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Is Emmitt Smith’s NFL rushing record unbreakable?

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We come to a definitive conclusion.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Recently, our fearless leader posted what he termed “Five Awesome Records held by the Cowboys’ franchise or player”. It’s a terrific read and a good excuse to revisit some of the iconic moments in the organization’s rich history. However, Dave graciously excluded perhaps the most notable record held by any Dallas Cowboy in team history: Emmitt Smith’s all-time NFL rushing yards record of 18,355 yards. He left it for a thorough examination in this article.

In fact, the record looms so large and stands so far above that we can reasonably ask, will anyone ever break Emmitt Smith’s record? Some comments on a recent story got me thinking about this topic and I decided to do a deep dive and do my best to come to a persuasive conclusion. Oh who am I kidding...it’s a fun topic and a good excuse to revisit Emmitt’s career and build a bunch of charts that show he was the man. I hope you like charts because there will be many.

An answer to this question requires an understanding of where Smith’s record sits in history, how often players have “been on pace” to eclipse the record and long-term trends that could assist or challenge those who might approach the record in the future.

First, the basics. The following table shows the NFL’s all-time leading rushers:

One thing jumps out at me... were it not for one Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton’s 16,726 yards rushing would still stand as the most in NFL history. Since Payton retired in 1987, Smith is the only player to eclipse the mark, and Payton still outdistances all others by more than 1,500 yards. Smith, Payton and Barry Sanders remain as the only players to reach 15,000 rushing yards. Smith’s final tally occupies extremely rarefied air that could very well stand alone forever.

Here’s the rushing yard numbers in chart form just because I like charts.

One of the things I set out to understand is how did the various names above reach their final rushing yardage numbers and how did they compare to each other over time. The following shows each player’s cumulative yardage totals by season played.

Several things jump out at me:

  1. Longevity counts. Smith enjoyed the second-longest career among these legendary names, with only Marcus Allen playing longer in the NFL. The average career length is just under 12 years, which is an eternity to play running back in the NFL. And yet Smith played three full seasons beyond, logging 15 seasons in the league.
  2. Smith’s numbers are noteworthy for several things. First, Emmitt’s rookie season was relatively modest, putting him behind the pace of others early in his career. Second, four different players had topped 11,000 yards by season eight: Smith, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson. In fact, looking at this table, those three plus Walter Payton and Adrian Peterson are really the only five players that would make legitimate candidates to ultimately become the NFL’s rushing leader. Everyone else on this list lagged somewhat behind those five by the midway point of their careers.
  3. Eric Dickerson! Wow; Dickerson easily ranked first in total yards rushing from his very first year in the league (a rookie-record 1,808 yards that stands to this date) through his eighth season. In fact, Dickerson had nearly 12,000 yards by his eighth season meaning he averaged nearly 1,500 yards per year throughout his first eight years in the league. That’s amazing. And yet, he would add only a little more than 1,300 yards to his career totals after that year. This illustrates that nearly a decade of elite production is necessary, but not sufficient, to match Smith’s totals.
  4. Barry Sanders... what might have been? We’ll get to him in a minute but we see here that when he retired he was fully 1,300 yards beyond Emmitt’s pace through ten seasons.

For those who can’t get enough squiggly lines, here’s the cumulative numbers in chart form (Emmitt’s is the thick white line):

That’s too many lines to make much sense of so I’m going to show a couple different views with fewer players. First, I’m going to show the top three, Smith, Payton and Sanders:

First, the trajectory of all three is nearly identical. One of the amazing things about Barry Sanders is he got better during the later stages of his career. Second, you could argue that Smith simply outlasted both Sanders and Payton, as Sanders was ahead of Smith when he retired and Payton trailed Smith by only 436 yards. In my mind, these three stand apart from all others for being able to maintain the pace through ten-plus seasons where others fell off. True, we know Smith and Payton were productive in their 11+ seasons and we don’t know if Sanders would have been able to do the same. However, considering he averaged 1,700 yards his final three seasons and retired following a (nearly) 1,500 yard season it’s reasonable to assume he would have kept going.

However, it’s truly difficult to know if Barry Sanders would have outdistanced Emmitt Smith had he simply kept playing. Based on rate of yards gained per year he would have had to play at least four and probably five years to top Smith. Looking at all the names other than Payton and Smith on this list and how they all fizzled somewhere between their eighth and 12th season, it’s not a certainty. What we do know is Smith persisted and Sanders did not.

The following chart illustrates the challenge Sanders would have faced. Dickerson, Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson were all “on pace” to match Emmitt through their first eight or nine years in the league (Dickerson was somewhat ahead). Then they simply tailed off. You can see how their production slowed, sometimes due to injury sometimes due to lagging performance. Whatever the reason, none lasted more than eleven seasons in the NFL.

So far we’ve looked at cumulative numbers, but it’s also informative to review season-by-season numbers:

What strikes me about the table above is how the vast majority of these runners racked up most of their big seasons early in their career. This intuitively makes sense but it’s nice that the data supports the intuition. Still, there are exceptions:

  • Barry Sanders’ ran for more yards his final season than he did in all but one of his first five seasons in the NFL. In fact, his three best seasons all came during the second five-year segment of his career. No other player has a pattern like that...
  • Except maybe Walter Payton. I hadn’t realized that Payton had suffered somewhat of a mid-career decline where he saw his numbers decline from 1,600 to 1,400 to 1,200 and then to less than 600. For most NFL backs that’s usually the sign that it’s time to hang up the cleats. But Payton instead rebounded to record four of his best season in years 9 through 12 of his career.
  • Smith, meanwhile, posted elite numbers for five consecutive seasons, then posted six seasons where he averaged 1,200 yards per year. The combination of elite production and then high quality production, without ever faltering, provides the meat of Smith’s record.

An easier way to look at it is to break each player’s yardage totals into five-year segments:

So, we again see Eric Dickerson absolutely ruled early in his career... but otherwise only LaDainian Tomlinson topped Emmitt’s 7,183 yards over his first five years.

Second, Barry Sanders ran for more yards during his six through ten seasons than any other player here ran in any segment, including topping Dickerson’s early career numbers. But we also see that Emmitt ranked second during years six through ten. So, Sanders topped his first five-year segment and both Payton and Smith nearly matched theirs. This is the reason they are first, second and third in career rushing yards.

We also see that, in aggregate, years one through five were the most productive period for these runners.

Finally, years 11+ find the numbers plummeting for virtually every player. Emmitt’s 4,392 yards tops everyone, and only three players (Smith, Marcus Allen and Payton) topped 3,000 yards.

Summarizing, Emmitt had the third best number during years 1 - 5, the second best number during years 6 - 10 and the best number in years 11 - 16. That’s the recipe you need to claim the record.

Again, a chart showing the same information because...well, charts.

All of which is interesting (at least to me) but doesn’t explain why the record can’t be broken. Thus far we’ve only talked yards gained and not rushing attempts. Let’s revisit our original chart but let’s add rushing attempts this time:

Clearly there is a very strong correlation between total rushing yards and rushing attempts. Not a great surprise but it well illustrates a simple truth anyone making an assault on Emmitt’s record will have to face: he’s going to have to run the ball at least 4,000+ times.

A look at the cumulative rushing attempts table shows the challenge:

Three players clearly stand out: Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson. And what we find is that both Dickerson and Tomlinson broke down when they hit 3,000 attempts. Only nine players in NFL history have actually reached 3,000 career carries. Smith’s 4,409 career carries is nearly 50% more than what only nine players have ever accomplished.

Further, while Smith’s yardage total is 9.7% higher than Payton’s, his carries are fully 15% higher than Payton’s 3,838. The only other player within 1,000 carries of Emmitt Smith is Jerome Bettis.

Think about this, if our unknown future record-breaker were to average 300 carries his first 10 seasons, he would still need 1,400 more carries to match Smith. That’s a tall order.

Here’s the squiggly line chart showing career carries:

Bottom line, anyone wanting to top Smith’s mark is going to have carry the ball more than any player ever, other than Emmitt; no one has really come close thus far.

For complete thoroughness, a table with year-by-year carries. As expected, lots of greens near the top and orange/reds near the bottom. Note Emmitt was still toting 250+ rushes four of his final five seasons; most others see their carries decline precipitously as their careers ended.

Okay, that still doesn’t prove the record can’t be broken. Heck, before Emmitt, no one had come close to Walter Payton’s yardage and carry marks. Surely someone could come along and run 350 times per year, never miss a season, be highly productive for 12 plus years and then last another 3-4 years. No one’s done it before but people have come close.

This is true. However, the game is changing. I compiled the total number of rushing attempts and yards for the top ten running backs in the league going back to 2003.

The trend is very clear: the league’s best running backs are simply being asked to run the ball less than in the past. This isn’t a revelation; we all know the NFL has morphed into a passing league. In 2003 the top ten runners combined for 3,397 rushing attempts; by 2017 that number had declined to 2,704. That’s 693 fewer attempts or nearly 70 fewer attempts per player.

It will be difficult for any current or future rushing stud to maintain Emmitt’s pace with teams de-emphasizing the run. Now, I’ll admit I cherry-picked that 2003 number because it was the high point for this statistic. If we go back further, we see that from 1980 to 2003 the number of rushing attempts increased:

(Note: 1980, 1985 and 1990 are included...then starting in 1995 every season is included)

What this tells us is the decline in rushing attempts for elite runners doesn’t have to last forever. NFL football is a game of strategic reactions and counter-reactions so it’s likely that at some point in the future that trend will reverse itself.

But Emmitt benefited from playing at a time when the “lead back” was a real thing in the NFL and teams were happy to hand the ball to that player 350+ times and not worry about the consequences.

Those days are over. The 370 carry curse has been well-documented and teams consciously try to protect bell-cow backs from overuse. This is yet another obstacle for the next potential NFL rushing champion to overcome.

So. if we were to come up with a simple to-do list for that wannabe record holder it would be:

  • Long-term elite production
  • 300+ rushing attempts for 10+ years
  • Quality production in years 11 - 15

Looking back only Payton and Smith managed to check off all three items on the list:

Who among today’s player’s could challenge the number? I guess there’s two fringe candidates, but I’d be shocked if either one seriously threatened 18,000 yards. Here’s the list of leading, active NFL runners:

Only the top three names have even a remote chance of catching Smith. However, it looks virtually hopeless when you consider the following:

Simply, all three lag far behind Smith at this point in their careers.

Peterson was matching Smith until injuries derailed his career so it’s highly unlikely he adds much to his current career numbers. Frank Gore has been like a mini-Emmitt... consistently working and putting up 1,000 yard seasons. What he hasn’t done is generate any elite seasons and thus he has consistently trailed Emmitt throughout their careers.

Yes, Gore is still playing and just came off a 961 yard season. Four more seasons like that and he’ll be at...17,870 yards and still need nearly 500 more yards. Gore is entering his age 35 season and 15th year in the NFL. No runner has accumulated substantial numbers at that age and he’ll need to do it until he’s 38+. I’ll take the under, thank you.

LeSean McCoy has put together a better career than I realized. Since moving to Buffalo it’s fairly easy to forget about him. While he’s been healthy and consistent, he’s never put up elite numbers, topping 1,500 yards only once. It’s impossible to imagine he’ll suddenly start putting up such season at age 30 and that’s what he’ll need to do to add the EIGHT THOUSAND YARDS he’ll need to pass Emmitt.

In short, there’s no one out there now that represents a serious threat. The emphasis of the passing games means the era of 350+ carries year-after-year are likely a thing of the past. And the legendary, Hall of Fame players who did play in that era couldn’t match what Emmitt managed. Add it all up and it’s a no-brainer... no one is ever going to break Emmitt Smith’s all-time NFL rushing yardage record.