Emmitt Smith vs Barry Sanders: The Latter Sounds Off, The Debate Rages On

The debate over the best running back of the 90's has perennially been a faceoff between two Hall of Famers, a Dallas Cowboys icon and durable underdog - the great Emmitt Smith, and the Detroit Lions' grandmaster of elusive backs - the dynamic Barry Sanders. The debate has become moot to some since both could be a centerpiece to a great team and both are usual suspects on the Top 5 Greatest NFL RB List. The question often turns philosophic as the definition of "greatest" running back is challenged by the distinct differences between the two that made each so great. Barry's greatest runs included ankle-breaking moves that left him untouched, while Emmitt's toughness and spin moves after contact are what shine in his highlights.

Barry Sanders recently made the media rounds and the Detroit Free Press reported some highlights from his radio interviews: 

On if he was better than Emmitt Smith: "I would never say that. He was too great of a player, and I loved competing against him.

Rumors seem to confirm that Emmitt and Barry are indeed friends and had even discussed their reasons and timing for retirement and attempts - or lack thereof - at breaking Sweetness's (the incredible Walter Payton) career NFL rushing record. When interviewed a few years ago, Emmitt had this to say:

I have had that conversation with Barry and Barry basically shared with me that he had had enough of football, No. 1, and possibly enough of dealing with the situation that he had to deal with up there in Detroit, being the go-to guy the whole time and not having the support, or what is perceived as a complete support staff around him like I had.

Who was better, Emmitt or Barry? The question may have no true answer, at least no publicly accepted certainty, because once we break down and compare their respective abilities we inevitably find the debate lies in what each of us envisions as the perfect RB for our fantasy coached/owned team.

Breakdowns after the jump...

Longevity - I, for one, always weighed Barry's decision to retire "early" heavily in my thinking. While it may surprise some that Barry did compete in the NFL for an entire decade, no small feat, the question will always remain on whether he would have broken the all-time rushing record if he played another five years like Emmitt. A fifty-percent-longer career as an NFL RB is a serious factor to consider, especially recognizing that Emmitt was a more punishing and contact oriented running back. And yet, in his 13-year career with the Cowboys, Emmitt missed only seven games (though admittedly missed another seven in his final two lackluster years with the Arizona Cardinals) and Barry missed just as many in his 10-year career.

Statistics - Chart created with numbers from ProFootballReference  

Games Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Avg/A Yards/G Att/G Rush TD Receptions Rec. Yards Yards/Rec Rec/Game Rec TD
Career B. Sanders ('89-'99) 153 3,062 15,269 5.0 99.8 20 99 352 2,921 8.3 2.3 10
E. Smith ('90-'04) 226 4,409 18,355 4.2 81.2 19.5 164 515 3,224 6.3 2.3 11
Post- season B. Sanders 6 91 386 4.2 64.3 15.2 1 21 111 5.3 3.5 0
E. Smith 17 349 1,586 4.5 93.3 20.5 19 46 342 7.4 2.7 2

And now to decipher the numbers:

Postseason - It should be noted that Emmitt played in almost three times as many playoff games as Barry, even though Barry went to the playoffs in five different seasons (‘91,'93-95,'97) and Emmitt went seven times ('91-96, ‘98-99). Yes, surely the Cowboys of the 90's were a stronger team than the Lions and getting to and winning in the postseason is a team event, but one shouldn't ignore the stark shifts in efficiency stats when comparing the career and playoff numbers of each. Emmitt improves across the board in rushing and reception averages as well as yards/game, while Barry takes strong dives in almost all those categories. Finally, Barry had a single TD in his six-game playoff career, while Emmitt tallied 21.  Emmitt played big in big games.

Averages - These can be very misleading when comparing these players. Yes, Barry Sanders had a higher top speed than Emmitt and was a greater threat of taking it to pay dirt whenever he touched the ball (more on this below), but we must consider some unmentioned variables. Emmitt Smith was used much more frequently on the goal line and short yardage situations. This inevitably reduces his attainable rushing average and affects his career average; while conversely, Barry's average is inflated by his many long TDs. While I cannot substantiate the urban myth that Sanders had more negative runs than any other RB, he was usually a feast or famine runner and not someone who would grind out the game and help avoid 2nd and 3rd and longs.

Touchdowns - By my estimations, this is the most volatile statistic by which to judge a players' performance. There are many a great individual efforts that are not rewarded with TDs. That being said, Emmitt was not only a work horse and tough goal line rusher, but his total rushing TD record may never be surpassed.

Receptions - A very important part of a RB's game where Barry has the edge due to his average per reception, though again the caveat of his long receiving TDs inflating the average exists. In the end, both were valid options for their QBs.

20+ yard TD Total Yards % of Career Yards
B. Sanders 33 1,629 ~9%
E. Smith 23 874 ~4%

Home Run Threat - As assumed, Barry has a much higher number of 20+ yard TDs than Emmitt, who was no slouch himself. What I found astonishing was the frequency of 40+ yard TDs for Barry (22 total), which must be some kind of record. This was Barry Sanders at his best.

Blocking - A vital skill for NFL RBs that is often missing in stat sheets, Emmitt was superb in pass protection. Barry was surprisingly effective at times, which made for a great sight when the little 200-pounder stopped a blitzing LB in his tracks, but few were or are as consistent and smart about their pass protection assignments as #22.

It may really be too close to call and everyone will have their own preference. Barry Sanders was truly "The Human Highlight Reel" and his ability to make people miss and create separation in the blink of an eye was a wonder to witness. But personally, when I need to rely on my running back I would rather turn to old faithful #22. Whether behind a Pro Bowl laden offensive line or a patchwork collection of jags, I firmly believe that Emmitt Smith would find a way to gain yards. He won't dance in the backfield, won't traverse the entire field and either lose a dozen yards or score a touchdown. There is a relentless force of will that drives all great running backs and I don't know if anyone had it more than Emmitt Smith. 

What do you think? 

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