Editor's Note: This story originally ran on Profootballhof.com shortly after Emmitt Smith set the all-time rushing record in 2002.
Now that Emmitt Smith has passed Walter Payton to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher, it doesn't take Perry Mason to argue the case that the Dallas Cowboys' superstar is the greatest runner of his generation.
Then again, if Bobby Donnell of ABC's The Practice was on the case, he and his firm-notorious for winning even when the evidence is stacked against them-might be able to convince the jury that former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders is still the greatest runner of his time.
Of course, as great as these two players are and were, chances are you'd have a hung jury.
And on the evening of Sept. 19, 1994, that was exactly what happened when Smith's Cowboys took on Sanders' Lions in a classic Monday night showdown at Texas Stadium.
The twosome, considered at the time to be the league's preeminent running backs, put on a dazzling display for the NFL nation. Sanders piled up 194 yards on 40 carries, while Smith, the three-time defending NFL rushing champion, countered with 143 yards on 29 attempts and another 49 yards via seven pass receptions.
Oh, by the way, the Lions-thanks to Jason Hanson's 44-yard field goal with just 27 seconds left in overtime-stunned the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys 20-17. But the game seemingly was a sidelight to the main event: Emmitt vs. Barry.
It was a fascinating duel, these two all-pros with their vastly different styles going head to head on the league's prime-time stage. Sanders jitterbugged his way through the perplexed Dallas defense, while Smith hammered away between the tackles, inflicting almost as much punishment on Detroit's tacklers as they did on him.
Detroit seized a 10-7 halftime lead when Scott Mitchell threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brett Perriman and extended its margin early in the third quarter on Mitchell's 9-yard touchdown pass to Herman Moore. The Cowboys answered by driving into position for a 19-yard Chris Boniol field goal that made it 17-10 Detroit heading into the fourth quarter.
After Hanson missed a 51-yard field goal, Smith broke a 32-yard run on a third-and-1 play, and moments later he crashed across the goal line from the 6 to tie the game with 4:09 remaining.
Detroit had a couple of chances to win in regulation, but Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett blocked a pair of Hanson field goals-one on the final play of the fourth period and one early in overtime. However, the Cowboys' offense went stagnant in the extra period, never threatened to score, and ultimately cost the team the game when Troy Aikman was sacked by Detroit's Broderick Thomas and fumbled the ball away at midfield, setting up Hanson's winning field goal.
So Sanders outrushed Smith, and his team won the game. But who was the better back? Nothing was settled on this night.
"I'm biased," said Billy Sims, a former Lions great who served as Detroit's honorary captain that evening. "Barry makes things happen when there's nothing there. If you don't have eleven guys over there trying to tackle him, you're in trouble."
Smith's teammate, defensive tackle Russell Maryland, naturally had a rebuttal: "I'm biased," he said. "Barry's a great back, but so is Emmitt. I'll still go with Mr. Smith."
Detroit coach Wayne Fontes took the diplomatic route, which also happened to be the view of the majority. "They're two different runners, great runners," he said. "You guys saw [Sanders' greatness] today. Maybe next week Emmitt will be best. If you put them both in a hat and pulled one out, you'd be happy with your choice."
That sentiment continues to ring loudly today.
Sanders mysteriously retired following the 1998 season with 15,269 career rushing yards, second-most in NFL history and just 1,457 shy of Payton's all-time mark of 16,726. The Lions' quiet superstar was still in the prime of his career, but weary of Detroit's habitual losing, he called it quits and has rarely been seen since.
With Sanders kicking back in his recliner, Smith-who entered the NFL in 1990, one year after his rival-took up the chase for Payton's hallowed mark and finally caught him Sunday when he gained 109 yards during a 17-14 loss to Seattle.
"You play the game because you love it and you strive to win championships," said Smith, who will take 16,743 career rushing yards into this week's game at Detroit. "You set individual goals that are intertwined with team goals, and the all-time rushing record is one of them. It means a great deal to me. I can't even begin to explain how great the 'great deal' is."
Emmitt or Barry? It's still a great debate.
"Running the ball is a good parallel with art," Sanders once said. "You put your whole self into it and if you're really good at it, people are moved by it. They admire it and they're awed by it. Who's the best is tough to say. It's like art. It's all a preference. It's what looks good to you."
Smith's preference? Forget Emmitt and Barry. Sweetness is still No. 1.
"Walter Payton is the best running back of all time," says the man who now ranks second to none among NFL rushers.
SOURCES: Dallas Morning News; NFL.com; Associated Press.
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