I recently saw a conversation between Cowboys fans that involved a passionate, unyielding defense of Emmitt Smith as the greatest running back of all time. It went beyond just the stats; Emmitt’s defender spoke about his character, endurance, and love for the game. He would’ve made any member of Cowboys Nation proud.
It got me thinking about the way we remember the Cowboys of the 90s, and particularly the Triplets. I’ve been a Dallas fan since 1993 and I’ve heard that same defense of Emmitt many times. What’s interesting is that you will rarely hear fans defend Troy Aikman or Michael Irvin with the same passion.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Cowboys fans say that Aikman or Irvin were the all-time best at their positions. What’s more, I’ve rarely heard anyone propose that they were even the best players in just the 1990s. Why such a difference for one Triplet versus the other two?
I figured I’d collect some data. So, from my own Twitter handle @CowboysAddicts, I ran the following polls:
Was Troy Aikman the best quarterback of the 1990s? #CowboysNation
Was Michael Irvin the best wide receiver of the 1990s? #CowboysNation
Was Emmitt Smith the best running back of the 1990s? #CowboysNation
As you’ll note, I narrowed the field to just the 90s. Still, Emmitt is clearly held in a higher regard than Troy or Michael. Why is that? Is it fair?
Part of it is certainly statistics. As you well know, Emmitt is the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yardage. Comparatively, Aikman is 32nd in passing yardage and Irvin is 25th in receiving yards.
In touchdowns, Aikman is 65th all-time among QBs and Irvin is tied for 52nd among WRs. In an even more glaring difference between them and Smith, Emmitt is the again the career leader in RB touchdowns and in second-place among players from all positions. In first place is Jerry Rice, who we’ll talk about again shortly.
Obviously, a major reason for the lowers numbers for Aikman and Irvin is that high number for Emmitt. The Cowboys didn’t have to pass in the redzone because of their great offensive line and Emmitt’s toughness. I don’t think this term was around back in the 90s, but Emmitt was a supreme touchdown “vulture” for anyone who had Troy or Michael on their fantasy teams.
Stats are great, but we know that what really mattered to these guys were the championships. All of them won three Super Bowls together. Troy and Emmitt each claimed a Super Bowl MVP from the back-to-back titles.
Dismissing Michael Irvin seems to the be the easiest of the three. Jerry Rice stands out so dominantly among all receivers that there’s not much argument to be made. Tim Brown put up huge numbers for the Raiders. Though he only entered the league in 1998, some might even make a case for Randy Moss over The Playmaker.
It’s the difference in respect for Troy Aikman that I find more interesting. We define quarterbacks by Super Bowls far more than any other position. Aikman was the only QB to win three of them in the 90s. Still, you’ll often see guys with no rings like Dan Marino and Jim Kelly mentioned in higher esteem than Troy.
I’m not saying Aikman was the best of the 90s, either. As much as it pains me to say it because of the Boys-Niners rivalry of that decade, my pick would be Steve Young. No QB from that era could take over a game like Young or had a better mix of accuracy and mobility.
I’m not saying there’s any right or wrong to this stuff. Every fan has their own priorities and parameters for greatness, and that’s a good thing. We wouldn’t be able to have the fun conversations and debates otherwise.
Hopefully this sparks some conversation for you, our wonderful Inside The Star readers. Please comment below or via Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, or whatever platform you use to follow us.