Once upon a time, before quarterbacks ruled the gridiron, running back was hailed as the football's premier position. The league's biggest and brightest stars played the position, players who included the Giants' Frank Gifford, Chicago's Gale Sayers, Cleveland's Jim Brown -- who died Thursday at age 87 -- and Green Bay's Paul Hornung. Those players helped set the stage for future generations of running backs, players who took the position to even greater heights.
There have been scores of prolific rushing campaigns over the years, from John Riggins' MVP campaign in 1983 to Derrick Henry's 2,000-yard season in 2020. Neither of these seasons, however, managed to crack our list of the top 10 rushing seasons in league history. Neither did Jamal Lewis' monstrous 2003 season that saw him rack up 2,066 rushing yards, then the second-highest total in league history. The fact that these individual efforts were left on the cutting room floor is a testament to the amount of impressive seasons turned in by running backs over the years. Only the best seasons made the cut, and each one is presented in detail below.
Before we break down the greatest rushing seasons in history, here's the official criteria used when making the list.
- One spot permitted per RB
- Individual statistics
- Individual accolades
- Team success
- Individual postseason success
- Enduring legacy
1. Barry Sanders: 1997 Lions
The '97 season was a testament to the greatness of Sanders, who did more with less than any running back before or after him. Sanders ran for 53 yards during the season's first two games, then proceeded to run for exactly 2,000 yards during the final 14 games. He eclipsed over 100 yards in each of those games while leading the Lions to the playoffs. The ever-elusive Sanders finished the season with 2,053 yards (then the second-highest total in NFL history) while averaging a whopping 6.1 yards per carry.
Barry Sanders 1997 NFL MVP season was 🔥— Eric Fitch (@EricFitch15) May 10, 2019
2,053 Rushing Yards (4th most in a single season in NFL History)
14 consecutive 100 yard rushing games (NFL Record)
6.1 Yards Per Carry (Highest Yards Per Carry for a RB since Jim Brown in 1963 pic.twitter.com/sErKoHcmhD
2. Eric Dickerson: 1984 Rams
Dickerson's 2,105 rushing yards in '84 are still the league's benchmark. Using his devastating combination of size and speed, Dickerson ran "47 Gap" with dominating effect that season while running behind a talented Rams line that included Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater. The former SMU standout tallied a dozen 100-yard games that season that included his 215-yard effort against Houston in Week 15, the game where he set the all-time rushing record.
6x Pro Bowler— DAZN Canada (@DAZN_CA) September 2, 2021
NFL Record 2,105 Rushing Yards in 1984
No one did it like Eric Dickerson 👏
3. Jim Brown: 1963 Browns
The best rushing season of the league's first 50 years was authored by arguably the greatest runner in league history. In his seventh season, Brown's 1,863 rushing yards, 12 touchdown runs and 6.4 yards per carry were league highs. He also caught three touchdowns while gaining 2,131 total yards in a 14-game regular season. Brown won his fifth of seven rushing titles that season before leading the Browns to the franchise's most recent NFL championship in 1964.
October 13, 1963#Browns #Giants— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 28, 2022
Jim Brown 23-123-2 4-86-1
Dick Lynch pick 6
35-24 #Browns pic.twitter.com/kHmZ62RTPJ
4. Terrell Davis: 1998 Broncos
Fresh off an MVP performance in the Super Bowl, Davis won league MVP honors in '98 after rushing for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns in the regular season. But Davis was just getting started. A powerful (yet deceivingly fast) cutback runner, Davis rushed for an additional 468 yards and three touchdowns in three playoff games as the Broncos won back-to-back titles. Davis' combined 2,476 rushing yards that season are the most ever for a running back.
🎶 Allow me to introduce y'all to T.D. 🎶#NFL100 x @Terrell_Davis pic.twitter.com/dZyqeGtrUU— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) October 24, 2019
5. O.J Simpson: 1973 Bills
By becoming the first player to rush for 2,000 yards, Simpson accomplished a feat that was similar to Babe Ruth's 60 home run season in 1927. The fact that Simpson reached 2,000 yards in 14 games makes the feat that much more notable. But Simpson did not accomplish this alone. He was aided by a talented offensive line nicknamed "The Electric Company." Simpson averaged a remarkable 143.1 yards per game that year while averaging 6 yards per carry.
6. LaDainian Tomlinson: 2006 Chargers
The league's MVP that season, Tomlinson led the league with 1,815 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns. Tomlinson's 31 total scores that season broke Shaun Alexander's year-old record by three touchdowns. Along with his rushing and scoring prowess, Tomlinson caught 56 passes for 508 yards. His accumulation of yards and touchdowns that season helped the Chargers go 14-2 during the regular season while simultaneously making scores of fantasy football players happy.
Happy birthday to the 🐐 Fantasy RB, LaDainian Tomlinson!— Fantasy Football Today (@FFToday) June 23, 2020
His 2006 season was the best ever:
- 2,343 total yards
- 33 total TDs
- 483.1 PPR points (30.19 PPG)pic.twitter.com/vH48dS1JuL
7. Walter Payton: 1977 Bears
Similar to Sanders, Payton was often a one-man band. Despite not having much of a supporting cast, Payton led the NFL with 1,852 yards, 14 rushing touchdowns and a 5.5 yards-per-carry average in a 14-game '77 season. His magnum opus came in Week 10, when, despite playing with a 101-degree fever, Payton ran for a then-NFL record 275 yards in a 10-7 win over the Vikings' formidable defense. "Sweetness" willed Chicago into the postseason for the first time since 1963.
What did Walter Payton do when he had the flu and a 101-degree temperature? He ran for 275 yards because he was still Walter Payton is what he did.pic.twitter.com/1uNSRE35FS— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) June 15, 2022
8. Adrian Peterson: 2012 Vikings
Peterson came up 9 yards short of breaking Dickerson's record with his 2,097-yard effort in 2012. He entered the Vikings' regular-season finale with 1,898 yards. Needing a win over the Packers to make the playoffs, "AD" rumbled for 199 yards and a score that day while leading Minnesota to a last-second win over its rival. Peterson endured a slow start to the season (he had just one 100-yard game during his first six games) before averaging 141 yards per game during the season's final 10 games.
9. Earl Campbell: 1980 Oilers
The "Tyler Rose" took the league by storm shortly after arriving in Houston. He led the NFL in rushing in each of his first three seasons and was named league MVP in 1979. In 1980, Campbell barreled over defenders to the tune of 1,934 yards and 13 touchdowns with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. He had four 200-yard outings while leading the Oilers to a wild card playoff berth.
Earl Campbell - Absolute Monster— Jared Barsness (@JaredBarsNFL) November 25, 2020
Career began with monster seasons in five of his first six years:
1978 - 302 rush, 1450 yards, 13 TDs
1979 - 368 rush, 1697 yards, 19 TDs
1980 - 373 rush, 1934 yards, 13 TDs
1981 - 361 rush, 1376 yards, 10 TDs
1983 - 322 rush, 1301 yards, 12 TDs pic.twitter.com/flf9lIOTwm
10. Chris Johnson: 2009 Titans
Johnson parlayed his blazing speed into a masterpiece season in 2009. He rushed for 2,006 yards while leading the NFL with 358 carries and 408 total touches, an insane workload for any player, let alone someone who checked in at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. His 91-yard touchdown run against the Texans was his signature moment that season, but an overlooked part of Johnson's '09 season was the fact that he also caught 50 passes for 503 yards.
Honorable Mention: Emmitt Smith, Cowboys (1995)
The league's MVP in 1993, Smith had an even better campaign in 1995. He ran for a league-high 1,773 yards while rushing for a then-NFL record 25 touchdowns. Smith, who also caught 62 passes during the regular season, ran for nearly 300 yards and six touchdowns in the playoffs as the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl of the '90s.