Monday, September 2, 1996
Emmitt Smith is rushing toward Walter Payton's
By Ed Werder
The Dallas Morning News
(September 2, 1996)
CHICAGO - The problem with being Emmitt Smith is that you are
so often compared to him.
As a four-time NFL rushing champion, a three-time Super Bowl
winner, a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and now the
highest-paid non-quarterback in the league, Smith confronts only
one challenge more withering than the constant pressure to measure
up to his own remarkably high standards.
The rushing totals he has compiled in his first six professional
seasons have positioned him for a possible run at Chicago Bears
Hall-of-Famer Walter Payton, the NFL career rushing leader with
16,726 yards and Smith's childhood idol.
Smith keeps a written list of individual and team goals. So he
has crunched the numbers and considered his prospects for overtaking
"What I've done the last five or six years really means
nothing," Smith said. "What I do in the next five or
six years is what really counts."
Payton will be watching from the Soldier Field sideline Monday
night as Smith begins his seventh season leading the defending
Super Bowl champion Cowboys against the Bears. As if to remind
him of perils that must be overcome, Smith will be playing with
a sprained left knee, the first time he has started the season
with an injury.
Smith has played 93 regular-season games with the Cowboys and
is ahead of Payton at the same point in their careers. Smith
has 8,956 yards, compared to Payton's 93-game total of 8,673
yards. But Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson each had more than 10,000
yards at that point and finished far behind Payton in career
"Emmitt has two things going against him and two things
going for him," Payton said. "He has a good offensive
line blocking for him, and his own tremendous ability, drive
and motivation. The things he has going against him are that
Dallas is a great team and everybody wants to beat Dallas bad,
and they know that they have to stop Emmitt Smith. He is the
challenge that motivates opposing teams to play.
"But barring injuries and a revamping of the offensive line
- if Mr. Money Pockets (Jerry Jones) doesn't run out of money
to buy more players - Emmitt will do it."
If he maintains his current average of 1,493 yards per season,
Smith will have the 7,771 yards necessary to surpass Payton six
seasons from now.
But Smith will be challenged by more than inspired defenders.
He must withstand the threatening forces of time: the potential
of playing with a diminishing supporting cast; the injury menace
that comes with a heavy work; and the inevitable and painful
decline of his abilities. Payton stands as a monument to durability
as much as a testament to ability.
Payton's trademark was his consistency. He started every game
for 12 straight years, averaging 1,480 yards per season the first
six years and 1,186 the last six.
"My whole deal was if I didn't improve, I hadn't learned
anything or helped my team," he said.
"Every year and each game you have to be productive and
in position physically and mentally to succeed. But one of the
things you can't teach or train, anticipate and control is time.
You can't control how long you play."
Cowboys running backs coach Joe Brodsky has preached for years
for Smith to research the maniacal off-season conditioning program
that protected Payton from injury and propelled him to consistent
Smith is fiercely competitive and has recently taken greater
measures to strengthen his problematic hamstrings. But he also
spent the off-season playing golf and won acclaim for returning
to the University of Florida for his degree.
"I want to be recognized as the best, and I want to prove
I'm the best," Smith said. "I want to prove that I'm
worth everything that has been given to me."
Smith, 27, has only recently proved himself the premier running
back of his generation. Jones rewarded him with an eight-year,
$42.5 million contract in the off-season.
He averaged averaged 1,404 yards through his first three years,
inflating his season average to 1,581 yards the past three years.
Smith has absorbed much punishment in compiling those numbers.
He has a powerful lower body, tremendous balance and the instincts
to locate cracks in defenses. But his running style could be
Detroit's Barry Sanders is more similar to Payton, who had the
speed to run outside and the shiftiness that often kept him from
heavy contact. When his rare speed and uncommon grace could not
protect him from harm, Payton defended himself with a stiff arm.
Smith is more likely to break tackles than dance around them.
He almost never leaves the field when the Cowboys have the ball,
and he is best around the goal-line, where the noise is loudest
and the hits are hardest.
"He needs to avoid taking a lot of hits," Payton said.
"Tell him to take a look at those Earl Campbell films."
Smith also might fade because he has been overworked. While he
came into the league one season after Sanders, Smith has carried
only 67 fewer times.
Therefore, Smith has practically condensed seven seasons into
six. And that does not include his 279 playoff carries, which
is almost another full season.
Smith and the Cowboys have won three of the past four Super Bowls.
That represents another potential difference between Smith and
Smith has spent the first half of his career playing with some
of the most talented teams the league has known. The five offensive
linemen in front of him and the fullback leading him into the
defense have made the Pro Bowl. He will not play with better
Payton played behind horrible Bears teams early in his career
and waited until his 11th season for a Super Bowl ring. But Mike
Ditka developed the Bears into a powerful team and allowed Payton
to finish strong.
"As the team improved and my skills started to deteriorate,
it wasn't as noticeable," Payton said.
Smith may not be so fortunate. He has gained most of his yardage
behind the left side of his offensive line. A Cowboys team without
salary-cap room soon must replace those players. Center Ray Donaldson
is 37, left tackle Mark Tuinei 35 and left guard Nate Newton
But Payton considers Smith a likely, and a worthy, successor
to his place as the most prolific running back in NFL history.
"Emmitt is a class guy in every shape, form and fashion,"
Payton said. "You don't worry about him doing or saying
the wrong things, being in the wrong place. That is a football
player. My numbers are nothing. He will go past that. That is
the type of player he is."
(c) 1996, Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune
All content copyright 1996, KRT, The
Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine