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03 Feb 2005

Emmitt's Place in the Rushing Pantheon

By Michael David Smith

The sight of Emmitt Smith in an Arizona Cardinals uniform will, for many fans, take a place alongside Willie Mays with the Mets and Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards among the saddest sights in sports history.

Smith, who has reportedly been considering retirement, hung on for two final years in Arizona after Bill Parcells arrived in Dallas and made clear that he didn't plan to rebuild the Cowboys around a running back in his mid-30s. When the Cardinals signed Smith, they seemed less interested in winning games than in selling tickets to Cowboys fans in West Texas who would make the drive to see their old hero.

The two years in Arizona were the worst of Smith's career. He had career lows in yards, average gain, and touchdowns during an injury-plagued 2003 season, and was only marginally better through a relatively healthy 2004. With his Cardinals contract expiring, it's likely that Smith wouldn't be able to find a team to sign him even if he wanted to come back for a 16th season.

Smith has denied reports that he will retire this week, saying he wants to finish his career with the Cowboys. There is some talk that he'll sign a ceremonial contract with Dallas before he retires. The contract would most likely have no real significance, but it might serve as something of an exorcism, helping Smith and his fans forget that those two years ever even happened.

Yet nothing that happened in Arizona can take away from Smith's impressive accomplishments: He's the league's all-time leader in carries, yards rushing, rushing touchdowns, 1,000-yard seasons, and 100-yard games. His record 18,355 career rushing yards is secure for several years at least. The only active player who has even an outside shot at surpassing Smith, Curtis Martin of the Jets, is about to turn 32 and sits nearly 5,000 yards behind Smith.

When he becomes eligible in five years, Smith will be a unanimous selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the same time, football fans should avoid going overboard with praise for Smith's fine career. Some will claim he was the best ever to play the position, but Smith just misses the Mount Rush more of running backs. On the list of the greatest ever to play the position, he should come in fifth, after Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, and O.J. Simpson. (Note: Admittedly, as a Lions fan, I may have a pro-Sanders bias.)

The career records Smith owns are impressive testaments to his longevity. Staying in the league long enough to carry the ball more than 4,000 times is impressive in and of itself. But Smith's average of 4.2 yards a carry ranks below the other four, with Brown at 5.2, Sanders at 5.0, Simpson at 4.7, and Payton at 4.4.

Smith's 4.2 average also comes in behind nine of the other rushers on the list of the top 20 all-time in yards gained. And it's important to note that his time in Arizona doesn't account for this low number; he stays at 4.2 yards a carry even if we include only his career in Dallas.

Smith's best single season, the 1995 campaign in which he gained 1,773 yards, ranks well below the 2,053 that was Sanders's career best. And even though Smith played 16-game seasons, his best yardage total even ranks below Simpson's (2,003), Brown's (1,863), and Payton's (1,852), all of whom had their best seasons when the NFL played only 14 games.

It's harder to compare Smith with Brown, Payton, and Simpson, all of whom were retired before Smith even started his career. But Sanders, Smith's contemporary, provides a good comparison.

Smith averaged better than 4.7 yards a carry for a season exactly once. Sanders averaged better than 4.7 yards per carry six times. During the nine years Sanders and Smith spent in the league together, each led the league in rushing four times. (Terrell Davis is the answer to the obvious trivia question.) Though Smith played 226 career games to Sanders's 153, the former recorded only two more 100-yard games than Sanders.

Smith's fans will point to his three Super Bowl rings and say that Sanders never won a championship. But too often players are defined not by their own accomplishments but by what their teams achieved. Sanders was taken early in the draft by a bad team. He made the Lions better, but not by enough.

Smith, on the other hand, was drafted by a team that already had a great deal of offensive talent in place. Among the other players on the Cowboys' offense during their Super Bowl runs in the 1990s were wide receiver Michael Irvin, who is one of the finalists for this weekend's Hall of Fame voting, and quarterback Troy Aikman, another sure Hall-of Famer. The potent Cowboys' passing attack prevented defenses from keying on Smith.

But what made Smith a real star is the offensive line the Cowboys assembled. During his time in Dallas, Smith played behind an astonishing total of six different offensive linemen who were named to multiple Pro Bowls: Larry Allen, Nate Newton, Erik Williams, Ray Donaldson, Mark Stepnoski, and Mark Tuinei. Throw in Pro Bowl blocking fullback Daryl Johnston, and no other running back in the history of the game has received that kind of support from the men in front of him.

Smith and his blockers had a symbiotic relationship; many of the linemen would have gone unnoticed without a good running back on the team. But the Cowboys' blocking was so good that Smith's backups averaged more yards per carry than he did in seven of his 13 seasons in Dallas. By way of comparison, Sanders's backups averaged more yards per carry than he did in only two of his 10 seasons.

Smith was the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXVIII, when he gained 132 yards and scored two touchdowns on 30 carries. On one drive, he carried on seven of the Cowboys' eight plays, gaining 61 of the team's 64 yards. That drive culminated in a 15-yard touchdown run. After the game many commentators said Smith led the Cowboys down the field single-handedly, but that drive showed the greatness of the Cowboys' offensive line as much as it showed the greatness of Smith.

If there's one game we use to remember Emmitt Smith, that should be the one. But in assessing Smith's career, we should also remember that he was just one part of a great team.

Note: This article first appeared in Wednesday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 03 Feb 2005

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