Over the length of their careers Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders have provided enough game highlights to fill several hours of footage despite the fact many questioned their ability when they were drafted out of college. Emmitt Smith was drafted seventeenth by the Dallas Cowboys the season after they finished 1-15. Smith did not fit the mold of the typical bruising NFL running back as he only stood 5’9″ and weighed roughly 215lbs. The same was said of Barry Sanders who stood only at 5’8″ and weighed in at just 203lbs. Despite his size, Wayne Fontes and the Detroit Lions opted to draft the running back from Oklahoma, Barry Sanders, with the third pick of the 1989 draft. Most thought Smith and Sanders would have a shortened career due to their size and the punishment each one would take running the ball on a regular basis.
By the time both of their careers had ended, the two men had rushed for almost 34,000 yards and scored 273 touchdowns between them. Smith finished his career in 2004, he managed to rack up 18,355 yards on the ground and break into the end zone an astounding 164 times, both NFL career records for running backs. In 2001, Smith became the first running back to post eleven 1,000 yard rushing seasons in his career. In 1993, Smith became the only NFL running back ever to with a Super Bowl Championship, NFL MVP, the NFL rushing crown, and the Super Bowl MVP in the same season. Barry Sanders finished his career abruptly at the end of the 1998 season while he was only 1457 yards behind the career rushing record held by Walter Payton at that time. During his career, Sanders rushed for more than 15000 yards for an NFL record five times while scoring 99 touchdowns on the ground. In 1997, Sander rushed for 2000 yards, thanks in part to a fourteen consecutive game streak where he rushed for more than 100 yards. Due to his achievement, Sanders was the co-winner of the NFL MVP award with Green Bay quarterback, Brett Favre.
Both running backs had the chance to play for their respective teams during a decade when they saw the most success. Emmitt Smith played an integral part of the Dallas Cowboys as they made eight playoff appearances and won a total of six division titles. The Cowboys also became the first time to win three Super Bowls within a four year span. While the Cowboys dominated the media attention in the 1990’s, Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions had their most successful ten year span. The Lions made the playoffs a total of six times, while winning their division twice. The difference between the two was the lack of success for Sanders and the Lions in the playoffs as they managed to win only one playoff game during his career.
Aside from their statistical prominence, Smith and Sanders were known for being a very durable back, with great balance, and who possessed the heart of a true competitor. Each one could evade a tackle with a turn of direction or break a tackle to complete a long run. The pair showed a natural ability at running between the tackles by cutting through quickly changing gaps toward the open holes, but was also able to gain significant yardage when he ran outside the tackles.
The major difference between the two was their forward running style. Smith was always moving forward before he would opt to change direction in an attempt to gain yardage no matter how little it may be. Where as Sanders could be seen cutting back and changing his lane before he even took a step forward. Part of this is the reason why during Sanders’ career he had 336 carriers for a negative 956 yards, which is the NFL record for the most carries with negative yards. Another area where Smith outperformed Sanders was when it came to pass protection. Smith’s ability to protect the quarterback in pass protection has drawn such high praise as being the pass-blocking tailback of all time from those who played the game with him. Sanders would do an admiral job of picking up the blitz when required but his performance with blocking never measured up to Smith’s.
As with any debate there are always discussion points for the fans and media to focus on. Had Barry Sanders not lost his will to compete and retired early as a result of the issues in Detroit? What if Emmitt Smith was not running behind one of the best offensive lines of all times? Or what if the two had switched places and played for the other team? Despite all of the different scenarios, we only have their bodies of work to examine and with that being said, you would be hard pressed to say there is no running back in the history of the NFL better than Emmitt Smith.