Emmitt Smith delivered like no other

CANTON, Ohio -- Humbled by the Hall of Fame experience, Emmitt Smith danced around the question like it was a middle linebacker in the open field.

Is he the greatest running back in NFL history?

"That depends on who's talking," Smith said about an hour after his emotional induction speech. "My stats speak for themselves."

They certainly do.

Strong cases can be made for Cleveland's Jim Brown, Chicago's Walter Payton or Detroit's Barry Sanders as the best backs of all time. Many others were bigger than Smith, faster than Smith, more elusive than Smith or more spectacular than Smith. An elite few might even have been better.

However, the Dallas Cowboys' legend stands alone as the most successful and productive back to ever play the game. There can be no debate about that.

Smith broke Payton's record for rushing yards. He shattered Brown's record for rushing touchdowns. His marks of 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns might never be approached.

"I think it's fair to say you will never see another runner like him again," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Saturday evening as he presented Smith at Fawcett Stadium. "No one will perform at that position with that production for that length of time again. It's just too hard to do."

Critics can accuse Smith of padding his records by finishing his career by wearing the Arizona Cardinals' red for a couple of seasons. But the bulk of his numbers were compiled while serving as a workhorse for a Dallas dynasty.

Jones uses the words "durable" and "dependable" to describe Emmitt, who epitomized those terms with his tremendous performance in a Jan. 2, 1994 overtime win against the New York Giants. He played the entire second half with a separated shoulder, finishing with 168 rushing yards to clinch his second consecutive NFL rushing title and the NFC East championship.

The Cowboys won the Super Bowl that season, one of three for the Triplets. Pittsburgh's Franco Harris is the only running back who owns more Super Bowl rings than Smith.

The stats Smith produced in the playoffs were just as phenomenal as his regular-season numbers. He owns NFL postseason rushing records for yards (1,586), 100-yard games (seven) and touchdowns (19).

"I'm not into subjective comparisons. I really would go to the statistics," Jones said, making his case for Emmitt as the best of all time. "I'd go to the championships. I'd go to the actual big games. I'd go to all the things that you really should look at with a running back.

"You might get a little subjective at the other positions, but with a running back, you can really look at it and add it up. I don't know of any back that has ever contributed to big games and championships any more than he did."

Those who argue against Emmitt point to the players who surrounded him during Dallas' dominant years. They wonder what Sanders, the back with the more spectacular highlight tape, could have done behind an offensive line like that. They speculate about how many backs could have won multiple Super Bowls with Troy Aikman at quarterback and Michael Irvin at receiver.

Nobody has to tell Smith how fortunate he was to fulfill his childhood dream of playing in Dallas with such a star-studded cast of coaches and teammates.

Smith thanked his old offensive coordinator Norv Turner and former head coach Jimmy Johnson during his induction speech. He started to choke up when he addressed the other Triplets, telling Aikman that his leadership and focus made him a better player because he didn't want to let the quarterback down, crediting Irvin's work ethic and passion for inspiring him and teaching him how to prepare. Smith mentioned 17 offensive linemen by name. And he broke down in tears as he expressed his heartfelt gratitude to fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston for sacrificing to open so many holes.

Smith couldn't have asked for better circumstances. But he made the most of the opportunities, more than any other running back in NFL history.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.