On one side of Texas Stadium, Emmitt Smith jumped into his fullback’s arms, weaved through a conga line of hugs and helmet slaps and removed his helmet to acknowledge the home crowd’s thunderous ovation.
On the other sideline, a young running back soaked in the historic moment and pictured himself at the center of such a celebration one day.
To Shaun Alexander, it was kismet that his Seahawks were the Cowboys’ opponent on Oct. 27, 2002, when Smith claimed the NFL’s record for career rushing yards. Alexander believed his presence would make a fun historical footnote years later if he supplanted Smith as the NFL’s all-time rushing king.
“I was 100 percent thinking I was going to gobble that record up,” Alexander told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “I thought, ‘This is so cool because I’m here when Emmitt broke it and then I’m going to be the next to break it.’ I don’t think you can be the man unless you can see yourself as the man.”
Of course, Alexander’s hubris proved unwarranted. He didn’t surpass Smith’s 18,355 career rushing yards, nor did he even threaten it. Injuries derailed Alexander’s promising career after five straight seasons of 1,175 yards or more. By age 31, the former league MVP was forced to retire after two teams cut him in a span of eight months.
Alexander’s plight reflects why Smith’s hallowed rushing mark should be hailed as the NFL equivalent to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak or Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 career points. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to approach 18,000-plus rushing yards in an era when offenses are pass-happier, bell-cow workloads are scarcer and teams are quicker to discard star running backs as their bodies start to break down.
There is not a single active NFL player among the league’s top 50 in career rushing yards, with Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy all unsigned three-plus weeks into the new season. Mark Ingram, 31, is the NFL’s active leader in career rushing yards with 7,471, barely 40 percent of Smith’s venerable mark. Ingram told Yahoo Sports that for him “the goal is to just get 10,000, let alone another 8,000 more.”
“Eighteen thousand yards, that’s unbelievable,” Ingram said. “Eighteen thousand rushing yards. You can’t say enough about how crazy that is. Records are meant to be broken, but I’m not sure anyone is going to break that one.”
The NFL’s top running backs would each have to play into their late 30s without a decline in production to make a run at the 18,000-yard mark.
Dalvin Cook, 26, is closing in on 4,000 rushing yards early in his fifth NFL season, but he would need to average 1,200 yards for the next 12 seasons to eclipse Smith’s record at age 38. With Cook’s injury history, what are the chances he stays healthy even half that long?
Ezekiel Elliott, 26, has so far piled up more than 6,500 rushing yards, but already his legs are showing signs of slowing down. Do they realistically have another decade left in them when some are questioning if Elliot is even still the best running back in his own backfield anymore?
Even Derrick Henry, who last season rushed for more than 2,000 yards, said in February that he considers Smith’s mark untouchable. The bruising 27-year-old would need 10 more 1,200-yard seasons or eight more 1,500-yard seasons to surpass the Cowboys legend.
“No one will ever break this record,” Chargers legend LaDainian Tomlinson told NFL Network last year, citing the shorter shelf lives and fewer carries for today’s running backs. “That’s a lot of yards for a guy to amass and I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”
The evolution of the running back position
The main reason that Smith’s record appears so safe is how drastically the running back role has evolved since his heyday.
No longer are there many three-down workhorses who command 20 carries per game the way Smith did. In today’s NFL, where teams throw on nearly 60 percent of plays, specialization is the norm.
Many NFL teams have a third-down back who runs routes, makes catches out of the backfield and excels in pass protection. Some also have a short-yardage specialist capable of bulldozing ahead on fourth-and-short or at the goal line. Backs who play in all situations are typically in the mold of a Christian McCaffrey, versatile enough to be a weapon on the ground and through the air.
Because smash-mouth football is a dying art and pass-heavy teams often deploy multiple running backs, today’s top rushers don’t carry the ball nearly as often as their predecessors. In the past 10 years, only DeMarco Murray (2014) and Henry (2020) cracked the NFL’s all-time top 50 in single-season rushing attempts.
Tallying 300 carries in a season was a benchmark for elite running backs during Smith’s career. An average of 7.3 running backs per year did it from 1990 to 2004. That number has shrunk to 1.9 per year over the past decade.
Ingram is the NFL’s active leading rusher despite never tallying more than 230 carries in one season. He has shared backfields with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Alvin Kamara in New Orleans, with Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins in Baltimore and now with Phillip Lindsay and David Johnson in Houston.
“That’s how the game has evolved,” Ingram said. “It’s a passing game now. The running game is still important to keep the defense off the field and keep the chains moving, but with the way that backs are used and how they rotate backs, there are very few running backs who wake up on Sundays knowing they’re going to get 20-30 carries anymore.”
Front offices changing their approach
The declining longevity of modern running backs also makes it difficult to envision someone challenging Smith’s record anytime soon. It’s tougher than ever for a running back to play into his 30s with defensive players growing stronger and faster, hits becoming more punishing and the league devaluing the position.
NFL front offices are more cognizant of the steep downturn that running backs typically endure by their late 20s. As a result, teams are more hesitant to invest in second and third contracts for top running backs than for elite players at other spots.
“The theory evolved throughout front offices that it might be a bad risk to sign a running back long-term for elevated dollars,” longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg told Yahoo Sports. “The irony is the more productive a running back is, the more wear and tear a team perceives. The more carries a running back has, the more fear there is for how long he’ll still be viable.”
Steinberg said that in 2019, and his point has only been proven since then.
In 2017, four of the NFL’s five leading rushers were 25 or younger. Only four years later, Todd Gurley, 27, is unsigned and may be forced into retirement. Jordan Howard, 26, and LeVeon Bell, 29, have yet to record a carry this season and are clinging to practice-squad spots. Melvin Gordon, 28, at least remains relevant in Denver, but even he is splitting carries with a rookie drafted to be his eventual replacement.
“They’re always looking for the younger, cheaper guys who can come in and help the team the same way,” Ingram said.
At a time when Tom Brady won a Super Bowl at 43 and two of the league’s starting left tackles are approaching their 40th birthdays, the running back position is trending the opposite way. Twenty years ago, the average age of the NFL’s top 20 rushers was 26.8. Last season, it was 23.95 and not a single one was older than 27.
More pain, less gain
The running backs who have excelled into their 30s often have one attribute in common: They are fanatical about taking care of their bodies, from healthy diets, to punishing training regimens, to proper rest and massage therapy to aid with recovery time.
In 2004, Curtis Martin produced one of the finest seasons ever from an over-30 running back, a 1,697-yard, 12-touchdown masterpiece that earned the 31-year-old New York Jets standout first-team All-Pro honors. Martin credits his approach of incorporating a new challenge into his training regimen each offseason for keeping himself explosive, trim and mentally engaged.
What set Martin apart was his willingness to play through pain. He missed eight games in his 11-year NFL career. On game days, he took no pain medicine — “I wouldn’t even take Advil,” he says — so that he could feel every bruising fall and helmet-rattling collision.
“The one thing I really didn’t want was to be numb to the pain and do something that really damages my body,” Martin told Yahoo Sports. “For me, it was a challenge to conquer that pain mentally. I enjoyed playing in pain that nine out of 10 players were not going to be able to play through.”
Among the ways that Frank Gore stayed in game shape late in his career was by working with a boxing trainer. The speed and agility work, grueling hill sprints, sparring in the ring and mental training helped Gore play until age 37 and climb all the way to third on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, behind only Smith and Walter Payton.
“The guy was never late for training,” said Brian Schwartz, who trained Gore at Undisputed Boxing Gym in Redwood City, California. “Even when I told him we were done, he’d always be like, no, let’s do one more. He always wanted to get an extra round or an extra set.”
While the evolution of the running back position has helped make Smith’s rushing record one of football’s safest, his peers are adamant that he also deserves immense credit for his longevity and production. He outlasted fellow Cowboys stars Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, starting 14 or more games in all but one of his 15 seasons and rushing for at least 900 yards in each of those.
“A lot of people say it was the system or the All-Pro linemen,” Alexander said. “No man. When you do that, you really miss how great Emmitt was. That dude was tough. He had to be to physically survive.”
There was a time when Alexander believed he’d be the one to break Smith’s record. Now, the way football has changed, he isn’t so sure anyone can do it.
Offenses are more pass-happy.
Running backs are discarded earlier.
And for so long, Smith was so steady and so durable.
“All those things mixed together,” Alexander said, “make Emmitt’s record seem like it’s going to last forever.”