As I watched the NFL's elite gather in Canton, Ohio on Saturday evening, which I do every year when they place the game's greatest players into the Hall of Fame, I was struck by the specific purpose with which Jerry Rice told current players to cherish their part in history.
And as Emmitt Smith thanked those around him, from high school to the professional level, I was again reminded that while he may have the record for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, but he'll never be the greatest running back to play the game.
That title still belongs to Walter Payton.
Consider, for a moment, the players that Smith was surrounded by in Dallas. His quarterback, Troy Aikman, is in the Hall of Fame. Their number one receiver, Michael Irvin, is already in the Hall of Fame. And their offensive line could put a couple more players into the Hall in the next few years.
Now consider for a moment, the quarterbacks that played with Payton during his legendary career:
- 1975: Gary Huff and Bob Avellini (9 touchdowns and 20 interceptions combined)
- 1976: Avellini (8 TDs and 15 INTs)
- 1977: Avellini (11 TDs and 18 INTs)
- 1978: Avellini and Mike Phipps (7 TDs and 26 INTs combined)
- 1979: Avellini, Phipps and Vince Evans (15 TDs and 16 INTs combined)
- 1980: Phipps and Evans (13 TDs and 25 INTs combined)
- 1981: Avellini, Phipps and Evans (14 TDs and 23 INTs combined)
- 1982: Avellini, Evans and Jim McMahon (9 TDs and 11 INTs combined)
- 1983: McMahon and Evans (17 TDs and 20 INTs combined)
- 1984: five QBs started games (12 TDs and 14 INTs combined)
- 1985: McMahon and Steve Fuller (17 TDs and 17 INTs combined)
- 1986: McMahon, Fuller, Doug Flutie & Mike Tomczak (12 TDs and 24 INTs combined)
- 1987: McMahon, Tomczak, Mike Hohensee & Steve Bradley (23 TDs and INTs combined)
None of the names on that list is going to get into the Hall of Fame without paying the price of admission, and it's even more telling to look back and see that even the famed 1985 team couldn't produce more touchdowns than interceptions. These aren't numbers that Troy Aikman was posting in Dallas while Smith was running wild.
Clearly, Payton was the best offensive player in the Bears' backfield. The same is not as decisive regarding Dallas' offense.
Indeed, looking deeper into the numbers proves that Payton meant more to a Bears organization that was mostly mediocre than Smith did to his exceptional Dallas teams. In his 13 years with the Bears, Payton accounted for 35.06 percent of the Bears' total offense as a franchise. In his 13 years with the Dallas Cowboys, Smith accounted for only 30.61 percent of the Cowboys' offense.
Also, if you will, examine the teams these two players performed for in their respective careers.
- Payton's Bears ended his career 111-83 (a 57.22 winning percentage).
- Smith's Cowboys finished his Dallas career 118-90 (56.73 win percentage).
- Before the final four years of his career, in which (under coach Mike Ditka) the Bears went an amazing 50-13, Payton spent the prime of his career playing for a team with a sub-.500 record of 61-70.
- Before the final three years of his career in Dallas, in which the Cowboys went a pedestrian 17-31, Smith enjoyed playing for a team that had a 63.13 winning percentage (101-59)
- Payton played with only two offensive lineman that went to the Pro Bowl while they were together. Jimbo Covert and Jay Hilgenberg represented the Bears in five combined Pro Bowls, all at the tail end of Payton's career.
- During Smith's career in Dallas, he played with the most dominant offensive line in the game. The group in front of him combined for 32 Pro Bowls, including two from tight end Jay Novacek. That is not, however, including the Pro Bowls for fullback Darryl Johnston.
The real impact of playing on exceptional teams early in a player's career, especially a running back, makes a world of difference on the overall career of each individual. The fact that Smith was running for annual Super Bowl contenders in Dallas while Payton spent nearly a decade getting his tail kicked on a mediocre team brings another dimension of depth to the perseverance of Sweetness.
He was good on bad teams; Payton was all the Bears' opponents needed to worry about most weeks, and he had nobody blocking for him.
Smith was a great player on great teams; Cowboys' opponents could load up to stop Smith, but they would get killed by Aikman, Irvin, Novacek and others.
The supporting talent in the careers of these two players isn't even close.
Now step back and realize that, in 1982 when Payton was 28 years old, the NFL had a strike, limiting Payton to nine games in the heart of his prime. Smith didn't play in fewer than 14 games until he had left Dallas, well into the sunset of his career.
Payton averaged 112 yards per game of total offense in his career; Smith average only 95. On the NFL's all-time list of all-purpose yards (including kickoff and punt returns as well as rushing and receiving), Payton ranks third behind only Jerry Rice and Brian Mitchell. Smith is fourth, behind Payton by 224 yards.
Payton ranks third all-time in yards from scrimmage, behind only Rice and Smith. However, Smith only eclipsed Payton by 315 yards despite playing 36 games more than Sweetness. With Smith's all-star offensive lines and an extra 36 games, Payton could probably have come up with an extra 8.75 yards per game.
Add to the extra games Smith played the fact that he touched the ball 577 times in his career more than Payton did. This reality clearly illustrates that Payton was the more efficient back as well.
In a discussion between Payton and Smith, every statistical evaluation leads one to believe that Payton was the better of the two backs. Payton was also the superior blocker and passer; Sweetness threw for 331 yards and eight touchdowns in his career.
Also, let's not forget that Smith played for the only real team playing in Dallas in the 1990s. The NBA's Mavericks weren't much of a competitor, and the closest champions were in Houston and San Antonio; in a football crazy state, the Cowboys are it, and Smith was one of the big three stars on that team.
Meanwhile, Payton had to compete with names like Tony Esposito and Denis Savard on the Blackhawks, Carlton Fisk with the White Sox, and, at the end of Payton's career, Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs and Michael Jordan of the Bulls. Indeed, the 1985 Bears were overwhelmed with star power... just look at the "Super Bowl Shuffle." Payton was a big star, but there were others on the landscape that provided competition for fans' dollars unlike anything in the state of Texas, much less Dallas.
There are certainly more backs that should be considered in the discussion of best ever, too.
Barry Sanders had an incredible career in Detroit on mediocre teams very similar to those Payton played for early in his career. However, Sanders decided to walk away from the game and leave everyone to wonder "what if."
In fact, a deeper analysis reveals that the best running back in the 1990s was actually Sanders, not Smith.
There is also the argument for Jim Brown. He dominated professional football by such leaps and bounds, perhaps the only comparison in all professional sports is Babe Ruth. Brown did things the game had never seen, running over the biggest defenders with ease.
However, Brown left the game in his prime to pursue social activism and acting in Hollywood. Brown was only 29 when he walked away, leaving more "what if" questions surrounding his career than Sanders left with his.
Both Sanders and Brown left the game too soon, while Smith left the game three years too late.
Now that Smith is in the Hall of Fame, all four of these great running backs have that on their resume. However, a look back at their careers indicates that Payton is, still, the greatest running back of all time.