It's a debate that will probably go in until the end of time. Who was the better running back? Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith? Sanders entered the NFL in 1989 and Smith came a year later, and almost instantly the two were compared to each other as they were considered the two best at their position.
Sanders finished with 15,269 yards which is the fourth-highest total in NFL history, while Smith has the record with 18,355 yards.
The Detroit Lions favorite son made an appearance on 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday. The Hall of Famer was asked about how his career compared and differed from Smith, and his answer was intriguing.
“Oh, wow. We were different in that I probably could have used a few more Nate Newton's in front of me,” Sanders said.
Newton was a six-time Pro Bowl guard in the 1990s. Sanders also mentioned he could've used five-time Pro Bowl center Mark Stepnoski as well as Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, who are both in the Hall of Fame.
Sanders went into more detail about how he and Smith compared to each other.
“I think we're both kind of shifty in our own way,” Sanders said. “Emmitt was probably a little more patient as a runner. It's funny because I was hearing about Emmitt Smith when I was in high school. He was highly touted, one of the nation's top players. So, it was just cool for me to end up being his nemesis, or adversary, or thought of as the top running back in the league along with him. But I think there are a lot of similarities between us, being that kind of slippery, elusive guy, that can hit a home run from anywhere on the field.”
Sanders retired after the 1998 season. He made the Pro Bowl and was selected as an All-Pro in each of his 10 seasons. He led the NFL in rushing four times (three times in his final five seasons) and was named league MVP in 1997 when he rushed for 2,053 yards.
Smith played 15 seasons in the NFL (13 with the Cowboys). He made eight Pro Bowls and was a six-time All-Pro. Smith led the league in rushing four times also. He won three Super Bowls (was named MVP in Super Bowl XXVIII) and was named league MVP in 1993. In addition to being the all-time leading rusher, he also holds the record for rushing attempts (4,409) and rushing touchdowns (164).
Both of these great runners were consistent in their dominance. Sanders, along with fellow Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, are the only running backs in league history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of their first 10 seasons. Smith, however, holds the NFL record for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with 11 (1991-2001).
What's unique about Sanders and Smith is their admiration for each other. In 2011, Sanders was asked if he was better than Smith and he took a very humble approach to the question.
“I would never say that,” Sanders said. “He was too great of a player, and I loved competing against him.” Sanders later said on Twitter that he appreciates the debate people have between the two and added some more glowing praise on his rival.
“He is #1 on all the time list and trust me-the guy deserves it. You can say he played on great teams… but he made those teams great,” Sanders said.
Smith responded to what Sanders said a day later, and gave him the ultimate compliment.
“Heard about what Barry Sanders said…so very flattered but he should know I think he's the best of all time,” Smith said.
You can make the argument that Sanders and Smith are the two best running backs of all-time. They will forever be linked just based on their production and playing in the same era. Regardless of who you think is better, football fans worldwide were blessed to watch these two run the football.