Emmitt Smith was a workhorse after the Dallas Cowboys drafted him 17th overall in the 1990 draft. From 1990 to 2004 the Pensacola native ran the ball 4,409 times for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns – all NFL records that stand to this day.
But could they fall? And if so, who could break them?
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson thought he would have a shot.
“I’ve been in the league seven years,” Peterson said in July, 2013. “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.”
Peterson would end his 2014 campaign with 1,266 rushing yards on 279 carries, scoring 10 times, knocking him off his four-year plan to be the league’s all-time leading rusher. However, he still has a chance.
To figure out the probability of any of the active running backs eventually passing Smith’s records, I used a tool created by Bill James called the Favorite Toy. The idea is to project how many seasons a player has left and compare that to his “established level for that statistic” to find his probability of reaching a certain milestone.
The number of seasons a running back has left is determined by subtracting 70 percent of his age from the number 24. The baseball version uses 60 percent but based on aging curves 70 percent gives us a better result for football. The established production level is calculated using a weighted average:
[(3*Stat total from last year) + (2*Stat total from two years ago) + (1*Stat total from three years ago)] / 6
To use Peterson as an example:
- He has 10,115 rushing and needs 18,355 to catch Smith, so his needed yards is 8,240.
- He is 28 years old, giving him 4.4 years left in the NFL.
- His established yardage level is 1,494 yards, which appears reasonable based on his prior performance.
- The projected yards for the remainder of his career is 4.4 multiplied by 1,494, or 6,572 yards.
Divide his projected yards (6,572) by his needed yards (8,240) and then subtract 0.5 to get his probability, which in this case is a 29.8 percent chance he could eclipse Smith’s rushing yardage before the end of his career. There are only two other active running backs with a chance at the rushing yards title, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch:
Smith’s 164 rushing touchdown mark appears to be safer. Only Peterson (86 touchdowns) and Lynch (58 touchdowns) have a chance, but are less than half the chances at either setting the yardage mark.
To catch Smith in rushing attempts is even harder. The 28-year-old Lynch has 1,753 carries and the best chance at setting the record, despite Peterson (2,033) having more carries. McCoy lags way behind in total carries (1,149) but is the youngest of the three with a chance:
The odds of Peterson breaking all three of Smith’s records? 750 to 1.