Seemingly every offseason for the last half decade, Adrian Peterson has made slow-news-day headlines by reiterating his goal of breaking Emmitt Smith‘s career rushing yards record. Normally, this notion would be dismissed. However, given Peterson’s production to date, in concert with his remarkable physical conditioning and recovery ability, his words hold more weight than those of other backs.1
While Peterson’s goal pops up in the news every now and then, the history of the record itself is rarely covered. We’ll see an offhand remark about Smith overtaking Walter Payton. We may even see a comment about Jim Brown holding the record prior to Payton. However, that is usually as far back as the commentary goes. As a historian and someone who thinks understanding the past helps us better appreciate the present and future, this pains me. I am fascinated not only with the evolution of the game, but also with the evolution and progression of its records and achievements. With that in mind, let’s have a look at the history of the career rushing yards record.
Running Backs to Hold the Career Rushing Yards Record
Cliff Battles (9 years as record-holder)
Because we don’t have reliable information prior to 1932, we have to accept the notion that the 1932 rushing champion is the default original record-holder.[This is obviously not true in a factual sense. However, given that the only officially recognized statistics prior to 1932 are touchdowns and wins, we don’t really have much choice.] Playing for the Boston Braves (now the storied Washington franchise), Battles finished 1932 with 576 rushing yards. He would go on to gain 3511 yards on the ground by the time of his retirement in 1937.
Career Rushing Stats: 839 attempts for 3511 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Clarke Hinkle (8 years as record-holder)
Like Battles, Hinkle began his NFL career in 1932. He didn’t reach the same peak, but he did manage a longer career that allowed him to capture the rushing record. Entering the 1941 season – the last of his career, Hinkle needed just 44 yards to tie the record. We don’t have reliable game-by-game numbers, but we know that he gained 393 yards that year, taking possession of the record in the process. He retired with 3860 yards and held on to the record for the better part of a decade.
Career Rushing Stats: 1171 attempts for 3860 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Steve Van Buren (9 years as record-holder)
While men like Ernie Nevers and Bronky Nagurski, as well as the two previous record-holders, were exceptional players, Van Buren is arguably the first truly great running back in NFL history. He led the league in attempts, yards, and touchdowns four times apiece. Coming off his fourth first team All Pro season, SVB needed just 102 yards to break the record in 1949. He ended up gaining a career-high 1146 yards, smashing the record in the process. He managed two more forgettable years before calling it quits after the 1951 season. He walked away from the game having amassed 5860 rushing yards.
Career Rushing Stats: 1320 attempts for 5860 yards and 69 touchdowns.
Joe Perry* (5 years as record-holder)
Perry gets an asterisk to denote that he picked up 1345 of his rushing yards playing against the marginally inferior defenses of the AAFC. His success against weaker teams shouldn’t count against him, as he also performed well in the stronger league. In fact, he had his best seasons in the 1950s NFL, becoming the first player in history to rush for consecutive thousand yard seasons. His AAFC production isn’t counted in the record books, so he unofficially broke the rushing record in 1955. However, he didn’t officially break the record until 1958, when he finished the season with 6549 yards in the NFL. He ended career with 9723 rushing yards as a pro, 8378 of which came in the NFL.2
Career Rushing Stats (AAFC): 1929 (192) attempts for 9723 (1345) yards and 71 (18) touchdowns.
Jim Brown (21 years as record-holder)
Arguably the greatest football player ever, Brown flew into the league like a bat out of hell. In his nine seasons as a pro, he led the league in rushing eight times and averaged at least 100 yards per game seven times.3 Brown gained yardage at such a high rate that he entered his seventh season (1963) just 919 yards shy of the official record. He more than doubled that total, gaining a career-best 1863 yards. He officially broke the record in game six, a blowout victory over the Eagles. He put together two more stellar seasons before unexpectedly calling it quits, having amassed 12312 rushing yards in his legendary career.
Career Rushing Stats: 2359 attempts for 12312 yards and 106 touchdowns.
Walter Payton (18 years as record-holder)
Perhaps the top all-around back in the long history of the NFL, Payton was effectively the entire Chicago Bears offense for the early part of his career.4 Despite running behind a marginally talented offensive line, he managed five straight seasons of at least 1390 rushing yards (1976-80).5 Sweetness entered the 1984 season 687 yards short of the record. He crossed the threshold during the sixth game of the season, a 20-7 win over the Saints. When it was all said and done, hehad gained 16726 rushing yards.
Career Rushing Stats: 3838 attempts for 16726 yards and 110 touchdowns.
Emmitt Smith (13 years, and counting, as record-holder)
It seems odd to say that the leading rusher of all time is underrated, but that seems to be the case with Smith. He is typically compared to his more exciting contemporary, Barry Sanders, and is often criticized for running behind a great offensive line. However, Smith’s excellent vision is part of what made the Great Wall so effective, and the reciprocal relationship between the line and the runner is an overlooked aspect of rushing production.6 He posted eleven seasons with at least 1000 yards (and three more with at least 900). He entered 2002, his last season in Dallas, just 539 yards shy of his hero’s career rushing yards record. Smith broke the record in the eighth game, a close loss to the Seahawks. When it was all said and done, Smith left the game with 18355 yards.
Career Rushing Stats: 4409 attempts for 18355 yards and 164 touchdowns.
Future of the Career Rushing Yards Record
It doesn’t appear that Smith will be dethroned anytime soon. With 12040 yards, Frank Gore is the NFL’s active rushing leader. He is also 33 years old and has experienced a noticeable decline in his rushing ability. Peterson is next among active runners, with 11675 yards under his belt. He is 31 years old but is coming off a season in which he earned his third rushing title. He has not experienced a significant decline as a pure runner, nor has he demonstrated the physical deterioration common to most players. However, he is still 6680 yards shy of the record, meaning he would need to average 1113 yards per season for the next six years just to tie Smith.7 Injury, suspension, and limited rookie playing time have robbed him of 24 scheduled games so far in his career. Losing the equivalent of a season-and-a-half of lost production during his physical prime means he missed the opportunity to beef up his yardage totals before hitting the decline phase of his career.8 It will only be harder now.9
Outside of Peterson, no active back poses anything resembling a threat to the record. Chris Johnson is already 30 and would need to double his career total in order to catch Smith. LeSean McCoy is only 27, but he needs 10668 yards for the record. He entered the league at 21 and got a head start on gaining yards, but he hasn’t been nearly consistent enough to take seriously as a potential record-breaker. Todd Gurley is an odd name to even throw out, given that he has only played one season, but he is most analysts’ choice as the best young runner in the land. He picked up 1106 yards at age 21, and he looks to be cut from the same cloth as Peterson (physically imposing, incredible size/speed combination, mutant-like recovery ability). If he can stay healthy for entire 16-game seasons, maintain his rushing dominance, and play for a really long time, he might have a shot at the record. Those are some pretty big ifs, and if I had to bet on it, I would bet on him failing to take Smith’s crown.
- We counted him out after injuries in college, and he responded with one of the greatest starts to a career of any recent running back. We counted him out after a career-threatening injury in 2011, and he responded with a 2000-yard, MVP campaign. We counted him out after he effectively missed the entire 2014 season due to suspension, and he responded by grabbing yet another rushing title (albeit in a down year for rushing league-wide). I’ve counted him out plenty of times, and he has proved me wrong time and time again. I am betting against him earning the career rushing crown, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if he made me eat my words. ↩
- It is worth noting that, although the AAFC was weaker than the NFL, it wasn’t significantly weaker. Coming back from the Second World War, both leagues were pretty weak. The difference between the AAFC and NFL was smaller than that of the early AFL and the NFL, to be sure. ↩
- To say that he led the league is a bit of an understatement; it usually wasn’t even close. In the eight seasons he won the rushing title, he led the second place rusher by 242, 736, 293, 156, 101, 845, 277, and 677 yards. ↩
- He led the league in carries four consecutive seasons and topped the league in rushing yards during his 1977 MVP campaign. ↩
- If you prorate his 1982 stats to a full season, Payton had eleven straight years of at least 1000 rushing yards and 1500 yards from scrimmage. ↩
- Interestingly, people rarely seem to mention this when touting the greatness of Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, or Eric Dickerson. Nor do they make weak line arguments in favor of Walter Payton, Tiki Barber, or Corey Dillon. Emmitt Smith is, evidently, the only running back to play behind a great offensive line. We can ignore the Dallas Cowboys’ performance when he held out for two games in 1993. A running back behind a stellar line may luck into a good season or two, but it takes a special player to lead the league in rushing four times, outlast most of those great linemen and still put up big seasons, and switch teams to a perennial cellar-dweller and have two 900+ yard rushing seasons after age 33. It is much easier to make bombastic generalizations than it is to have a nuanced argument. ↩
- Alternatively, he could average 1336 yards for five seasons or 1670 yards for four seasons. ↩
- In the four seasons in which he played all 16 games, he averaged 1681.25 yards. If he can replicate that, the record is his. However, it’s pretty naive to believe Peterson can match his four best seasons after turning 31. ↩
- Also reducing his chances at the record is the fact that he simply isn’t as valuable a player as he once was. As the league becomes increasingly focused on the passing game, Peterson will be more and more expendable. His inability to pose a threat to catch passes, combined with his poor pass protection skills, makes him nearly obsolete on third and long. ↩