While it’s not impossible, the likelihood of winning in the NFL is infinitely less when you lack a credible quarterback under center. With the game of football more pass-oriented than ever before, teams that are forced to start lackluster players at the most important position in all sports are immediately placed behind the eight ball — even before the pigskin is ever snapped. Not exactly an enviable spot to be in.
We’d like to say that most teams are able to compensate for this disadvantage, but that wouldn’t be entirely true either. Sure, if you’re fortunate enough to have an all-time great defense (see the Denver Broncos in 2015), then, yeah, it’s possible to overcome a QB who’s slinging nothing but wobbly ducks. But again, those don’t come around that often. Which is why, if you’re among those NFL teams that lack an adequate passer, there’s only one thing you can do to make sure your season doesn’t go up entirely in flames: Build around the running back.
As much as we enjoy watching quarterbacks air it out, we know how important it is to have a legitimate rushing attack. An NFL offense needs balance; it needs to be able to sustain drives, control the clock, and on occasion, grind out a victory. This is where it pays to have a reliable backfield. While teams in today’s game tend to feature a system based on a running back by committee, that wasn’t always the case.
It’s not unusual in today’s NFL to see running backs pile up solid yardage on the ground. However, when it comes to the all-time greatest single-season rushing yards leaders, these 10 individuals have distinguished themselves from the rest.
9. (tie) Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions
Single-season rushing yards: 1,883
Barry Sanders was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year award in 1994, and for good reason. The Lions back carried the ball 331 times, scored seven rushing touchdowns, and led the league in yards per carry (5.7), rushing yards per game (117.7), and total rushing yards (1,883). To no ones surprise, Sanders earned First-Team All-Pro honors and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
9. (tie) Ahman Green, Green Bay Packers
Single-season rushing yards: 1,883
During his 12-year career, running back Ahman Green was selected to four Pro Bowls. Based on the numbers, the 2003 campaign stands out among the rest. That season, as a member of the Green Bay Packers, Green had 355 carries, averaged 117.7 rushing yards per game, and amassed 1,883 yards on the ground and 15 rushing scores. Interestingly enough, despite an all-world season, Green was actually beaten out for the rushing title that year
8. Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers
Single-season rushing yards: 1,934
In 1980, one year after earning MVP honors, Oilers running back Earl Campbell dazzled football fans with another remarkable individual season. Despite playing just 15 games, the Hall of Famer led the National Football League in carries (373), rushing touchdowns (13), yards per carry (5.2), rushing yards per game (128.9), and, of course, total rushing yards (1,934). For his efforts, Campbell was selected to the Pro Bowl and named First-Team All-Pro
7. O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills
Single-season rushing yards: 2,003
O.J. Simpson’s 2003 season was one for the ages. On his way to earning MVP honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year, The Juice averaged 143.1 rushing yards per game (tops in the NFL), compiled 12 rushing touchdowns (tops in the NFL), and finished with a league-leading 2,003 rushing yards. If only he had a better supporting cast around him, maybe the Bills would’ve finished better than 9-5 that season.
6. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
Single-season rushing yards: 2,006
Chris Johnson was pretty much unstoppable in 2009. That season, the Tennessee Titans running back averaged 5.6 yards per carry, had 14 rushing touchdowns, and led the league in carries (358), rushing yards per game (125.4), and total rushing yards (2,006). In the end, all that hard work paid off, as Johnson earned First-Team All-Pro honors for the first and only time in his career.
5. Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos
Single-season rushing yards: 2,008
In 2008, Denver Broncos great Terrell Davis put together the finest season of his seven-year career. On the back of his 392 carries, T.D. led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (22), yards per attempt (5.1), rushing yards per game (125.5), and of course, total rushing yards (2,008). For his efforts, the great Broncos back was named to his third Pro Bro and earned First-Team All-Pro honors.
4. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions
Single-season rushing yards: 2,053
Although most would agree that Sanders left the game too early, the former Detroit Lions superstar still gave us 10 remarkable seasons (all of which included trips to the Pro Bowl), including six that earned him First-Team All-Pro honors. While his elusive and shifty style provided us with more memories than we can count, it’s his sensational 1997 campaign that stands out among the rest.
In his second-to-last season, at the ripe old age of 29 years old, Sanders carried the ball 335 times, rushed for 11 scores and 6.1 yards per carry, and led the National Football League in rushing yards per game (128.3) and total rushing yards (2,053). There has never been, and will never be, another running back quite like Barry Sanders.
3. Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Single-season rushing yards: 2,066
In nine NFL seasons, running back Jamal Lewis was named to the Pro Bowl and earned All-Pro honors just once — as a member of the Baltimore Ravens in 2003. That year, Lewis played in all 16 games, had 387 carries, rushed for 129.1 yards per game (best in the NFL), and finished the season with 2,066 total yards on the ground (best in the NFL). It’s safe to say that he was more than deserving of the accolades he received.
2. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Single-season rushing yards: 2,097
In 2015, for the third time in his career, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson led the National Football League in rushing yards. While 1,485 yards on the ground is nothing to sneeze at, it pales in comparison to the numbers he put together during his All-Pro season back in 2012. In that season, Peterson had 12 rushing touchdowns, averaged 131.1 rushing yards per contest (tops in the NFL), and ran for a ridiculous and league-leading 2,097 yards on the ground. Now those are what we call some otherworldly statistics. No wonder he’s called “All Day.”
1. Eric Dickerson, St. Louis Rams
Single-season rushing yards: 2,105
Players aren’t supposed to come into the National Football League and take over right away. It usually takes a bit of time before an individual properly adjusts to the speed of the game. Clearly, no one told Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson this; not only did he run over the competition in his first season (1983), he set the standard in his sophomore campaign.
In 1984, Dickerson took his 379 carries and maximized them to the best of his ability, running for 14 touchdowns (best in the NFL), averaging 131.6 rushing yards per game (best in the NFL), and compiling an NFL-record 2,105 yards on the ground. Just so we’re clear, Dickerson was only 24 years old at the time. We think we’ve made our point.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.