For the last several years, Adrian Peterson has made some outrageous claims about pending seasons. Among them is his ability to rush for 2,500 yards in a season and that he has a legitimate shot at catching Emmitt Smith for the all-time rushing record.
This week, in an interview with ESPN.com, Smith said he also thinks Peterson has a legitimate shot at catching his career total of 18,355 yards. Peterson still has a long way to go, but Smith has become convinced that if the Minnesota Vikings star doesn’t do it, it may never get caught.
“If he doesn’t get it, I don’t know who’s going to get it,” Smith told ESPN. “He’s still got a lot of yards to go, I’m not going to lie to you.”
Peterson currently sits with 11,675 yards and is coming off a season in which he led the league with 1,485 rushing yards. He would be in a much better position to make a run for the all-time record had he not missed 15 games of the 2014 season.
As things currently stand, if Peterson was to stay healthy and play five more seasons, he would need to average 1,340 yards a season to break the record. Having already turned 30, Peterson would have to play until he is 35 years old.
Smith played until he was 35, but the difference between the two was that Smith missed just 14 games in 15 seasons. However, in his final five seasons, his numbers took a significant dip, which isn’t unusual for running backs older than 30. From 1991-99, Smith has just one season with fewer than 1,204 rushing yards. In his final five seasons, they were all below that benchmark and he didn’t top 1,000 yards in any of his final three seasons.
Knocking a rushing king off his throne has been a generational achievement. When he abruptly walked away from the game at age 29 in 1965, Jim Brown held the all-time rushing mark with 12,312 yards – playing four years of 12-games seasons and five of 14-game seasons and never missing a game along the way.
He held the record for 21 years before Walter Payton eclipsed it, eventually raising the bar by 4,400 yards – finishing his career with 16,726 yards. Payton would hold the record for 18 years before being surpassed by Smith, who increased the total by 1,600 more yards – finishing with 18,355 yards.
Smith has held the record since 2002 – 14 years and counting.
While Brown eventually was knocked out of the top spot by Payton, it was largely due to Payton playing 10 of his 13 seasons in a 16-week schedule and playing four more years. Smith played two more years than Payton – all in the 16-game schedule – and appeared in 29 more games.
The reality of the situation is that running backs are something of dying breed in the NFL. The only current player with more rushing yards than Peterson is Frank Gore, who is at the end of the line at age 32. With Marshawn Lynch announcing his retirement, the closest active player behind Peterson is Jamaal Charles with 7,220 yards at age 29. He would have to rush for 2,000 yards a season for the next five years and would still come up more than 1,100 yards short.
Smith acknowledged that the role of the running back has diminished significantly over the last decade. There was a time when between 20 and 25 teams had a bell cow rusher who was expected to gain 1,000 yards. If you had more than one running back, you had a problem, In 2015, there were only seven running backs that topped the 1,000 yard mark.
As a result, Smith is convinced that if A.P. doesn’t get the job done, it may be his record forever, which, in its own way, isn’t what he wants.
“It’s somewhat sad,” Smith said. “Because I know as a running back, it’s hard to get that continuity and get in the flow of the game when you’re getting 15 carries a game. I didn’t even get rolling until I got 15 carries a game.”
The reality of the Peterson situation is that, while running backs remain important to the game – you still hear the cliché that to beat a team, you have to stop the run – it would appear that the NFL is institutionally stopping the run, at least in terms of a single back carrying the load.
Peterson has been prone to talking a big game about what he is capable of doing. The good news on that front is that he historically has pretty much backed up those statements. He still believes he can play long enough and well enough to leave the game as its all-time leading rusher. If A.P. doesn’t get the job done, it will be a long time before Smith’s record is broken – if ever.