Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Aug 2010

Will Emmitt's Record Stand Forever?

Some choice quotes from this article on whether Emmitt Smith's rushing record will ever be broken...

"I do believe it will be approached," Smith said. "I would be naive to think that it could be not approached, because hey, no one actually thought that Walter Payton's record could be approached."

Former NFL safety Rodney Harrison believes when a top running back gets a major contract, the hunger to play wanes.

"Guys won't take care of their bodies like that [to survive]," Harrison said. "They won't. If you're a running back in your third or fourth year and you get a $40 million to $50 million deal -- most of these young kids, this is what drives them, the big paycheck, so once you get the paycheck, what else is going to drive you? What's going to get you to that next level? And unfortunately these guys don't have what LT and Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith had: the will to be the very best. These guys want to get paid."

One night during his sixth season, he went over his plan to pass Payton with teammate Nate Newton. Newton, a guard, said Smith talked about needing to average a certain amount of yards every season if he was going to catch Payton.

"A guy has to take care of his body and take care of his mental state of mind knowing he's going to be playing through a lot of key injuries," Newton said. "He has to come in knowing he wants this record. He can't wait until his fifth year, saying, 'I want this record.' You have to do it when you come out."

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 07 Aug 2010

52 comments, Last at 09 Aug 2010, 10:10am by t.d.

Comments

8
by Tim Wilson :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:51pm

A back would also need Smith's freakish durability, which is obviously a very rare thing.

Typically, I assume all offensive records will be broken in an increasingly offensive game, but the article's point (which is ignored here) that lead workhorse backs are increasingly rare is a notable one, which makes you think that a guy being the lead back for his team for as many years as Emmitt was is going to be tough to come by. Of course, part of the reason for that is that very few backs are capable of shouldering that workhorse load for as long as Emmitt was.

1
by Overrated (not verified) :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:06pm

Because no one will ever have the will the be the very best again? What?

And since Emmitt waited until his sixth year to decide he wanted it, no one can wait til their fifth?

Man, football players are dumb.

3
by Temo :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:21pm

While Emmitt talked to Newton about his goals in his 6th season, he wanted the record just about as soon as he was drafted.

And I agree with Newton that RBs need to plan out their career early. I know LT tried to save his body as much he could (though it's still going), and the article talks about Chris Johnson making some pretty grandiose plans of his own.

6
by Nathan :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:49pm

From PFT:

While in college at Florida, Emmitt Smith kept a list of his five professional goals at his home, according to Jeff Pearlman in the book Boys will be Boys. The list:

1. Lead NFL in rushing
2. NFL Rookie of the Year
3. Hall of Fame
4. NFL's all-time reading rusher
5. Greatest running back ever!!!

41
by Jericho (not verified) :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 6:13pm

4 out of 5 aint bad!

But it will take a perfect storm of attributes to pass him. Smith was talented and freakishly durable, but also had the good fortune to play behind some talented offensive lines with a HOF QB and WR to boot. And unlike someone like Barry Sanders, decided to stick around long enough to get the record. But someone, someday will do better.

43
by Temo :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 6:29pm

Lets be honest, Troy Aikman should not be a hall of famer.

44
by Tim Wilson :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 7:10pm

Haha-- wow! You really came into this thread with an axe to grind, huh?

46
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 11:32pm

Actually, he's a Cowboys fan.

51
by t.d. :: Mon, 08/09/2010 - 10:04am

and right

/another Cowboys fan

2
by Theo :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:11pm

play about 15 years and average 1200 yards a season... ehhhh that's LaDainian Tomlinson with another 5 seasons.

5
by Temo :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:25pm

Realistically, Smith was a starter-quality back for 11 seasons, through 2000. Then the Cowboys gave him an extra 2 years, and then the Cards gave him another 2 years, one of which he was injured for most of the season.

The fact that the Cards actually started Smith in 2004 still confuses me to this day. He was terrible.

7
by Tim Wilson :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:51pm

I don't think the point is that a running back has to START for every season of his NFL career to accrue insane amounts of yards...it's that he has to be a starter for an outstanding length of time (say, 11 seasons, which is nuts), and then be able to gain yards for some years after he stops being a main workhorse back. In those last 4 years you mention, I would scratch one entirely because he was injured for most of it, and for the other 3, I wouldn't quite call Emmitt a lead back in the same way he was earlier in his career. He shared the load with Troy Hambrick a bit in those last couple Dallas seasons.

The point I was trying to make was that his durability and longevity are amazing.

9
by Temo :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:53pm

Oh of course. A RB having 11 productive seasons is freaking amazing.

23
by Basilicus :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 9:30am

The Cards weren't doing so hot from a business standpoint back then. They started Emmitt to sell a lot of jerseys, which they did.

47
by Theo :: Mon, 08/09/2010 - 5:36am

yes, but he was productive in his last 2 years in Dallas, running for 1996 yards in those 2 years. Adding another 937 in 2004.
It doesn't really matter how good he was if we're talking rushing records and without those 3189 yards in his last 4 years, he would be #3 behind Payton and Sanders.
To make the rshing title, apparently you need seasons like that.

4
by tuluse :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 7:23pm

Rodney Harrison is really a blowhard.

17
by Duff Soviet Union :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 2:11am

Yes, Harrison's "kids today only care about money. Back in my day, we were better people than that" is quite laughable and worthy of much eye rolling. Unfortunately, it's a pretty common sentiment among retired players, no matter which sport you're talking about.

30
by Noah of Arkadia :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 11:49am

It's similar to high-school and college generations thinking their generation was the last good one before the school went to hell. I've heard several high-school grads from the same school but different generations (I'm talking about 10 years apart here) echo the sentiment.

10
by jfsh :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 8:41pm

Curtis Martin might have had a shot if he had kept playing (not sure if anyone wanted him). Played from 1995-2005, 3518 attempts, 14,101 yards. He was 32 when he retired.

He also might be a good example of how difficult it is: Martin was an extremely productive player for a very long time, started as a rookie, and was still 4,000+ yards away.

14
by Raiderjoe :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 12:19am

Nobody wannted him after 2005 seoaosn. too injrued to play that was reason why . was on Jets pup list in 2006 tried to get healthy but body wouldnt repsoond so Martin reirted

cannt wait for gamem tomorrow night Bengals vs cowvoys. going to have Sierra Nevada flowing with some chips and preidicition is bengals 20, cowboys 13

11
by Marko :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 9:41pm

As Emmitt might say: The record could get debacled, but only if someone is able to play at a high level for a long time. Of course, the longer you play and the more carries you get, the more chances you have of getting blowed up.

12
by lionsbob :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 10:26pm

It was suppose to be Barry's record...but he didn't want it.

52
by t.d. :: Mon, 08/09/2010 - 10:10am

Emmitt was right there with Barry until he landed on his head in the first game of the 1996 season against the Bears on MNF. He was never quite the same fearless back again (though avoiding contact probably extended his career)

13
by drobviousso :: Sat, 08/07/2010 - 11:21pm

Dear Mr Harrison,

It's called projection. Look it up.

15
by MJK :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 12:20am

Not only would you need Smith's freakish durability, you'd need a few other things, that have nothing to do with "drive to be the best" (no disrespect to Mr. Harrison intended):

* You would need to get drafted/signed by a team that already has a great run-blocking line in place and a decent but not amazing passing game, or at least one that would get this in place within about a year of your rookie year.

* Said team would have to keep this line and this good-but-not-great passing offense together for a least a number of consecutive years.

* Said team also must play in a division that is otherwise crappy for a few consecutive years.

* Most importantly, you would need to be an every-down back with good receiving and pass protecting skills as well as running skills, and no other effective running back would have to happen onto your team; otherwise, in today's game, you would find yourself platooned as part of a running back committee, and even if you got the majority of the touches, you would still never make Smith's record before you had to retire.

So...it could happen, but probably not for a while.

16
by wr (not verified) :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 1:59am

"You would need to get drafted signed by a team that already has a great run
blocking line in place and a decent but not amazing passing game, or at least one
that would get this in place within about a year of your rookie year."

Er, um, Walter Peyton was drafted by a team that had zilch going for it. He
got the majority of his yards *before* he had either a decent line or anything
resembling a passing game, which meant that everyone and his brother knew he was
going to have the ball, and he still succeeded.

18
by Andrew Potter :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 3:06am

Good for him. Do you think anybody would break Smith's record if they found themselves in that situation now? Even Walter Payton, I highly doubt it.

19
by Q (not verified) :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 3:12am

Of course the record will be broken. The best bet is a Barry Sanders type back who can avoid big hits and is a threat to go 80 yards any time he touches it.

Sanders is the person who could have really put the rushing yardage record in the stratosphere if he had wanted.

32
by Staubach12 :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 1:02pm

I'm not so sure about that. Most RBs hit a wall and have their production drop off at the age when Sanders retired.

Look at what happened with Curtis martin. In 2004, he won the rushing title with ca. 1700 yards and had his 10th straight 1,000-yard season. In 2005 (age 32), he was hampered by injuries and could only muster 735 yards. By 2006, he was out of the league and too injured to play again.

This happens to every running back at some point in his early 30s. Walter Payton had a similar dramatic decline from 1986 to 1987. Eric Dickerson hit the wall at 30. Dorsett hit the wall at 32. Tomlinson, Faulk, and Simpson all hit the wall at 30.

Barry retired for a reason. We don't really have a reason to think that he would have been more durable in his 30s than the other greats.

42
by JIPanick :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 6:16pm

Great post.

20
by BillWallace :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 3:55am

The biggest factor in whether or not his record will be broken isn't whether or not a dominant and durable enough back will come along.

The biggest factor is how the style and rules of the league evolve over time. That is something that could go in any direction, and can't really be predicted too well. As people have mentioned the current trends are reducing potential for huge long term rushing totals. But who knows how things will swing over time. We could end up with a longer season and offenses so wide open that guys are getting 300 carries over 20 games at 6/carry and not wearing down.

38
by JimZipCode :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 3:10pm

>> As people have mentioned the current trends are
>> reducing potential for huge long term rushing totals.

And yet 9 of the top 31 players in career rushing yards were active last season. LDT, Edge, Formerly Fragile Freddie, Jamal L, Portis, Shaun Alexander (stretching point, he was last active in 2008), Thomas Jones, Ahman Green & Ricky Williams. Williams is #31 on the career rushing list with 8,892 yards.

Seems pretty clear that the current trends are very conducive to amassing big long-term rushing totals.

21
by Brendan Scolari :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 4:18am

No. Records are made to be broken.

22
by Capt. Anonymous (not verified) :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 9:08am

Average 1200 yards for 15 seasons. Who ever said that hit the nail on the head. There were about 15 years between Payton being drafted and Emmitt being drafted. So maybe that guy is already in the league and we don't realize it yet.

Sherrif gonna getcha is 28 and has nearly 10k yards. He'd have to average 1k and stick around till he's 36.

AP is 24, has 4K and would have to average 1k until he is 38.

Noone else is on the pace that those two are at using the theory that good running backs will stick around long enough to be slightly below average.

Dan Snyder might be dumb enough to pay the Sheriff after he's washed up. Well, he's already washed up.

26
by Basilicus :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 9:51am

I don't know. LDT fell off the last two years, but even so, one of those years still got him 1,000 yards. If he returns to being an average back, he'd need to stay on an awful long time, but 6 seasons of 1,000 yards or 8 seasons of 750 yards would get him the title. It's not as if he's sharing the backfield with any world-beaters in New York, and they like to run. There'll always be a team that'll need an average back to pound. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a few more 1,200-yard seasons out of Tomlinson, even if they weren't impressive, which would leave him a few role-playing seasons away from the title. A long shot, yes, but better than anyone else right now.

I'd also say Steven Jackson has a shot. He's missed some time the last few years, but despite that, he only needs about 11,000 more yards (only) to challenge. If he's able to notch a few more 1,400-1,500 yard seasons (say, four) and stay healthy, that could put him 6,000 away by the time he's 30.

Those, along with the Magical Portis Revival Tour and Associated Press are the only four I see as having any kind of shot. But who knows? Frank Gore could rack up some 1,600 yard seasons or Kevin Faulk could enjoy a 14,000 yard season.

24
by Karl Cuba :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 9:32am

Chris Johnson has a chance if he can stay healthy. Other than his absurd speed he has a great offensive line coach in Mike Munchak and a qb whose bootleg action forces the defense to remain honest.

What about Jerry Rice's record(s)?

50
by Mr Shush :: Mon, 08/09/2010 - 9:02am

Moss has a realistic outside shot at the receiving touchdown record: he's 49 behind and still only 32. Obviously it will depend on health, how he ages, and (this being Randy Moss) whether he can be bothered, but it's not hard to imagine him having one or two more seasons of very high level play, with 12-18 scores in each, and then becoming a more limited but still valuable possession/red zone guy, with maybe 8-10 TDs a season, for several more years. If you offered me maybe 10-1 on Moss to do it, I'd take it. A little shorter, even. Not TDs from scrimmage, though: Rice scored 10 of those to Moss's none, and that's probably enough to tip over into the realm of pretty damn unlikely.

The other two are only even potentially in danger from players who still have a long, long way to go (most notably Fitzgerald). If Fitzgerald stays healthy pretty much throughout, and ages very well (though not necessarily as freakishly well as Rice), he might conceivably do it. That level of durability and longevity is actually pretty damn unlikely, though. There's also probably some fairly substantial QB risk in that particular case; obviously Rice was pretty well served in that department over his career, to the point where Kurt Warner 4.0 may well prove to be the best quarterback Fitzgerald ever catches a pass from, but would be third at the very best on Rice's list.

25
by capt anonymous (not verified) :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 9:47am

And just to give a marker Emmit hit 10k at 26 and missed only 5 games during that period.

Also only a small list of guys have managed to average 100yds/game in 3 different seasons(An even smaller amount has managed to lead the league in rushing 3 times). Other players have led the league in yds/game but never reached 100 yds/gm 3 times(joe perry,steve van buren,gale sayers,earl campbell).

Adrian Peterson has already led the league 2 times. We are probably watching a legend. Though, he has only topped 100 yds per game once.

jim brown 7(led league 8 times)
oj simpson 3(3)
walter payton 3(1)
eric dickerson 5(5)
barry sanders 4(4)
tomlinson 3(1)
emmitt smith 3(3)

As Kornheiser would say, "that's it! that's the list!"

27
by tuluse :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 9:56am

Just to mention a dark horse.

Clinton Portis is only 28, has put up at least 1200 yards every season he played 16 games, and is reunited with Shanahan.

28
by Basilicus :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 9:56am

Well, yeah, Chris Johnson, but isn't it a bit early?

*Thinks of Ickey Woods and cries*

29
by Mike Kurtz :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 10:44am

Emmitt also commented that it really helps if a far superior running back abruptly retires early to keep the lower record firmly in place.

31
by Tim Wilson :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 12:52pm

Cheap shot. I'm not interested in turning this into an Emmitt vs. Barry thread, so let's not. I just don't get why any praise of Emmitt Smith, by any standard an all-time NFL great, must immediately cause "Yeah, but Barry..." detractors to come out of the woodwork.

There's a great column at PFR on Emmitt's career which pretty soundly refutes the idea that Emmitt might have been overrated in some way:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=5541

One passage that I particularly like:

"Smith played on good teams early in his career and bad teams late in his career. Walter Payton did the opposite. Barry Sanders played on bad teams in September and October every year and good ones in November and December. Jim Brown, of course, only played on good teams. During his career, Emmitt's Smith's teams were a total of 12 games over .500. Jim Brown's were 45 games over .500. Walter Payton's were 28 games over .500. (Sanders' were four under). Why does Emmitt get singled out for being a coattail-rider?

No one knows how Emmitt's prime would have looked without Troy, Erik, et al. I am not going to argue that he would still be the all-time rushing champ had he switched places with Sanders or Payton. Nor am I going to argue that he didn't benefit from some good fortune. All record holders did. But he was and is one of the very best running backs in history."

33
by tuluse :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 1:21pm

Emmitt's Smith's teams were a total of 12 games over .500. Jim Brown's were 45 games over .500. Walter Payton's were 28 games over .500. (Sanders' were four under). Why does Emmitt get singled out for being a coattail-rider?

Well that is some shoddy analysis. I hardly think Buddy Ryan and his defense had a large impact on Payton's rushing numbers.

How about this statistic: number probowls Walter Payton's linemen went to: 4. Hilgenberg and Covert both went twice. Emmitt Smith had single years where 4 linemen went to the probowl.

36
by Tim Wilson :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 2:10pm

That quote was not meant to count as statistical analysis. If you read the actual article, you'll see that it's a counter to the claim that "Emmitt Smitih benefited from playing on great teams his whole career while Barry and others had to toil in loserdom."

Read the article, it also goes into the offensive line benefits. When you cite Emmitt's great lines, you are focusing on a 5 year stretch of a 15 year career.

34
by Mike Kurtz :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 1:46pm

Both not a cheap shot and you missed my point. My point was that had Sanders not retired early, he probably would have pushed the record to a place where Emmitt would not have been able to match it.

The only value judgment I made was that Sanders was better than Smith, which would be incredibly banal if Smith wasn't the current record-holder.

37
by Tim Wilson :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 2:14pm

The "far superior" comment was the cheap shot. As I said in my response, I don't understand why any conversation praising Emmitt Smith's career must immediately be flooded with people citing Barry Sanders' superiority.

If Sanders had kept playing, he might've ended with the all-time record, but it's far from a given. Part of Emmitt's greatness was his longevity and his durability. Sanders chose to leave the game. It's hard to stick around after age 30 and keep getting hit by 300 pound men game after game, and Emmitt kept doing it, and did it more productively than almost any other RB in history for any age range comparison in his career (see the PFR article). That is part of earning a record. You actually have to do it on the field. Barry's projected fictional rushing totals are much less interesting to me.

40
by Temo :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 3:41pm

Emmitt also commented that it really helps if a far superior running back abruptly retires early to keep the lower record firmly in place.

Today in totally obvious statements: "It helps to achieve a record if not as many other players want it".

35
by Entropy :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 1:54pm

The NFL is what, 90 years old? Say football lasts a thousand years, what are the chances the all time leading rusher was a player from that first 90?

Of course the record will be broken. It'll happen in 2056 when a small change in the holding rules brings the run/pass ratio to 3/2. Or it'll happen in 2070 when the league finally extends the regular season to 26 games. Or maybe it'll last until 2231 when 25 productive years before retirement is the norm.

Or maybe some superstar who just happens to be better than Emmit Smith can come along at any time. It'll happen eventualy.

39
by Brendan Scolari :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 3:31pm

Exactly.

45
by Staubach12 :: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 11:07pm

I agree. But it will take one heck of a back to break that record. I don't think he's playing in the NFL right now.

49
by dmb :: Mon, 08/09/2010 - 8:45am

Given your screen name, I'm astonished that you seem to think that a sports league lasting 1000 years is a fairly plausible scenario.

48
by erniecohen :: Mon, 08/09/2010 - 6:02am

Bill James suggested evaluating record "unbreakability" in baseball by the number of years of league-leading performance needed to break it. Granted that rushing is special, because running backs appear to have significantly more wear-and-tear, but we're talking only about 10 years of league-leading performance to reach the record. So in the absence of substantial rule changes, I'd be surprised if the record lasted 50 years.

People who cite the two-back thing forget that multiple backs were quite common for most of football history. People were expecting Franco Harris to break Brown's record, even though he played most or all of his career in a 2-back set.

Comments about modern players not taking care of their bodies is also sort of silly. There is a long-term trend of increasing pay and competition, which tends to shorten careers, but there is also improvements in health and equipment, which tends to lengthen them. That said, the reason that young running backs plan for their big payday is that they know that they are likely to get at most one.