In a series leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, NFL Media historian Elliot Harrison will rank the five best rookie seasons from the Super Bowl era at each major position group. Previously, Elliot examined wide receivers, defensive linemen and quarterbacks; today, he takes a look at running backs.
TOUGHEST OMISSIONS: Ottis Anderson, St. Louis Cardinals, 1979 (331 carries, 1,605 rushing yards, 4.8 yards per carry, eight rushing touchdowns); and Clinton Portis, Denver Broncos, 2002 (273 carries, 1,508 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 15 rushing touchdowns).
5) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, 2007
Regular-season stats: 238 carries, 1,341 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 12 rushing touchdowns, 14 games played (nine starts).
A.P. actually had difficulty making this list. In fact, he barely edged out Anderson, Portis and even George Rogers, all three of whom (along with a few others in NFL history) outrushed the Vikings rookie in their initial NFL seasons. That Peterson ultimately landed here anyway is a testament to his combination of power and cutting ability, as well as the quality of his rushing attempts. As Vikings superfan (and NFL NOW colleague) @KristianGlenn pointed out, you can't forget Peterson breaking the single-game rushing record his first year as a pro (with 296 against the Chargers in Week 9). What Peterson accomplished in 14 games -- particularly a yards-per-carry mark well north of 5.0 -- simply cannot be ignored. His team wasn't known for its prowess on the ground -- unlike Portis' Broncos of the late 1990s/early 2000s -- and he didn't play in an era that favored the running back -- unlike Anderson. Still, the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2007 shined enough to rank fifth.
4) Edgerrin James, Indianapolis Colts, 1999
Regular-season stats: 369 carries, 1,553 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 13 rushing touchdowns, 62 catches, 586 receiving yards, four receiving touchdowns, 16 games played (16 starts).
One college prospect loomed so large at the running back position in April 1999 that no one really cared about any of the other backs, even if that one huge name ended up being the second RB taken in the draft. Mike Ditka's declared love for Ricky Williams made it pretty easy for media outlets and fans alike to forget about Edgerrin James. Bill Polian didn't, though; nor did the Colts GM get caught up in the Heisman Trophy-winning hype surrounding Williams, choosing James over Williams at fourth overall, leaving Ditka and the Saints to give up all their draft picks for the right to take Williams fifth.
James rewarded Polian's wisdom with a brilliant rookie season that merged individual and team success. Everyone loved Peyton Manning's development in his second pro year -- but James was the offensive workhorse, posting an insane 431 touches en route to becoming the Offensive Rookie of the Year. His 2,139 yards from scrimmage still stand as the second most all time among rookies (behind Eric Dickerson, who had 2,212 in 1983). And the Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in '99. Coincidence?
3) Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions, 1989
Regular-season stats: 280 carries, 1,470 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 14 rushing touchdowns, 15 games played (13 starts).
How Sanders managed to run for nearly 1,500 yards with undeveloped rookie Rodney Peete and the immortal Bob Gagliano trotting out there at quarterback boggles the mind. Given what the Lions' offense was in 1989, it's a wonder Sanders didn't end up running for his life. Yet, he was able to make moves people hadn't seen before while racking up the yards. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying, as Detroit did have some young talent in the late 1980s, with Chris Spielman, Jerry Ball and Bennie Blades all springing to mind -- it's just that they played on defense. The Lions couldn't crack 20 points per game -- and that was still an improvement, by nearly six points per game, over what they finished with in 1988.
With Detroit up three scores during the final game of the season, Sanders was taken out of the contest 10 yards shy of claiming the rushing title that year -- and though he could have gone back in, the eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year passed. Too bad the Lions' quarterbacks couldn't pass. Oh well ... just run, Barry.
2) Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers, 1978
Regular-season stats: 302 carries, 1,450 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 13 rushing touchdowns, 15 games played (14 starts).
Read the above stat line again. Maybe it doesn't blow you away. But for people watching the game in 1978, Campbell might have been the best player in football, or at least darn close to it. Campbell imposed his will on defenses, literally running through them. The Offensive Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro broke the spirit of opponents geared to stop him. Houston's passing game was hardly a threat, meaning Campbell faced eight in the box every time he lined up 7 yards deep in the backfield. He posted three scores in a win against the greatest defense of the era, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on their turf. Against Miami -- in one of the most electric atmospheres for any prime-time football game ever -- Campbell was 1 yard shy of putting up two bills, sealing the deal with an 81-yard scoring sprint.
For a true power back, who ran through defenders like no one in history, to average 4.8 yards per carry is remarkable. Unlike other backs who had huge rookie campaigns (Anderson, Rogers, Peterson), Campbell enjoyed postseason success, lifting the Oilers to the playoffs for the first time since 1969 and taking them as far as the AFC Championship Game.
1) Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams, 1983
Regular-season stats: 390 carries, 1,808 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 18 rushing touchdowns, 51 catches, 404 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns, 16 games played (16 starts).
One of the greatest rookie seasons by any player irrespective of position came courtesy of No. 29 in 1983. Dickerson resembled the love child of Usain Bolt and Steven Spielberg's versionof a velociraptor when he ran through a hole, using his forward lean to ease through efficiently before bursting into a beautiful upright sprint. With apologies to Dustin Hoffman, E.T. and David Lee Roth, the Rams' rookie phenom was surely the hottest thing going in L.A. in '83.
Dickerson broke the single-season rushing mark by a rookie (which might get surpassed some time around 2050, when running back committees finally go out of style). As with Campbell, the Offensive Rookie of the Year's personal triumph led to team success, with Los Angeles improving from 2-7 in 1982 (a strike-shortened season) to 9-7 in '83, tacking on a postseason win, to boot. Beyond the ridiculous numbers and the reemergence of the Rams, the coolest thing about this legendary season was Dickerson's goggles, which looked more like what a tech geek would wear while soldering a breadboard than a Kareem special. They gave us a unique view of what 23-year-old NFL success could look like.
Pre-Super Bowl era: 1,000-yard runners
There aren't nearly as many 1,000-yard rookie runners from before the Super Bowl Era as you would think, despite the fact that teams predominantly ran the ball during that period. Why? Well, for a few reasons: With all the running, the games went faster; teams often used an array of two- and three-back sets; and the NFL schedule was just 12 games long until 1961. And it should be noted that statistics weren't officially recorded until the 1933 season, though the NFL itself was created in 1920.
During Jim Brown's rookie season in 1957 -- one of the better first-year campaigns by a running back at that point time -- he ran for just 942 yards, rushing for 4.7 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns. Gale Sayers didn't make it to 1,000 yards his rookie year either, posting a mere 867 yards on the ground ... but he did record an astounding 2,272 all-purpose yards in 14 games, scoring 22 total touchdowns in the process. Good grief.
In case you were wondering, the first rookie running back to surpass the 1,000-yard mark was Beattie Feathers in 1934. Without question, Feathers' rookie campaign was the most impressive ever -- if you believe the numbers. In 11 games for the Bears, Feathers ran for 1,004 yards and posted more than 8 yards per carry! His 8.4 yards-per-rush figure dwarfs the next highest average by a running back with a minimum of 100 attempts (6.8 by Joe Perry in 1949). The numbers are so far out that pro football historians have doubted their veracity.
Either way, no rookie running back would rush for 1,000 yards again until Cookie Gilchrist did it for the Bills in 1962.
To be frank, we could have mentioned 50 other names on this list. When it comes to first-year pros, perhaps no position has represented such a smooth transition from college to the NFL game as running back. Call it a vote for athletic instinct.