The 10 Greatest Running Back Seasons in NFL History
Did you ever realize that the quarterback is considered to be the most important position in all of sports, but it's a successful running game that is considered to be arguably just as important or even more important than a good passing attack? It's no coincidence that teams with dominant running games and average quarterbacks can win championships.
Look at the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s. Was Bob Griese a great quarterback? Absolutely not. But when your team rushes for close to 3000 yards in the regular season, it's easy to blend in and become what is now known as a game manager. Griese threw seven passes in one Super Bowl--and the Dolphins won 24-7!
Throughout history, the position of running back has changed significantly. Seasonal rushing totals have increased, partly due to a stronger emphasis on powerful offensive lines. There was a time when, even factoring in the increases in games played during the season, a 1000-yard rusher was considered impressive.
Nowadays, the majority of teams produce a 1000-yard rusher, and within the next 10 to 15 years, I predict that a half dozen or more teams yield two 1000-yard rushers.
The single season touchdown record has been broken five times in my lifetime, and will probably be broken again in the near future. However, rushing touchdowns are slightly overrated--maybe even more than slightly overrated.
Three of the five seasons--Emmitt Smith in 1995, Priest Holmes in 2003, and Shaun Alexander in 2005--failed to make my list. Only Marshall Faulk's 2000 campaign and LT's recordbreaking season of 2006 found their way onto my list.
Take Barry Sanders as an example. The Lions' legendary running back averaged 5.0 yards per carry throughout his Hall of Fame career, but scored 'only' 99 touchdowns in 10 seasons. In 1998, Sanders carried 343 times for 1494 yards, but scored just four touchdowns.
Why? Because the Lions' had a 234-pound fullback named Tommy Vardell who carries the ball just 18 times but scored six touchdowns! Should Barry Sanders be penalized for his lack of touchdowns? No, because he consistently put his team in position to score.
So what should a running back be rated on?
Well, my two favorite statistics for running backs are yards per carry and fumbles.
Yards per carry is the real deal. There's no messing around. It's plain and simple. The best running backs average in the National Football League over five yards per carry. Good running backs average about four and a half yards per carry, and average running backs average around four yards per carry.
The best thing about yards per carry is that averages have been relatively unchanged over time. Unlike passer ratings, where the league average practically doubled between the 1940's and now, yards per attempt has always been relatively consistent--between 3.9 and 4.2 yards per attempt.
Fumbles are the worst thing a running back can do. It's the easiest way for a rookie to get cut from a team. And it's the quickest way for the National Football League's single-season rushing holder to fail to qualify for this list.
In 1984, Eric Dickerson rushed 379 times for a still-standing record of 2105 yards. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns. He also fumbled the football 14 times. That's flat-out unacceptable. A team needs to be able to trust its running back to hold onto the football at all costs.
Dickerson fumbled the football one out of every 27 carries in 1984. Imagine needing your running back to carry the ball seven times on a fourth-quarter drive to seal a victory. There would be over a 25 percent chance that Dickerson would fumble the football during the drive. No coach wants to gamble with odds like that.
The following list includes the best of the best, the greatest of the greatest, the most elite of the elite--the 10 greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history, with one season earning honorable mention. Five of these playershave already been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with two players having multiple seasons on this list. Two other players are future first-ballot Hall of Famers.
11) Beattie Feathers, Chicago Bears, 1934:
119 carries, 1004 yards, 8 TD, 8.4 avg; 6 rec, 174 yards, 1 TD; 0 fum? 10 GAMES
1934? Are you kidding me?
Feathers played for arguably the greatest team in NFL history--a team better than the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Better than the 1985 Chicago Bears. Even better than the 2007 New England Patriots.
And just like the 2007 New England Patriots, the Bears ran the table in the regular season--13 games, 13 wins--before losing to (who else?) the New York Giants in the NFL championship. Diehard football fans know of the 1934 NFL championship as the "Sneaker Game," in which the Giants, who were losing 10-3 at halftime, switched from cleats to sneakers to account for the mud on the field. It worked, as the Giants scored an incredible 27 points in the fourth quarter to win, 30-13.
Feathers helped the Bears score an NFL-record 286 points, which was more than the five worst NFL teams combined. The Bears scored over 20 points in each of their first nine games, a feat that, when adjusted to today's standards, is equivalent to a team scoring 45 points per game.
Feathers rushed for 1004 yards on 119 carries. He was the NFL's first 1000-yard rusher, and the only player until Steve Van Buren rushed for 1008 yards in 1947. Feathers' 1004 rushing yards topped three other NFL teams that season.
He averaged an unheard-of 8.4 yards per attempt. No running back in the 75 years since has come within two yards per carry of approaching Feathers' record.
10) Jim Taylor, Green Bay Packers, 1962:
272 carries, 1474 yards, 19 TD, 5.4 avg; 22 rec, 106 yards, 0 TD; 5 fum 14 GAMES
In 1962, Jim Taylor did something that no other running back has ever done. He stole a rushing title from the great Jim Brown.
Taylor won the rushing Triple Crown in 1962. He led the league in carries (272), yards (1474), and touchdowns (19). He finished second in yards per carry (5.4).
Taylor helped perfect the legendary Packer Sweep, which helped the Packers win five NFL championships, including two Super Bowls, during the 1960's.
Taylor's 1962 MVP season is arguably the greatest in the history of a franchise filled with Hall of Fame football players.
9) Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears, 1965:
166 carries, 867 yards, 14 TD, 5.2 avg; 29 rec, 507 yards, 6 TD; 9 fum
16 punt returns, 238 yards, 1 TD, 14.9 avg; 21 kick returns, 660 yards, 1 TD, 31.4 avg
Sayers' 1965 season is probably the most famous rookie season in NFL history. Ironically, Sayers wasn't even the best rookie on the 1965 Bears. That honor belongs to middle linebacker Dick Butkus.
Sayers did it all in 1965--literally. He carried the football, caught the football, and returned the football. He scored touchdowns four different ways--running, receiving, returning punts, and returning kicks.
Sayers touched the ball 232 times in 1965, for an average of 16 touches per game. He averaged one touchdown every 10 touches, significantly more than one touchdown per game, and his 9.8 yards per touch ranked first in the NFL by two full yards.
He finished second in the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards per punt return, and yards per kick return. He finished third in yards per carry and rushing yards per game. His 22 touchdowns broke the single-season record of 20 set by Lenny Moore in 1964.
In a December game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sayers scored an electrifying six touchdowns to tie a single-game NFL record. His final touchdown came on an 85-yard punt return and was voted by NFL Films as the seventh greatest touchdown in NFL history.
No player in NFL history has done more (22 touchdowns) with less (232 touches) than Sayers in 1965.
8) Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos, 1998:
392 carries, 2008 yards, 21 TD, 5.1 avg; 25 rec, 217 yards, 2 TD; 2 fum
Davis is the only running back on this list to play for a Super Bowl champion.
In 1998, Davis became just the fourth running back in NFL history to rush for over 2000 yards in a season. He became the first running back to also rush for 20 touchdowns in the same season.
Davis's 2008 rushing yards rank fourth on the single-season charts. His 21 rushing touchdowns are more than all but five players in the history of the NFL. His 392 carries are the seventh highest single-season total in NFL history. His 23 total touchdowns rank eighth on the single-season lists, and his 125.5 rushing yards per game are tenth all time.
In all, Davis eclipsed the top ten single-season list in five different categories that season.
TD earned league MVP honors. He won his third consecutive rushing title. He was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. And he was the hero in a second straight Super Bowl win, rushing for 102 yards (152 total yards) in a 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
7) Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions, 1997:
335 carries, 2053 yards, 11 TD, 6.1 avg; 33 rec, 305 yards, 3 TD; 3 fum
In 1997, Barry Sanders averaged more yards per carry than any running back since Jim Brown in 1963. Sanders' 6.1 yards per carry was more than one and a half times better than the rest of the league.
His 2053 yards are the third highest single-season total in NFL history. He ended the season by rushing for more than 100 yards in 14 consecutive games, an NFL record.
Sanders scored 'only' 11 touchdowns on the ground, mainly because the Lions used fullback Tommy Vardell in goal-line situations. His 14 total touchdowns were still good for third in the NFL.
Sanders also set a new NFL record with 2358 total yards from scrimmage, which has been surpassed three times.
His season stands as the greatest by an NFC running back from the Super Bowl era to the turn of the millennium.
6) OJ Simpson, Buffalo Bills, 1973:
332 carries, 2003 yards, 12 TD, 6.0 avg; 6 rec, 70 yards, 0 TD; 7 fum 14 GAMES
"No matter what happens to me, I was the first man to rush for 2000 yards in a season. They can never take that away from me." --OJ Simpson
While his 2000-yard rushing season is no longer the first thing people think of when they hear the name, Simpson still deserves to be remembered for his accomplishments on the football field.
He won the rushing Triple Crown in 1973, leading the NFL in carries (332), yards (2003--a new record), and touchdowns (12). His 143.1 rushing yards per game is the highest total in NFL history, by a full ten yards. OJ also ranked second in yards per carry (6.0), a total that has been surpassed by just one running back in the last 35 seasons.
Simpson topped 200 yards rushing three times in 1973. After 12 games, OJ had rushed for 1584 yards. He rushed for 219 yards in the 13th game of the season, and capped off a brilliant campaign with exactly 200 yards, breaking the 2000-yard barrier.
Simpson earned a million different awards in 1973, including NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors, the NFL MVP, the Bert Bell Player of the Year award, and the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year award. OJ would be the last NFL player to capture AP Male Athlete of the Year honors until Joe Montana did it in consecutive seasons ('89-'90).
5) OJ Simpson, Buffalo Bills, 1975:
329 carries, 1817 yards, 16 TD, 5.5 avg; 28 rec, 427 yards, 7 TD; 7 fum 14 GAMES
1973 will always be OJ's most famous season. But 1975 was just a little bit better.
Simpson set the NFL single-season record by scoring 23 touchdowns. He broke Sayers' 10-year NFL record.
He led the NFL with 1817 rushing yards, then the third highest single season total in NFL history. His 129.8 yards per game have been surpassed by just two running backs since, and stand as the fifth highest total in NFL history.
Simpson led the NFL in carries (329) and touches (357). He led in yards per carry (5.5) and yards from scrimmage (2244). He even had the longest run in the NFL (88 yards). Simpson led the NFL in every single statistic that a running back could lead the league in.
He accomplished all of this despite playing in just 14 games. Had Simpson had the luxury of a 16-game season, he would have easily rushed for over 2000 yards and scored over 25 touchdowns. In fact, Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2105 yards might belong to OJ Simpson.
348 carries, 1815 yards, 28 TD, 5.2 avg; 56 rec, 508 yards, 3 TD; 2 fum; 2-3, 19 yards, 2 TD
That's all that needs to be said.
LaDainian Tomlinson broke Shaun Alexander's one-year old NFL-record of 28 touchdowns by more than 10 percent. That's the equivalent of a quarterback throwing for 55 touchdowns in a season. That's the equivalent of a wide receiver catching 160 passes in a season. That's the equivalent of a defensive end accumulating 25 sacks in a season.
His 186 points scored set a new NFL record, breaking Paul Hornung's 46-year-old record of 176 points. This doesn't even account for Tomlinson's two passing touchdowns that season, meaning he was directly involved in 33 touchdowns during the season.
LT also led the NFL with 1815 rushing yards. His 5.2 yards per carry finished second among players with at least 200 carries. He also finished second in total yards from scrimmage (2323).
Tomlinson earned every award in existence after the 2006 season, including the NFL Most Valuable Player award, Offensive Player of the Year honors, the Bert Bell Player of the Year award, and the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Tomlinson's magical season helped the Chargers win 14 games and capture home-field advantage in the playoffs.
3) Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns, 1963:
291 carries, 1863 yards, 12 TD, 6.4 avg; 24 rec, 268 yards, 3 TD; 7 fum 14 GAMES
Brown turned in the highest yards per carry in NFL history by a running back with 200 or more carries. His 6.4 yards per carry has not been seriously threatened since. Only Barry Sanders and OJ Simpson have averaged six yards per carry.
Brown also set NFL records in rushing yards (1863) and rushing yards per game (133.1). He also set a new NFL record in total yards from scrimmage (2131).
Brown also led the NFL in touches (315) and total touchdowns (15). He earned Bert Bell Player of the Year honors, and was named the UPI NFL Most Valuable Player.
Had Brown played in a 16-game season, he would probably still hold the single-season record for rushing yards (projected total: 2119).
What about his high total of fumbles?
Brown's seven fumbles may seem like a lot in today's standards. But take in mind that the average team fumbled 29 times per season in 1963. That's over two fumbles per game! Brown's seven fumbles in 1963 equates to just four fumbles in today's game.
2) Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams, 2000:
253 carries, 1359 yards, 18 TD, 5.4 avg; 81 rec, 830 yards, 8 TD; 0 fum
Take a look at Faulk's numbers in 2000. You know the first thing I see?
Not 26, as in total touchdowns scored.
How bout 0? As in, zero fumbles over the entire season, despite touching the football 334 times, an average of 24 per game (Faulk missed two games due to injury).
His 26 touchdowns broke Emmitt Smith's five-year NFL record and would stand as the record for three seasons. Had Faulk played in all 16 games, he would have likely scored 30 touchdowns and accumulated 2501 total yards from scrimmage, which would have broken his own single-season NFL record (2429 yards in 1999).
Despite finishing 'only' eighth in the NFL in rushing yards, Faulk led the league in rushing touchdowns (18) and yards per carry (5.4). He scored eight more touchdowns than any other player in the league and scored 160 points, which was one fewer point than the entire Cincinnati Bengals team scored that season.
Faulk helped the Rams set a franchise-record with 540 points, the fourth highest total in NFL history. The Rams accumulated 7335 yards of total offense (458 per game), shattering the previous NFL record.
Faulk earned National Football League Most Valuable Player honors, the second of three straight seasons that the MVP award would go to a member of the St. Louis Rams' Greatest Show on Turf (Faulk finished second to teammate Kurt Warner in the 1999 and 2001 MVP voting).
Faulk's season came in the midst of arguably the greatest three-year stretch of any running back in NFL history--better than Emmitt Smith ('93-'95), better than Earl Campbell ('78-'80), better than Barry Sanders ('95-'97), even better than Jim Brown (pick your three seasons).
1) Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns, 1958:
257 carries, 1527 yards, 17 TD, 5.9 avg; 16 rec, 138 yards, 1 TD; 5 fum 12 GAMES
The greatest season by a running back came in only 12 games?
In just his second season in the NFL, the 22-year-old Brown established himself as the greatest running back in the NFL.
Brown won the rushing Triple Crown in 1958, leading in carries (257), yards (1527), and touchdowns (17). He also topped the NFL in touches (273), yards from scrimmage (1665), total touchdowns (18), and rushing yards per game (127.3).
Five of these marks set single-season NFL records: rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and rushing yards per game. Brown's 257 carries were the second most in the 35-year history of the NFL.
His season was so dominant that just one running back (Alan Ameche) rushed for half as many yards as Brown. Only one running back (Tommy Wilson) scored half as many touchdowns as Brown. Only one running back (Alan Ameche) averaged half as many yards per game as Brown.
Brown was the first true workhorse in the NFL. No other running back carried the ball more than 15 times per game in 1958. Brown averaged 21 carries per game.
Had Brown played a 16-game season, his numbers would have looked like this:
343 carries, 2036 yards, 23 TD, 5.9 avg; 21 rec, 184 yards, 1 TD; 7 fum
By the conclusion of the 1958 season, Brown's numbers looked like this:
2 seasons, 2 Most Valuable Player awards.
It's only appropriate that the greatest season by a running back came by the greatest running back in NFL history.
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