By Eric Schmidt

Former San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson signed a one-day contract to retire yesterday as a member of the franchise which drafted him in 2001. Tomlinson, a two-time NFL rushing leader finishes his career as the fifth leading running back with 13,684 yards. As the NFL game becomes more of a passing led offense, with teams creating more two-back tandems in backfields, the all-time career NFL rushing record held by former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, appears to be safe for the next decade and perhaps, beyond. Currently, only one of the top 30 all-time rushing leaders are current players, and Thomas Jones finds himself without work. Only one running back in the current top-40 is guaranteed a starting job in 2012, Steven Jackson with the St. Louis Rams.

The retirement of Tomlinson represents the downward spiral of the dedicated running back in NFL offensive scheme. The league is moving further and further away from dedicated backs, as teams move towards specialty backs. One back comes in for first and second downs and he eventually is replaced by a third down back which has better hands or works better in pass protection.

In addition to the new trend sweeping the NFL, running backs nearing the age of 30 are having a serious difficulty finding work. Even productive running backs approaching 30, are having issues seeking contract extensions. Smith played five years after turning 30, registering 4,392 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in his final five seasons. He rushed for 937 yards and 9 touchdowns in his last season with the Arizona Cardinals at age 35.

Given the current trend in the NFL, I can’t see any of the current veteran running backs coming close to Smith’s all-time record, and his record might become one which will never comes close to being touched in the NFL. Let’s take a look at the current, “featured backs” in the NFL and their potential to eclipse Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record based on their current age and extrapolating their career to age 35, when Smith retired.

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings– Peterson is a beast of a back in the NFL, with a rare combination of size and speed. However, he is coming off a serious knee injury and will re-join a Vikings team this season with legitimate questions surrounding the quarterback position for the Vikings. Peterson is entering his 6th NFL season and has 6,752 yards. If he plays until age 35, he will have to average 1,450 yards for the next 8 seasons. I thought Peterson could have had a 2,000 yard season in him, but coming off ACL and MCL surgery, his game might be limited for the duration of his career.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars– MJD led the NFL in rushing yards last year despite the league’s worst passing attack behind Blaine Gabbert. Jones-Drew now wants a new contract. Entering his seventh season in the NFL, MJD will have to average 1,437 yards per season for the next eight seasons.

Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams– Jackson has been the workhorse of the St. Louis rams, rushing for over 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons. Jackson is about to turn 29 in July and has been the backbone for a Rams offense which has gone 15-65 in the last five seasons. Jackson will have to average 1,543 yards per season in the next six seasons in order to reach Smith’s record.Jackson will become a free agent prior to the start of the 2014 season, when he will turn 32.

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers– Gore has been a workhorse for the Niners, carrying the load for some putrid Niners teams. Gore has struggled with injury issues in his career, only appearing in all 16 games twice in his seven year career. Gore turned 29 in May and will have to average 1,788 yards for the next six seasons to reach Smith’s yardage number. Gore’s best season came in his second year when he recorded 1,695 yards.Gore is under contract until the start of the 2015 season, but his carries should be limited this season with the addition of Brandon Jacobs and the potential emergence of Kendall Hunter.

Ravens RB Ray Rice, desiring a new long-term contract will have to offer up 1,97 rushing yards a season for the next decade while Titans running back Chris Johnson, after landing his mega-deal last year will have to average 1,588 yards per season for the next eight years.

As the NFL game continues to evolve into a pass-centric league with penalties favoring high-scoring and offensive receivers and while the league continues to shy away from running backs approaching the age of 30 (see Cedric Benson), the all-time rushing record held by Emmitt Smith appears safe for the foreseeable future.






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