Emmitt Smith simply the greatest ever.

He is the only running back to ever have won a Super Bowl championship, the NFL Most Valuable Player award, the NFL rushing crown, and the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award all in the same season (1993).Emmitt Smith is the 3rd player in NFL history to have five straight seasons with over 1,400 rushing yards and over sixty catches. Smith, Jim Brown, and LaDainian Tomlinson are the only players with seven straight 10-touchdown seasons to start their careers. With 1,021 rushing yards in 2001, Smith became the first player in NFL history with 11 consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and the first to post 11 1,000-yard rushing seasons in a career. He is the NFL's all-time leader in rushing attempts with 4,409.

Smith currently holds the NFL record in career rushing yards with 18,355, breaking the previous record held by Walter Payton, on October 27, during the 2002 NFL season. He leads all running backs with 164 career rushing touchdowns, and his 175 total touchdowns ranks him second only to Jerry Rice's 207 touchdowns. The sum of his rushing yards, receiving yards (3,224) and fumble return yards (-15), gave him a total of 21,564 yards from the line of scrimmage, making him one of only four players in NFL history to eclipse the 21,000-combined yards mark.

Smith also accumulated a number of NFL postseason records, including rushing touchdowns (19), consecutive games with a rushing touchdown (9) and 100-yard rushing games (7). His 1,586 yards rushing is also top on the NFL postseason chart, and he shares the total playoff touchdown mark of 21 with Thurman Thomas. Smith is one of only five NFL players who have amassed over 10,000 career-rushing yards and 400 career receptions. Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice are the only two non-kickers to score 1000 points in a career.

His stats speak for themselves. He has been the most productive runner in NFL history. I'm going to make a very short critique of Barry, mostly because I don't want to nitpick. Furthermore, it is true that Barry played for a bad team with a mediocre coach. Having said that, I just want to enter into the record that Barry Sanders holds the NFL record for most yards lost, and that he was running on a home field (the Silverdome) that was simply butter for running backs. I think that accounts for some of his more lackluster playoff performances (only one touchdown in six playoff games), as the Lions were rarely playing at home. Like I said, I don't want to rip on Barry--I think he's either the fourth or fifth greatest back of all time (yeah, I'm hedging some on Dickerson).

Anyway, my case for Emmitt Smith relies on straight up consistency. Emmitt was less exciting than Barry, but constantly, constantly great. People love to note that Barry played for the marginal Wayne Fontes. But Emmitt--after a relatively short stint with Jimmy Johnson--played for the likes of Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, and Dave Campo. I also hear a lot of people saying that Emmitt was running behind arguably the greatest o-line in history and virtually anyone could have been running in that situation. It should be noted that Emmitt Smith actually racked up most of his yards post-1995, after the Cowboys began to decline and after Jimmy Johnson was gone. In that period, Emmitt racked up six straight 1,000-yard seasons. It also should be noted that as good as the Cowboys line was, there probably is only a single Hall of Famer (Larry Allen) among them. That's the same number of HOFers as the Lions in the Barry Sanders era (Lomas Brown). Emmitt was great running behind the Cowboys line at its peak, but as they declined he stayed great and consistent. He was the constant, not the Cowboys O-Line--if anything, he made them look better than they were.

Still, the "any back could run behind that line" theory lingers. People forget about 1993, when Jerry Jones learned the folly of such reasoning. Jones refused to pay Emmit what he was worth and decided to start a rookie named Derrick Lassic. The Boys were promptly smashed off by two of their most hated rivals--the Bills and the Redskins. After Emmitt came back in the third game, the Cowboys only lost two more for the rest of the season en route to a second Super Bowl. And here is the reason why Emmitt Smith exceeds Barry Sanders. That year, the beat-up Cowboys desperately needed to beat the surging Giants to secure a first-round bye. Emmitt Smith willed the Cowboys to victory that game--and he did it with a separated shoulder.

Smith rushed for 168 yards and caught ten passes in what is arguably the greatest performance by any running back in history. Understand what I mean by "greatest." Other backs have had better days. But very few have had better days with that sort of significance. The Cowboys went on to the Super Bowl in large measure because of the bye Smith secured. When the Cowboys were losing to the Bills in the Super Bowl, they handed off to Smith seven straight times on one drive for 64 yards and a touchdown. That was the game.

Maybe it's wrong, but as a football fan, I live by the credo that great players come up big in great games. I've seen a lot of Ray Lewis, but what defines him for me is the 2002 Super Bowl run where he's battling Eddie George. I've seen a lot Steve Young, but what I'll remember is him hitting Terrell Owens in the end zone against the Packers for the game-winner in 1998. What do I remember of Barry Sanders? Some really great runs that ultimately signified entertainment, but not winning. Oh, and this: setting an NFL record by rushing for negative one yards on 13 carries--in the playoffs.

While Barry was flash and beauty, Emmitt was workmanlike. And when the Cowboys needed yardage, Emmitt almost always got it for them. He might not break off one for 75 yards, but he would just beat teams down four, six, three, two, eight yards at a time. Barry broke ankles the way most of us walk down the street. But Emmitt elevated his team, and he did it when it counted. Were it not for Troy Aikman throwing all those picks in '94, Emmitt probably would have led the Cowboys to four championships. In that sense, in terms of impact, Emmitt may have even exceeded Walter Payton. I can't think of a single positive Sanders performance that even comes close to the significance of that separated shoulder game vs. the Giants. The Cowboys won big games without Aikman. They won big games without assorted lineman, without defenders. But they never won big games without Emmitt Smith.

He is the only irreplaceable element of the team in the '90s, and arguably the greatest big-game running back in history. One other thing I'll add: Unlike Barry, Emmitt really was a complete back. He could run, catch the ball out the backfield, and pick up the blitz. He really was the total package. And we haven't even discussed the fact that he simply has rushed for more yards than any other player in history.

written by Ta-Nehisi Coates


I think everyone is overrating Emmit Smith: I wouldn't put him anywhere in the top five. Granted a great team player who I would love to have on my team, but not the best. The championships were earned by a great surrounding cast at Dallas and even more importantly a great offensive line. Emmit is a solid running back with good form and great game endurance, but I think many other running backs would have put up similar stats running behind the line he ran behind. I guy like Barry Sanders and Walter Payton got it done with inferior O-lines making them the better players - adamsking