When referencing Emmitt Smith and his Hall of Fame career commentators often refer to the “he wasn't the biggest or the fastest” etc type comments. The implication is sometimes that Emmitt wasn't as physically gifted as other great backs like Sanders and Payton and that he was a product of great determination and a great team.
I disagree. Emmitt had incredible physical talents, in fact probably some of the best ever, they were just in areas not conventionally measured and rated. Athletes get weighed, measured, timed and strength tested and in these Smith wasn't the leader. But what about balance, coordination, reflex and vision? These are equally important to a runningback in the NFL and they are as natural talents as height, weight and speed are.
Emmitt had an absolutely uncanny ability, like no-one else I've ever seen, to absorb the incoming hits at an angle that was advantageous for him. He could use the defenders momentum on impact to spin himself around and out of the arms of another defender and slip him or often multiple defenders at once. He could be engulfed by several defenders taking shots from all sides and he'd just role with them and come out the other side scooting along calmly like he was a grown man taking shots from school kids despite the fact it was him who was the small guy.
His stiff arm could be so pinpoint that he could grab, right on the forearm, and redirect an incoming defenders lead tacking arm while he was still on the fly looking down the field for the optimal line.
He certainly had all those things he's often attributed, namely heart and determination; we've all seen many times Emmitt simply drive or even carry defenders much bigger than him several yards down field for the first down or touchdown. But he was also one of the most physically gifted backs in league history something which he is not often attributed. His combination of balance, coordination, reflex and vision are unmatched in any other single back that I've seen. How many times did multiple quality NFL defenders seem to be zeroing in on Smith only to mistime their hit? To just bump him, graze him or be left grasping as he continues scooting forward. That right there is not heart and determination. It's gifted physical talent manifested in superior vision, uncanny balance, lightning reflexes and pinpoint coordination all working together to turn a guy with average conventional measurables into the NFL's ALL-Time Leading Rusher and All-Time Leader in Rushing Touchdowns.