There have been bigger and faster running backs in NFL history, but none were more productive than Emmitt Smith. What he lacked in speed and size, Smith more than made up for in balance, vision and an ability to run through contact. Rarely did he leave yards on the field. The end result was the most rushing yards and touchdowns in both the regular and postseason in NFL history.
The Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer was also one of the league’s most durable backs, missing only 11 games to injury in his 15 NFL seasons, with over half of those games coming in his second to last season in 2003 at the age of 34. As evidence of his remarkable consistency, Smith is the only player to rush for 1,000 or more yards in 11 straight seasons.
The Pensacola, Florida native was productive from the start. In four years at Pensacola’s Escambia High School, he ran for 8,804 yards and 106 touchdowns. The yardage total was the second-highest in American high school football history up to that point.
The 1986 National High School Player of the Year continued his impressive production at the University of Florida, where he ran for 3,928 yards and 36 touchdowns in three seasons. In 1989, he was named both a consensus All-American and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
While there were still detractors who questioned his size and speed, the Cowboys believed enough in Smith to make him the 17th overall pick of the 1990 NFL Draft. He didn’t disappoint, rushing for 937 yards and 11 touchdowns en route to winning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and being named to his first Pro Bowl.
Smith was even better in 1991, as the second-year back led the NFL with 1,563 yards rushing and scored 13 touchdowns. The Cowboys also made the playoffs for the first time since 1985. Smith ran for a combined 185 yards in Dallas’s two postseason games, including 105 in a Wild Card win over the Chicago Bears.
In 1992, Smith and the Cowboys reached the pinnacle of both individual and team success. In the regular season, Smith led the NFL in rushing yards (1,713), touchdowns (19), and had his first season with 2,000 yards from scrimmage (2,048).
The young running back’s success continued in the postseason, as he ran for 114 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys’ 34-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Divisional Round before totaling 173 total yards and two touchdowns in Dallas’s 30-20 upset win over the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.
On January 31, 1993 Smith ran for 108 yards and a touchdown, as the Cowboys bludgeoned the Buffalo Bills 52-17 for their first Super Bowl championship since the 1977 season.
The Cowboys repeated as Super Bowl champs in 1993, with Smith becoming the first player to lead the league in rushing, win NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same season. In addition to leading the NFL with 1,486 yards rushing, Smith led in yards from scrimmage with 1,900.
In Super Bowl XXVIII, Smith ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the Cowboys’ 30-13 win over the Bills. In four pro seasons, Smith now had three rushing titles, an NFL MVP and two Super Bowl rings, not a bad start for someone thought too slow and small to play in the NFL.
The Cowboys fell short of a third straight Super Bowl in 1994, but their franchise runner remained on top of the football world, rushing for 1,484 yards and leading the NFL with 22 touchdowns.
In 1995, Dallas returned to the big stage, playing in its third Super Bowl in four years. Smith had his best season yet, establishing career highs and leading the league with 1,773 rushing yards and 2,148 scrimmage yards, and setting an NFL record with 25 touchdowns. He was also named First Team All-Pro for the fourth consecutive season, and made his sixth straight Pro Bowl.
Smith continued his stellar play in the postseason, setting a career playoff high with 150 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the Cowboys’ 38-27 win over the Green Bay Packers. Smith was held to only 49 yards rushing in Dallas’s 27-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, but he did score two touchdowns, giving him five in three Super Bowl appearances.
The Cowboys made the playoffs in three of the next four seasons, but could only manage a lone Wild Card win in 1996. Smith continued his assault on NFL defenses, though, rushing for over 1,000 yards six more times from 1996-2001, giving him an NFL-record 11 straight seasons with 1,000 or more yards.
On October 27, 2002 Smith became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with an 11-yard run against the Seattle Seahawks in Texas Stadium. The milestone gave Cowboys fans something to cheer for in an otherwise disappointing 5-11 season, Smith’s last in Dallas.
The future Hall of Famer spent his final two years with the Arizona Cardinals, where he had only 256 yards in an injury-shortened 2003 campaign before bouncing back with 937 yards and nine touchdowns in his final season in 2004.
Smith finished his career with 18,355 yards rushing and 164 rushing touchdowns in the regular season, and 1,586 rush yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground in the postseason. All four marks remain NFL records. His 21,579 scrimmage yards and 175 total touchdowns rank second only to Jerry Rice.
The NFL’s rushing king was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2010.