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NFL running backs are headed for a Hall of Fame drought

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It takes lofty numbers for running backs to make the Hall of Fame, and it’s only getting harder to get those stats.

Frank Gore is just 252 rushing yards away from being the fourth running back in NFL history to top 15,000 yards. Only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders are ahead of him.

He may also be the last to join that elite tier.

That may sound dramatic until you consider this: Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy are the only two NFL players currently on a roster who have even half that total.

Getting to 15,000 yards may look doable for Peterson, but it’s much likelier he doesn’t make it there. He’s already 34 and has 13,318 yards. That’s a lot of ground to make up now that his days as a full-time starter are probably through. If so, it’d take possibly three more seasons for him to pick up the remaining 1,682 yards.

It’ll be even harder for McCoy, who is still at 10,606 yards at age 31 and had a career-worst season in 2018.

After that trio, no one is even in the same stratosphere. The next closest is Mark Ingram, who isn’t even halfway to Peterson’s total. He sits at 6,007 yards and turns 30 in December.

At the very least, Gore, Peterson, and McCoy are the only three who have a feasible shot at eclipsing 15,000 in the eight seasons or so. It’ll be a long time before anyone in the next generation of backs — Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, and Saquon Barkley, perhaps — even approaches that number.

And they may never make it.

Putting up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers is going to get supremely difficult in a sport that is evolving away from its “three yards and a cloud of dust” origins. Rushing stats are regressing in the NFL, while passing numbers are soaring to the moon.

Five of the top eight players in career passing yards are active players. Another four are in the top 25. For running backs, Gore is the only active player in the top five, while Peterson and McCoy are the only others in the top 25.

That doesn’t just mean more quarterbacks earning spots in Canton, either. A league dominated by the pass means more receivers, pass blockers, defensive backs, and pass rushers in the spotlight too.

The 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame class alone has four defensive backs, a tight end, and a center set to be inducted. Five of those six players primarily made their impact in the pass game. You can probably expect future inductions to look similar.

What are the minimum numbers a RB needs for the Hall of Fame?

Since 1995, 11 running backs have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Only two of those 11 — Floyd Little and Terrell Davis — had fewer than 12,000 career rushing yards.

Little (1967-75) was one of the NFL’s first all-purpose backs, finishing his career with 3,416 return yards and 2,418 receiving yards. Davis (1995-01) appeared in only 78 regular season games in the NFL, but he got a bronze bust thanks to his postseason performances. In eight playoff games, he rushed for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was also the NFL MVP in 1998 and the MVP of Super Bowl 32.

Being a trailblazer who redefined the position got Little in the Hall of Fame, and being a postseason legend did the trick for Davis. For everyone else, it seems 12,000 yards is a benchmark.

Former Colts running back Edgerrin James finished his career with 12,246 rushing yards and has been a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame five consecutive years now. While he hasn’t yet made it all the way through to enshrinement, it’s undoubtedly coming soon. His contemporaries haven’t come nearly as close, though.

Fred Taylor ended up with 11,695 yards on the ground — mostly racked up during his career with the Jaguars — and hasn’t been a semifinalist once in his four years of eligibility. Neither has former Bengals and Patriots running back Corey Dillon, who had 11,241 yards and has been eligible for eight years.

The backlog of running backs with 10,000 to 12,000 yards also includes Warrick Dunn, Jamal Lewis, Tiki Barber, Eddie George, and Marshawn Lynch, among others.

That’s just their rushing totals. Plenty of those players in that logjam contributed often as pass catchers too. Barber averaged 33.7 receiving yards per game and Ricky Watters averaged 29.5 — not much different than Elliott’s 30 yards per game and Gurley’s 32.5 in a more pass-happy era.

Like Davis, postseason success might land Lynch in Canton. For any other running back, it’s probably going to take at least 12,000 yards to get in. That number is only going to become more difficult to reach.

Good luck reaching 12,000 rushing yards in the NFL of today/tomorrow

Gaining 1,500 rushing yards in a season has always been a hell of an accomplishment, but now it’s becoming an increasingly rare one.

In the last six seasons, only three players have topped 1,500 rushing yards, while Elliott is the only one to do it in the last four. That mark was reached 25 times in the first six seasons of the 21st century.

Simply put, NFL teams just don’t lean on a workhorse running back much anymore.

Elliott is the closest thing to an exception. He’s led the NFL in carries twice in his three seasons in the NFL and finished the 2018 season with 304 attempts. Historically speaking, that’s really not much. Running backs used to approach or eclipse 400 carries in a season. You have to go all the way back to 1990 to find another season when no player had at least 310 attempts.

Meanwhile, offenses are setting records left and right. The 2018 season saw all-time highs for touchdowns (1,371), quarterback completion percentage (64.9), touchdown passes (847), and passer rating (92.9).

As long as offenses continue to turn the dial up on the passing game, the opportunities for running backs to crank out big numbers will continue to decline.

And even though running backs aren’t getting as many carries, their careers are still getting shorter. In 2011, a new collective bargaining agreement implemented a rookie wage scale and increased training camp rosters from 75 to 90. That incentivized teams to hunt for young talent more and jettison older players earlier — especially at running back, where few players produce after turning 30.

Elliott’s 4,048 rushing yards through three seasons is impressive, but he’ll have to continue that average for six more years to top 12,000 in his career. That’d mean either continuing his current pace until he’s 30, or following Gore’s lead and producing after 30. Either way, it’ll be real tough.

What if 12,000 yards isn’t even enough?

Yes yes, 12,000 was propped up by me as the magic number for running backs, but maybe it won’t be in the near future.

Even if Elliott pulls it off — even if he fights off both Father Time and the NFL’s increased reliance on the pass game — to get to 12,000 yards, it might not matter much.

The same goes for Barkley, Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, and the other star running backs of today. They contribute as pass catchers (Barkley, Bell, and Kamara, in particular), though none of them average more than 50 receiving yards per game. How much will those additional numbers matter when other positions have set the statistical bars higher?

It’d be a more significant accomplishment to get to 12,000 rushing yards in an era that has prioritized the pass. Still, will Hall of Fame committee members care to vote in a back who finished somewhere around 15th all-time at his position — especially when it’s juxtaposed against players finishing top 10 in passing and receiving stats, both offensively and defensively?

By the time current NFL running backs are eligible for Canton, there will be a long line of quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, and pass rushers who have set records. They’re pushing NFL stats to new heights and racking up accolades to add to their Hall of Fame résumés.

Gore is a surefire Hall of Fame running back, as is Peterson. But at this rate, it’s going to be really damn hard for the next wave of great running backs to get a bronze bust of their own.