Ranking the NFL’s 2,000-yard Seasons
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Last season Adrian Peterson became just the seventh player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. When it comes to this exclusive club, one can’t help but wonder which 2,000-yard season is the best of the bunch?
Honorable Mention: Jim Brown – 1,863 yards rushing in 1963
1963 regular-season rushing stats: 14 G, 291 att., 1,863 yds., 12 TDs, 6.4 ypc, 133.1 ypg
Before Adrian Peterson, Eric Dickerson or any other member of the 2,000-yard club there was Brown. Even though Brown played before the modern-day NFL was even born, there’s no disputing his place as one of the game’s all-time legends.
In just his second pro season, at only 22 years old, Brown broke the single-season rushing mark with 1,527 yards rushing in 1958. He followed that up with three more seasons of 1,200 or more yards until “slipping” to just 996 in 1962. Brown bounced back quite nicely, however, obliterating his own record by racking up 1,863 yards on the ground in just 14 games.
Why Brown is mentioned here: For one, he’s one of the greatest to ever play the game. To be more specific for this exercise, however, is the fact that if you take his yards-per-game average of 133.1 and extrapolate that to a full 16-game season, he would have finished with 2,130 yards, or 25 more than Dickerson’s record total.
He also needed just 291 carries to amass his then-record total, as he averaged 6.4 yards per carry. To put that another way, using his per-game averages from that season, Brown would have had 333 carries over a 16-game season, which would have been the fewest of any in the 2,000-yard club other than O.J. Simpson (332 in 14 games).
Brown’s record-setting campaign featured two 200-yard games among nine total 100-yard performances, as he out-rushed 11 of the 14 teams in the league at that time by himself. The second-leading rusher that season was Green Bay’s Jim Taylor, who had 1,018 yards or 845 fewer than Brown.
After 1,863: Brown played just two more seasons, and averaged 1,495 yards over them. He led the league in rushing in all but one of his nine seasons, finishing with 12,312 yards. His total has him ninth on the all-time list nearly 40 years after he retired, and he is the only running back in NFL history to average more than 100 yards rushing per game (104.3) in his career. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and remains as the one of the gold standards for running backs.
Regular-season rushing stats: 16 G, 387 att., 2,066 yds., 14 TDs, 5.3 ypc, 129.1 ypg
Lewis had posted back-to-back 1,300-yard campaigns in his first two NFL seasons, but even then few, if any, expected him to take such a huge leap in 2003. However, after rushing for what was then a single-game record of 295 yards in Week 2, Lewis did just that and then some.
Lewis’ remarkable season included another 200-yard performance and 10 other efforts of more than 100 yards on the ground. The Ravens needed every last one of Lewis’ 387 carries, as he helped lead the team with the league’s worst passing offense to a 10-6 record and AFC North title.
Why Lewis is No. 7: Someone has to finish last on this last, not that there’s any shame in that. Lewis is at the end partly because he needed the second-most carries and had the second-lowest yards-per-carry average (5.3). But what really separates him from No. 6 is the fact that the Ravens lost in the first round of the playoffs and the next guy was named MVP.
While Lewis was named AP Offensive Player of the Year and took home the Pro Football Writers’ Association (PFWA) MVP trophy in 2003, it was Peyton Manning and Steve McNair who shared AP MVP honors.
After 2,000: Although Lewis never came close to matching his magical 2003 campaign, he did post four more 1,000-yard seasons, including three straight for Cleveland from 2006-08. He called it quits after rushing for just 500 yards in nine games with the Browns in 2009, finishing his nine-year career with 10,607 yards.
1998 regular-season rushing stats: 16 G, 392 att., 2,008 yds., 21 TDs, 5.1 ypc, 125.5 ypg
After rushing for 1,117 yards as a rookie in 1995, Davis watched his total increase from 1,538 the next season to 1,750 in ’97. The former sixth-round pick had established himself as one of the league’s most productive backs and helped John Elway win his first Super Bowl in 1997.
In 1998, Davis took it up another notch, as he not only surpassed the 2,000-yard mark, he scored 21 rushing touchdowns as the Broncos’ workhorse and was named NFL MVP. With Davis leading the way on the ground and Elway directing the aerial attack, the Broncos won their second consecutive Super Bowl. Davis was just as productive in the playoffs, rushing for 468 yards and scoring three times in three postseason victories.
Why Davis is No. 6: Davis’ 392 carries is tops among those in the 2,000-yard club, and his yards-per-carry average of 5.1 is the lowest. Davis also got a healthy assist from his Hall of Fame quarterback, as Elway orchestrated the league’s seventh-ranked passing offense that season.
Davis should get plenty of credit, however, for holding onto the ball. In 417 total touches (392 att., 25 rec.) in the regular season, he fumbled just twice and lost only one. He also had a nose for the end zone, as his 21 rushing touchdowns and 23 total scores are by far No. 1 in each category among his peers. Davis is the only one of the seven running backs whose 2,000-yard season resulted in a Super Bowl title for this team.
After 2,000: Sadly for Davis, 1998 was the pinnacle of his career. The pounding and physical wear and tear that his body received for all those carries and yards the previous four seasons took their toll after that. Davis played three more seasons, but only saw action in 17 games because of different knee and leg injuries. He rushed for just 1,194 yards in his last three seasons combined and retired before the start of the 2002 season. He finished with 7,607 yards rushing and 60 touchdowns in seven seasons.
1984 regular-season rushing stats: 16 G, 379 att., 2,105 yds., 14 TDs, 5.6 ypc, 131.6 ypg
All Dickerson did as a rookie was lead the league with 1,808 yards rushing, a total that was the sixth-most in a season at that time. All he did for an encore was surpass that and set a new single-season mark that still stands nearly four decades later.
Dickerson was basically a one-man show for the Los Angeles Rams’ offense in 1984, as the team had the second-to-worst passing offense in the league, yet still finished 12th in yards gained. Dickerson posted two 200-yard games and had 12 total 100-yard efforts, as the Rams went 10-6 but lost in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
Why Dickerson is No. 5: It’s hard to believe that the single-season record-holder comes in fifth on this list, but Dickerson needed the third-most carries (379) of any back in this exclusive group. Although Dickerson owns the single-season rushing mark, he wasn’t near as productive as a receiver, which is why his 2,244 yards from scrimmage ranks him fifth among his peers.
Dickerson also loses some points, if you will, for his 10 lost fumbles (had 14 total), and the fact that Dan Marino took home MVP and AP Offensive Player of the Year honors in 1984.
After 2,000: Dickerson played nine more seasons, posting five more 1,000-yard campaigns. His last such season came in 1989, and his 11-year career ended when he played in just four games and put up 91 yards rushing for Atlanta in ’93. He finished with 13,259 yards rushing (seventh all-time) and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999.
2009 regular-season rushing stats: 16 G, 358 att., 2,006 yds., 14 TDs, 5.6 ypc, 125.4 ypg
The Titans surprised many when they took Johnson with the 24th overall pick of the 2008 draft, as the former East Carolina star was still somewhat of an unknown. Johnson rushed for more than 1,200 yards as a rookie, and it turned out he was only getting started.
In just his second season, Johnson set a new record for yards from scrimmage as he piled up 2,509. Included in this impressive tally was his 2,006 yards on the ground. Johnson ran for 228 yards in one game alone and had three runs of 85 yards or longer. He also caught 50 passes for 503 yards, which is by far the best receiving numbers of any of his fellow running backs in the 2,000-yard club.
Why Johnson is No. 4: Although the total yardage total is extremely impressive, Johnson needed more carries and had fewer rushing yards than all but one of the three backs ahead of him. And as great a season as Johnson had in 2009, it wasn’t enough to get the Titans (8-8) into the playoffs and he also finished behind Peyton Manning in the MVP vote.
The lack of team success and accolades shouldn’t take away from the fact that Johnson finished with nearly 600 more yards rushing than the next guy (Steven Jackson) that season and in 408 total touches (358 att., 50 rec.), he fumbled the ball only three times (lost two).
After 2,000: Johnson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his five NFL seasons. He has averaged 1,218 yards rushing per season since his 2,000-yard performance in 2009, but he also has seen his yards-per-carry average decline from 5.6 to 4.5 in ‘12. Johnson remains one of the league’s greatest big-play threats, as he led the NFL with a 94-yard rushing play last season.
1997 regular-season rushing stats: 16 G, 335 att., 2,503 yds., 11 TDs, 6.1 ypc, 128.3 ypg
Sanders had already established himself as one of the NFL’s premiere running backs, having averaged nearly 1,500 yards rushing over his first eight seasons. However, the diminutive yet explosive back took it to another level in 1997.
At 29 years old, Sanders piled up 2,053 yards thanks to two 200-yard games and a total of 14 100-yard efforts. In fact, Sanders didn’t rush for fewer than 100 yards in any game following Week 2. Compared to the others in this exclusive club, Sanders boasts the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1 ypc) and only O.J. Simpson had fewer carries (332) than Sanders’ 335 in their 2,000-yard seasons.
Why Sanders is No. 3: There’s no disputing Sanders’ greatness, as he never rushed for fewer than 1,115 yards in any of his 10 seasons. Although Sanders is the oldest member of the 2,000-yard club, accomplishing the feat at 29 years old and in his ninth season, there are two backs ahead of him on this exclusive list because of their own remarkable circumstances.
For his part, Sanders did out-rush 25 NFL teams (out of 30 in the league then) by himself in 1997, and his 2,358 total yards from scrimmage are second only to Chris Johnson’s NFL-record total of 2,509 among members of this group. The Lions went 9-7 and earned a wild card berth in Sanders’ magical season, but they lost to Tampa Bay in the playoffs, as the Buccaneers held him to just 65 yards rushing.
After 2,000: Sanders followed up his historic season by rushing for 1,491 yards in 1998. Surprisingly, that ended up being his last season in the NFL, as he retired following the season at the age of 30. Sanders finished his 10-year career with 15,269 yards rushing, good for second at the time. He is currently third on the all-time list behind only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. Sanders was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
2012 regular-season rushing stats: 16 G, 348 att., 2,097 yds., 12 TDs, 6.0 ypc, 131.1 ypg
Entering the 2012 season, no one was sure what to expect from Peterson. After all, the All-Pro was coming back from major knee surgery having torn his ACL and MCL in December 2011. While he had rushed for 1,000 yards in four of his previous five seasons and was still relatively young (27), even reaching the century mark seemed somewhat ambitious given the severity and timing of his serious knee injury.
Little did anyone know that all Peterson was going to do was put together one of the most impressive performances in the history of the game by coming just nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season mark of 2,105 yards. Peterson did the bulk of his damage late, rushing for 1,598 yards over his final 10 games carrying his Vikings to a surprising 10-6 mark and wild card berth in the process.
Why Peterson is No. 2: If Peterson had broken Dickerson’s record, he probably would have been No. 1, but since he didn’t he’ll have to “settle” for second. That said, the fact that Peterson almost broke the record less than a year removed from a significant knee injury and how he carried the load for a playoff team cannot be ignored.
Minnesota’s passing offense ranked second-to-last in the entire league in 2012, yet the team still finished 20th in total offense, as Peterson out-rushed 24 teams by himself. Peterson had nearly 500 more yards than the second-leading ground-gainer (Washington’s Alfred Morris) that season, and he also threw in two 200-yard efforts and ran off eight straight 100-yard games at one point.
After 2,000: TBD. Minnesota’s 2013 season opens up on Sept. 8 in Detroit.
1973 regular-season rushing stats: 14 G, 332 att., 2,003 yds., 12 TD, 6.0 ypc, 143.1 ypg
Simpson was the first to break the 2,000-yard barrier back in 1973, and it wasn’t reached again until Eric Dickerson’s record-setting campaign in ’84. The man known as “The Juice” was entering his fifth NFL season and coming off of a league-leading 1,251 yards in 1972 when he set the new standard for rushing the next year.
Simpson’s remarkable season included three games in which he rushed for more than 200 yards and a total of 11 games of 100 or more yards. He averaged 143.1 yards rushing per game that season, which still stands as the NFL single-season record. The Bills also featured the league’s worst passing offense in 1973 – 997 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games.
Why Simpson is No. 1: The yardage total may be the fewest of any one in the 2,000-yard club, but Simpson got there in just 14 games. His 332 carries are the fewest of any of his peers, and his per-game average of 143.1 yards would translate to 2,290 over a 16-game season.
Even though the Bills had the worst passing offense (26 teams in the league then), the team still finished 10th in the league in total offense because of Simpson’s work on the ground. The second-leading rusher in the NFL that season was Green Bay’s John Brockington, who finished with 1,144 yards or 859 less than Simpson.
After 2,000: Simpson posted three more 1,000-yard seasons in a row after 1973, during which he led the league twice. Simpson’s 11-year NFL career ended in 1979 with San Francisco when he played in 13 games and rushed for 460 yards. Simpson finished with 11,236 yards rushing as he currently sits 18th on the all-time list. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
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