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Two house-keeping notes before we get to today’s post. First, today’s a pretty big day for our friend Neil Paine: he’s getting married. I’ll be there to celebrate with him in Philadelphia, but I know you guys will be with us in spirit. Congrats to Kaitlyn and Neil!

And another set of confetti must be reserve for the seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013: Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Curley Culp, Dave Robinson, and Bill Parcells. Tonight, those men will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a must-see event for any football fan.

Today’s post focuses on one player already enshrined in Canton and one future Hall of Famer. As a general disclaimer, it’s best not to take too seriously what comes out of the mouths of football players, especially this time of year. That said, Adrian Peterson, part-cyborg, part-Minnesota Vikings running back, recently told Dan Wiederer of the Minneapolis Star Tribute that he thinks he will break Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record:

Q Forget about Eric Dickerson’s record for a minute. Last December, we talked about Emmitt Smith’s record and I told you you were on pace to get there in Week 4 of 2019. You said sooner and promised to come back with a timetable. Emmitt had 18,355 yards. You’re now 9,506 away. We need a week and a year. When do you get there?

A Man. Oh boy. I have to do some calculations. I’ve been in the league seven years. I’m already right around [9,000]. Calculate it out … Let’s think. Maybe get a couple 2,000 yard seasons … I’ve got … Hmmm … 2017.

Q What week in 2017?

A Man. I better go late. I’m already getting too far in front of myself. I’ll say Week 16. There it is. Week 16 in 2017. Whoo. That’s pushing it, huh? But hey, pushing it is the only way to do it. You know it.

Just to break it down for you in full, that gives Peterson 79 games to amass the 9,506 yards he needs to reach Smith. That comes out to a per-game average of 120.3 yards per contest with the assumption that Peterson avoids injury and doesn’t miss a game between now and Week 16 of 2017. Yes, it’s pushing it indeed. But good fun to consider, right?

Let’s talk reality. Peterson has rushed for 8,849 rushing yards in his six-year career, and was 27-years-old last year. The first problem for Peterson is that he was 937 yards behind Smith’s pace before Peterson even entered the league. That’s because Peterson, born in March, entered the league at 22, while Smith, born in May, entered at age 21. Unless you think we should compare the two by seasons and not age — and more on why that’s a bad idea later — we need to give Smith full credit for one extra year. In fact, here’s a chart comparing the two players in career rushing yards through age X. Smith also rushed for slightly more yards from ages 22 to 27 (9223-8849) than Peterson, but when you factor in his age 21 performance, Smith has a big lead on Peterson through age twenty-seven. You might recall I presented a similar chart when comparing Jason Witten to Tony Gonzalez and Jerry Rice.

Emmitt Adrian 2

Through age 27, Smith had rushed for 10,160 yards, 1,311 more yards than Peterson currently has gained. Peterson has been productive, but he both gave Smith a head start and has been less productive from ages 22 through 27. Therefore, Peterson needs to be not just better, but 1,312 yards better than Smith during his age 28+ seasons. How likely is All Day to gain the necessary 9,507 more rushing yards to pass Smith?

How much longer can All Day maintain his play?

How much longer can All Day maintain his play?

Earlier, I said it’s important to compare players by age and not by season. That’s because Smith is the career leader in rushing yards after turning 28, with 8,195 yards. If you count by seasons, Peterson is only 107 yards behind the Cowboys great, but Smith blows everyone out the water in terms of rushing yards in seasons seven+, too. And since Peterson is a year older than Smith, counting by seasons wouldn’t adequately recognize the eventual age-related decline Peterson will suffer.

Only one other person, Walter Payton, has topped 7,000 yards after turning 28.1 John Riggins is next at 6900 yards, with Tony Dorsett (6,469) and Thomas Jones (6,417) rounding out the group.

To rush for 9,507 yards after your 28th birthday would seem close to impossible.2 Smith had a head start on Peterson (at age 21), rushed for more yards at the same ages (22 through 27) as Peterson, and then accumulated the most rushing yards ever from 28+. Footballguys.com projects Peterson (subscriber content) to rush for 1,552 yards this season, which seems like a pretty reasonable projection. That roughly matches the average number of rushing yards by the 14 running backs with the most rushing yards at age 28 since the merger:

Running BackAge 28 Yr28293031323334Total
Shaun Alexander20051880896716240003516
O.J. Simpson197518171503557593460004930
Eric Dickerson1988165913116775367299105003
William Andrews19831567002140001781
Priest Holmes200115551615142089245101376070
Barry Sanders199615532053149100005097
Robert Smith200015210000001521
Curtis Martin20011513109413081697735006347
Roger Craig19881502105443959041611904120
Christian Okoye1989148080510314480003764
LaDainian Tomlinson200714741110730914280004508
Marshall Faulk20011382953818774292004219
Michael Turner20101371134080000003511
Terry Allen1996135372470089617965804510
Average (all)1545103376354125362104207
Average (active)154512058916894432891375198

Those running backs averaged 1,545 rushing yards in their age 28 season, but just 2,662 rushing yards after their age 28 season. Even if Peterson had a 2,000-yard season in 2013, and followed that up with Curtis Martin numbers from age 29+, he would still be over 2600 yards shy of Smith.

As incredible as Smith was through age 27, his production after turning 28 is arguably more impressive. Considering that Peterson is already over 1,000 yards behind Smith, his odds of capturing the record are really, really low. That’s not a knock on Peterson, who is clearly the game’s best running back today. Instead, this post should serve as a reminder of how impressive Smith’s totals truly are.

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. Although if you believe Jeff Pearlman, Payton actually rushed for 8,340 yards from age 28+. []
  2. This is where Vikings fans write “kind of like rushing for 2,000 yards after tearing your ACL, ammirite? []
  • Quick question because I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently: Do you think age is a more reliable indicator than years of experience *in general*?

    I’ve talked to Aaron about this before, and he seems to think that experience is more important early in a player’s career, but age takes over later. In other words, when it comes to a player’s career trajectory, experience is a bigger influence on his ascent, while age is a bigger influence on his descent. Returning on topic, I think that idea’s intuitive re Smith/Peterson. They’ve seemed similarly great in their early years (i.e., it’s a tougher argument as to who’s been “better”), but the real difference here (as was your point) is Peterson’s steeper decline as he ages compared to Smith (because Smith has a year head start).

    Your thoughts?

    • Chase Stuart

      I always like to look at age because it’s unbiased. Experience can mean so many different things based on college play, non-NFL pro play, amount of playing time in the NFL, etc. How much “experience” does Kevin Kolb have?

      Aaron could be right: it seems like a very difficult thing to measure, though. And again, you need to consider college “experience” too, I think. It’s probably best handled on a case-by-case basis. For example, legions of Jets fans said after 2010 that Sanchez was about to break out because remember, he only had 16 starts at USC, so after two years starting in the NFL, he was basically where some college QBs are when they come out. That didn’t work out so well.

      As for Emmitt/Peterson, I do not know why Smith entered the league at a younger age. Both played only three seasons in college. Was AD held back one year? He didn’t go to juco, but was 19 when he started playing at OU. His freshman year the Sooners went to the BCSNCG, which was held just a couple months shy of Peterson’s 20th birthday. That’s pretty old for a freshman, and no doubt one of the reasons Peterson was so dominant at a freshman.

  • Also, pass along my congrats to Neil.

  • Danish

    Peyton Manning is 37 years old. Ben Roethlisberger is 31. Roethlisbergers production is declining – Mannings isn’t. So there’s more to it than age – clearly there’s a “number of hits taken”-factor in play as well.

    If that assumption is true, then for runningbacks, because they take more punishment than any other position in football, maybe the punishment-factor dominates the age-factor. I obviously don’t know if this is true, getting anough data to study this is hard (measuring punishment alone may be complicated), but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable theory.

    So in this case: Sure Peterson is giving up a year to Smith, but by 27 Smith had taken one more seasons worth of tackles and hits. That has to count for something. Now Peterson has had ACL surgery which might take years off his career, so who knows. My point is that for runningbacks in particular comparing by seasons may actually not be so bad an idea.

    • Chase Stuart

      The mileage vs. age debate has been going on for awhile, with neither side presenting much convincing evidence. But Peterson wouldn’t qualify as a “low mileage” back by any standard, so I don’t think it comes into play much here. And Smith is Exhibit A in the argument of why mileage is often overstated, as he absorbed more punishment than anyone yet played reasonably well into his 30s.

  • Krauser

    “It’s never happened before” is a limited argument as to why something that has never happened before (anyone rushing for more career yards than Emmitt Smith) might happen in the future.

    Peterson was absolutely dominant at the end of last year. His carries were being limited in the first 4-5 weeks. Once he got up speed he rushed for ~1600 yards in the last 10 regular season games. That’s unprecedented. Projecting how he’s going to follow up that performance with a table that includes OJ in the 70s and a bunch of finesse runners (Faulk, Terry Allen, Robert Smith) might be missing the point, unless you think the game never changes and players never exceed their predecessors. If so, how do explain Calvin Johnson, or RG3, or Kaepernick?

    Peterson’s game was different last year from most of his career to date. From 2008-11, he was used mostly from single back sets behind a ZBS line. In 2012, like in his amazing rookie season, he was running mostly behind a lead blocker with power/overload blocking schemes in front of him. The trend toward mobile, versatile defenses capable of coping with pass-heavy offenses also favors Peterson’s production and longevity. It was a running joke by the end of the year that DBs wanted no part of contact with him in the open field.

    Obviously it’s a long way from likely that Peterson will break Smith’s record at all, let alone by 2017. But it’s not crazy to think that he is in the process of surpassing most or all of those who played the position before him.

    • Chase Stuart

      It’s not the “it’s never happened before” — it’s that if you want to beat Emmitt Smith, you need a massive headstart. It’s similar to trying to catch Jerry Rice: you can’t try to make up ground in later years, in my opinion. The fact that Peterson is already 1000+ yards behind him is a huge strike against him. If Peterson was 1,000 yards ahead of his pace, he wouldn’t be a lock because of how difficult it is to maintain that pace, but the odds would look much more reasonable.

  • I expect Peterson’s decline to be precipitous and to begin this season.

    This is a guy who had injury concerns when he was drafted and now has had an ACL and an LCL tear, and in the last two years has declined from “pretty much useless” as a receiver to “so awful he should never be thrown a pass.” The injury history simply does not suggest a long enough career to pass Emmitt Smith, who holds the record in part because the guy just didn’t get hurt. When he was Peterson’s age, the only games he had ever missed were when he was holding out or the game was meaningless–none due to injury, let alone due to knee injuries like Peterson has had. Further, Football Outsiders has found before that receiving numbers typically decline precipitously just before a running back hits the age wall. His receiving numbers were never good, but they’ve gone from bad to worse, which could easily be a sign that the fall is coming. (It could also be a sign of the decline in quarterback play in Minnesota, but Ponder’s main problem is throwing downfield, where he wouldn’t be throwing to Adrian Peterson anyway.)

    I seem to be on an island in having this expectation, and I don’t expect Peterson next year to look like Terrell Davis in 1999, but I think we’re going to see the beginning of the end, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s closer to the lower numbers on that list than the higher ones.

    As a side note, Curtis Martin’s career looks so weird in that chart. At 28 and 29, he’s essentially right at the average, showing noticeable decline. Then, at 30, he suddenly leaps back up close to where he was at 28, in defiance of the general trend toward decline. Then, at 31, he gets his highest-ever number. His 2004 season was a strange and amazing event, and I still really wonder what 2005 would have been like if he hadn’t gotten hurt. He didn’t look good before then, if I recall correctly (and his numbers are not impressive in the first couple of weeks), but he hadn’t played enough to say he had hit the wall before the injury.

    • td

      …and yet Emmitt did get hurt, in week 1 of the ’96 season when he leapt over the offensive line and landed on his head. He never was quite the same guy after (though it probably extended his career by making him a tiny bit more cautious)

      • He didn’t miss any time, though. And the fact that he declined afterward may well be coincidental.

        I think Peterson’s injury history is still far more worrisome at the same age than Smith’s was, and that was really the point.

    • Chase Stuart

      With running backs, the cliff can come out of nowhere, so I would never rule out that possibility. Larry Johnson had back-to-back seasons where he gained 4,292 yards from scrimmage (3,539 rushing yards, 753 receiving yards) and scored 40 touchdowns. He was never the same again after that (although there was also a holdout following the ’06 season that may have played a part).

      As for Martin, much of the success in ’04 was due to a great Jets line.

  • Tim Truemper

    Its pretty obvious that the math is doing the talking. Could Peterson break Smith’s record? Sure- who knows FOR SURE. How many thought Emmitt Smith would pass Walter Payton (though I think a break down of age to yardage comparisons might have predicted this possibility). The deal is, Chase is not saying its impossible. He’s saying its unlikely. Sure, Peterson might have an Emmitt Smith/Curtis Martin arc to his career, but the odds are against it. Plus, the other concerns cited as well such as the late start, the significant injury history, etc.

    So how high does Peterson go? I say he gets to the top 5 in rushing all-time.

    • Richie

      Peterson is 8th in rushing yards through age 27: http://pfref.com/tiny/G0ILy

      Three of the guys ahead of him (James, Portis, Tomlinson) weren’t able to get 50% more yards over the remainder of their careers. (Neither did Barry Sanders or Jim Brown, but those guys retired while they were still putting up 1,500 yard seasons.

      It’s just so hard to predict sustained success for RB’s once they start aging.

      Peterson thinks he’s going to more than double his yardage the rest of the way? I’m sure that most players have not spent much time studying aging patterns of athletes. Peterson feels strong and invincible today, but things sure turn around quickly. It’s really pretty amazing to me that a body starts losing that extra 1% of ability around age 30, that makes the difference between being an NFL-caliber talent or not.