In order to preview the upcoming NFL season, I will be debunking a few common myths over the next few days.
Among the myths I will be analyzing: is the NFL really a passing game today? Is going for it on 4th down really such a big risk?
But first things first…the myth I feel the strongest about:
Why Emmitt Smith is NOT the greatest running back of all time.
There has been a lot of talk over the past week concerning Emmitt Smith. In case you live under a rock, or for some unknown reason don’t follow football, Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame over the weekend.
His claim to fame is that he owns the NFL’s All-Time Rushing Record. Unfortunately, the occasion has been met by the obligatory need of many analysts to pronounce that Emmitt Smith is “The Greatest RB of All Time.”
Look, I get it. Emmitt Smith was a great running back. He also seems like he’s a good guy. He has a lot of records and he played for the Team of the 90’s. He was also inducted into the Hall during the same year as Jerry Rice – someone who was legitimately the best to ever play his position (I will fight you to the death on this).
But Emmitt Smith – the greatest running back of all time? He wasn’t even the greatest running back of his generation. Actually, he wasn’t even the greatest running back in his own conference. That distinction goes to Barry Sanders.
#22 deserves a lot of credit. He was remarkably durable. During his 13 years in Dallas, he only missed seven games. That is very commendable. He was also amazingly consistent as he had over 1,000 yards in nine consecutive seasons.
But if you take a deep look into the stats, you will discover one thing: although he was very good for a long time, he was rarely, if ever, great.
In fact, let’s do that right now. Look at his stats. Pro Football Reference concludes that his career was most similar to two other players: Thurman Thomas and Edgerrin James. (At this point, the defense could rest, but we will keep going just to drive the point home.)
So why was Barry Sanders a better running back than Emmitt Smith? Three Reasons:
1. Emmitt Smith’s team was unbelievably stacked.
We all know about the triplets. Aikman, Irvin, and Emmitt. They were great. They were fun to watch. I remember playing with the Cowboys on “NFL QB Club ‘96” and running the “Aikman Arsenal” play time and time again. It was unstoppable.
They also had Jay Novacek, a Pro-Bowl Tight End who may have been one of the best ever had he not gotten hurt. Daryl Johnston was one of the better FBs of the 90s as well, and definitely one of the best lead blockers I have ever seen.
And just take a look at that offensive line.
In 1995, (one of the few years that Smith led the league in rushing, with over 1,700 yards) the Cowboys started FOUR Pro-Bowlers up front. Let me say that again: four of the five players on the offensive line were among the best in the league. I am tempted to say that someone like me could have at least fallen down behind Larry Allen and Daryl Johnston for 3 yards a carry.
Barry Sanders, on the other hand, played for the Detroit Lions. He had guys like Scott Mitchell handing him the ball. Herman Moore was good for a few seasons, but I really don’t think I need to keep telling you how bad the Lions were. I will just leave it at this: During the 1997 season in which Barry Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards, he led the league in Negative Rushing Attempts.
Over the course of his career, he had over 1100 negative yards. If you discounted them, he would have averaged a staggering 6.3 yards per carry instead of a still unbelievable 5.0.
2. Barry was just, flat out, a better runner.
If Emmitt Smith retired after year ten like Barry did, he would have finished over 1,300 yards short of Barry – and that’s still accounting for the fact that Emmitt’s team was so much better. I can’t imagine how many games the Cowboys played where they were just trying to eat clock during the second half because they were so far ahead. They would turn to Emmitt Smith behind their massive offensive line and just grind out the game.
Barry, meanwhile, played on teams that were “airing it out” as they tried to catch up. Looking back though, the Lions best bet was probably to still hand the ball off. #20 had 15 TD runs of over 50 yards in his career. Emmitt Smith, on the other hand, only had six.
But then there’s this: when was the last time you remember seeing Emmitt Smith make someone “miss.” Not just breaking a tackle (which he was great at), but actually making a guy tackle air. I don’t recall any memories like that, but I wanted to make sure. Type in “Emmitt Smith sick move” into YouTube. Nothing. However, replace “Emmitt Smith” with “Barry Sanders”…over 20 videos instantly.
Sure, there are several “Emmitt Smith Tribute” videos on the web, but most of them showcase him running through massive holes for 10 or 15 yards before being touched for the first time in the secondary. Barry on the other hand? There’s this. And this. And then there’s this:
3. The stats and Emmitt Smith himself don’t lie.
Barry was the first running back to ever have over 1,000 yards in ten straight seasons. He made the Pro Bowl ten times in ten seasons (Emmitt made eight out of fifteen). Barry was a First-Team All-Pro six times (Emmitt made four). He was also the Offensive Player of the Year twice (an award Smith never won). He was even named the League MVP on a team that finished 9-7 (Smith only won it in 1993 on a Super Bowl winner).
Barry Sanders retired in his absolute prime. Emmitt Smith was remarkably durable, and played an additional five years for some pretty lousy teams (the late ‘90s Cowboys and even the Arizona Cardinals).
But besides all that, one thing stands out to me: in an interview where both players were asked who was the better runner, both Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders came to the same conclusion. Emmitt Smith was #2. (Believe me, I tried for hours to find the clip but I can’t. You just have to take my word for it. Maybe one of you can find it…).
So there you have it. Barry Sanders was a better running back than Emmitt Smith. But the story is not quite finished. We are leaving someone out. Someone that changed the way the position was played. Someone that battled through more adversity than anyone could ever imagine. Jim Brown.
Now I won’t sit here and tell you that I remember Jim Brown (other than The Dirty Dozen, one of the greatest movies of all time). We could watch some grainy footage and watch Jim Brown overpower people. We could admire the fact that he never ran out of bounds. But I believe that we can also, both statistically and aesthetically, prove why Jim Brown was the all-time best.
Jim Brown was not just an amazing football player, he was an amazing athlete.
He averaged 38 ppg as a high school basketball player and went on to play the sport at Syracuse. While at Syracuse, he was an All-American Lacrosse player, and finished 5th in the nation at the Decathlon. The Yankees drafted him to play baseball, and Professional Boxing always coveted him.
To sum it up, he could play any sport he wanted, and he chose to dominate football – a sport where he wasn’t welcome.
He entered the league in 1957, a time when race was still a big deal. It wasn’t just that opposing players wanted to stop him, they wanted to hurt him. He famously would lie on the ground until everyone else had gotten up so he could hide whether or not he was hurt. He wasn’t just tackled, he was kicked, bitten, spit upon, and worse while on the bottom of the pile. Opposing players would try to twist his ankle or break his fingers while he was on the ground.
And what did he do in the midst of all this? Dominate like no one else before or since.
The stats, when used properly, once again don’t lie.
Don’t get me wrong, the numbers in and of themselves are great: 12,312 yards; 5.2 yards/carry; 12 TDs of over 50 yards; 21 yds. a game receiving (Emmitt Smith only had 15 ypg in an era with more passing); Nine Pro Bowls; Nine First Teams All-Pro; Never missed one game; etc. In case you just zoned out, let me re-emphasize those last few stats: Jim Brown only played for nine seasons, and was voted the absolute best player at his position in every single one of them.
But when you really dig deeper, the numbers jump out even more. Emmitt Smith rushed for over 1,250 yards seven different seasons. Jim Brown did it three times – in 12 GAME SEASONS! Overall, he accomplished the feat seven seasons out of nine, in seasons that never had more than 14 games.
Think about that, he ran for over 12,000 yards and missed out on 26 games because of the era he played in. If you were to simply multiply this by his YPG average, he gains another 2,700 yards. Now we are looking at numbers that are just insane. He would have at least two different seasons where he rushes for over 2,000 yards and he would have over 15,000 yards on the ground, and he still retired at the age of 29!
His most impressive year was actually his least impressive, statistically. He ran for 996 yards in 1962 and didn’t miss a single game while running on a broken toe. The next year, just to prove that ’62 was a fluke, he ran for 1,863 yards (in 14 games remember) and had the longest rushing and receiving TDs of the year. In one game, Hall of Famer Sam Huff famously stopped him on 2 consecutive plays and decided to rub it in by telling Brown that “he stunk.” On the next play, Brown sprinted off for a 65 yd. TD and called out from the end zone, “Hey Sam, how do I smell from here?”
I could go on and on with stories about Brown. I could talk about his toughness. I could talk about how he changed the game. We could get lost in his incredible stats. Words just can’t do him justice. No one could ever know how much adversity he really went through. It would be a disservice to him to really attempt to describe it.
I can only think of one thing that could possibly hint at his greatness. When the legendary Barry Sanders retired, and entered into the Hall of Fame, he asked one person to speak for him, someone that had watched him every day from his beginning. This was a man that had seen him rush for over 2,600 yards at Oklahoma State. This man had cheered for him and admired him every step along the way. This man was none other than his father. And what did Mr. Sanders say? As good as Barry was, it would be foolish for anyone to say that he ever approached Jim Brown.
That is good enough for me.