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Comparing Frank Gore And Emmitt Smith

Is Emmitt Smith’s career rushing mark unbreakable? Before the start of the 2013 season, I wrote about whether Adrian Peterson — at the peak of his career following his AP MVP season — had a realistic chance to break Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record. My conclusion:

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.

Peterson is now behind Frank Gore, after briefly holding a career edge over the older player.  Gore is now one of the all-time great “back half of career” running backs in NFL history.  In fact, Gore ranks 2nd all-time in career rushing yards after turning 27 years old. Gore isn’t yet retired, and he’s just under 1,000 yards away from finishing 1st in that category. The leader, of course, is Smith, who remains underrated by many NFL analysts because of his great production later in his career.

How great was it? Well, Gore has pretty much been good from the word go, but he’s always been behind Smith in career rushing yards and he never quite narrowed the gap. If you think Gore’s consistency has been amazing, well, it still pales in comparison to Smith. The graph below shows how many career rushing yards both players had through age X. Smith entered the NFL one year earlier than Gore (side note: both players were born in mid-May), but has almost always increased his lead:

And here’s a look at how many rushing yards each player had in each season at age X:

The graph below shows the number of yards Smith outgained Gore by at each age. The last year, age 35, is in red, because Gore hasn’t played in that year yet:

Even ignoring ages 21 and 35 (when Gore has no data — and when Smith rushed for exactly 937 yards both seasons), Smith still won in 10 of the other 13 seasons, and Gore only beat Smith by more than 150 yards in 1 of 13 years; by comparison, Smith beat Gore by over 200 yards in 6 of 13 years.

How remarkable is what Smith has done? Here are the active career leaders thru age X, using 2017 ages. Next to them is how many yards Smith had through that age, and his career edge:

2017 AgePlayerRush YdSmithDiff
25Le'Veon Bell533671831847
26Lamar Miller489189564065
27Eddie Lacy3614101606546
28Mark Ingram5362112345872
29LeSean McCoy10092125662474
30Jonathan Stewart7318139636645
31Marshawn Lynch10003151665163
32Adrian Peterson12276161873911
33Alex Smith24331716214729
34Frank Gore14026174183392

Based on that table, you’d probably think that LeSean McCoy has the best chance to break Smith’s record, but given that McCoy is over 2,000 yards behind Smith and that Smith is also the career recordholder in rushing yards after turning 30, McCoy’s odds can’t be considered as anything other than an extreme longshot.

{ 17 comments }
  • znk916

    Always wondered how much better Gore’s career could have been if he had played on even average offenses with better blocking. By the time the Niners put a pro bowl OL in front of him during the Harbaugh years, he was already 28 and coming off a broken hip. His time in Indy has been wasted behind a rotating group of backup linemen and backup QBs with Luck missing nearly two seasons. Here’s hoping he ends up in a great situation to finish out his career.

    • sacramento gold miners

      By all accounts, Gore has been a team guy, and agree about hoping he ends the career on a high note. He’s now a unrestricted free agent, and will have to take a pay cut and reduced carries to keep playing. Rumors have it the Patriots will be parting ways with Dion Lewis, so perhaps that will be an option. Gore’s career as a Colt has been disappointing, with just four 100 yard games in 48 outings.

      Emmitt Smith was a far more effective age 30 plus rusher than Gore. 23 100 yard rushing games, to Gore’s 11.

  • sunrise089

    Age 33 rushing champ Alex Smith!

  • TN

    One factor in this is that nobody works running backs anymore as hard as Emmitt was worked. For the first 13 years of his career, Emmitt averaged 312 carries a season. In each of the past three seasons, only one running back has made it to that level (Bell last year, Elliott in 2016, and AP in 2015).

    • Four Touchdowns

      I was thinking the same thing, that it’s not a level playing ground for anyone. On one hand, the older RBs got more carries to beef up their raw numbers — on the other hand, the newer RBs don’t have to expose themselves to as much injury since they’re not run into the ground as much.

  • Bell is a HOF level talent, but he’s already pretty far behind Smith. Sure, 1,847 yards may not sound like a lot, but in graph form, he’s off to a pretty poor start:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c786d93b44a7c6bb0b78ec93c957188054f114244319589e0302d6ff950321bc.png

    • Josh Sanford

      Yes, fortunately for almost everyone, you don’t have to match Smith’s productivity in order to make into the HOF. Who are the next three RBs who will be inducted?

      • Josh Sanford

        Any chance that Priest Holmes is on that list? Should he be?

        • Mark Growcott

          Very unlikely. Holmes has not even been selected as a semi-finalist since becoming eligible. The 2 names that constantly pop up in recent years are Roger Craig and Edgerrin James. Craig has never been selected as a finalist while James has been a finalist twice, though he has never made it to the final 10. It could be that Adrian Peterson is the next RB inducted into the HOF.

          • sacramento gold miners

            Backs like Priest Holmes just didn’t stand out long enough, and don’t have the incredible postseason numbers of a Terrell Davis. If Gore plays in 2018, he’ll inch past Curtis Martin into fourth place on the career list, but he’s roughly a 1000 yards behind Barry Sanders for third. Martin had seven seasons of at least 1200 rushing yards, compared with Gore’s three.

            Agree Gore will eventually be elected to the HOF, but it should take several years. Peterson and James will likely get in before him.

      • Herm Nelson

        Gore, Peterson, and probably Edgerrin James will be the next 3 RB’s inducted.

  • Josh Sanford

    Many, many years ago I read a story about Gore suffering from a severe learning disability that brought him taunting and derision from his schoolmates, and so I have always had a hope that he would find success in the NFL. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine just how little money he will have to agree to play for next year if he is to find a job.

  • Corey

    Smith’s record is not unbreakable. Smith has the career lead by only about 1,600 yards. Smith might not even hold the career record if Barry Sanders hadn’t prematurely retired (through their age-30 seasons Sanders was about 1300 yards ahead). It would be hard to break it, and would require some luck with situation and injuries, but I could see it happening.

    Chase had a twitter question about whether Smith’s rushing yards record or Rice’s receiving yards record is more unbreakable. I think the answer is clearly Rice’s. Owens is #2 all-time, and he’s more than 6,900 yards behind. Fitzgerald will probably pass Owens this year, but he’s still 7,350 yards behind — he would need at least 5-6 more elite seasons just to get close. Antonio Brown and Julio Jones probably have the best chance of anyone active, but Brown is 29 and Jones is 28 and both are about 13,000 yards behind — not even halfway there yet! Jones has averaged 1579 yards/season the last four years. He would need to sustain that pace for nine more seasons — through age 37 — to catch Rice. Assuming he can keep up that pace for the next five seasons, Jones would still need over 6,000 yards after turning 34, but nobody besides Rice has more than 5,000, and only two players (Charlie Joiner and Owens) have more than 4,000.

    Smith’s career was amazing, and he had remarkable post-30 longevity for a running back, but it’s not thaaat much different from several other great rushers, just a little better and/or longer sustained. Rice’s career, on the other hand, is totally sui generis. There’s never been anything remotely like it. As Chase has posted before, Rice is the only player in league history to catch a pass after turning 40, and Rice posted 92/1211/7 in his age-40 season. It’s ludicrous. Even with the modern rules changes I can’t see anyone getting anywhere near Rice’s yards or TD record (the receptions record, however, is more vulnerable).

    • Richie

      Smith has a unique combination of elite performance, injury avoidance and extended career. Three key attributes that lead to an untouchable record.

      Add to it that teams are no longer interested in using RB’s as heavily as Smith was used.

      It’s interesting that two of the longest careers (Smith and Rice) had so much overlap between them.

      It’s hard to imagine either yardage record being broken anytime soon.

      • sacramento gold miners

        Agreed, and I just don’t see any young rushers with the potential to threaten Smith’s record. Gore might have 400 yards left in him, and Adrian Peterson appears to done. The game has changed so much since Smith played, it’s easier to hit the eight yard completion with the corners backed off, as opposed to a running play.

        Had Tiki Barber not decided to retire early after his great age 31 season(over 1,600 yards), he may have made things interesting. If Barber could have produced three more 1,200 yard years, his total would have been over 14,000 yards. John Riggins enjoyed a standout 1,200 year at age 35, so if Barber could have done that, he’s over 15,000 yards. Barber was probably helped by only having 250 carries his first three seasons as a Giant, he was more of a receiving threat early on.

    • Mark Growcott

      In reality no one is going to sniff either Smith’s or Rice’s Yardage records, they will remain out of reach to the closest challengers. In answer to Chase’s question above, Rice is the obvious answer, his career marks are in the same realm of many of Wayne Gretzky’s, scarcely believable.

      I recently came across the NFL Network’s “Top 10 Unbreakable Records” and you couldn’t really fault their list – 1st Brett Favre – 297 Consecutive Starts streak, 2nd Jerry Rice – Career Receiving Yards and 3rd Emmitt Smith – Career Rushing Yards. Records are made to be broken but rest assured these 3 will not be.

      • I think Favre’s interceptions record may be more unbreakable than his streak, given the way the game is headed. Shula’s wins has to be up there too. It’s popular to call him overrated now, but the guy had 20 10-win seasons and was below .500 twice in 33 years. He has as many wins over .500 as Parcells has in his career. Maybe Belichick will win 79 more games to pass him, but that’s an awful lot of games.