After a prolific NFL career that culminated with a Hall of Fame induction, LaDainian Tomlinson now spends his time as an analyst for NFL Network. On Friday, he was on with the crew of NFL Total Access to discuss the career of Emmitt Smith in honor of the longtime Dallas Cowboys running back's 51st birthday. In one segment, Tomlinson said Smith's rushing yards record will never be broken, which got me wondering about just how unbreakable it is. Could we really never see anyone top Smith's totals?
Smith gained 18,355 yards on the ground over the course of his 14-year career in the league. Currently, the closest active player to Smith is Frank Gore, sitting at 15,347 yards heading into his 15th NFL season as a member of the New York Jets. My coworker Stephen Douglas estimated Gore would have to play into his early 40s to even think about overcoming Smith's 3,008-yard lead. While Gore has proven at this point we would be wrong to doubt him, it feels unlikely he'll keep playing football at a high enough level to reach that mark.
The next closest active player is Adrian Peterson, who probably has the best chance to overcome Smith. Going on his 13th year in the NFL, AP is 4,139 yards behind Smith at 14,216 yards for his career. Peterson has rushed for 1,940 yards over the last two years, so another 1,000-yard season wouldn't be all that surprising. Four consecutive 1,000 yards seasons from a player who will be 35 when next season starts would be unprecedented, but I would put marginally more faith in Peterson's freakish athleticism to get it done than Gore scraping out 800 yards as he quickly approaches 40.
Looking at younger guys who could find themselves in the running in a decade, Ezekiel Elliott has done a pretty good job getting started. He's rushed for over 1,000 yards in three of his first four seasons and his career total is already at 5,405 yards. Elliott also signed an extension last season that will ensure he's the top back in Dallas for at least the next three years, with potential to be in that spot until 2026. If he continues at his current pace and finishes out this contract with around 11,000 yards rushing, he'll have as good a chance as anybody.
Overall, though, running backs just don't get enough touches nowadays to put up the sheer stats that Smith and his compatriots did back in the day. Passing is the way to win games more often than not; the days of a running back getting 30 handoffs on a regular basis are pretty much done. Medical technology gets better year by year, and more backs will have longevity to increase their chances of catching Smith. But sustained success at that particular position is reserved for the rarest of their kind. I can talk myself into someone approaching his record, but it's a higher probability that Tomlinson is right-- Smith's record will stand forever.