So many factors go into deciding this. The stats, awards, the jaw-dropping plays, clutch performances, teamwork and longevity. The greatest running back in NFL history has to be one that can play with injuries and show up come playoff time. The greatest ever has to be an elusive back that can beat you more than one way. He must also be consistent.
Given every factor into consideration the greatest running back ever is Emmitt Smith.
Yes that’s right Emmitt Smith. Smith was the biggest reason the Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls and were a dynasty in the early 90s. He was an unstoppable force for an entire decade and no other running back can say that. His 18,355 rushing yards and 164 touchdowns are the most in NFL history. He led the NFL in rushing three consecutive seasons and four times overall. He won the MVP in 1993.
But Smith was more than just a regular season stat machine and award winner. He was a dependable back that didn’t crumble under pressure. In his first two Super Bowl appearances he rushed for 108 and 132 yards and captured a Super Bowl MVP. In 17 career playoff games Smith has the NFL record for most rushing yards, touchdowns and 100 yard games. He couldn’t be stopped come playoff time.
Critics will often bring up the fact that Smith had a great offensive line. But they don’t remember 1993. Smith held out and Jerry Jones didn’t give in. The Cowboys proceeded to go 0-2 without Smith even with Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and that “great offensive line.” Later that season Smith would have one of the most spectacular games in NFL history. Playing with a dislocated shoulder against the New York Giants he put up 228 total yards in the season finale.
In 1993, Smith won regular season MVP, the rushing title, Superbowl MVP and his team was 0-2 without him. That just may be the greatest single season ever for any player.
So many others come close. Barry Sanders played in the same era and was compared to Smith constantly. He was more fun to watch and he broke the bigger plays. Unfortunately he depended on the big play too much and wasn’t physical enough. In six playoff games Sanders failed to gain more than 70 yards five times and only scored one touchdown. Who could forget the 13 carries for negative one yard game against the Green Bay Packers? In 1999, Sanders unexpectedly retired and the Detroit Lions made the playoffs without him.
Jim Brown was the best runner of his generation but he didn’t go up against the same competition that Smith did. His early retirement at age 29 doesn’t help his all-time legacy nor does failure to lead the Cleveland Browns to more than one championship. Walter Payton aka “sweetness” can’t match Smith’s all-time greatness either. His inability to score touchdowns in the red zone against great defenses always hurt the Chicago Bears. In nine career playoff games Payton only reached the end zone in 1 of those games. The 1985 Bears won because of an elite defense, not Payton. Payton was even taken out of the game so William “the fridge” Perry could score.
These running backs rank among the best, however, they can’t match up to what Emmitt Smith did on the field. The Cowboys suffered big time without Smith’s presence and Smith still flourished in the late 90s when the Cowboys weren’t contenders. Peyton’s inconsistent play, Browns disappointing early retirement and Sanders terrible playoff resume all don’t compare to Smith.
Smiths ability to play through pain, put points on the board and play his best in the playoffs make him the best running back ever.
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