So, I'm sure that the folks over at Cold Hard Football Facts will do a stat analysis and prove much of this post wrong, but what the hell. 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.