When I was a kid, Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record was sacred ground. The man — the best to ever play pro football — had gained 5.2 yards per carry and averaged more than 100 yards per start. Every other back had existed on some other planet from where Jim lived. His record was on par with Hank Aaron’s home run total of 755. Would it ever be touched? The NFL settled the debate, first by extending the league schedule to 16 games in 1978, then by introducing a series of offensive-friendly rules that removed much of the physical punishment from pro football.
Close to two decades after Brown retired, Franco Harris, John Riggins and Walter Payton were all within striking distance. As far as Brown was concerned, the league may as well have created a separate category for the new rushing champion; this wasn’t the game he had played. “Where has the danger in the game gone?" Brown asked Sports Illustrated’s Jill Lieber in 1983. “I can’t accept quarterbacks sliding and running backs running out of bounds.” The 47-year-old Brown hinted at a comeback, and challenged the much younger Harris to a sprint, mostly for show, just to prove his point.
Harris had the early lead on Brown, but his career died near the finish line; Riggins’ best years came at age 34 and 35, but it was too little, too late; in 1984, Payton got the job done.
The record became Payton’s, and for another two decades it carried the same mystique. Fans asked: Can anyone catch Walter? By the late 1990s, history replayed itself, only this time with Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith making their case in the court of public opinion. Were they worthy? Opinions varied.
It has been 10 years since Smith replaced Payton atop the all-time rushing leaderboard — 10 years since he broke through Seattle’s defense for an 11-yard gain, before raising his arms triumphantly toward the top of Texas Stadium where Cowboys fans will tell you God was viewing the historic event from the best seats in (or out of) the house.
But history has not been as kind to Smith as it was to Brown and Payton. The record meant more to the game then; now it has become just another record. Last year, when The Sporting News offered “The best sports record of all time,” Smith was nowhere to be found. Years earlier, NBC Sports listed Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 49 touchdown passes as pro football’s biggest record; of course, that record lasted only three years.
The all-time rushing mark is the record in pro football — the one that truly rivals baseball’s career home run mark and basketball’s all-time points mark. It’s football’s best measuring stick for endurance. Passing and receiving records are set in bunches; the rushing record is earned, four yards at a time. And there is reason to believe Smith will own the record longer than Brown or Payton did.
First, consider how today’s backfields are built. Thanks to coaches like Bill Belichick, more teams divvy up carries. This keeps legs fresh and limits the asking price for backs at the negotiating table. The 20-carry-a-game back is nearing extinction. In 1984, five rushers racked up 325 or more carries, and James Wilder carried a then-record 407 times. In 2002, the same number of backs reached the 325-carry mark (Ricky Williams led the way with 383). This season only one back (Arian Foster) is on pace to reach that total. Foster follows Maurice Jones-Drew, who was the only back to carry 325-plus in 2011.
Another obstacle is the game itself. True, new rules have been designed to make pro football safer, but it has become more common for backs to miss time for nagging injuries or concussions — things yesterday’s rushers may have otherwise played through. And consider longevity. Smith played in 226 games; Payton played in 190. Of the recent backs to approach Smith’s record, few saw as many Sundays: Marshall Faulk played in 176, followed by LaDainian Tomlinson (170), Curtis Martin (168) and Edgerrin James (148).
To top Smith, who missed 14 games in 15 seasons (two because of his 1993 contract holdout), a player has to stay both healthy and productive for longer than most backs are willing to play.
Finally, consider the list of future “contenders.” Steven Jackson leads the list of active rushers, and his 9,496 yards are barely halfway to Smith’s total of 18,355. Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew are both 26, and both likely to reach 8,000 yards this season. Only 10,000 more to go, fellas. Chris Johnson? Not a prayer. Ray Rice got his NFL start at 21, the same age as Smith, so he is on a good pace. But does anyone believe he will hold up? The Ravens are already talking about reducing his workload, five years into his career. Foster is the best back in football today, and if he gains 100 yards a game, and 1,600 yards a year, it will take him nine full seasons before he reaches Smith. He would be 35 at the time.
Nope, chances are the back who will challenge Smith has yet to set foot on an NFL field, suggesting the legendary Cowboys back will own the record for another 10 years at least. By then, maybe, just maybe, the record will have been restored to its place as the most important in pro football.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.