After watching Adrian Peterson’s MVP 2012 season, I wanted to search the archives and dig up the 10 most impressive seasons by a running back in NFL history after writing about the 10 greatest seasons by an NFL quarterback last year (see story).
While statistics and averages are always a big determining factor, I also wanted to take into account the era, the team’s opponents for that given season, meaningful games played, the team’s overall performance and any records that were accomplished within that season:
10. Earl Campbell (25 years old), 1980
Campbell enjoyed the most success of any running back ever in his first three seasons, and his third campaign, when he led the league with 1,934 yards and 13 touchdowns, was his best. Although the YAC (yards after contact) statistic wasn’t recorded back in ’80, you have to believe Campbell accumulated a big chunk of his yardage following initial contact. Campbell enjoyed four 200-yard games, a record that still stands today. He also missed one game due to injury or he could have easily reached the 2,000-yard mark.
9. Jamal Lewis (24), 2003
Lewis’s total of 2,066 yards ranks third all time behind Eric Dickerson and Peterson and was achieved combining power with quick side-stepping moves. Lewis also rushed for an NFL-record 295 yards against the Browns on Sept. 14 – a record that still stands. Perhaps most impressive about Lewis’s season was the lack of balance within the Ravens’ offense. His rushing total accounted for a whopping 46 percent of the team’s offense, which didn’t have a reliable quarterback between Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright. Of those 2,066 yards, 781 came against teams from Ohio.
8. Marshall Faulk (26), 1999
Kurt Warner may have been the ringleader of the “Greatest Show on Turf,” but without Faulk there was no show. He transformed the offense and the role of a running back. Faulk became the second player in NFL history with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving (Roger Craig-’85) in his first season in St. Louis following a trade from Indianapolis. Between his carries and receptions, Faulk averaged 7.14 yards every time he had the ball in his hands. Only Tennessee’s Chris Johnson in 2010 had more total yards from scrimmage than Faulk’s 2,429 in ’99.
7. Walter Payton (23), 1977
Until Buddy Ryan came along and brought his “46” defense with him, Payton was a one-man show in Chicago. His 1977 campaign was head and shoulders Payton’s personal best as he ran for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns with 5.5 average gain. Leading the league in all three categories in just a 14-game season, he propelled the Bears to their first playoff appearance in 14 years. “Sweetness” also rushed for 275 yards vs. Vikings, a single-game record that stood for 23 years.
6. LaDainian Tomlinson (27), 2006
The MVP of the ’06 season set an NFL record with 31 touchdowns en route to leading San Diego to a 14-2 season. LT, along with Kansas City’s Priest Holmes, are the only two running backs in league history with 1,500 rushing yards, 500 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in a season. Tomlinson had an unbelievable eight-game stretch during which he amassed 1,276 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns and the Chargers went a perfect 8-0.
5. Eric Dickerson (24), 1984
Dickerson’s 2,105 has been the single-season standard for which every running back has been shooting for nearly 30 years now. In defending why Dickerson is just fifth on the list, he ran behind a very dominant offensive line (two Pro Bowlers), and in half of the Rams’ 16 games in a 28-team league they exploited bad run defenses: (ranking: 28th, 26th twice, 25th, 24th, 21st twice and 20th). Even Dickerson’s backups, Dwayne Crutchfield and Barry Redden, rushed for an average of five yards per carry on 118 attempts. Dickerson was also poor in protecting the football, fumbling 14 times.
4. Barry Sanders (29), 1997
Sanders’ 2,053 yards in ’97 is the most for any running back over the age of 28. For a back who risked losing five yards in order to gain five, Sanders turned in a spectacular effort. When you consider Sanders rushed for just 53 yards in his first two games, he gained the remaining 2,000 yards in his final 14, a string of an NFL record 14 straight 100-yard games. With the Lions at 4-6, Sanders responded by running for 950 yards in his final six games, averaging 7.1 yards per carry and leading Detroit to a 9-7 record and playoff spot.
3. O.J. Simpson (26), 1973
Ten years after Brown, O.J. Simpson eclipsed him and his single-season mark with the first ever 2,000-yard season. He’s the only back to reach 2k in a 14-game slate. What’s remarkable about O.J. in 1973 is his 2,003 rushing yards accounted for a startling 49 percent of the Bills’ total offense – no running back was relied upon to supply that much offense. Simpson was also the first back to rush for 250 yards in a game when he topped it in the season-opener at New England. Simpson’s 2,003 yard total was 859 more than Green Bay’s John Brockington, who finished second in the league.
2. Jim Brown (27), 1963
NFL defenses knew who and what the Cleveland Browns offense was and they simply could not stop the punishing Brown. He produced his single greatest season in 1963, when he rushed for 1,863 yards, 845 more than Green Bay’s Hall-of-Fame back Jim Taylor, who finished second in the league. In fact, Brown ran for more yards than all but two teams. He also averaged 6.4 yard per carry, the best of any running back with a 1,000-yard season. Had he played a 16-game slate (based on his 133.1 yards per game), Brown would have finished with 2,129 rushing yards.
1. Adrian Peterson (27), 2012
There’s no season that can be compared to Peterson’s simply because no one endured what the Vikings tailback did en route to his feat – tearing his ACL and his MCL on Dec. 26, 2011, and executing the grueling rehabilitation process that followed. Peterson’s 2,097 yards was just nine shy of Dickerson’s NFL record, but A.P. also had 31 fewer attempts. “All Day” is also the fourth running back in league history to gain 1,500 yards while averaging over 6.0 yards per carry (Brown, Simpson, Sanders), and according to my research, Peterson’s 199 yards is the most by a running back on the final day of the season in which his team clinched a playoff spot.