Emmitt Smith carried the football more times for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone in NFL history, powering the Dallas Cowboys to three NFL championships in the 1990s.
Smith became a first-ballot Hall of Famer – and rightfully so.
But Smith didn’t do it alone. He ran behind one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history that featured six different Pro Bowlers during that Super Bowl run. Guard Larry Allen has since been honored with his own bust in Canton. He was an NFL all-decade selection for both the 1990s and 2000s. But there was another all-decade blocker on that line whose career thus far has flown under the radar.
Mark Stepnoski did not fit the prototype for a center. At 6-2, 265 pounds, he was diminutive compared to his Pro Bowl peers of the era – Ray Donaldson (311 pounds), Kevin Mawae (289), Dermontti Dawson (288), Tony Mayberry (288), Tom Nalen (286) and Jeff Christy (285). A center needed bulk back then to stand in against all those 300-pound Pro Bowl defensive tackles like Cortez Kennedy, Chester McGlockton, Warren Sapp, Ted Washington and Bryant Young.
But Stepnoski’s strength was his blocking techniques. A two-time academic All-America at Pitt, he understood angles and leverage and used them to his advantage. He was a technician. Enough so that Stepnoski was one of two centers named to the NFL’s 1990 all-decade team.
There have been 13 centers named to all-decade teams through the league’s first nine decades. Nine of them now have busts in Canton. Stepnoski is one of the four still on the outside looking in along with George Svendsen from the 1930s, Charley Brock from the 1940s and Olin Kreutz from the 2000s. None of the four has ever been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Maybe the Hall’s selection committee hasn’t appreciated what Stepnoski was able to accomplish in his career, but there is one very strong voice and powerful advocate in his corner.
“My center is very important to me,” said Smith when he was on the verge of becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher back in 2003. “He dictates everything to me -- the cutbacks.”
Stepnoski was Smith’s center for eight seasons and his blocks helped pave the way for 10,804 of his 18,355 career yards. Stepnoski was at the hub of a blocking front that delivered Smith six of his eight Pro Bowl invitations and three consecutive NFL rushing titles from 1991-93.
His size – or lack thereof – was never an issue for Stepnoski. He was a Parade All-America guard at Cathedral Prep in Erie, Pa., and was named to the state of Pennsylvania’s All-Century team in 2006.
Stepnoski moved into the starting lineup at Pitt in the third game of his true freshman season and, in his debut, held Boston College’s Outland Trophy winning defensive tackle Mike Ruth to a season-low four tackles. Stepnoski started all four of his seasons at Pitt at guard and became both an All-America and Outland Trophy finalist himself by the time he was a senior.
But his size was an issue for the NFL, which drafts college players based on their measurables. Art 265, Stepnoski lacked the key bulk measurable for NFL offensive linemen. So the Cowboys found Stepnoski in the third round, projecting him as a center, and he spent his rookie season on the bench learning the position from veteran Tom Rafferty. But Stepnoski never had the doubts in himself that the NFL had.
“When he walked into that room, he expected to be there,” said Tony Wise, the offensive line coach of the Cowboys at the time who built the best blocking front in the NFL. “He didn’t have to convince himself that he belonged. He knew when he walked in that door. He knew he was ready to be in that room.”
And when he finally hit the field as the starting center in 1990, Stepnoski played like he belonged. Smith won his first rushing crown in Stepnoski’s second season as a starter and the Cowboys won a Super Bowl in his third season as a starter.
“Step took notes like a chemistry major,” Wise said. “He had great strength for his size and played with such great leverage. Everything was inside – his hands were inside, his feet were inside. He was just so efficient when he was locked up with a bigger man. The Packers would moved Reggie (White) to nose in Bear (defense) … and I’ve got some film clips of Step blocking him.”
But Stepnoski was one of the few high-profile Cowboys to leave Dallas when the window of free agency finally opened. In 1994 he jumped to the Houston Oilers, where his blocking helped another running back reach Pro Bowl heights. Eddie George rushed for 1,200-plus yards in three consecutive seasons before Stepnoski once again used free agency to return to Dallas.
Smith collected the final three 1,000-yard rushing seasons of his career in Stepnoski’s final three seasons (1999-2001). In all, offenses amassed 10 1,000-yard rushers in Stepnoski’s 13 NFL seasons. He became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2007 and made the preliminary list of candidates in his first year of eligibility. But he hasn’t been heard from since.
The Hall of Fame selection committee shouldn’t repeat the mistake made by other 27 NFL teams in the 1989 draft. Those teams overlooked Mark Stepnoski. They shouldn’t have. Neither should the Hall of Fame selection committee.