NFL Legend Emmitt Smith on the Plight of Today’s Star Running Backs

The NFL’s all-time rushing leader was the driving force behind the Cowboys winning three Super Bowls in four seasons in the '90s

April 11, 2022 9:26 am
Emmitt Smith at Lincoln Center in New York City in 2012
Emmitt Smith at Lincoln Center in New York City in 2012

Widely regarded as the top running back in the NFL after Derrick Henry was sidelined with an injury, Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts touched the ball 372 times and accumulated 2,171 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) with 20 total touchdowns last season.

During the best statistical regular season of his career in 1995, legendary Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith touched the ball 439 times and accumulated 2,148 yards from scrimmage with 25 total touchdowns.

Fairly similar — until you consider that Taylor did his damage during the NFL’s first 17-game regular season. Smith stacked his career-year stats in just 16 games and then went on to rack up 358 yards and score six touchdowns over the course of three playoff games while helping the Cowboys secure their third Super Bowl in four years to cap off the ’95 season.

The NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 18,355 yards and a league-record 164 rushing touchdowns, Smith finished his 226-game career following the 2004 season. Since he hung up his spikes, Smith has seen the way pro football is played change quite a bit as all-purpose backs like himself and Taylor have now become the exception, not the rule, in the NFL as the passing gameis now the preferred method of moving the ball downfield and scoring TDs.

As we’ve seen this offseason with blockbuster trades followed by monster contracts for star pass-catchers like Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams and Amari Cooper, wide receivers have seemingly become a more valuable commodity than running backs in the eyes of most teams in the NFL. For obvious reasons, Smith who is a lifelong fan of pancake blocks as well as flapjacks and recently partnered with IHOP to launch the International Bank of Pancakes loyalty program, isn’t a huge supporter of the shift in thinking.

“Points have become a very important thing in the National Football League to satisfy fantasy football lovers as well as bettors. The ball is in the air a lot more than it has been in the past and having the running back be the focal point of the offense has shifted tremendously unless you are the Colts and have a dominant running back like Taylor,” Smith tells InsideHook. “There seems to be a deliberate scheme or strategy to minimize the value of the running back. Although we are extremely valuable. You can call it the evolution of the game or the shifting of strategy and so forth. Passers have become very, very effective, but not every passer is as good as Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. I mean, we’re talking about guys who can really throw the football. But what about the rest of the league? The rest of the league, they don’t have that. So they have to rely on something else.”

Smith's go-to order at IHOP is a double stack of pancakes, eggs, sausage and hash browns
Smith’s go-to order at IHOP is a double stack of pancakes, eggs, sausage and hash browns.

In the past, that something else would have been a running back. Now, however, the position has become so undervalued that the idea of relying on the run game has become antiquated, perhaps unfairly so, according to Smith.

“It’s disappointing to see it and hear the talk that is being laid out there in the press,” he says. “Then what happens from there? The conversation goes into the network and then it goes from the network into the ears of the fans. And then the fans regurgitate what they heard so now that becomes law. That becomes the expectation. For a player like myself who played the game, knows the ins and outs of it and understands football better than most, I call BS. You just have a different strategy and are using the press to go ahead and help implement your strategy with the words that you’re choosing and how you’re describing players. The game protects the quarterback and increases the points on the scoreboard. But it’s still entertaining and I’m still watching. That’s how I’m able to see some of the junk that’s happening on the football field.”

From what Smith, who says he follows the league through the lens of the Cowboys, has seen, the 52-year-old is unsure how his all-time Dallas team would fare in the pass-heavy NFL of today.

“I don’t know that our team would’ve been as productive with Troy Aikman throwing the ball 40-45 times a game. I just don’t believe that,” Smith says. “We tried to do some of that my rookie year early on running what we called the Dan Marino offense. I don’t think it worked that well for us. What did start working well for us was when they started handing off the ball and having that balance we needed. [Offensive coordinator] Norv Turner created a balanced attack where Troy would throw the ball 30-35 times a game and I would touch the ball 20-25 times a game, sometimes 30. That worked pretty well. That was our formula for success.”

Eventually, that success came to an end when Aikman retired in 2001. The following year, Smith went to Arizona and played the final two years of his career as a Cardinal. “Unlike IHOP, the NFL doesn’t have a loyalty program with its players. The NFL stands for ‘Not For Long,”‘ Smith says. “You’re traded, you’re fired, you’re cut. Whatever. They can call it business and I’m not cynical about people making money. But if you’re calling it business, don’t ask any key player to be loyal to you if you’re not going to be loyal to them. You have to do what you have to do to protect yourself as a player. And you have to strike when the iron is hot.”

Obviously imperfect, pro football is still a great game as well as one of Smith’s favorite metaphors for life.

“Football is a great illustration of how life can be,” he says. “Getting knocked down and getting back up, facing your fears, overcoming challenges, having mental toughness, compassion and sportsmanship are all of the things that make this game so great and attract so many people to it. Somebody is not going to make it easy for you. Someone is going to be controlling. You’re going to have to deal with all these different types of things. That’s why I think football to me is one of the greatest metaphors for life. You learn how to overcome a lot of those things.”

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