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JUDGE: Emmitt's great, but he's not the greatest
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Updated Jun 2, 2014 1:46 PM ET
Quick, now, give me your top five NFL running backs of all time. Jim Brown is in there. So is Barry Sanders. Walter Payton, too. But stop there, and I can all but guarantee you one guy who's not.
. Don't worry, I passed on him, too. The Dallas star and future Hall of Famer is 93 yards short of setting the NFL record for career rushing, making him the most productive back in league history ... and while that's marvelous, it doesn't make him one of the game's Top Five backs. Give me Brown, Payton, Sanders, O.J. Simpson and Gale Sayers. You can make an argument for Earl Campbell, too. Maybe Eric Dickerson. And let's not forget about the most complete back in the game. Emmitt? Nope. Marcus Allen. He's the only back in NFL history to have over 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards in catches. Sure, Emmitt is in there somewhere, but, please, the conversation doesn't start until you start working your way through the second half of the Top Ten. That's not to denigrate Smith or his accomplishments. The guy's a great back, and he's about to make NFL history. He's just not one of the five best. "Emmitt's not as powerful as Jim Brown," said an AFC pro personnel director. "He's not as flashy as Barry Sanders. He's not as electrifying as Sanders. I'd take Payton over him, and O.J. was an extraordinary blend of speed and power."
So why, then, is Emmitt about to pass all of them? "Longevity," said New York
. "Emmitt's been on one team with one system, where he's excelled and been comfortable. He knows his role. He understands what he needs to do. And he prepares himself. Every year he grinds it out. He carries the load for that team, and he doesn't miss games. Anytime you can have consistency like that ... along with longevity ... those numbers add up real fast." Consistency. Longevity. Grinding it out. I don't hear anything there that changes my mind. Let me put it another way: Let's say we're about to begin an NFL draft, and you have your choice of Smith, Brown, Sanders, Payton, O.J. and Sayers. When do you take Smith? Those who said, "Sixth," move to the front of the class. Sure, Emmitt is special. The man put together an NFL-record 11 straight years of 1,000-yard seasons and scored 149 touchdowns second only to Oakland's
. He also won four rushing titles, three Super Bowl rings, one league and one Super Bowl MVP trophy. Plus, as Strahan said, he's as durable as the Energizer bunny. In 13 seasons he missed seven games
and never more than two in any year. But that won't get him in my Top Five, and I'll tell you why. Emmitt was the beneficiary of one of the most gifted offensive lines in NFL history, with four of the five starters chosen to the Pro Bowl in 1995-96. He also played on one of the best teams ever assembled, too, with two more Hall of Fame candidates quarterback
and wide receiver Michael Irvin in the same huddle. Had it not been for San Francisco in 1994, the
would have won a league-record four straight Super Bowls. As it was, they had such an abundance of talent they managed to win a Super Bowl with Barry Switzer asleep at the switch.
Is Emmitt a Top Five back?
Clark Judge says that
is not one of the five greatest running backs of all time. But what do you think?
Emmitt orbited among a galaxy of stars, and that's not to discredit him; it's simply to put things in perspective. He was surrounded by players who made him better. Now look at O.J. When he ran for what was then a league-record 2,003 yards in 1973 doing it in a 14-game season there was one
' lineman named to the Pro Bowl. The next year there was none. Sanders has a similar story to tell. When he ran for 2,053 yards in 1997, he, like Simpson, took one offensive lineman with him to the Pro Bowl. And don't get me started on Jim Brown. He averaged 104 yards rushing a game and retired after scoring a career-best 21 times in his last season. Brown played 118 contests in all-too-brief career, divided between 12- and 14-game seasons, and led the league in rushing eight of his 10 years. Imagine if he lasted as long as Emmitt. He would've obliterated every rushing record out there, finishing with 20,003 yards and 205 touchdowns. Now imagine if he stared into the open holes that pass for defenses in places like Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle, Detroit and the New York
. Heck, imagine if he played against the Cincinnati
Sayers never had that luxury, either. If there's a debatable choice here it's the former Chicago star, and only because he didn't have the longevity of Smith. But I don't measure greatness by years. I measure it by what I see and remember, and what I saw from Sayers was extraordinary quickness, speed, grace and elusiveness I witnessed only once afterward ... and that's when Sanders burst on the scene. In Sayers' first preseason appearance as a pro he returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown; a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown; and he threw a 2-yard scoring pass. Then the season began, and he produced 22 touchdowns, including six against San Francisco in the mud of Wrigley Field. When the game was over, he had 336 yards and a rushing average of 12.6 yards a carry. In his second season, Sayers produced a staggering 2,440 combined yards and, remember, this was during a 14-game season. Sure, Sayers played only seven years because of injuries, but he left an impression that remains intact nearly four decades later. I don't know that anyone will say that about Emmitt. "What makes Emmitt special is that he has great vision for pursuit and cutback holes," said Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "Plus, I always thought the guy had better speed than anyone thought. So many times he'd break through the line and break the long run. I tell you, he confounded us, especially when they were good with Troy." But the
haven't always been good. In fact, lately they've been dreadful. Yet Smith was unwavering, averaging either 4.1 yards or 4.2 yards a carry from 1997-2000 when the club was a desultory 29-35. A year ago he slipped to 3.9, but check his numbers now: Uh-huh, 4.2 and on his way to another 1,000-yard season. Like I said: The guy is great; he's just not the greatest. "I had a greater appreciation for him when I went to New York (as head coach)," said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, who played against Brown and Sayers. "He is without question one of the toughest backs I've ever seen. He hurt his shoulder in our game (in 1993), yet rushed for something like 200 yards (it was 168). "He has tremendous acceleration, and he's not an easy target. He has great quickness, and he's a helluva blocker. Look at some of the great backs who played, and they don't stick their noses in there in pass protection or they aren't good pass receivers. Emmitt was all of those things. Dallas never had to limit themselves to what it could do because Emmitt could do it." Only one thing he missed ... a spot in the Top Five. "I'd put him there," said Reeves. I wouldn't.
Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,
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