During his 15 seasons in the NFL, Emmitt Smith rushed for a record 18,355 yards. And yeah, we’re all aware of what they say about records being made to be broken, but it’s beginning to look like Smith’s mark of 18,355 is about as unbreakable as they come in this league.
The trends are obvious. Backs have become devalued in an era in which the last three seasons have been the most pass-heavy campaigns in league history. And even if balance eventually returns to a league in which trends are cyclical and teams start running the ball as much as they throw it, shelf lives have shrunk for backs in a game that is becoming harder and harder on the players’ bodies.
And their heads.
That has Smith himself wondering if a trend toward shorter careers in general as a result of fear regarding CTE and related effects of head trauma might be a major reason why his record might never be broken.
“It’s a reflection of the changing times in terms of how they value the running back position and how the game has changed into a running back-by-committee approach,” Smith said recently, per ESPN.com. “It could be because of the CTE stuff, it could be because of how offenses use spread formations vs. the I-formation and it could be the way they rotate players in and out.”
Smith played before concussion concerns were causing players to contemplate retirement at early ages, before backfield committees had become popularized and before tenures in the NFL were viewed as sprints instead of marathons. Some of that might never change. Some if it might be irreversible. Smith’s record is about endurance and longevity more than anything else, and backs these days just don’t stay healthy and productive for close to as long as he did.
Among players who started their careers after the turn of the century, only one — LaDainian Tomlinson — is within 6,000 yards of Smith’s mark. And even Tomlinson, who played 10 seasons, remains nearly 5,000 yards back. There isn’t an active player in the game who is under the age of 30 and within 10,000 yards of Smith, which means nobody in their prime right now is even halfway to that 18,355 mark.
“If he doesn’t get it, I don’t know who’s going to get it,” Smith said of 30-year-old Vikings back Adrian Peterson, who remains 6,680 yards behind. “He’s still got a lot of yards to go. I’m not going to lie to you.”
At the exact same age as Peterson, Smith had 2,288 more yards than AP does now. And that was during an era that was much friendlier to backs, and players in general.