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Sixth in a series of profiles of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's seven-member Class of 2010.
Football doesn’t share the same statistical backbone that baseball does with its sport, but there are some records that speak for themselves.
Emmitt Smith’s rushing record might be atop the football list.
In fact, when it came time for the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters to induct this year’s class at the Super Bowl, longtime Dallas sportswriter Rick Gosselin, the man who presented Smith to the other voters in the room, issued a short-and-sweet campaign speech: “Most carries, most yards. Any questions?” he asked rhetorically, taking a seat after less than a minute of presenting.
There were none.
In a sport dominated by quarterbacks, Smith’s rushing mark holds a special sanctity in the annals of the game. The number 18,355 — Smith’s rushing total over his 15 seasons — might not quite resonate the way Hank Aaron and 755 home runs do. But you could argue that Smith’s total holds an even holier platform that the 22,895 receiving yards that Jerry Rice, alongside whom Smith will enter Canton, achieved in his otherworldly career.
One reason, no doubt, is that Smith broke the hallowed former mark, with much fanfare, of his idol and one of the more beloved figures in the game the past half-century — Walter Payton. Another, certainly, is the fact that Smith spent the bulk of his career and broke the record while playing for the Cowboys, still "America’s Team" to many and three-time Super Bowl champions during Smith’s reign.
It was a mark earned one carry at a time, often one yard a time, and rarely with 80-yard bursts. But there’s little question that the sheer distance Smith traveled to attain his new mark is one that few figure to approach any time soon.
In a league far more bent on passing than ever before, featuring teams full of specialists and part-time running backs, Smith’s mark might stand for years. Perhaps longer than the 18 years Payton’s previous mark had stood or the 19 years Jim Brown’s rushing record stood before Payton overtook him. It might last forever.
Smith, though, thinks someone will push the mark one day and maybe even break it.
“I do believe it will be approached,” Smith said in a national conference call. “I would be naive to think that it could be not approached, because, hey, no one actually thought that Walter Payton’s record could be approached. Here I am, in 2002, ended up breaking that record (16,726) and extended it out to 18,000-plus yards.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you the record is not going to be approached or broken, but I do know this: It’s going to take an awful lot to get there, because I know what it took for me to get there. It’s not easy.”
The closest active player in rushing yards is LaDainian Tomlinson, with 12,490. But Tomlinson is now fighting for playing time with the Jets, and it appears there’s no way he’ll get close Smith's hallowed mark.
“I thought LaDainian Tomlinson would have been one guy that would challenge it,” Smith said. “The last couple of years his career has kind of been going a little sideways. Now, he’s in New York and how long he’s there can determine how close he’s going to get.”
The only active back with more than 10,000 rushing yards is Fred Taylor, who has 11,540 but is one of five backs competing for time in New England.
The best chance to break Smith’s mark might belong to Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who has 4,484 yards in his three seasons. But he’d need to average 1,388 yards over the next 10 seasons to pass Smith. Given the way Peterson runs, taking contact head-on, it would be a miracle for him to be that productive for that long.
Part of what made Smith so good was also what allowed him to rush for so many yards. He could barrel into the pile and run between the tackles, but he also had an innate ability to shield himself from maximum contact. Smith also was incredibly tough, playing through injuries and missing only four games to injury during his 13-year Cowboys career. (He played his final two seasons, 2003-04, in Arizona.) Although he wasn’t incredibly fast, Smith had incredible vision that allowed him to gain extra yards by seeing openings that had yet to form.
“When someone asks me how I establish who is a good running back, I always say, ‘The guy who gets the extra yard.’ That was Emmitt,” said former Giants head coach Jim Fassel, who faced Smith twice a year for six straight years from 1997 to ’02. “Over the course of a game, the difference between gaining three yards and four yards is huge. You gain four three times, you get a first down. You gain three (yards three times in a row), you’re a yard short.”
Of course, Smith and Rice were tied together in ways other than numbers. They were winners who helped build winning traditions with their respective teams. Between the two of them, they won six Super Bowl titles, three each. Their teams often locked horns in classic battles for the right to bear another crown. Winning and longevity are their calling cards just as much as their statistical achievements.
“The (rushing) numbers themselves don’t mean a whole lot, but to get those numbers you have to be on the field a long time and perform at a high level,” QB Troy Aikman, a former teammate of Smith's, said when Smith was elected into Canton. “That’s what he did.”
And that consistency for well over a decade was what opponents feared the most about Smith.
“How many carries did he have over his career? Over 4,000, right?” Fassel asked rhetorically. “First of all, you have to be a great running back just to carry the ball that much. But if you extrapolate that out, if let’s say he got one extra yard on his own (per carry), that’s an extra 4,000 yards over his career. That’s a huge difference in the final numbers.”
Think about that a minute. If Smith gained, as Fassel asserts, an extra yard per carry over the course of his career, that’s an extra 4,409 yards gained — one for every time he took a handoff in the NFL. And that’s the difference between Smith being lumped with some very good backs, Jerome Bettis (13,662 rushing yards) and Curtis Martin (14,101), and being the knockdown, no-brainer, first-ballot Hall of Famer he is.
“It’s the great ones who quietly go about it, and the next thing you know that sucker has 20, 25, 30 yards extra at the end of a game,” Fassel said. “The great running backs, over the long haul, they’ll get more than what the plays were blocked for. That’s what Emmitt did.”
Perhaps that’s Smith’s legacy. On a team of big personalities in Big D, Smith was extremely confident but not outwardly cocky. He was fierce but not a chest beater. He knew that when it came to brass tacks, the Cowboys were going to give him the ball.
It was no coincidence that his personal slide from excellence, having taken a beating for so long, coincided with the team slipping to the bottom of the pack. When Smith held out for the first two games of the 1993 season in a contract dispute, the Cowboys lost both. When he returned, the team went 12-2 down the stretch and thumped the Bills 30-13 in the Super Bowl. Naturally, Smith led the way that day with 30 carries for 132 yards and the two touchdowns that broke a second-half 13-13 tie and put the game away.
Consistency, longevity and winning — three not-so-bad things to be known for.
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