Freud: Rice and Smith go into the Hall
Columns are meant to be controversial. This one isn’t.
Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith headline this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Class, which will be enshrined today. (Yeah, the Broncos’ Floyd Little enters as well, but you cannot, in all candor, compare him with these two. Again, this is not a controversial column.)
Growing up in San Francisco and turning 10 just before Joe Montana rolled right and floated the ball to Dwight Clark against the Cowboys, Rice is obviously my guy between this year’s headliners of the Hall Class.
He’s one of the four pillars of the San Francisco dynasty along with Bill Walsh, Montana and Ronnie Lott. That said, the Niners’ reign was essentially bookended by the hated Cowboys, with Smith delivering crushing blows to San Francisco in the 1990s.
Walsh trades up
The Niners and Cowboys and Rice and Smith are intertwined in more ways than you think. Conventional wisdom is that Montana to Clark – “The Catch” – ended Dallas’ run. That smarted in Big D, no doubt, but Dallas was still a good team, making the NFC Championship in 1982 and was a playoff regular through 1985.
Yet after the 1984 season, the Niners’ second Super Bowl win, Dallas knew it needed to retool. Entering the 1985 Draft, Al Toon and Eddie Johnson were the top-two receivers available, and they went to the Jets and Bengals, respectively. (That sort of blows the heck out of pre-Draft analysis, as we’ll see.)
The Cowboys were poised to take this Rice kid out of Mississippi Valley State (where?) at No. 17, when Walsh continued to prove that he was a genius. Though Rice had run a terrible 40 time in the scouting combine – Walsh recalled it was a 4.59 – and most considered the wide receiver to be overrated because he played against inferior competition, the Niners coach pulled the trigger.
San Francisco, drafting 28th, dealt its first-second- and third-round picks to New England for the Patriots’ No. 16 pick and swooped up Rice. Think about that for a second because this trade changes NFL history.
With Rice, the Cowboys likely don’t decline to the point where they go 3-13 and 1-15 at the end of the 80s, which involves the avalanche of Tom Landry to Jimmy Johnson, and Dallas’ drafting of its 1990s dynasty team.
If the Cowboys have Rice, why would they have taken Michael Irvin No. 11 in 1988? They wouldn’t have had the worst record in the NFL and been able to take Troy Aikman No. 1 in 1989. And along comes Smith in 1990. Voila, the “The Triplets.” (Yeah, the Herschel Walker trade was brilliant, amassing vast talent, but this trio made the Cowboys tick.) By the way, the Cowboys traded up to get Smith. Irony can be very ironic.
Smith conquers the Niners
The perception is that the Niners dynasty always had talent and that Montana happened to be a quarterback in the right place at the right time. No, no, no.
In 1981, the Niners won because Walsh took Sid Gilman’s and Paul Brown’s pass-first-to-establish-the-run (West Coast Offense 1.0) into passing instead of running (West Coast Offense 2.0) San Francisco’s leading rusher was Ricky Patton, compiling all of 543 yards with a 3.6-yard-per-carry average. Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon were the Niners’ main receivers for in both 1981 and 1984, the first two Super Bowls for the franchise.
Clark will never have to buy a drink again in San Francisco because of The Catch, but he was not close to an elite receiver, nor was Solomon. Clark’s best season was 1981 with 85 catches for 1,105 yards and four touchdowns. (He had 10 scores in 1985, but you get the point.)
When Walsh drafts Rice, you get West Coast Offense 3.0. The short passes, the calling card of the scheme, instead of going to Clark, Solomon, Patton, Wendell Tyler, Bill Ring and eventually Roger Craig (drafted in 1983), go to Rice, a guy with a little more speed come game time than in a scouting combine.
This changes everything. Nice 5- to 10-yard gains with Clark and the like become a whole lot more with Rice, a potential touchdown on every play if he shakes a tackler. And yeah, he could catch a bomb in stride as well (Bless you, Joe.) Throw in John Taylor (who wasdrafted in 1986 and got going in 1988) on the other side of the offense, and you’ve got the real show that was the Niners’ offense.
Though his prime was 1987-1996, when Rice was untouchable, the career numbers boggle – 1,549 catches, 22,895, and 197 touchdown catches (with 10 more rushing). These are all marks no one will break for the foreseeable future.
Enter Emmitt. The Cowboys and Niners battled for NFC/NFL supremacy in the 1990s, and Dallas won. And for all the talent of Aikman, Irving and Alvin Harper offensively, it’s Smith who was the wrecking ball for the 49ers.
San Francisco had no answer for Smith – in 1994, when the Niners won their fifth title, Smith was injured (hamstring) during the regular-season game between the two teams, and essentially taken out of the NFC Championship when the 49ers built a 21-0 lead.
Like Rice, Smith’s numbers are other-worldly – 18,355 yards, 164 rushing touchdowns (11 more through the air) and 4.2 yards-per-carry average during 15 years at a bruising position. Not bad for a guy, who akin to Rice, also was perceived not to have NFL size and skills. And, as with Rice, it’s hard to see a running back approaching Smith’s totals. Though not as dazzling in his running style, Smith could beat you by breaking a run or just simply pounding you to death at the end of a game.
With their paths having crossed so much, it’s only fitting that they both end up in Canton together.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.