When Emmitt Smith was playing in the NFL, teams didn’t hesitate to run their best players into the ground. When Smith played through a separated shoulder in a big game against the Giants, all the talk was about what a tough guy Smith was, not about whether it might be inadvisable for a player to play through an injury.
Times change, and these days, it’s not only acceptable for a player to sit out when he’s hurt, but a requirement if the injury in question is a concussion. Smith thinks greater concerns about player safety — particularly CTE — will shorten careers, and as a result he thinks it’s unlikely that any running back will play long enough to break his all-time record of 18,355 rushing yards.
“It’s a reflection of the changing times in terms of how they value the running back position and how the game has changed into a running back-by-committee approach,” Smith told ESPN. “It could be because of the CTE stuff, it could be because of how offenses use spread formations vs. the I-formation and it could be the way they rotate players in and out.”
Smith acknowledged that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has a shot at the rushing record, but Smith doubts that anyone other than Peterson could reach it.
“If he doesn’t get it, I don’t know who’s going to get it,” Smith said. “He’s still got a lot of yards to go. I’m not going to lie to you.”
Although Peterson is still going strong, leading the NFL with 1,485 yards last season, he is unlikely to top Smith’s record: Peterson turns 31 next month and is still 6,680 yards behind Smith. Even if Peterson can run for 1,485 yards a season at ages 31, 32, 33 and 34 — an enormous “if” — he would still be short of Smith’s record.
At a time when players like Marshawn Lynch, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Jason Worilds, Jake Locker, Anthony Davis and Chris Borland are walking away from the game early, fewer and fewer players will want to keep playing as long as Smith did. That’s one reason his record seems safe.