy argument. For one, Confucius says: “Great running game, pro bowl offensive linemen don’t make.” Just look at the Browns with Joe Thomas. He was a perennial pro bowler from 2007-2016 and I guarantee you can’t remember any of the Cleveland running backs from that era.
The Patriots have had multiple different pro bowlers on their offensive line during their recent dynasty and have failed to produce a running back worth remembering. Smith had either one or zero pro bowl offensive linemen for five of the 11 years in a row he put up at least 1,000 rushing yards, many teams have pro bowler or even hall of fame offensive linemen and fail to produce a great running back, Smith did have help on his line but he also accomplished much of his career production either during years without the “Great Wall of Dallas” and also as an old man on the Cardinals, and I for one wouldn’t be able to tell you any of those Cardinals offensive linemen even if my life depended on it.
While Smith did enjoy having pro bowl offensive linemen block for him I often wonder why Jerry Rice isn’t called overrated for having Joe Montana and Steve Young as his quarterbacks, for surely his career wouldn’t have been so special without two of the greatest QBs of all time tossing him the rock. (Shoutout to Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic Magazine for this argument)
Smith Compared to Other Great Running Backs
Many of the running backs in the “greatest all time” conversation had great teams around them, that cannot be denied. If you fail to produce at an all-time level with that kind of help offensively that’s one thing, but 11 years in a row of 1,000 yard plus seasons is another thing entirely. The man damned near ran for 1,000 yards at 35 years old on the freaking Arizona Cardinals, a team that is certainly not known for solid offensive line play.
Another common slight is Smith’s yards per carry. Smith finished his career with an average of 4.2 yards per carry. Barry Sanders finished at 5.0 yards per carry. Walter Payton had 4.4 YPC, Curtis Martin with 4.0 and Frank Gore with 4.3. Smith is definitely in the ballpark with his fellow league leaders in career rushing yards.
Other notable running backs in the top 15 in all-time rushing yards with either a worse YPC than Smith or within 0.1 YPC of Smith include: Jerome Bettis 3.9 YPC, LaDainian Tomlinson 4.3 YPC, Tony Dorsett 4.3 YPC, Marshall Faulk 4.3 YPC, Franco Harris 4.1 YPC and Marcus Allen at 4.1 YPC.
While Smith’s 4.2 YPC average for his career is certainly not the best all time it does back up the fact that Emmitt always produced, whereas Barry Sanders with his 5.0 YPC average also owns the NFL record for most carries for negative yardage with 1,114 rushing yards lost in his career. He also owns the single-game playoff version of that record with 13 carries for negative one yards against the Green Bay Packers.
Maybe Not Flashy…But Great
While Smith was not nearly as flashy or exciting to watch as Barry Sanders or some of the other greats, he was without a doubt among the most consistent. While the Cowboys were able to win some big games without Irvin or Aikman they were never able to do so without Smith. More then that Emmitt was the total package, he is one of only 5 players in NFL history with 10,000 rushing yards and over 400 receptions as well. He could run, catch and pass protect when needed. He played through injury and always did what was needed of him. Smith also joins Jerry Rice as the only two non-kickers to score north of 1,000 points in their career.
One of the biggest reasons why Emmitt was not overrated in my mind is his performance in the playoffs. The best players step up when it’s crunch time and Smith saved some of his best work for the postseason. Smith owns the NFL playoff records for rushing touchdowns (19), consecutive games with a rushing TD (9), 100-yard rushing games (7), total postseason rushing yards (1,586), and shares the total playoff touchdown record with Thurman Thomas (21).
Emmitt really did up his game to the next level during the playoffs. With the score tied at 13-13 in Super Bowl 28 and the Cowboys looking very much beatable Dallas turned to Smith to turn the game around. Dallas began their first possession in the third quarter by handing off to Smith six times in a row for gains of nine yards, three yards, nine yards, seven yards, 14 yards and four yards. Aikman then threw one incomplete pass before Smith ran again for 15 yards and a touchdown in a drive that ate up the clock and demoralized the Bills.
The Cowboys wouldn’t look back after Emmitt gave them the lead and won their 2nd Superbowl in a row by the score of 30-13. That is one of the memories that sticks out for me and a great example of how in crunch time Smith would take over a game and put it to bed. In a game where Troy Aikman was looking very shaky, Smith took over and put up 132 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs and another 4 receptions for 26 yards on the biggest stage.
There Will Never Be Another
I am well aware that I’m probably pissing into the wind here but this was something I had to write. If nothing else it was nice to remember some of the great moments from Smith’s career and dig into the stats that I was definitely not familiar with as a 10 or 12-year-old kid watching the Cowboys.
What blows me away was Emmitt’s consistency. If the modern NFL had a running back put up 11 consecutive 1,000 yard plus seasons, many of them with 40 plus receptions as well, the hype train would be off the tracks. We consider ourselves lucky to get 5 or more good years out of a running back these days and late twenties is now old age. With more and more backfields going to running back by committee I doubt there will ever be another player like Emmitt Smith.
His career rushing yards record is one of those that are largely considered “untouchable”. In a time where players were cutting off their own fingers to get back into the game (Ronnie Lott) and playing with separated shoulders (Smith) and other injuries routinely there is no way a modern running back will be able to match Emmit’s longevity and durability.
While I may not have changed anyone’s mind on whether or not Smith was “overrated” I have succeeded on my journey to make a case for one of my favorite guys from my childhood. And the bottom line is whether anyone likes it or not there is only one name at the top of the all-time rushing leader list and that man is Emmitt Smith. How about them Cowboys?!?
I’d like to include a special thank you to Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for theatlantic.com for helping me organize some of the statistics used in this article and for borrowing an argument here and there to add to the ones I had already come up with. When doing my initial research for this article I was unable to find anything along these lines except the random message board or comment section post arguing Smith’s greatness or lack of the article written by Mr. Coates stood out and was a huge help and inspiration. While stats are stats his article from August of 2008 definitely did save me some digging in a couple areas so I just wanted to mention that and let him know (if he ever stumbles across this) that I appreciate it and appreciate a fellow Smith defender. If you have the time please go read his article, the man does this for a living so it beats the crap out of my attempt, “The underrated greatness of Emmitt Smith” Ta-Nehisi Coates, theatlantic.com 8/6/2008. Thank you Mr. Coates and thank you all for reading.
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