There are a few major sports records that most people would classify as “unbreakable.”
A couple that come to mind include Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games-played streak (2,632), Wayne Gretzky’s 215 points in a season, Pete Rose’s 4,256 all-time hits, Pistol Pete’s average of 44.2 points-per-game in a college career, Brett Favre’s consecutive games-played streak (297), and Cy Young’s 511 career wins.
All six of those records seem pretty ridiculous when you sit down and put them into perspective. In Ripken and Favre’s case, those streaks are quite staggering when one considers that in this day and age it is common for baseball players to get a day of rest at least once every two weeks. And for a quarterback to go 18-and-a-half seasons without missing a game – when about five guys are trying to take his head off on every play – is rather unfathomable.
As for the performance-based records, I’d bet Cy Young’s is the most untouchable. I think it is pretty safe to say that no pitcher today will average more than 20 wins for 25 consecutive seasons. Rose’s would probably be second considering he and Ty Cobb are the only two players in history with more than 3,800 hits.
Gretzky’s 215-point season in 1985-86 means he averaged over 2.5 points-per-game for the entire year. Unfortunately, he takes some of the luster off of his own record due to the simple fact that he was just so damn good. He is the only player to tally more than 200 points in a season (but did it four times) and has ten of the top-11 scoring seasons in NHL history. Anything he can do, you can’t do better.
My affinity for Pistol Pete goes without saying if you read my previous piece on him. If you haven’t, here you go. I guess averaging 44.2 points-per-game could be possible today, but only if the player is a one-and-done guy and 'technically' averages it for his one-year career. However, Maravich averaged 44.2 points for four years and did so without the three-point line. Had the line existed it is estimated that he would have scored about 57-points-per-game. Jesus Shuttlesworth couldn't even do that.
But enough about those records and how mind-boggling they are. I feel as if another performance-based record has joined the ranks as one of the “unbreakables.”
Due to a number of factors that I will detail, I believe that Emmitt Smith’s career rushing mark of 18,355 yards will stand the test of time and last long after I am gone. That, or until football turns into Sarcastaball.
First of all, I’m not too naïve to realize that Barry Sanders would have probably held this record had he not abruptly retired after ten seasons and 15,269 yards. He later admitted that the record wasn't that important to him and the multiple losing seasons had taken their toll on his psyche. Kind of makes you respect the guy a little bit more, huh? I don't know how many athletes today would cut short their own shot at immortality.
The number one aspect of the NFL that makes me believe that Smith’s record will last quite a while is that the league has become a ‘passing league.’ Whether it is due to the recent rule changes that took away hand-checking from defensive backs, or just the new offensive spread-it-out schemes that have become so prevalent, the NFL is pass-happy.
Before 2008, only one quarterback (Dan Marino in 1984) had ever passed for more than 5,000 yards in a season. Since then it has been done five times (three times by Drew Brees). In that same five-year window, quarterbacks have surpassed 4,500 yards 15 times.
Furthermore, 12 of the top-20 pass-attempt seasons have taken place in the last five years. Fifteen of the top-20 passes-completed seasons too.
Now look at what that has done to the rushing totals. Since 2008, only three times has a running back topped 1,700 yards. Adrian Peterson did it twice while Chris Johnson did so once. Both went over 2,000 yards, but each of those seasons seem to be the outliers of the past half-decade.
Perhaps even more startling are the rushing attempt numbers. The most attempts any back has gotten in the last five years was Michael Turner. His 376 carries in 2008 rank 20th all-time. One would have to look all the way down to 55th to find someone who has had the most carries since 2010. Arian Foster ran the ball 351 times that season.
The 19 guys ahead of Turner set their marks between 1981 and 2006, with only six of those totals taking place in the 2000s. Oddly enough Smith’s highest total was 377 attempts - one more than Turner's high. Still, as one can easily see, running backs aren’t getting the carries that they used to. So how can they get the yards when they don't get the touches?
Coupled with all the passing, most teams have started using two running backs in the hopes of lessening the wear-and-tear on one guy. How many teams legitimately use one back now-a-days? Houston (Foster), Jacksonville (Maurice Jones-Drew), Minnesota (Peterson), Tennessee (Johnson) and San Francisco (Frank Gore) are the only ones that come to mind. Everyone else either splits or runs on a 75-25 count. That ratio may not seem like a lot, but that's 15 carries instead of 20. The league average is around 3.5 yards-per-carry, so that's a potential loss of 18 yards a game and 280 yards a season.
There is something else that has become a big problem in the NFL and may indirectly lead to less rushing attempts and yards. That would be concussions and the new protocols to deal with them.
It has become widely evident – whether through player admissions, research, or the NFL’s own acknowledgment – that concussions weren’t closely watched as recent as five years ago. It wasn’t until ex-players either started losing their memories or killing themselves that someone finally decided to take a look at what was going on. Now, with all the lawsuits being brought against it, the NFL is taking concussions and their treatments very seriously.
I don’t know how many concussions Smith had in his career. Smith only missed seven games in his 13 years with Dallas. Two of them were because he was holding out in ’93 and another was because the Cowboys’ playoff spot was already locked in. He went on to miss seven games with Arizona, but I can’t recall any of them being strictly because of a concussion. Smith did say last year that he would lie about head injuries to stay in games. How many times is anyone’s guess, but players surely won't be getting away with that anymore.
Today, if a player is suspected of having any type of head injury, they are immediately pulled from the game and given a series of tests. If the trainers think there is even the slightest chance that the player has sustained some sort of injury then they are done for the day. No more questions asked. The player must then pass mental and physical tests throughout the upcoming week(s) in order to be allowed to play. It could take one week. It could take five.
I understand the NFL has had to alter its concussion protocols with all of the added attention. The players have to be protected from themselves in a sense. They have shown in the past that they won't take themselves out of harms way. Add in that fact that a running back gets hit practically every time they touch the ball and their chances for injuries increase dramatically. Missed games means no yards, and the players don’t get that time back. As Charles Barkley likes to say, “Father Time is undefeated.”
Now for the numbers. I feel as if what I am about to explain will put my argument over the top.
The Rams’ Steven Jackson has the most yards of any active player with 10,135 yards (27th all-time). That puts him 8,220 yards behind Smith. To put that in perspective, only 38 backs in 93 years have rushed for that many yards. So to say Jackson can’t even see Smith with a telescope would be an understatement.
Peterson is second amongst active backs with 8,849 yards. Gore is third at 8,839. No other active back save Willis McGahee (8,097) has more than 7,400 yards. Quick math tells you that each of these guys would have to more than double their current career outputs in order to reach Smith. Sounds like a long shot, eh? Well, there is more.
Gore turns 30 in May and has rushed for more than 1,214 yards just once in his career. Combine that with the 49ers' new system with Colin Kaepernick and I think it is safe to say Gore is out of the picture.
Peterson will turn 28 in March. Now before I get into Peterson’s dilemma, I’d like to bring up LaDainian Tomlinson. At age 28, LT had 10,650 yards heading into 2008 and looked as if he had a realistic shot at topping Smith. Four years later, after two seasons with San Diego and two with the New York Jets, he retired with 13,684 yards – roughly 5,000 yards shy of the record. Talk about an abrupt decline in production. That will make guys like Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James and Fred Taylor feel better about themselves.
Peterson, probably the most physically-suited back to break the record today, averages about 1,475 yards-per-season. For arguments sake, let’s say he runs like that for the next two years and gets to 11,799 yards by the time he turns 30.
The number “30” is thought to be the death sentence for running backs. Most experts say a back’s skills greatly diminish after they hit the big 3-0. Whether that's the case or not, let’s look at those numbers.
The NFL record for most rushing yards after turning 30: Emmitt Smith with 5,789. John Riggins is second with 5,683 while Walter Payton is third at 5,101. With that in mind, one sees that Peterson would have to break the post-30 record by 767 yards in order to get to Smith. He would have to rush for 6,556 yards after turning 30 on top of gaining nearly 3,000 yards over the next two seasons. If I were a betting man, which I am, I would not take those odds. And I’m not.
It seems as if running backs have everything going against them in today’s NFL. They aren't just fighting the hands of time anymore. They have to deal with pass-first offenses, stricter injury protocols and splitting carries with teammates. Because of all of those things, I expect future running backs to be trying to 'Catch 22' for a long time to come.