“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."
Jim Brown held the NFL rushing record for 21 years and Walter Payton kept it for 18. Peterson is the only player in the NFL right now with a realistic opportunity to break Smith’s record of 18,355 yards.
Not bad for a 5-foot-9, 221-pound running back with good -- not great -- speed. Smith’s greatest asset was durability and mental toughness. Smith, the 17th player taken in the 1990 draft, carried the ball a league-record 4,409 times.
Critics who said he was too small and too slow inspired him throughout his career.
“I had to earn the right to become the baddest boy on my block. I had to earn the right to be the baddest boy in my high school. I had to earn the right to be the baddest boy in college and I had to earn the right to be the baddest boy in the pros,” Smith said during a phone conversation to promote Tide’s "small, but powerful" video series that features prominent athletes.
“I’ve always been underestimated because of my size. I’m small, but powerful. Some media personality has always said, 'He’s not big enough or fast enough and can’t run between the tackles.' And even when you become the all-time leading rusher, people are still debating whether you stack up in the top five or top three all-time.”
The longevity of Smith’s record should end the discussion of where he belongs in the pantheon of running backs.
Peterson has gained 11,675 yards, which puts him 6,680 yards behind Smith. If Peterson plays four more seasons, he must average 1,670 yards. If he plays five seasons, he would need to average 1,336 yards to break Smith’s record.
Peterson led the NFL with 1,485 yards in 2015, but he’s 30 years old -- an age when most running backs have retired to the golf course. Only six other running backs gained 1,000 yards this season as teams continue to use multiple runners to carry the ball.
Peterson was the only runner to carry the ball more than 300 times last season; Smith had seven seasons with at least 300 carries.
“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 said. “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.”
Most of the NFL’s rule changes the past 20 years have been to enhance the passing game. But the running game still remains an important facet of the NFL. Carolina, which went 17-2 this season and lost to Denver in the Super Bowl, led the league in carries (32 per game) and finished second in yards (142.6 per game).
Smith said he misses the days when running backs regularly received 20 carries a game, allowing them to find a rhythm and wear down defenses.
“It’s somewhat sad,” he said, “because I know as a running back it’s hard to get that continuity and get in the flow of the game when you’re getting 15 carries a game. I didn’t even get rolling until I got 15 carries a game.”