Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders are two of the greatest NFL running backs of all-time. It’s really splitting hairs when trying to decide who was better. In my opinion, Smith was the better all-around running back.
Now, now, let’s not freak out…
Sanders was the most electrifying rusher ever. Nobody could bring him down in the open field. He was allusive, shifty, quick, but let’s not confuse that with being better than Smith.
Smith played 15 seasons and is the all-time leading rusher in NFL history with 18,355 rushing yards. He has 21,579 total yards from scrimmage. He had 164 rushing touchdowns and 175 overall. He averaged 1,223 yards and 10 touchdowns per season. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in 11 seasons and had five straight seasons of 1,400 rushing yards or more. His regular season numbers were great, but nobody was better in the playoffs. He rushed for 1,586 yards, and 21 touchdowns on his way to three Super Bowl titles.
Sanders put up some astonishing numbers as well. He rushed for 99.8 yards per game. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and over 1,500 rushing yards per season for his career. He scored only 99 rushing touchdowns and 109 total. He never rushed for less than 1,100 yards in a season. Sanders only played in six career playoff games and had less than 70 rushing yards in five of those games, while only getting into the end zone once.
The biggest knock on Smith is the fact that he played behind an all-time great offensive line. Nobody can argue that the talent up front was better, but since when is that his fault?
Let’s not pretend that Barry had a horrible offensive line. I mean they did make the playoffs six of his 10 years and he played behind at least one Pro Bowl offensive lineman in every season besides his rookie year and final season.
Many of his negative plays were self-induced. It wasn’t solely based on poor blocking. It was because Sanders always tried to make the spectacular play. No lineman can be expected to hold his block forever. For every highlight play he had 10 pitiful backfield blunders.
Let’s not forget third down and goal line situations. Smith was potent inside the five-yard line and rarely came out on third down. Sanders on the other hand, had substitutes on third down and was ineffective in goal-line situations. When the defense had their back against the wall, Sanders often crumbled.
People act like Smith never did anything on his own. Sure he had help, all great players do. He’s the only player in history to win a Super Bowl, MVP, and rushing title all in the same year. Those guys upfront didn’t pick him up and escort him into the end zone untouched.
The deciding factors for me are durability and leadership for each player. I feel there is one instance for each player that sums up their commitment to the game and the team.
In 1994, Smith separated his shoulder in the first half of a game against the New York Giants. This game was not only a rivalry game, but there were seeding implications for the playoffs. There was no way Smith was going out of the game and he didn’t. He wasn’t just a decoy either, he touched the ball 42 times for 229 yards.
Sanders on the other hand saw rebuilding years ahead of him at the end of his career and got out while he could. He quit on his teammates. Obviously no player wants to rebuild, but few would give up the game for that.
I can’t judge someone for getting out while they still had their health. He’s much tougher and stronger than I’ll ever be, but he pales in comparison to Smith’s toughness and leadership.
People assume Sanders would have had better numbers if he played as long as Emmitt. Unfortunately, nobody will ever know if that’s true. We have to take information as is and not what could have been.
Nobody will ever excite a crowd like Sanders, but Smith was the better leader, winner, and had better numbers.