Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Moving the Goalposts

Running backs have been the talk of the NFL lately: Are they underpaid? Are they being colluded against? Are they embellishing injuries? Are they still relevant? 

A while ago I wrote about some NFL stars who should probably have busts in Canton. One thing I noticed but didn't discuss at the time was the statistical line for a running back to earn automatic enshrinement appears to be 12,000 career rushing yards. 

Every eligible back with 12k is in the Hall. Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson will get there soon.

I liked Peterson, despite playing for the hated arch-rival Vikings for most of his career. Like Randy Moss, there were amazing feats mixed in with awful moments on and off the field.

A.P. fumbled twice in the 2010 NFC title game (actually three but he recovered one) and beat his kid with a tree branch. He also won three rushing titles - two of which were earned immediately after recovering from major injuries.

I didn't see much of Frank Gore and failed to appreciate his talent until his career was nearly over. He never led the league in touchdowns or rushing yards, and never made a real run at Eric Dickerson's single-season record. Gore had just one season in which he averaged more than 80 rushing yards per game. 

But... both those backs played well into their thirties. Gore's last carry came at age 37. Peterson was just a bit younger; he last played two years ago as a 36-year old.

Now look at today's running backs. How many are even active at 30 - the age in which A.P. last led the league in carries, yards, and touchdowns? Over the past 15 seasons, only two backs have led the NFL in rushing yards at age 27 or older - and he's the other one.

Christian McCaffrey is leading the league in rushing this season at age 27. We're only two games into a 17-game season so it's too soon to say if he'll finish the season on top - or at all. CMC missed huge chunks of 2020 and 2021 with injuries; had he been healthy both seasons it's unlikely that the Panthers would have traded him.

McCaffrey will almost certainly gain his 5,000th rushing yard this weekend {unless he plays on Thursday, you dummy}. He's 12th on the active list (just behind *checks notes* .. Russell Wilson) and already at an age when RBs are said to be in decline. If ball carriers can't reach 6,000 yards on the ground by this age there's zero chance they'll hit 12,000.

Seven active backs are halfway to the magic number. They are: 

  • Mark Ingram, who is essentially retired
  • Melvin Gordon, who is active on the Ravens and might get some carries now that J.K. Dobbins is out (again) 
  • and Latavius Murray, who is active with the Buffalo Bills

None of these guys are Hall of Famers. That leaves us with four backs under 30 and over 6k:

Zeke got picked up by the most hateable team in football after being dumped by the second most hateable team in football. He's got a shot at 10,000 career yards if he can produce for the Patriots. That would put him in a class with the likes of Ricky Williams, Marshawn Lynch, Eddie George, and Jamal Lewis among others. I often assume that George is already in Canton but he's not. In fact no one who has accumulated between 9,500 and 11,000 career rushing yards (in the Super Bowl era) is enshrined in Canton. And Zeke might not even get that far.

Like Elliott, Dalvin Cook got cut this past off-season and caught on with an AFC East squad. Cook has rushed for 1,100+ yards in each of the past four seasons but he's behind Breece Hall in the Jets' backfield. It's unlikely he'll rush for another thousand this season - and he's already 28 years old.

And so is this man:

Another week, another gruesome season-ending injury. Ugh... why do we love this game?

Nick Chubb had a fantastic 2022 season at age 27, and was four yards shy of posting five straight 1,000-yard seasons to start his career. Chubb definitely could have reached 8,000 career yards by the end of this season if Minkah Fitzpatrick hadn't launched himself into Nick's knee.

A lot of football talkers are speculating that his career may be over. I don't agree. I've seen big backs return from major knee injuries. Peterson did it. Jamal Lewis did it. Chubb can do it. 

If he doesn't, there's only one active back with any chance of reaching the suddenly unreachable milestone of 12,000 career yards on the ground.

The King is the active leader with 8,478 rushing yards. If he matched his output from last season (when he led the league in carries) he'd be on the doorstep of 10,000. But he's 29, and he's a free agent at the end of this year. Tennessee was reportedly shopping him over the summer so it's unlikely they'll extend him into his 30s. This might be his last year as a starter - which is especially unfair considering he split carries with DeMarco Murray in each of his first two seasons. Henry should have close to 10,000 yards already.

Here's my conclusion: either there will be far fewer running backs entering the Hall of Fame over the next decade-plus or the Hall will have to open its doors to a lot more backs with 4 or 5 standout seasons, like Terrell Davis--

--who had to wait a dozen years for his gold jacket. 

It's similar to what's happening with starting pitchers in baseball. 300 career wins was the bench mark for automatic induction into Cooperstown, and it was within reach of the game's greatest. Nowadays pitcher wins are irrelevant and Hall of Fame voters need to find a new measure of greatness for 21st century pitchers. 250 wins is like 10,000 yards rushing - it's nearly impossible and equally as important.

Heck, look how much of a struggle it was for 42 year-old Adam Wainwright to earn career victory #200. Waino is fifth among active pitchers in wins; Lance Lynn is ninth with 135. Yikes.

I'll be very interested to see how many running backs - and starting pitchers - make the Hall of fame in the next 15-20 years, and what metrics are used to evaluate their careers. Until then I'll be sure to appreciate the ones we have - before the injury demon claims his next victim.

Thanks for reading!



  1. It's interesting to see a comparison to SPs and RBs as their sports have changed in important ways making them more valuable than ever which oddly enough leads to being careful with pitch counts and limiting punishing reps. I do doubt we'll see a 250+ win pitcher for a long time unless things change and today's pitchers can stay healthy enough to pitch 7+ innings consistently. And if any RBs break career rushing records it'll likely be within a smaller number of seasons at the cost of their bodies being trashed by their late 20s (not that they already aren't!).

  2. I remember back in 2015 my best buddy Bob of 25 years (moved to vegas 2 months before I came back home) telling me there would never be another pitcher with 300 wins. I told him then 8 years ago that I thought there were 3. I may have been right, we'll see. But after them I can't see anyone else coming close.

  3. I've always enjoyed the passing game more than the running game (those '70s Chargers tarnished me), but I do enjoy seeing guys like Sanders and Smith pile up real yardage. I hope we still get guys like that from time to time.

  4. Not a Browns fan, but man hated seeing Chubb go down like that.

    I was driving with my son the other day and he was talking about RBs, and I told him I feel like this is what's trendy right now (that they are all replaceable), and ideas like this tend to go in cycles. Meaning there my be a correction at some point where a new emphasis is placed on their importance.

  5. Good post, Chris. I thought it was pretty thought-provoking. It's not just the longevity keeping backs from the 12,000 (or even 10,000) yard milestone anymore, though. It's their every game usage. Many Running Backs by Committee and an ever increasing focus on passing are preventing running from dominating games like they could in the past. Even if you are willing to take shorter careers into account, like Davis, very few are even piling up carries like they used to. Of all the guys you mentioned, I view only Derrick Henry as possibly Hall-worthy. Maybe McCaffrey if he can have a couple of healthy seasons.

    Starting pitchers, on the other hand, may not pile up stats like before, but they can still dominate the game. There is still star power available to them. The Hall of Fame voters may have to adjust statistical expectations to account for an evolving game, but starting pitchers can still be recognized for dominating over their peers. Running backs, unfortunately, are not seeing that opportunity much.

  6. Giants may be the only team whose best offensive player is their running back? And he is injured now.

    I think it is OK if not every position is in a HOF for every era. If the strategy has changed so that the individual RB is less valuable, than there don't need to be RBs from this era in the HOF.

  7. I have a theory/prediction: With starter wins decreasing, that obviously means that relief wins are increasing. In the next few years, we may start seeing middle relievers crossing the 100 career win threshold (something only 8 RP have accomplished). Hoyt Wilhelm's record of 124 relief wins may even be surpassed.

  8. Interesting post. It's hard for me to view Frank Gore as an HOF'er, but his total yardage is sneaky because he's not a flashy back. I feel like he's like a Jim Kaat or Blyleven who benefitted from their longevity in the league.

  9. As much as I dislike the 49ers... I've gotta admit... I kinda liked Gore. Not super flashy... but super dependable. I'll be happy for Niner fans when he gets the call.

  10. Fun post! I was equating the Running Back to a Starting Pitcher while reading and then you talked about Starting Pitching!

  11. It's probably a good thing that I stopped watching current sports a few years ago, because I'll always be stuck on the old ways that success was measured; and try as I might, I don't understand any of these new fangled statistics at all.