Posted by Jason Lisk on November 13, 2009
You may have missed it, but Ahman Green re-signed with the Packers earlier this season, and last week he surpassed Jim Taylor as the Green Bay Packers' all-time rushing yardage leader. Very few team rushing records have stood the test of time with the expanded schedules and increased scoring. In fact, now that Green has surpassed Taylor, only two teams have an all-time rushing yardage leader who pre-dated the AFL-NFL merger. While Green benefited from the increased offensive emphasis of the modern game, he actually played in twenty fewer games than Taylor to reach the milestone. The last few yards may have come quietly as a backup for the Packers. Every yard counts the same in the end, though, and gaining over 8,000 yards, particularly with a storied franchise like Green Bay, is a notable milestone. Congratulations, Ahman Green.
I'm sure that every player wants his milestone records to stay in place forever. Sometimes, though, the previous record holder may be more remembered by the surpassing of his record. Jim Taylor is well known to fans who grew up in the 1950's and 1960's. I wonder how many modern fans under the age of 40, though, know about him. I wrote about Taylor recently when I compared his difficult schedule to his contemporary Jim Brown. Brown is one of the two players who still holds the all-time franchise rushing mark and never played after the merger. His 12,312 rushing yards for the Cleveland Browns is probably safe for a long time to come. The longest standing franchise rushing record, though, may be in some jeopardy soon.
If I were to conduct a poll at tonight's San Francisco-Chicago game and ask the San Francisco fans who their franchise's all-time rusher yardage leader was, I suspect that Roger Craig would be the most prevalent response. The correct answer, though, is Joe "The Jet" Perry.
Joe Perry was a member of the Million Dollar Backfield in San Francisco in the mid-1950's. He originally played for the team when they were still a part of the All-American Football Conference, signing as an undrafted free agent after serving in the Navy. The Jet was the first African-American player for the San Francisco franchise and one of the few African-Americans in the NFL when San Francisco joined the league in 1950. He was the first player to ever record consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons in the 12 game per season NFL. At the time he retired in 1963, he was the NFL's all-time leading rusher, a mark surpassed by Jim Brown the following season.
Joe Perry is also an example of the risks of the game, and the plight of former players in an era when salaries did not remotely approach today's figures. Head injuries among NFL players has been in the news lately, with Congressional hearings on the issue in the last month. The health issues affecting former players has also been a hot button issue, with former players like Mike Ditka leading the cause for the NFL and the NFLPA to take care of the stars who built the game. Sean Lahman of the Historical Football Abstract, cites Joe Perry as an example of a historically great player struggling, while the NFL makes billions. Perry is still living in Chandler, Arizona with his wife, on a fixed income, and suffers from pugilistic dementia and short-term memory loss.
While Perry is an example of the risks of the game, and the medical issues that still need to be addressed with long-term brain damage, the guy who has an outside shot of surpassing him is a contrasting example of the advancements in medicine. Frank Gore had two serious knee injuries in college, and may have never seen the field again if he had played in 1965 instead of 2005. He was a third round draft pick (largely due to the concerns about his knees) but currently stands fifth all-time on the San Francisco rushing yardage chart, with 4,888 yards. That figure trails Joe Perry's franchise mark of 8,689 rushing yards by 3,801 yards.
Three years ago, in some of the earliest posts on the blog, Doug used an adaption of Bill James' "Favorite Toy" to estimate the chances of several backs to reach Emmitt Smith's rushing record. As a quick estimate, I'm going to use a similar method to estimate Gore's chances of becoming the 49ers all-time rushing yardage leader.
You can see the full explanation at the link to the original Favorite Toy post. Basically, the method is to calculate the needed yards for the record, the established performance level of the player (based on a weighted three year performance measure), and expected number of remaining years (based on the player's age) to come up with an estimate. I altered the age multiplier slightly, to .75 from the .7 used by Doug (and the .6 used by James in baseball), to give a slightly steeper aging curve for running backs. Also, because we are half way through Gore's age 26 season, I estimated 525 more yards for the rest of this season for Gore (75 per game * 7 games played), so that I could then run the numbers based on Gore at age 27. With my estimate for the rest of this year, his needed yards would be 3276 at age 27 and beyond.
Plugging all those numbers in, Gore has about a 66% chance of surpassing Joe Perry. Now, that estimate is a little high for a separate reason. Gore may get the necessary yardage for the rest of his career, but it may not all be with the 49ers.
Doug also then went on to do a more advanced, and historically accurate, estimate of the chances of Clinton Portis to reach Emmitt Smith's rushing record. As an alternate method, I'm going to use a far less complicated way of estimating Gore's chances by finding historically comparable players. I used the season finder and pulled all backs who, like Gore (or at least where Gore projects if he is somewhat healthy for the rest of the year), finished with between 2,800 and 3,400 rushing yards between ages 24 and 26.
From that list of 29 players, I kicked out Barry Foster and Travis Henry because they had fewer than 800 yards in one of those seasons (and I want players like Gore who were consistently good from ages 24-26). The currently active players on the list were also excluded, leaving 23 similar backs to Gore. How many of them would go on to rush for at least 3,276 yards at age 27 or older?
11 of them did, 12 of them did not. One of those that did not, however, was Robert Smith, who was 740 yards short of that mark when he retired while still playing at a high level. So, I'm fine with saying that it is basically a 50/50 shot. I happen to think that Gore is maybe a little better than the average guy on this list, because I didn't include his age 23 season (when Gore had his career best in rushing yards) in the comparable list. Thus, guys like Anthony Thomas and Napoleon Kaufman are dragging it down a little. On the other hand, not all of the guys who reached that mark did so with the same team. He could get hurt tomorrow and do very little else, or he could have a huge year at age 27. He could get released before he gets there, or he could stick around as a role player and reach the mark. On balance, I'm comfortable saying that Frank Gore has a roughly 50% chance of becoming the San Francisco 49er's all-time rushing yardage leader by the time his career ends.