— The numbers make the argument that Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith were the greatest ever to play their positions. Rice had more receiving yards than any player in history, and Smith had more rushing yards.
The numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story.
Both of these men are expected to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend in their first year of eligibility, and there is not a doubt they are deserving of the honor.
Whether they are the greatest ever at their positions is another matter. Some might argue that their numbers inflate their true value, and that Rice and Smith would not have been as productive in other eras.
In the case of Rice, the statistics don’t paint a complete picture. Former Broncos and Bucs safety John Lynch said you have to look beyond Rice’s numbers. “He did everything well,” said Lynch, who now is a game analyst for Fox. “They said he ran a 4.6, but every time he was on the field, he ran away from everybody, he ran away from 4.3 guys.
“There are the great, there are superstars and then there is one of greatest of all time. You see the combination of everything with him — the skill, the will, the determination, the competitiveness. He was the most competitive person I’ve been around.”
Rice may have benefited from being surrounded by greatness — Bill Walsh was his coach; he played in the West Coast offense, which was cutting edge at the time; and he caught passes from hall of famers Joe Montana and Steve Young. But the others came and went, and Rice remained, the common denominator to an offensive powerhouse in San Francisco that spanned 14 seasons.
“You talk about longevity and playing at a high level for a lot of years,” said Saints safety Darren Sharper.
“His work ethic permeated through his team. It allowed for them to win the championships that they did, even though they had a lot of good players. I think he always strove for excellence. As a football player that is what you want to achieve — being excellent year-in and year-out. Guys that do that for close to 20 years, you have to rank him as a top receiver of all-time and one of the top football players too.”
Like Rice, Smith stood the test of time. In fact, his ability to endure may have been his most impressive achievement. He played 15 seasons and finished with more rushing attempts, more rushing yards, more 1,000 seasons, and more rushing touchdowns than any player ever.
“His consistency stood out,” said former Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks, now a commentator for ESPN and Sirius Radio. “He never did one thing great as much as he did a bunch of things really well for a long time.”
Smith just kept coming at you, play after play, game after game, year after year. He played with hall of famers Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, and he ran behind one of the great offensive lines of an era. He wasn’t exceptionally fast on the stopwatch, and he was a little smaller than running backs are supposed to be.
Even now, despite all his accomplishments, hardly anyone considers Smith the greatest running back ever. Jim Brown or Walter Payton top most lists. Some like Eric Dickerson or Earl Campbell best. Smith was even overshadowed in his own era by Barry Sanders.
“I have nothing but respect for Emmitt,” Lynch said. “He was the total package. But the best running back I played against was Barry Sanders. It’s rare at the NFL level when you have a guy who everyone looks at each other and says this guy is better than us.”
So while the numbers can be illuminating, they also can be deceiving. But the numbers don’t lie if they say these two are no brainer hall of famers.
Q: What's it going to take for LC Greenwood and Ray Guy to get into the Hall of Fame? Does Greenwood suffer from "too many" Steelers being in the Hall already? What about Guy? He's the best pure punter ever. Seems an injustice to me that neither of these two are in yet. (Yes, I know Sammy Baugh had a longer average than Guy, but it was for Ray Guy that "hang time" and pinning the opponent stats started being kept. No disrespect to Baugh intended — I'm a Redskins fan & he'd still belong in the Hall even if he was only a DB or only a QB.)
Jim, Edmond, Okla
A: There are so many outstanding candidates up for induction every year that some inevitably get left by the wayside.
There may be a bit of a bias against both players. The quickest way into the hall of fame is to be an offensive player. There are 109 of them in Canton, compared with 65 defensive players.
Greenwood also is probably hurt by the fact that he played on the same defense with four other hall of famers, and on the same team with 10 others. It’s fair to ask if a share of his production was the result of being surrounded by greatness.
In Guy’s case, the position he played definitely works against him. It’s tough to compare the value of a punter to the value of say, a running back. But that’s what hall of fame voters are asked to do. Guy may have been the best punter ever (not everyone believes that), but that might not be enough for induction.
A: I don’t think it’s something that anyone wants to do, but it may be something that has to be done if the regular season is extended to 18 games. The NFL will have to do something to shorten the length of time between the start of the regular season and the Super Bowl, and that week is an easy target.
A: I’m not sure that a “fresh start” will benefit either party.
It’s hard to see how the Panthers get better by losing Peppers. And it’s hard to see how Peppers would thrive if he goes Albert Haynesworth on us and is such a money pig that he is expected to be a savior.
The best place for Peppers probably is right where he’s been all along. And the Panthers probably will realize that before it’s too late.
Q: In pro football the home field has a huge advantage regarding travelling and fan support with quiet or noise affecting game situations. Why don't they allow the visiting team to receive and do away with the game-opening toss of the coin?
— Michael J. McDonough, Sun City West, Ariz.
A: I don’t like the idea of doing away with the game-opening coin toss, but if they did away with the overtime coin toss, that would be fine by me.
For the fifth period, play could just resume where it ended at the end of the fourth quarter. That would make those last seconds of regulation more meaningful, and leave the outcome of the game influenced less by chance.