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HOF 2010: Emmitt Smith

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 21, 2010

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams; Art Modell; Terrell Davis; Dermontti Dawson; Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Andre Reed; Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; Cortez Kennedy; Don Coryell; Ray Guy; Cliff Branch; Shannon Sharpe; Jerry Rice; Richard Dent

Much like the Jerry Rice post, let's begin by running down a list of Emmitt Smith's accomplishments in his outstanding, Hall of Fame career:

Part I: Emmitt the Great

  • The career rushing leader with 18,355 rushing yards, Smith outgained Walter Payton by 1,629 yards and has a 5,865 yard edge on the current leader, LaDainian Tomlinson. He may have looked like a compiler by the end of his career, but he led the league in rushing yards four times and ranked in the top five in rushing during three other seasons. He also led the league in yards per carry with a 5.3 average in 1993.
  • Smith's the career leader in rushing touchdowns with 164; #3, Marcus Allen, only ran for three-fourths as many touchdowns as Smith did, while #2 (Tomlinson) is still 26 scores back of the Cowboy great. Smith ranked in the top five in rushing touchdowns an incredible nine times. He trails only Rice in total career touchdowns.

  • From 1991 to 1995, Smith had one of the greatest runs in the history of the regular season. In 77 games, Smith rushed for 8,019 yards and 85 touchdowns. He gained 9,742 yards from scrimmage (127 YFS/G) over those five seasons, over 1,000 more yards than HOF peers Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders and over 3,000 yards more than anyone else.
  • From 1991 to 1995, Smith had one of the greatest runs in the history of the playoffs. In 13 games, Smith rushed for 1217 yards and 16 touchdowns, caught 37 passes for 294 yards and scored two more receiving touchdowns. For his career, in 17 playoff games, Smith scored 21 touchdowns and gained 1,928 yards from scrimmage. He's also the all-time leader in Super Bowl rushing touchdowns.
  • And because I couldn't resist hearing it one last time: in games where Emmitt carried the ball 25 times or more, the Cowboys won 49 of 60 games.

Doug wrote a great article on Smith three years ago. Since nothing has changed, I'm reproducing it in its entirety, below:

Part II: Emmitt Smith, star on bad teams

With greatness comes backlash, and every great player has collected his share of detractors. But my observation is that Emmitt Smith has it worse than most. It seems to me like the majority of football fans believe Emmitt was nothing special. "You put him on any other team and he would've been good but not great," is a common sentiment. Feel free to let me know if I'm flogging a straw man here, but I hear that a lot.

Consider the period from 1998 to 2000. During that time, the Cowboys were one game under .500, were coached by Chan Gailey and Dave Campo, and won zero playoff games. I'm a big Aikman fan, but he was pretty much finished. So was Irvin. Some of the great names were still on the line, but their best years were way behind them at that point. These were the age 29, 30, and 31 seasons for Emmitt, who had taken a ridiculous amount of punishment in his first 28 years. What you've got there is a situation where an RB who was merely above average would probably struggle.

Emmitt rushed for 3900 yards and 32 TDs during those three years. And they weren't Eddie George yards, either. He was above 4.1 yards per carry all three years. He was in the top five in the NFL in rushing yards two of those three years.

We don't need to speculate on what Emmitt would have done if he had played for a mediocre team. He did play for a mediocre team from 1998-2000, and what he did was amass more rushing yards from age 29-31 than any player in NFL history aside from Walter Payton and Curtis Martin (yes, I know, Sanders and Brown retired before their age 31 seasons). [Chase note: Since then, Tiki Barber outrushed Emmitt, but Thomas Jones did not.] Most good-but-not-great running backs are struggling to hold a job at age 30. Emmitt was a top five rusher on a bad team.

Those of you who would now accuse me of selecting that particular three-year stretch in an effort to make Emmitt look good would be walking right into a trap. The fact is that you can pick any three-year stretch out of Emmitt's career and he will be among the leading rushers in NFL history in that age group. And the point is that his supporting cast wasn't great in all of those stretches and was downright bad in others.

[Chase:, for those curious:

Ages 21 to 23: 3rd
Ages 22 to 24: 1st
Ages 23 to 25: 4th
Ages 24 to 26: 4th
Ages 25 to 27: 3rd
Ages 26 to 28: 13th
Ages 27 to 29: 18th
Ages 28 to 30: 6th
Ages 29 to 31: 4th
Ages 30 to 32: 3rd
Ages 31 to 33: 2nd
Ages 32 to 34: 3rd
Ages 33 to 35: 4th
Ages 34 to 36: 4th
Ages 35 to 37: 5th]

Smith played on good teams early in his career and bad teams late in his career. Walter Payton did the opposite. Barry Sanders played on bad teams in September and October every year and good ones in November and December. Jim Brown, of course, only played on good teams. During his career, Emmitt's Smith's teams were a total of 12 games over .500. Jim Brown's were 45 games over .500. Walter Payton's were 28 games over .500. (Sanders' were four under). Why does Emmitt get singled out for being a coattail-rider?

No one knows how Emmitt's prime would have looked without Troy, Erik, et al. I am not going to argue that he would still be the all-time rushing champ had he switched places with Sanders or Payton. Nor am I going to argue that he didn't benefit from some good fortune. All record holders did. But he was and is one of the very best running backs in history.

Part III: A look back on Emmitt's O-Line

As Doug alluded to, some feel that the Cowboys' dominant offensive line was what really made the running game effective, and Emmitt was just along for the ride. There's no doubt that the early-to-mid '90s Cowboys had some fantastic lines. And while it's impossible to separate the great production Emmitt Smith had from '91 to '95 from the great offensive line he ran behind, let's take a closer look at those players. Below are the starting linemen for the Cowboys for each of Emmitt's prime years, with an * next to the player if he made the Pro Bowl that season and a + if he was a first-team All-Pro; I've also included, in parentheses, the lineman's age during that season:

      LT                 LG                  C                     RG                  RT
1991  Mark Tuinei (31)   Kevin Gogan (27)    Mark Stepnoski (24)   John Gesek (28)     Nate Newton (30)
1992  Mark Tuinei (32)   Nate Newton* (31)   Mark Stepnoski* (25)  John Gesek (29)     Erik Williams (24)
1993  Mark Tuinei (33)   Nate Newton* (32)   Mark Stepnoski* (26)  Kevin Gogan (29)    Erik Williams+* (25)
1994  Mark Tuinei* (34)  Nate Newton+* (33)  Mark Stepnoski* (27)  Derek Kennard (32)  Larry Allen (23)
1995  Mark Tuinei* (35)  Nate Newton+* (34)  Ray Donaldson* (37)   Larry Allen* (24)   Erik Williams (27)

By 1995, the year Emmitt led the league in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns, he was playing behind four Pro Bowl linemen and the fifth was a four-time Pro Bowler in the prime of his career. His tight end, a strong blocker, would make the Pro Bowl for the fifth straight season, too. His fullback had made the Pro Bowl the prior two seasons, and only missed it in '95 because Larry Centers had 101 receptions that season. So Smith was playing with an insane seven Pro Bowl caliber blockers that season, in addition to having a HOF QB and HOF WR on his team, too. Only one player in the starting eleven -- WR2 Kevin Williams -- would not make a Pro Bowl in his career. In fact, the '95 Cowboys had 10 offensive players who would make 55 Pro Bowls in their career, the most in league history.

pos	pbs	
QB	6	Troy Aikman
RB	8	Emmitt Smith
FB	2	Daryl Johnston
WR	5	Michael Irvin
WR	0	Kevin Williams
TE	5	Jay Novacek
LT	2	Mark Tuinei
LG	6	Nate Newton
C	6	Ray Donaldson
RG	11	Larry Allen
RT	4	Erik Williams

Here are the offenses whose 11 starters made the most Pro Bowls in their careers:

tm	   pbs
dal1995	   55

rai1972	   51
rai1971	   51
rai1970	   51

dal1996	   50
dal1994	   50

cle1959	   50

dal1998	   47
dal1997	   47

kan2004	   46
kan2003	   46
kan2002	   46

dal1993	   46

rai1973	   46

clt1966	   46
clt1965	   46
clt1964	   46

sdg1964	   46

kan2005	   45

mia1973	   45

min1973	   45

So yes, Emmitt Smith had it good. Very good. But everyone on that Cowboys offense had it good (and the defense wasn't devoid of talent, either). You might notice that one of Jim Brown's teams is on the above list; he, too, played on some great offenses and ran behind some incredible offensive lines. In fact, lots of star RBs have played behind great offensive lines, and it's worth noting that Emmitt only logged 40% of his career carries during that five year stretch ending in 1995. For the rest of his career, he wasn't as fortunate. Last August, I asked: What great running back was most helped by his offensive line? The answers, below:

(RValue is the number of adjusted yards over average the RB produced; the OL rating is the average AV rating of the average OL, weighted by the RB's best seasons.)

Rvalue	OL 	Name
1735	55.9	Calvin Hill
4155	55.3	Jim Taylor
7971	54.9	Jim Brown
2074	52.8	Larry Csonka
1678	51.6	Mark van Eeghen
3443	50.4	Chuck Foreman
2465	48.5	Lenny Moore
4491	48.2	Priest Holmes
3261	47.8	Roger Craig
2025	46.2	James Brooks
3666	46.0	Lydell Mitchell
1504	45.9	Rick Casares
7057	45.4	Emmitt Smith
2295	45.1	Robert Smith
3964	44.8	Terrell Davis
3421	44.8	Leroy Kelly
1575	44.4	Pete Johnson
7445	44.1	Marshall Faulk
1723	44.0	Earnest Byner
5083	43.8	Thurman Thomas
5029	43.7	Edgerrin James
3644	43.4	Tony Dorsett
1515	42.8	Wendell Tyler
1949	42.4	Frank Gifford
1813	42.2	Mike Pruitt
2318	41.9	Neal Anderson
4221	41.4	Shaun Alexander
2399	41.4	Lawrence McCutcheon
1783	41.4	Freeman McNeil
1608	41.2	J.D. Smith
3293	41.2	William Andrews
5457	40.7	Eric Dickerson

Emmitt Smith had a lot of help in front of him. But so did Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Jim Taylor and several other HOF RBs. Did he have it easier than Barry Sanders? Of course. But without Emmitt Smith, would any of those linemen (or for that matter, Troy Aikman or Michael Irvin) be thought of as highly? Emmitt missed only three meaningful games in his prime, all coming in the 1993 season. That season, arguably his finest ever, deserves a more complete look.

Smith held out the first two games of '93 due to a contract dispute, and the Cowboys lost both games. With Emmitt back, the Cowboys won their next six games. In the last of those, a win over the hated Giants, Troy Aikman went down with an injury that would sideline him for two games. The first of those, against the Cardinals, Smith gained 182 yards from scrimmage and scored a touchdown, allowing Bernie Kosar and Jason Garrett to call themselves winners. The next week, Smith injured his quad, and had just one carry in a loss against the Falcons. The next week, Aikman was back, and on Thanksgiving Day the Cowboys had locked up a win over the Dolphins until Leon Lett cost Dallas the game. The Cowboys would win their next four games, setting up a rematch with the Giants to decide the NFC East on the final weekend of the season. I'll let his bio take over from there:

Despite separating his right shoulder late in the second quarter, an injury that required surgery [on] March 1, 1994, Smith ran for 168 yards and caught 10 passes for another 61 yards to establish a club record for rushing-receiving attempts in a game at 42. Smith gained 78 yards on 17 carries/catches after the injury, including 41 yards on nine runs/receptions in Dallas' 12-play, 52-yard drive to the game winning field goal in overtime. In the two playoff games leading up to Super Bowl XXVIII, Smith struggled with his injury, but still managed 148 yards against Green Bay (1/16/94) and San Francisco (1/23/94). It was in Super Bowl XXVIII against Buffalo (1/30/94) where Smith capped his storybook season, capturing MVP honors for leading Dallas to its second consecutive NFL title. For the second consecutive year, he topped the 100-yard rushing mark in the Super Bowl, gaining 132 yards, 91 yards and two touchdowns in the second half as Dallas scored 24 unanswered points.

Smith missed nearly three full games in the 1993 season, yet he still was named NFL MVP because of his dominance while playing (and, perhaps, because of how ineffective the Cowboys were without Smith). In the remaining 16 games, the Cowboys went 15-1, with the only loss coming when Lett's blunder snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. He led the league in yards per carry and rushing yards. Despite blowing away his '93 numbers in just about every metric in '95, he wouldn't win the MVP that season because voters were either bored with seeing Smith dominate or were in love with Brett Favre (pick your poison there). The truth is, from '92 to '95, Smith would have been a solid MVP choice in any season.

Smith passes every Hall of Fame test you can think of, and even the biggest Smith bashers would have a hard time saying they didn't think Emmitt deserves a bust in question. Like Rice, Smith's defining legacy won't be making the Hall of Fame, but figuring out where he stands among the game's greats.

Congratulations to Emmitt Smith, future member of the Hall of Fame class of 2010.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 21st, 2010 at 10:31 am and is filed under HOF, Player articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.