Matt Waldman’s RB Cut-Down to Defend the Planet: No.5 Emmitt Smith

Yes, he bounced off this missile shot.
Yes, he bounced off this missile shot.

Watching Emmitt Smith again was essential football therapy. It’s hard to do, but don’t let the Dallas offensive line block your path to wisdom.  

Emmitt Smith

Smith was a good talent behind a team for the ages. He compiled great stats, but he had wide open holes to run through. This is the common refrain of insanity that I hear from otherwise sane, intelligent people.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but many of them are even my friends.

Believe me, I want to embrace their analysis. The organization has a well-earned history of greatness, but I’m not a Cowboys fan. If there were nine planes of football hell personally tailored to my life, one of mine would be a demon standing at the entrance clad in the navy blue, silver and white and hailing me with these four words thick with Texas drawl: How `bout them Cowboys!

I don’t hate the Cowboys. I hate that they were always hogging network TV for most of my football life. I’m positive someone my from generation felt the same way, got a gig at DirectTV, and convinced the NFL to partner with them. My flashbacks of being force-fed Cowboys games aside, I could watch Emmitt Smith highlights for an eternity.

I didn’t feel this way before I embarking on my journey to find a RB to defend the planet. Now, I’m among the converted. Whomever first perpetrated the analysis crime of diminishing Smith’s greatness because the runner worked with a great team made a brilliant sounding assumption with shit for evidence.

Watching Smith again was essential football therapy.

Studying the Cowboys back helped me see that this inaccurate narrative has maintained its appeal because many football fans believe that talent in football is mostly about the physical. Even if they know otherwise, their judgments are based on what they can see. You would never hear me talk this way about Smith as an athlete otherwise, but on this amazing list of runners Smith is in the bottom-third in physical talent: He lacks great breakaway speed, he’s shorter and lighter than the public’s idea of an all-time runner, and he wasn’t an overpowering bruiser.

Few understand that Smith is among the best ever at integrating every ounce of his physical, mental, and emotional talents as a running back. Smith’s athleticism wasn’t off-the-charts great like Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown or Bo Jackson, but his strength and speed were still very good by NFL standards. If Barry Sanders never existed, we’d still be waxing poetic about Smith’s agility, quickness, and balance.

Don’t even get me started on Smith’s vision; it’s beyond category in the RB pantheon. For a back with a great offensive line and surrounding skill talent, Smith has a thick portfolio of runs that display an integration of skills vital for greatness. He displayed the creativity, toughness, and stamina to overcome obstacles that would be a stiff challenge for any runner.

Smith’s portfolio of work was compelling evidence that a back beyond category can do things that transcend the wealth of talent around him. Smith knew when to draw upon his library of skills and he often did it with a reckless abandon that people overlook. It’s why I reject the notion that most of the great backs would have performed better than Smith behind the Cowboys’ line.

Bill Barnwell once performed an analysis at Football Outsiders that displayed the difference between Smith’s yards per carry and that of other backs behind the same lines. Among the top runners of that era, Smith had a positive differential even if he wasn’t among the very best. It still suggests a similar point that I saw on tape, Smith may owe Barry Sanders a thank you for retiring early so the Cowboy could earn the career rushing mark, but Smith’s greatness was not overstated due to his line.

It’s the skill to earn yards on big plays and small as a runner between the tackles that elevates the Cowboy to my final five. I’d beg for a chance to start Smith if I knew the aliens were weak against the run and I didn’t need to enter the contest with greater offensive flexibility. He did good enough work as a receiver and blocker that I could even make the argument for placing Smith just behind my final choice as the starter.

Smith is fifth on my list because there are four players ahead of him that either offer similar or better skills that Smith brings to the table or they possess a specific skill on special teams that Smith wouldn’t.  He didn’t doesn’t make the cut, but Smith earned a lot more respect from me as an all-time great.

Not that my opinion matters to Smith. He knows what he’s done.

What is the RSP Writers Project (RSPWP)?

The RSP Writers Project is a goodwill community effort among writers that is designed to spur conversation about the game. Here’s the back story for this year’s project, the directory of participating writer-built teams, and the other backs Waldman considered for his team.

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