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The Emmitt Smith Example
by Brian Aust

The 2005 NFL season will likely be remembered as the year the Patriots earned their dynasty label, firmly entrenching their place among the elite teams in history. Before the latest act in the New England plot was written, though, true greatness stood for a final curtain call.

With everyone consumed by one team's date with destiny, the NFL community begrudged Emmitt Smith a headline. Emmitt's retirement brought with it the customary commentary and analysis, and Emmitt's place in history was made a question.

"They" spent time assembling a rank order of the most dominating ball carriers throughout history - arguments often rooted in subjectivity and hinging on personal opinion. The top-fives and top-tens varied from expert to expert, and the foundation of Emmitt's legacy remained unclear.

With no answer for a begging question, the question itself becomes subject to analysis. What does it mean to be the Greatest? The Lazy One would lean on a dictionary, hoping to extract answers from a rigid definition. The Curious One, though, would seek out the meaning. Lucky for Mr. Curious, sports fans have a blue print for greatness - they have seen it before.

To be great obviously includes individual accomplishment. "They" don't call Wayne Gretzky "The Great One" because he came close to breaking point records. He OWNS those records. Gretzky's combined point totals make dwarves out of those closest to him. Not only did he surpass Gordie Howe's seemingly untouchable record, he set the bar high enough to leave little question to his legacy.

How does Emmitt stack up? He too broke what seemed like an untouchable record, Walter Payton's mark for career rushing yards. Along the way, Emmitt shattered the record for most touchdowns scored by a runningback, reaching the end zone 175 times - 50 more times than Jim Brown and Walter Payton, 75 more times than Barry Sanders.

When talking team sports, though, "they" don't always focus on the individual. Were that true, "they" would have to appoint Kareem-Abdul Jabbar the greatest to ever step onto the court. The sports world doesn't deny his ability to score, but Jabbar isn't considered the Greatest. That label is reserved for Michael Jordan. Individual records do not matterbecause Jordan's dominance lifted his team to six championships. The bigger the stage, the more crucial the situation, Jordan came through for his team. He was the lynch pin for a dynasty. For that, the sports nation will never deny Jordan his claim to the throne.

Emmitt Smith was part of his own dynasty. The Cowboys broke new ground in the NFL. Three titles in four years, until this year, was an accomplishment exclusive to the Cowboys of the early 90s. Of the players that get mentioned in the "Greatest Running Back Ever" debate, no running back enjoyed as much team success. Not Walter Payton. Not Jim Brown. Not O.J. Simpson. Not Earl Campbell.

Emmitt, rarely missing a game during that stretch, carried the Cowboys when they needed him most. Time after time, when Dallas needed a player to step up, Emmitt Smith answered the call - a fact illustrated by his Super Bowl MVP honor. When the Detroit Lions made their way into the playoffs, in comparison, Barry found himself out of the game plan. Despite his obvious game-changing ability, Sanders'career included less-than-great performances in playoff games low-lighted by a negative rushing performance in a wild card game against Green Bay.

It seems our model of greatness includes both individual and team success. No back makes a better unified example of this inductive model than Emmitt Smith. Those who refuse to place him alone at the top venture into more subjective arguments. It's at this point where "they" claim right to their opinion.

Oddly, being part of a Dynasty dims Emmitt's legacy in "their" eyes. His supporting cast, which included one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL History, is given credit for Smith's accomplishments. Yet, people don't hesitate to label Jerry Rice the best receiver in history. Didn't he have the benefit of Hall of Fame quarterbacks throughout the majority ofhis career? Is anyone allowed to say, "Had Cris Carter been on a better team, he would have owned allthe individual records." No. Jerry Rice is as much aproduct of his environment as Emmitt Smith, which is to say that their greatness is assumed regardless of those who surrounded them.

"They" also like to point out that Emmitt's biggest accomplishment - surpassing Walter Payton's all-time rushing mark - isn't noteworthy because Barry Sanders was within striking distance of the same record when he retired. Theoretically Sanders would have passed Walter had he wanted to continue and been able to stay healthy.

The important element of that argument revolves around Barry's desire. If you're talking about the Greatest, should the question of desire ever come up? Jim Brown left football in his prime to pursue other avenues, including a movie career. Emmitt not only had the ability to be the Greatest, he had the drive.

"They" also seem to hang up on style. Barry Sanders kept you on the edge of your seat, and often times left you breathless. So does Vince Carter. So does Michael Vick. So did Dominique Wilkins. Any "Great" ones in that bunch? Why not? Because Greatness has nothing to do with style.

Emmitt wasn't the greatest runner of all time. Emmitt wasn't the greatest blocking back ever. Emmitt wasn't the greatest backfield receiver of all time. Emmitt wasn't the greatest leader of all time. However, he did it all better than anyone else has ever done it all. That is what it means to be the Greatest.

It will likely be another five years before this debate surfaces again. When Emmitt Smith is inducted to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, perhaps "they" will have taken the time to review his career and come to the realization that, given what Smith has accomplished and the manner in which he accomplished it, it is a lot harder to argue against him than it is to argue for him.

Thanks, Emmitt, for providing us all with another model of Greatness.


  • At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great article!!

  • At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thats was a great article. It was very touching and it hit the nail right on the head.

  • At 11:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Not only that, but how many times did he pick up the blitz-perfectly! An underrated skill which allowed a lot of pass plays to be completed.


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