Has the 1,000-Yard Rusher in the NFL Lost Its Importance?

JW NixSenior Writer IIJuly 16, 2010

The most legendary teams in NFL history usually have a running back or two that  serve as a prominent face of the franchise that transcended into a dynasty.

The Chicago Bears had men like Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, George "One Play" McAfee, and Walter Payton lead them to championships.

The Green Bay Packers had Johnny "Blood" McNally, Jim Taylor, and Paul Hornung help them to several championships.

The Miami Dolphins had Larry Csonka and the Pittsburgh Steelers had Franco Harris.

The Washington Redskins had Cliff Battles and John Riggins, and the Dallas Cowboys had Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith while the Cleveland Browns had Marion Motley and Jim Brown.

These teams have fielded some of the most dominant teams in league history, and each one of the running backs that helped them attain that level are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame—legendary players who would put their teams on their backs and run through opponents to garner the trophy that symbolized champion.

Lore left by these men has made the NFL billions of dollars and helped them infiltrate the fabric of so many homes and countries.

In 1989, Paul Tagliabue was named the commissioner of the league. He took over a league that was leaving its roots behind on its way to a new way of playing the game.

Tagliabue was a basketball playing lawyer with no football experience, and he quickened the game to resemble a fast break in pads.

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His successor, Roger Goodell, took over in 2006 and has kept the ball rolling.

Gone is the game played in sporadic conditions in favor of a hospital-clean environment to draw in corporate sponsorship to buy luxury seating.

Gone are the blockers with folded arms akin to a chicken wing to where they can extend their arms and hold every play.

Gone is a defense now castrated by several rules that make it virtually impossible to play the game.

It is the quarterback's game now.

The golden child of the NFL and the darling of the media.

Fans have been easily programmed to accept these changes as progress, while historians of the game lament the loss of testosterone in favor of a casual, fan-friendly, sellout job.

As the quarterback rears back to throw unimpeded, defenders are told not to hit him too high, too low, or too hard. Putting all of one's weight on the quarterback is also not allowed anymore.

A defender, running full speed with a 320-pound blocker holding on and mauling him, must take these rules into consideration and try to pull up without ripping muscles as they reach the quarterback.

With rules like this, teams are more apt to pass against teams that never play man-to-man or try bump-and-run pass coverage anymore. They choose to get picked apart in zone coverage while waiting for a mistake.

The running back has had no rules affect his position because it is too pure, and the only way to tamper with it is to change the rules of the other players surrounding the position.

This is what happened, as only 14 teams had running backs gain over 1,000 yards in 2009. The two teams that represented the NFL in Super Bowl XLIV were pass-happy squads led by Pro Bowl quarterbacks.

The New Orleans Saints won the game while getting just 1,447 rushing yards from Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, while the losing Indianapolis Colts were led in rushing by Joseph Addai's 828 yards.

This has been a recurring theme since 2002, where four teams won titles with running backs that failed to gain over 791 yards in a season. Two other Super Bowl winners since then had running backs that gained 1,081 and 1,009 respectively.

Gaining 1,000 yards in a season is not quite the achievement it used to be.

In the current 16-game format, a running back only needs to average just 62.5 yards to reach the barrier. Hardly worthy of entry into the hallowed halls of Canton. If Goodell foolishly gets his greedy way of cutting training camps and extending the season to 18 games, a running back will only need to rumble for 55.6 yards a game to get over 1,000 yards.

Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans ran for 2,006 yards in 2009. He is only the sixth man in professional football history to run for over 2,000 yards, but four other men achieved this in a 16-game season like Johnson did. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson heads the list, gaining 131.6 yards per game in 1984—only the fourth-best in league history.

O.J. Simpson ran for an astonishing 2,003 yards in 1973 on a Buffalo Bills team where opponents knew he was the only one getting the ball. He still gathered a record 143.1 yards per game. It is 10 yards better than the next man on the list, fellow Hall of Famer Jim Brown of the 1963 Browns.

A debate over comparisons of Simpson's and Dickerson's seasons is akin to the Babe Ruth and Roger Maris situation in 1961.

That year saw Maris break Ruth's 34-year-old record of 60 home runs by one. He did it with a batting average 87 points less than Ruth's 1927 season in a year two expansion teams joined the league and the season was increased by eight games. Many baseball fans asked for an asterisk to be placed by Maris' record to show the discrepancy in games played.

Many NFL fans clamored for the same thing when Dickerson passed Simpson with two more games played to achieve the record. No running back has yet surpassed or come close to 2,003 yards in 14 games.

Other football purists noted blockers for Dickerson were allowed to extend their arms and hold each play, while Simpson played in an era where defenses could head slap, clothesline, and horse collar while blockers could only have their arms tucked in like chicken wings to try to block.

Other than the 1,635 yards that Corey Dillon gained for the 2004 champion New England Patriots, there has not been a Super Bowl winner since 1998 to have a running back average over 100 yards per game. Terrell Davis led the Denver Broncos to victory that year, becoming one of the six men to get over 2,000 yards by eight yards.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens had both Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes carry the ball to a title. Lewis, who gained 1,364 yards that year, would run for 2,066 in his his only Pro Bowl year in 2003. Holmes, who chipped in 588 yards, moved to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001 and became a three-time Pro Bowl star.

After leading the league in rushing that year, he scored 48 touchdowns off of 3,035 yards the next two seasons before an injury halted his career in the eighth game of 2004 after getting 892 yards.

Terrell Davis is the only 2,000 yard rusher that got a ring in his magical season. In the top-20 rushing seasons in NFL history, only Davis won a championship. Two others on the list, Shaun Alexander and Jamal Anderson, led their teams to the title game but lost. These numbers were all achieved since 1998, showing the old formula of a solid ground game with ball control consuming the clock is no longer the way to win in the NFL.

Most teams now are going with the idea that at least two running backs are needed to be effective and have a winning season. While six running backs had over 300 carries in 2009, Johnson's league-best 358 carries places as only the 44th-most in league history.

While he averaged just over 22 carries a game, many experts theorize the day of the cowbell running back is coming to an end in an era of specialists.

While gaining 1,000 yards might not be the achievement it used to be, nor needed to win Super Bowls in the modern NFL, it still holds an important historic place.

Men like Simpson, Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, Curtis Martin, Dickerson, Thurman Thomas, and LaDanian Tomlinson are just a few of the most respected running backs in football history. None have won championships, and only Thomas and Martin played in a championship game.

Get used to the Goodell game, which is pass-oriented with frightened defenders walking on eggshells, spooked at the thought of fines and suspensions from a tyrannical commissioner whose regime borderlines on a fascism.

Less cold and mud with more points scored, just as the Tagliabue blueprint was drawn up and followed through diligently by his lackey.

Get used to a game where the 1,000-yard warhorse has been put out to pasture.