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The Emmitt Smith rant

Posted by Doug on March 30, 2006

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). 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.

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 30th, 2006 at 5:24 am and is filed under History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.