The greatest running back of all-time is a short discussion. There’s Jim Brown…then everyone else.
Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, LaDainian Tomlinson all enter into the discussion at that point.
But the NFL’s greatest running back in his 30s – now that’s a more interesting discussion.
Brown didn’t take a single handoff in his 30s. Neither did Sayers. Campbell, Dickerson, Faulk, Simpson, Thomas and Tomlinson never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season in their 30s and Sanders did it just once before walking away from the game at the age of 30.
Historically, the wall for running backs is 30. The decline thereafter is steep and often swift.
Only two backs won rushing titles in their 30s – Hall of Famer Curtis Martin in 2004 and Adrian Peterson in 2015. Peterson was 30 in that season, Martin 31.
Only four backs rushed for as many as 5,000 of their career yards in their 30s: Payton, Smith, John Riggins and Frank Gore. Three of them are in the Hall of Fame: Payton, Smith and Riggins. Yet it’s Gore who likely will go down as the most productive back in history after the age of 30.
Gore, 36, enters his 15th season with the Buffalo Bills in 2019. Only six other backs in NFL history played beyond 35 years of age: Riggins, Marcus Allen, John Henry Johnson, Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Ollie Matson. All are Hall of Famers. Gore already has more rushing yards in his 30s than any of them. His 5,909 yards are 120 more than what Emmitt Smith as able to amass in his 30s on his way to the all-time rushing record. Just 91 more rushing yards this September will make Gore the first 6,000-yard back in his 30s in history.
Gore needs 40 more carries to become the busiest back after 30 in NFL history. His 1,471 carries since turning 30 place him third all-time behind Riggins (1,510) and Smith (1,495). Gore also is one of only four backs who has rushed for 1,000 yards three times in his 30s, joining Riggins, Smith and Payton.
Gore will enter the 2019 season as the backup at Buffalo to LeSean McCoy. But he entered the 2018 season as the backup at Miami to Kenyan Drake and still wound up leading the Dolphins with 722 rushing yards. The most rushing yards by a 36-year-old back were the 830 by Marcus Allen with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1996. So Marcus Allen is a target for Gore in 2019.
So is Sanders. Gore needs 522 rushing yards to overtake Sanders in third-place on the all-time rushing list behind Smith and Payton.
Maybe Gore wasn’t in the class of Payton, Sanders and Smith in his 20s. But he may soon be at the head of the class in his 30s.