Commentary

Emmitt Smith's mark has staying power

Changes in game make it unlikely Hall of Famer's rushing record will fall anytime soon

Updated: August 7, 2010, 9:39 AM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

Records are meant to be broken. It just depends on how long it takes for somebody to break them.

It took 56 years for Cal Ripken to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played mark in baseball. Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's all-time hits mark 57 years after it was set.

[+] EnlargeEmmitt Smith
Paul K. Buck/AFP/Getty ImagesTwo-back offenses, health and big contracts may impede others from breaking Emmitt Smith's rushing record.

Walter Payton overtook Jim Brown as the NFL's all-time leading rusher 21 years after Brown finished playing.

Payton's mark stood for 18 years before Emmitt Smith surpassed him to become the current all-time rushing leader.

Smith -- the former Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals running back who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday -- might hold on to the record for a while.

Yet somebody out there might break it.

"I do believe it will be approached," Smith said. "I would be naive to think that it could be not approached, because hey, no one actually thought that Walter Payton's record could be approached."

The current specialization of the NFL -- where teams now use two and three running backs and pass more often -- will likely add longevity to Smith's possession of the record.

Even Smith's former team, the Cowboys, primarily use two running backs in Marion Barber and Felix Jones.

In today's NFL there are just a few teams using one main running back: St. Louis (Stephen Jackson), Minnesota (Adrian Peterson), Baltimore (Ray Rice), Jacksonville (Maurice Jones-Drew) and Tennessee (Chris Johnson).

The use of more backs provides fewer opportunities for players to get more yards. Last season, eight different running backs had games with at least 30 carries. In the 2002 season, when Smith broke Payton's record, 21 players had games with 30 or more carries.

"The trend now is you get more and more guys splitting time with other people. Sometimes that will help extend their career," said Cowboys running backs coach Skip Peete. "That's a lot of yards [Smith] got. Who knows?"

Health, age and money are other factors in the way of someone breaking Smith's record of 18,355 yards.

Johnson is upset with Titans management because he wants a new contract. Even Smith missed the first two games of his 1993 season while he held out for a new contract. LaDainian Tomlinson, the active rushing leader with 12,490 yards, left the San Diego Chargers because the team believes he's no longer an elite player.

Tomlinson, 31, will play in 2010 with the New York Jets, in a role that will be reduced from what he's had in previous years.

"I thought LaDainian Tomlinson would have been one guy that would challenge it," Smith said. "The last couple of years his career has kind of been going a little sideways. Now he's in New York, and how long he's there can determine how close he's going to get."

Former NFL safety Rodney Harrison believes when a top running back gets a major contract, the hunger to play wanes.

"Guys won't take care of their bodies like that [to survive]," Harrison said. "They won't. If you're a running back in your third or fourth year and you get a $40 million to $50 million deal -- most of these young kids, this is what drives them, the big paycheck, so once you get the paycheck, what else is going to drive you? What's going to get you to that next level? And unfortunately these guys don't have what LT and Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith had: the will to be the very best. These guys want to get paid."

Yet Johnson, who last year became the sixth player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, has goals as he awaits a new deal. He said this week he wants to become the first player to reach 2,000 yards twice and break Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 yards.

"I'm shooting for 2,500, but I'll be happy with anything over the record," Johnson told reporters.

Smith also had aspirations, and the main one was getting Payton's record.

One night during his sixth season, he went over his plan to pass Payton with teammate Nate Newton. Newton, a guard, said Smith talked about needing to average a certain amount of yards every season if he was going to catch Payton.

"A guy has to take care of his body and take care of his mental state of mind knowing he's going to be playing through a lot of key injuries," Newton said. "He has to come in knowing he wants this record. He can't wait until his fifth year, saying, 'I want this record.' You have to do it when you come out."

Newton said Johnson and Peterson have good shots at getting the record. Rushing for about 1,600 to 1,800 yards a season would help the process. Newton believes Peterson might have to change his physical style, which could wear him down, in order to play long enough to get the record.

Smith played through nagging injuries in his career and benefited from an offense that made sure he got the ball. He's the only running back in league history with over 4,000 carries.

His accomplishments seem amazing when you consider how the game is played today. Smith had 4,409 carries -- that's 571 more than Payton. And only seven players in league history have at least 3,000 carries, and Smith is the fourth of them to reach the Hall of Fame.

If the NFL expands the season to 18 games, as has been discussed among league owners, Cowboys coach Wade Phillips thinks the record will be overtaken because of the addition. If the schedule stays the same, he doesn't think anyone will get it. Harrison and Newton are not sure about the impact of more games, because it just might allow running backs to split time even more.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you the record is not going to be approached or broken," Smith said. "But I do know this: It's going to take an awful lot to get there, because I know what it took for me to get there. It's not easy."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ALSO SEE

MORE NFL HEADLINES