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Adrian Peterson’s Pursuit of the Best RBs Ever

Adrian Peterson has a long way to run to catch Emmitt, Walter and BarryToday’s topic is brought to courtesy of “Reggie Dunlap”, who I judged to have the closest prediction the Super Bowl final score (GB 33, PIT 27) in the comments to my prediction post last Friday, where I offered to write on a topic of choice to the person who picked the score correctly in the comments.

Being from Minnesota, he wanted to know how Adrian Peterson’s start compares to the greatest running backs of all-time, and where he might end up in in ten years if he continues to perform. Peterson is off to a fantastic start, with at least 1,500 rushing yards in all four seasons he has played. He almost seems to have crossed into “taken for granted” territory. His rookie year, he was the Blake Griffin of running backs, putting up some huge performances and creating buzz. Now, his almost 100 yards rushing per game just seems like old news.

So how does he compare? This is a good opportunity to talk about just how ridiculous Emmitt Smith’s rushing record is, and what it is going to take to surpass it. As we will, Adrian Peterson’s chances are extremely low, despite getting off to an incredible start.

Here are the 16 players with at least 5,000 career rushing yards through age 25:

Rk                Player  Tm  Att  Yds TD
1          Emmitt Smith* DAL 1630 7183 71
2         Walter Payton* CHI 1548 6926 59
3         Barry Sanders* DET 1432 6789 55
4             Jim Brown* CLE 1269 6463 57
5         Clinton Portis TOT 1385 6453 52
6          Jerome Bettis TOT 1491 6187 31
7         Edgerrin James CLT 1494 6172 42
8    LaDainian Tomlinson SDG 1363 5899 54
9        Adrian Peterson MIN 1198 5782 52
10           Jamal Lewis RAV 1239 5763 33
11       Marshall Faulk* CLT 1389 5320 42
12        Steven Jackson RAM 1224 5291 37
13    Maurice Jones-Drew JAX 1141 5248 54
14       Eric Dickerson* RAM 1061 5147 44
15         Curtis Martin TOT 1327 5086 40
16        Earl Campbell* OTI 1043 5081 45

The top four on that list are a pretty good start toward assembling a collection of the greatest running backs of all-time. Brown started when there were only 12 regular season games, and would eventually play in a 14 game regular season and retire early. The other three are also the top of the all-time career list, in that same order. The issue with Peterson pursuing those legends isn’t how productive he has been on a per-game basis. It’s age; they started at age 21, a year ahead of Peterson.

What would it take for Peterson to catch Emmitt, Walter, or Barry on the career rushing list? A whole lot. He would have to be much better than Emmitt after age 25, and Smith had the most rushing yards, by a long shot, after that age. Both Emmitt and Walter, just as they were through age 25, were the two leading rushers after age 25 as well. To catch Emmitt, Peterson would have to average 1,257 rushing yards per season, for a decade, through age 35. To catch Walter, the number is 1,094 per year; for Barry, it is 949 yards a season for a decade.

Of course, those averages are based on doing it for a decade, something most running backs do not reach at age 25. The effect of age is powerful and can slow down the best, as even these greats saw their numbers decline over time (there were of course, individual fluctuations). To demonstrate just how crazy Emmitt Smith’s career numbers are, I’m going to do a little experiment. A What-If test. What if Peterson matched the best season at each age, by any running back ever?

If he did that, and had a season like Terrell Davis topping 2,000 at age 26, like Jim Brown at age 27, Shaun Alexander at 28, Barry Sanders and his ridiculous 2,000+ yard season at 29, Tiki Barber at 30 and Curtis Martin at 31, followed by Walter Payton at age 32, then Adrian Peterson could surpass Emmitt Smith no earlier than age 32. To put that in some perspective, LaDainian Tomlinson was 31 last year. For some more perspective, that’s eight different names, who stayed healthy in eight different seasons at eight different ages.

Second best season ever then, at each age? In age order: O.J., Tomlinson, Simpson again, Holmes, Payton, Barber, Ricky Williams two years ago, and Franco Harris. That would do the trick by age 33, when very few backs are still playing. Again, that would require staying healthy and being almost the best at every age. Tiki Barber, at age 30 and 31, is the only back that appears in the top 2 for consecutive ages.

Well, let’s go third best at each age? In order by ascending age starting at 26: Ahman Green, Larry Johnson, Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown, Corey Dillon, Walter Payton, Ottis Anderson, Emmitt Smtih, and Marcus Allen. That would get him to Emmitt’s record by age 34. Walter Payton at ages 30-32 joins Tiki in being the only two to appear in the top 3 in consecutive age groups; needless to say, no one did it nine straight years like Peterson would need to do.

Fourth best, then, trying to get a tad more realistic even if still optimistic? That would do the trick at age 35, the same age Emmitt was in his final season. Fifth best all-time, every season, at each age?

You don’t get there.

How many backs even appeared in the top 5 of rushing yards for three consecutive ages? Just Priest Holmes (ages 28-30), Walter Payton, and Tiki Barber. Adrian Peterson could catch Walter Payton by age 33 with the fifth best performance at each age. He could catch Barry by age 32. Peterson would have to do that for a decade.

All of this just reminds me of how good those guys were. Adrian Peterson has been very good, and he and I have about the same chance of catching Emmitt. In fact, to catch Emmitt, we would basically need to reconstruct him, with a back who comes in at age 21 and leads the league in rushing for several years, and then is consistently putting up 1,200 yard seasons, and then lasts longer than all but a few running backs in history. As for those of you who like to say that Emmitt is not one of the best ever, and was a product of the system, I have two words: Child, please.

[photo via Getty]

 

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