With 1,777 rushing yards on the 2020 season and a game left to play, Titans powerhouse Derrick Henry is on the verge of history. If he can compile another 107 rushing yards in his final game (which is a few ticks below his season average of 118.5), he’ll edge out the two backs who are currently tied for ninth place on the all-time list of single-season rushing leaders. He’s almost certainly not joining the 2000-yard club, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Henry is enjoying a historic season and is likely to etch his place in the history books. In celebration of his accomplishment, I took a look back to find out which running back has the most rushing yards in a season.
Retired Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson has the most rushing yards in a single season, with 2,105 back in 1984. Nine other running backs have accrued 1,883 yards or more, but the player in 11th place on the all-time leaderboard gets an honorable mention for doing something spectacular.
Here’s a rundown of that leaderboard, in ascending order. We’ll begin with that honorable mention.
Honorable Mention: Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks – 1,880 Yards (2005)
Season High: 173 Yards vs. Arizona Cardinals on November 6th, 2005
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Alexander’s best season earned him a First Team All-Pro nod, but you might be surprised to learn that he found the end zone a whopping 27 times during that campaign. That performance set a single-season record for rushing TD’s, which was broken just one year later by the great LaDainian Tomlinson.
On the whole, Alexander had a fantastic career. However, it’s worth noting that, like a number of great running backs, the bulk of his production came within a five-year span. Between 2001 and 2005, the former first round draft pick rushed for at least 1,175 yards per season, and then experienced a steep dropoff in production after his record-setting 2005 campaign. That dropoff can be attributed both to injuries and natural decline.
T-9th Place: Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions – 1,883 Yards (1994)
Season High: 237 Yards vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers on November 13th, 1994
The Detroit Lions organization placed high hopes on the massive shoulders of Sanders after taking him third overall in the 1989 NFL draft, and he delivered by putting up incredible numbers throughout his first several seasons. But although he’d always been good, his 1994 campaign was spectacular on an entirely different level. 1,883 yards on 331 carries was truly a sight for Lions fans to behold.
I could talk all day about the accomplishments of Sanders, but for time’s sake I’ll just mention the one thing about his NFL career that stands out to me as utterly mind-blowing. Sanders averaged over 1,500 yards per season throughout his ten years in the NFL, making the rest of the league look like a group of twelve-year-olds in comparison. For perspective, only two players this season have topped 1,500 yards.
T-9th Place: Ahman Green, Green Bay Packers – 1,883 Yards (2003)
Season High: 218 Yards vs. Denver Broncos on December 28th, 2003
Green’s season was fascinating for a number of reasons, but what sticks out most to me is the variance. The Packers back had exactly 20 carries in both his best and worst game of the season, and while he made good use of them against the Broncos for a total of 218 yards, his Week 7 performance against the St. Louis Rams saw him carry the ball 20 times for just 35 yards.
One big reason for the massive difference in yards per carry between those two games is the fact that Green busted out one of the longest rushing touchdowns of all time in his best game. Without that 98-yard run, his line would’ve been 19 carries for 120 yards; good, certainly, but not otherworldly. Still, this season was no fluke! Green amassed over 9,000 rushing yards over the course of his 12-year playing career.
8th Place: Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers – 1,934 Yards (1980)
Season High: 206 Yards vs. Chicago Bears on November 16th, 1980
Campbell’s spectacular 1980 campaign included 11 games with at least 100 rushing yards, but it’s perhaps even more important to mention that he posted at least 200 rushing yards in four different games. To date, no other running back in NFL history has accomplished that feat, and only three others managed to post three such games. Campbell’s ability to put up these massive totals kept opposing defenses on edge.
Campbell began his career with three straight First Team All-Pro selections, but what might have been a long and all-time great career flamed out quickly after his first six brilliant seasons. After a slow start in 1984, his Oilers shipped him to New Orleans midseason, and he was forced to retire after the end of the following year with a career total of 9,407 rushing yards to go along with 74 touchdowns.
7th Place: O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills – 2,003 Yards (1973)
Season High: 250 Yards vs. New England Patriots on September 16th, 1973
O.J. Simpson’s 1973 season started off with a bang. The Bills leaned heavily on him, giving him 29 carries that he converted into an incredible 250 yards. He didn’t slow down from there, collecting at least 99 rushing yards in all but two games over the course of the season. When all was said and done, he became the first running back to join the 2,000-yard club. He’d remain the only member of that club for 11 years.
Simpson is known as one of the greatest running backs of all time, and *checks notes* erm, absolutely nothing else. With over 11,000 rushing yards and 61 touchdowns across the course of his 11 year career with the Bills and 49ers, Simpson earned a 1985 induction into the hall of fame. His best stretch came between 1972 and 1976, when he earned five straight First Team All-Pro selections and led the league in rushing four times.
6th Place: Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans – 2,006 Yards (2009)
Season High: 228 Yards vs. Jacksonville Jaguars on November 1st, 2009
During his sophomore season in Tennessee, Johnson put the league on notice by carrying the football 358 times for an average of 5.6 yards apiece. Sure, he was the 24th overall pick in 2008, and his 1,200-yard rookie season was pretty good, but nobody expected him to put up this kind of campaign. His longest run was a 91-yard touchdown, and he even tacked on 503 receiving yards for a mammoth offensive total of 2,509.
Whatever it was that made Johnson go absolutely bonkers in his second pro season, he was never quite able to figure it out again. His 2009 total was more than 600 yards higher than his next best season (2010). That’s not to say that Johnson didn’t have a brilliant career, though. Most running backs would love to be able to say that they began their career with six consecutive seasons of at least a thousand rushing yards.
5th Place: Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos – 2,008 Yards (1998)
Season High: 208 Yards vs. Seattle Seahawks on October 11th, 1998
Though he didn’t receive a ton of hype leading up to draft day, the Broncos unknowingly found a hidden gem when they took Davis in the sixth round, with the 196th overall pick. The pick paid dividends immediately, as he ran for 1,117 yards in his rookie season and tacked on a couple hundred yards to his personal best in each of the following three seasons. That culminated in a 2,008-yard campaign in which he scored 21 touchdowns.
The rest of Davis’ tale is a tragedy. Coming off his historic campaign, Davis started off slow and then tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee, which of course caused him to miss the rest of the season. Things only went downhill from there, as Davis suffered injuries in each of the following seasons and retired after 2001 at the age of just 29. It’s disappointing to think that an all-time great career was derailed by injuries.
4th Place: Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions – 2,053 Yards (1997)
Season High: 216 Yards vs. Indianapolis Colts on November 23rd, 1997
Sanders’ 1997 season actually began pretty slowly, prompting some irresponsible fans and pundits to wonder whether he was running out of steam as he approached his 30th birthday. In his first two games combined, the Detroit legend only compiled 53 yards on his 25 carries. After that, he silenced the doubters by rushing for at least 100 yards in every single game for the rest of the season, and chipped in 305 receiving yards.
It would turn out to be the penultimate NFL campaign for the no-doubt hall of famer. All told, he closed out a phenomenal playing career with 15,269 rushing yards in ten seasons with the Detroit Lions. That’s good for fourth-most in NFL history, and the only running backs above him on the leaderboard played for at least three more seasons than he did.
3rd Place: Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens – 2,066 Yards (2003)
Season High: 295 Yards vs. Cleveland Browns on September 14th, 2003
Ahman Green’s 1,883 rushing yards would have led the league by a wide margin in most seasons, but in 2003 that total fell nearly 200 yards short of the top spot. Jamal Lewis’ historic campaign included a record-breaking Week 2 performance that saw him put up 295 yards, shattering Corey Dillon’s record for most rushing yards in a single game. That record would only stand for a few years before the next player on this list edged it out by a single yard.
Much like Johnson, Lewis’ best season was sort of a flash in the pan. His 2,066 yards in 2003 were over 700 more than his next best season; a 1,364-yard rookie campaign. But again, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was still a fantastic running back outside of his lone Pro Bowl season. Lewis is one of just 31 rushers in the entire history of the NFL to eclipse the 10,000-yard milestone for his career.
2nd Place: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings – 2,097 Yards (2012)
Season High: 212 Yards vs. St. Louis Rams on December 16th, 2012
Peterson was already known as “Purple Jesus” in Minnesota even before he put up this otherworldly campaign, but joining the 2,000-yard club cemented his place among the greatest running backs in NFL history. Peterson averaged over six yards per carry on 348 carries, and contributed 40 receptions for another 217 yards. He didn’t just power the Vikings’ offense, he was the Vikings’ offense.
Because he’s not drawing many headlines these days, it’s easy to forget that Adrian Peterson is still in the league. As a member of the 2020 Detroit Lions, he’s tacked on 541 yards to a career total that ranks fifth all-time among running backs, and while he’s got a chance to catch Sanders if he plays again next year, the fact that he’s been handed the ball just 14 times in the last three games isn’t encouraging to that end.
1st Place: Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams – 2,105 Yards (1984)
Season High: 215 Yards vs. Houston Oilers on December 9th, 1984
Dickerson was a titan among men on the gridiron, particularly during his earliest years in the NFL. With 379 rushing attempts, he carried the ball more times than any player on this list besides Davis, and made good on them to the tune of 5.6 yards per carry. He’d broken Simpson’s rushing record before the final game of the season even started, and used it to tack on another 98 yards to his total.
Dickerson didn’t just have one legendary season, either. He rushed for 1,808 yards as a rookie, and led the league in rushing a total of four times throughout the course of his ludicrous career. My favorite “Dickerson is Unbelievable” stat is that there are only 21 instances in NFL history of a running back rushing for at least 1,800 yards, and three of them were by Dickerson (though Henry will probably join that list on Sunday).
Featured image courtesy of Shea Huening, via Flickr.