Refighting The Civil War (Blue vs. Gray)

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Down below I'm engaged in a bitter war with a gang of fools who won't acknowledge the awesomeness of Emmitt Smith. I should ban them all from comments, and subscribe all their e-mails to the Dallas Cowboys newsletter.

But lo, I am a merciful Lord. And even in the presence of blasphemy, I offer only the light. It occurs to me that I have warred with this scurrilous band of heathens before, and hath smote them all. Since they've returned for more smoting it's worth offering a dose of the knowledge I gave them but only a year ago:

Let me say right out the gate that Barry Sanders was an incredible back, and the most exciting player of his time (I actually rank Deion Sanders and Randall Cunningham right after Barry). I particularly love the move Barry put on a Patriot d-back where he spun the guy around in a circle. It took a while for me to write this post, in part because I was trying to find video of that move. No dice.

I'm going to make a very short critique of Barry, mostly because I don't want to nitpick. Furthermore, it is true that Barry played for a bad team with a mediocre coach. Having said that, I just want to enter into the record that Barry Sanders holds the NFL record for most yards lost, and that he was running on a home field (the Silverdome) that was simply butter for running backs. I think that accounts for some of his more lackluster playoff performances (only one touchdown in six playoff games), as the Lions were rarely playing at home. Like I said, I don't want to rip on Barry--I think he's either the fourth or fifth greatest back of all time (yeah, I'm hedging some on Dickerson).

Anyway, my case for Emmitt Smith relies on straight up consistency. Emmitt was less exciting than Barry, but constantly, constantly great. People love to note that Barry played for the marginal Wayne Fontes. But Emmitt--after a relatively short stint with Jimmy Johnson--played for the likes of Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, and Dave Campo. I also hear a lot of people saying that Emmitt was running behind arguably the greatest o-line in history and virtually anyone could have been running in that situation. It should be noted that Emmitt Smith actually racked up most of his yards post-1995, after the Cowboys began to decline and after Jimmy Johnson was gone. In that period, Emmitt racked up six straight 1,000-yard seasons. It also should be noted that as good as the Cowboys line was, there probably is only a single Hall of Famer (Larry Allen) among them. That's the same number of HOFers as the Lions in the Barry Sanders era (Lomas Brown). Emmitt was great running behind the Cowboys line at its peak, but as they declined he stayed great and consistent. He was the constant, not the Cowboys O-Line--if anything, he made them look better than they were.


Still, the "any back could run behind that line" theory lingers. People forget about 1993, when Jerry Jones learned the folly of such reasoning. Jones refused to pay Emmit what he was worth and decided to start a rookie named Derrick Lassic. The Boys were promptly smashed off by two of their most hated rivals--the Bills and the Redskins. After Emmitt came back in the third game, the Cowboys only lost two more for the rest of the season en route to a second Super Bowl. And here is the reason why Emmitt Smith exceeds Barry Sanders. That year, the beat-up Cowboys desperately needed to beat the surging Giants to secure a first-round bye. Emmitt Smith willed the Cowboys to victory that game--and he did it with a separated shoulder.
 
Smith rushed for 168 yards and caught ten passes in what is arguably the greatest performance by any running back in history. Understand what I mean by "greatest." Other backs have had better days. But very few have had better days with that sort of significance. The Cowboys went on to the Super Bowl in large measure because of the bye Smith secured. When the Cowboys were losing to the Bills in the Super Bowl, they handed off to Smith seven straight times on one drive for 64 yards and a touchdown. That was the game.

Maybe it's wrong, but as a football fan, I live by the credo that great players come up big in great games. I've seen a lot of Ray Lewis, but what defines him for me is the 2002 Super Bowl run where he's battling Eddie George. I've seen a lot Steve Young, but what I'll remember is him hitting Terrell Owens in the end zone against the Packers for the game-winner in 1998. What do I remember of Barry Sanders? Some really great runs that ultimately signified entertainment, but not winning. Oh, and this: setting an NFL record by rushing for negative one yards on 13 carries--in the playoffs.

While Barry was flash and beauty, Emmitt was workmanlike. And when the Cowboys needed yardage, Emmitt almost always got it for them. He might not break off one for 75 yards, but he would just beat teams down four, six, three, two, eight yards at a time. Barry broke ankles the way most of us walk down the street. But Emmitt elevated his team, and he did it when it counted. Were it not for Troy Aikman throwing all those picks in '94, Emmitt probably would have led the Cowboys to four championships. In that sense, in terms of impact, Emmitt may have even exceeded Walter Payton. I can't think of a single positive Sanders performance that even comes close to the significance of that separated shoulder game vs. the Giants. The Cowboys won big games without Aikman. They won big games without assorted lineman, without defenders. But they never won big games without Emmitt Smith.

He is the only irreplaceable element of the team in the '90s, and arguably the greatest big-game running back in history. One other thing I'll add: Unlike Barry, Emmitt really was a complete back. He could run, catch the ball out the backfield, and pick up the blitz. He really was the total package. And we haven't even discussed the fact that he simply has rushed for more yards than any other player in history.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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