Adrian Peterson fell just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 rushing yards … heartbreakingly close. In the moments after the game, he seemed to know he had not broken the record, but he did not seem entirely aware of just how close he had come until Pam Oliver broke the news to him. His reaction -- "nine yards what?" -- more or less tells the story.
Peterson is an absolutely extraordinary runner, a blend of power and speed and vision that makes him unlike any back in NFL history. But … one thing we tend to do when someone does something extraordinary is forget that there have been other extraordinary players and other extraordinary seasons. Peterson's amazing season is just that … amazing. But I don't think it's the best season ever for an NFL running back. And I don't think Eric Dickerson's 2,105 rushing yards was the best season for a running back either.
Sacrilegious as it may be, I don't have either in the Top 5. They are both, however, in the Top 10.
Honorable mentions: Chris Johnson, 2009 (his 2,509 yards from scrimmage is the NFL record); Tiki Barber, 2005 (1,860 yards rushing and a league-leading 2,390 yards from scrimmage); Edgerrin James, 2000 (2,303 yards from scrimmage, 18 touchdowns -- he had three or four seasons almost identical to this one -- a great player); Marcus Allen, 1985 (ran for 1,759 yards and caught 67 passes … as graceful as any running back ever).
Special Mention: Priest Holmes, 2002. I'll start with a special mention because I probably should recuse myself from ranking Priest Holmes. I was the Kansas City Star sports columnist that year, and Priest Holmes and I developed an odd and fascinating friendship. The Friday before every game, we would play a series of chess matches. After awhile, this became something of an obsession with him -- a good luck charm or something. He won a lot.
Then, after every game, when the last player and reporter had left, he would come out and he would break down the game for me. He let me inside his world in a way that is probably unique for me -- he showed me how he watched film, ran through his steps for me, explained to me what was going through his mind during plays, broke down his feelings about patriotism (his father was a lifelong Army man) and religion and the costs of football.
It was weird because Priest was not especially media friendly -- he often would not talk to the media after games -- and people often talked about how hard he was to figure out. I was never entirely sure what he was telling me as a reporter and what he was telling me as a pseudo-friend. He did not want me bringing a notepad when he played chess, for instance. At some point, it occurred to me that he might have been thinking about the season as a book, but I'm still not sure if that's true -- we never talked about it. Anyway, the season took a bad turn toward the end … he was horse-collared to the ground in the 14th game of the season against Denver (at the end of a 56-yard run), badly hurt his hip and was out for the season.
Before the end, though, it was about as remarkable a football season as any running back has ever had. Priest only played 14 games that season -- 13 3/4, really, because he got hurt late in the third quarter against Denver. He rushed for 1,615 yards and caught 70 passes for another 672 yards. He had an outside shot at 2,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- I mean truly ridiculous and unprecedented numbers.
As it was, he gained 2,287 yards from scrimmage and scored 24 touchdowns. He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (by more than 150 yards) and touchdowns (by six) even though he did not play the last two and a half games. He was all but certain of smashing both NFL records. And he was getting better as the year went along. The Denver game was his fifth straight 100-yard game (in only 18 carries, he gained 161 yards), he had scored multiple touchdowns in three consecutive games. He was singularly astounding.
There is no doubt in my mind that Priest Holmes' season belongs in any Top 10 and I believe if he had stayed healthy it would have been the greatest statistical season in NFL history. It seems to me that if I could be unbiased about it, the season as is belongs in the Top 5. But I was too close to the whole thing. So I'll give this season special mention and let you decide where it belongs.
Now to the actual Top 10:
10. Walter Payton, 1977
That was a dreadful Bears team. Bob Avelini was the quarterback -- he threw 11 touchdown passes all year and 18 interceptions. The defense wasn't good. The team was 3-5 after eight games and headed to another forgettable season -- the Bears had not finished with a winning record in 10 years.
Then … Walter Payton emerged. He was in his third year in the NFL and had already rushed for 1,000 yards in a season and played in a Pro Bowl. But he had not EMERGED, not as the extraordinary player who still ranks, I think, as the most complete back in the history of the NFL. That is, until these extraordinary games …
Week 9: Bears beat Kansas City 28-27. Payton rushed for 192 yards, three touchdowns, and I believe this was the game where made perhaps his most famous run, the one where he breaks like 187 tackles and makes six guys grab air.
Week 10: Bears beat Minnesota 10-7. Payton carried 40 times -- repeat, Walter Payton carried forty times -- for 275 yards and the touchdown that mattered.
Week 11: Bears beat Lions on Thanksgiving Day 31-14. Payton rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown, caught four passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Week 12: Bears beat Tampa Bay 10-0. Terrible Bucs' team, Payton had an “ordinary” day carrying 33 times for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Week 13: Bears beat Green Bay 21-10. Payton carries 32 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns. And, just for fun, the box score shows him returning two kicks for 95 yards. Well, why not?
Week 14: Bears beat Giants 12-9. Payton was shut down on a miserable day -- 15 carries for 47 yards, 6 catches for 23 yards -- and neither team managed a touchdown. But the Bears won.
In all, he ran for 915 yards, caught 12 passes for 165 yards and scored nine touchdowns in those six games. And the Bears, improbably, won them all. Over the 14-game season, Payton ran for 1,815 yards, gained 2,121 yards for scrimmage, scored 16 touchdowns … it was an utterly remarkably season by an utterly remarkable player. And he probably had four or five other seasons that were almost as good.
9. Adrian Peterson, 2012
His final numbers: 348 carries, 2097 yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 40 catches, 217 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown. He averaged more than six yards per carry. He had four rushing touchdowns of 60-plus yards. Peterson's ability to turn what looks like nothing into a big play -- I can only think of a couple of other players (Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders) who come close to match it. And he did all this a year after ACL surgery. Impossible, really.
It was an amazing season. But I think you will see, when you add in pass catching, scoring touchdowns and controlling games, there have been seasons that were perhaps even more amazing.
8. Eric Dickerson, 1984
The record is intact. It has lasted for almost 30 years -- much to the joy of Eric Dickerson himself.*
*Hey, I don't blame the guy for not wanting his record broken. All the time, you will hear players say things like: "Oh, it would be an honor to have Player X break my record." I don't know -- that sounds kind of fishy. I remember one year, someone was threatening the late great Hank Bauer’s 17-game World Series hitting streak -- and Mike Vaccaro called Bauer to see how he felt about it. Bauer, in no uncertain terms and in the colorful language he was famous for, told Vac that he did not want his record broken … ever. I see that.
Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yard and scored 14 touchdowns -- this, even though he was basically the Rams entire offense. Jeff Kemp was the main quarterback, but it didn't matter -- the John Robinson Rams ran the ball 61% of the time. Dickerson gained those yards in gruesome and fierce runs; the highlights you usually see of Dickerson are of him breaking into the open and running away, but it wasn't like that in 1984. He really didn't have that many long runs. He did not have a single 50-yard touchdown run. Instead it was 10 yards here, three yards there, six yards up the middle, a 22-yard run outside. He was unyielding.
Dickerson was fairly one dimensional as a running back. He didn't catch the ball. He wasn't famous for his blocking. He fumbled a lot (he fumbled 14 times in 1984). The Rams traded him when he was still in his prime and coming of a 1,800 yard season … a signal that they did not want to pay him big bucks and thought they could win without him. For a couple of years, they did. But that does not detract from the most prolific rushing season in NFL history.
7. Barry Sanders, 1997
I originally had penciled in Barry Sanders' amazing season of 1994 … either one will do. Barry Sanders was the most exciting running back in the history of professional football. He did things nobody else could do. He did things, I suspect, no one will ever do. He jumped, he slid, he faked, he spun, he danced -- no one who ever lived (not even Gale Sayers) could make people miss in so many different ways. If I had the ball on my own 1-yard line and had only one play to go 99 yards, I'd give the ball to Barry Sanders. Sanders in 1997 (and 1994) did things on a football field that special effects wizards could not reproduce.
That said, people who have read my thoughts on Barry Sanders before know … I think he had his flaws. He was not a guy you could count on to get you the first down on third-and-1 or fourth-and-goal -- this was so true that his coach Wayne Fontes, who loved him, often would pull him in those situations. He was not a great pass receiver, and he was not a great blocker. He scored 14 touchdowns in 1997 -- a lot, certainly, but not great in this company.
In total, he ran for 2,053 yards, had 2,358 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns. Perhaps the most amazing part of this is that he only ran for 53 yards total the first two weeks of the year. That means the last 14 weeks of the season, he ran for exactly 2,000 yards … and averaged 6.48 yards per carry.
That season, he had an 82-yard touchdown run, two 80-yard touchdown runs, a 73-yard touchdown run, a 67 yard touchdown run, a 66-yard touchdown run, a 51-yard touchdown run … mind blowing.
6. Emmitt Smith, 1995
Smith was sort of the mirror image of Sanders. He could be shifty at times, make people miss now and again, but for the most part he was meat, potatoes, lunch-bucket, hard-hat, or any other cliché images of hard running you can imagine. Do you know how many touchdown runs he had of 40 yards in his fantastic 1995 season? One. Sanders, in his 1997 season, had eight of them.
But Emmitt was a force of will in a way that (I would argue) Sanders was not. He bashed his way for 1,773 yards and 25 touchdowns. He caught 62 passes. He played every down. He blocked incoming blitzers. I've heard it said that it's not a fair comparison because Emmitt Smith had a much better offensive line than Barry Sanders, and I suspect that's true. But just like I don't think Emmitt could have been Barry … I don't think Barry could have been Emmitt. The Cowboys offense was Emmitt Smith battering into defensive lines, weakening them, discouraging them, and Troy Aikman working off the play-action pass. That just wasn't how Barry Sanders played football. He was a virtuoso. Emmitt Smith was an artisan.
The Cowboys won the Super Bowl in 1995, with Emmitt Smith gaining 139 yards from scrimmage and scoring a touchdown in the playoff game against Philadelphia, then rushing for 150 yards and three touchdowns against Green Bay and finally scoring two touchdowns in the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh. He was never as flashy as others. He dominated in his own particular way.
5. Terrell Davis, 1998
I actually remember when I was at The Augusta Chronicle writing a story about Terrell Davis when he was at Georgia … the story, I believe, was about his fumbling problems and how he was dealing with them. He really wasn't well known. You probably remember Davis was a sixth-round draft pick. You might remember he was selected after the Broncos had already secured players named Phil Yeboah-Kodie and Fritz Fequiere in the draft. You might know that in the years before the Broncos got Terrell Davis, their leading rushers had been:
1994: Leonard Russell, 620 yards.
1993: Rod Bernstine, 816 yards.
1992: Gaston Green, 648 yards.
For four seasons, Terrell Davis was this ridiculous, unstoppable force of nature. The Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s are usually remembered as final justice for the immortal John Elway … but I would argue that Elway, great as he was, was never as great as Terrell Davis in 1997 and 1998.
Especially 1998. That year, Davis ran for 2,008 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. The scariest play in the NFL was a pitch left to Terrell Davis. He wasn't especially big (listed at 5-11, 206 pounds) or especially fast (which is why he wasn't drafted until the sixth round) but he was a genius at reading blocks and a master at falling forward and indomitable around the goal line.
Davis poses what I think is an interesting question about the NFL Hall of Fame. His career was essentially four years (he was badly hurt in 1999). But Davis was utterly dominant in three of them -- and in two of them he led his team to Super Bowl glory. For a game with such short careers, is that enough for the Hall of Fame?
4. O.J. Simpson, 1973
Is O.J. Simpson the greatest athlete in American history whose name does not spark thought of sports?
Do you know how many passes O.J. Simpson caught the year he ran for 2,003 yards? Six. Well, it was the time before Bill Walsh, when quarterbacks rarely threw to their backs … and O.J. wasn't much of a pass catcher anyway.
Simpson's season carried out over 16 games: 379 carries, 2,289 yards, 14 touchdowns.
What makes this even more remarkable is that Simpson played in a time when teams did not throw the ball. I mean, the early 1970s were a dark time for the forward pass, and 1973 was particularly nuts. The entire league ran the ball 12,936 times. And the entire league threw the ball just 8,845. That's 59% run, if you're scoring at home, and that's for the whole league. Buffalo ran the ball 74% of the time -- the Bills had a rookie quarterback, Joe Ferguson. Everyone knew O.J. Simpson was getting the ball. Every defense was geared to stopping the run -- especially against Buffalo. They just couldn't stop him.
3. Marshall Faulk, 1999
The numbers. Oh, the numbers.
Rushing: 253 carries, 1,383 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 7 touchdowns.
Receiving: 87 catches, 1,048 yards, 12.0 yards per reception, five touchdowns.
He was, perhaps, the best pure running back in football that year -- his yards per carry was the best in the NFL. And he was also one of the 10 best receivers in football. That's some combination. He came to St. Louis and was paired with a third-string quarterback who had been a grocery stocker and an indoor football star, placed in an offense that had not finished Top 20 in the NFL since moving to St. Louis and led by an offensive coordinator who had coached in 14 different places over 25 years, but had never been an OC before then.
They scored 526 points -- second most in NFL history -- the grocery stocker quarterback became a legend, the offensive coordinator was called a genius. I'd say an awful lot of it was Marshall Faulk and the third best season a running back has ever had.
2. Jim Brown, 1963
For the first time in their history, the Browns were being coached by someone other than the team's namesake, Paul Brown. And there was a sense that this great team was falling apart. The new coach Blanton Collier essentially went to Jim Brown and said: "Please."
Jim Brown rushed for 1,863 yards in 14 games. He gained 2,131 yards from scrimmage. Both were NFL records. He scored 15 touchdowns, most in the league. He gained an incredible 6.4 yards per carry -- still an NFL record for anyone with 200-plus rushes in a season. He was already a legend by then, other players were already calling him Superman. They had spent years devising defenses to stop him and techniques to tackle him and ways to frustrate him.
But Jim Brown decided he wasn't going to be stopped. And he wasn't stopped. The next year, he led the Browns to the NFL championship -- still Cleveland's last championship. The next year, he led the league in rushing and scored 21 touchdowns. Then he retired and went to Hollywood to make movies.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson, 2006
There was, in the 2000s, this race among running backs to set the touchdown record. It really began with Emmitt Smith, who set the record at 25 touchdowns in 1995. Marshall Faulk broke the record in 2000 -- one year after his amazing 1,000-yards rushing, 1,000-yards receiving season -- when he scored 26.
Then, in 2003, Priest Holmes -- one year after his amazing 2002 season -- scored 27 touchdowns to set the record.
Two years after that, in 2005, Shaun Alexander scored 28 touchdown to set the record again.
It was kind of crazy … and it took LaDainian Tomlinson to put an end to it. Tomlinson, like Walter Payton, was a running back who could do everything. He ran with power and speed and shiftiness. He caught the ball as well as any back West of Marshall Faulk. He had 100 receptions in 2003. He blocked well, played every down, influenced the game in countless ways.
In 2006, the Chargers were coached by Marty Schottenheimer. There are a lot of things I liked about Marty's coaching, but perhaps, most of all, I liked that he wasn't about tricking anybody. He determined that LaDainian Tomlinson was his best player. And he rode LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson carried the ball 348 times and he caught 56 passes. Every series was, first and foremost, about Tomlinson.
And what a year. He rushed for 1,815 yards. He had 507 receiving yards. He fumbled twice all year. And he scored 31 touchdowns. I'll repeat that: He scored 31 touchdowns -- 28 rushing, three receiving. The Chargers went 14-2, best record in the AFC, and then -- because they were, after all, coached by Marty -- they lost a heartbreaker to the Patriots, a game they famously led 21-13 deep into the fourth quarter when Marlon McCree intercepted Tom Brady's pass and merely had to fall on it to all but assure a Chargers win. McCree tried to run, he fumbled and, well, you know the rest. Doesn't diminish the extraordinary season by Tomlinson, one I think is the greatest in NFL history.