Ranking the top 10 running back seasons in NFL history following Jim Brown’s passing at age 87, Brown’s 1963 performance is near the top.

Brown had a number of memorable seasons to pick from.

Running back used to be regarded as the best position in football before quarterbacks took control of the field. The position was filled by some of the greatest and brightest talents in the league, including Frank Gifford of the Giants, Gale Sayers of Chicago, Jim Brown of Cleveland — who passed away on Thursday at the age of 87 — and Paul Hornung of Green Bay. These athletes paved the way for subsequent running back generations, who elevated the position even further.

Numerous successful rushing seasons have occurred over the years, from Derrick Henry’s 2,000-yard season in 2020 to John Riggins’ MVP effort in 1983. However, neither of these campaigns was able to make it onto our ranking of the top 10 rushing campaigns in league history. The 2,066 rushing yards Jamal Lewis amassed in 2003, which was then the second-highest total in league history, did not either. Given how many outstanding seasons running backs have produced over the years, it is impressive that these specific accomplishments were overlooked. Only the top seasons were chosen, and each is described in more detail below.

Here are the formal criteria used to create the ranking before we analyze the greatest rushing seasons in history.

  • One spot permitted per RB
  • Individual statistics
  • Individual accolades
  • Team success
  • Individual postseason success
  • Enduring legacy

1. Barry Sanders: 1997 Lions

The 1997 season served as a testament to Sanders’ greatness because he was the only running back before or since to accomplish more with less. In the first two games of the season, Sanders only gained 53 yards on the ground before going on to gain 2,000 yards on the ground in the following 14 games. He helped the Lions reach the playoffs while surpassing 100 yards in each of those games. Sanders, who is always evasive, concluded the season with 2,053 yards, which was then the second-highest total in NFL history. He also averaged an astounding 6.1 yards per carry.

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2. Eric Dickerson: 1984 Rams

The league record for rushing yards is still 2,105 by Dickerson in 1984. Dickerson, who was rushing behind a superb Rams line that included Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater, ran “47 Gap” with a commanding effect that season using his lethal mix of size and speed. The former SMU star recorded 12 100-yard performances during that campaign, including his 215-yard performance against Houston in Week 15 of that campaign, which helped him break the all-time rushing record.

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3. Jim Brown: 1963 Browns

The league’s probably greatest runner led the league to its finest rushing season in its first 50 years. Brown set league records in his sixth season with 1,863 running yards, 12 touchdown runs, and 6.4 yards per carry. In a 14-game regular season, he added 2,131 total yards and three touchdown receptions. Before guiding the Browns to the franchise’s most recent NFL championship in 1964, Brown won his fifth of seven rushing championships during that season.

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4. Terrell Davis: 1998 Broncos

Davis received league MVP honors in 1998 after rushing for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns during the regular season, just a few weeks removed from his MVP performance in the Super Bowl. However, Davis was only beginning. As the Broncos won back-to-back championships, Davis, a strong (but deceptively quick) cutback runner, ran for a further 468 yards and three touchdowns in three postseason games. The most ever for a running back was Davis’ combined 2,476 rushing yards throughout the season.

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5. O.J Simpson: 1973 Bills

The milestone that Simpson accomplished by being the first athlete to rush for 2,000 yards was comparable to Babe Ruth’s season of 60 home runs in 1927. The achievement is all the more impressive given that Simpson did it in just 14 games. Simpson did not, however, do this by himself. He received assistance from a strong offensive line known as “The Electric Company.” During that season, Simpson averaged an astounding 143.1 yards per game and 6 yards per carry.

6. LaDainian Tomlinson: 2006 Chargers

Tomlinson, the league’s MVP that year, topped the league in rushing with 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns. Shaun Alexander’s previous record of 31 touchdowns was broken by Tomlinson that season, breaking it by three scores. Tomlinson excelled at scoring and sprinting, and he also hauled in 56 catches for 508 yards. His season-long accumulation of yards and touchdowns not only made a lot of fantasy football fans pleased, but also helped the Chargers finish the regular season with a record of 14-2.

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7. Walter Payton: 1977 Bears

Payton frequently performed as a one-man band, like Sanders. Payton led the NFL with 1,852 yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, and a 5.5 yards-per-carry average in a 14-game 1977 season despite not having a strong supporting cast. His crowning achievement came in Week 10, when, despite competing with a temperature of 101 degrees, Payton rushed for 275 yards, then an NFL record, as the Vikings defeated them 10-7. Chicago was forced into the postseason by “sweetness” for the first time since 1963.

8. Adrian Peterson: 2012 Vikings

With his 2,097-yard effort in 2012, Peterson fell 9 yards short of Dickerson’s record. He had 1,898 yards when the Vikings’ regular-season finale was about to begin. In order for Minnesota to defeat its adversary and advance to the playoffs, “AD” ran for 199 yards and a touchdown on that particular day. Peterson had a sluggish start to the season (he only had one 100-yard game in his first six games), but in his final 10 games, he averaged 141 yards per game.

9. Earl Campbell: 1980 Oilers

Shortly after arriving in Houston, the “Tyler Rose” swept the league. He was awarded league MVP in 1979 and led the NFL in running in each of his first three seasons. With an average of 5.2 yards per carry in 1980, Campbell bulldozed his way past defenses to the tune of 1,934 yards and 13 touchdowns. He helped the Oilers to a wild card playoff berth by posting four 200-yard performances.

10. Chris Johnson: 2009 Titans

Johnson turned his lightning-quick speed into a brilliant season in 2009. He led the NFL in rushing with 358 carries and 408 total touches while rushing for 2,006 yards—an absurd workload for any player, much less one who stands at 5-foot-11 and weighs 195 pounds. Johnson’s season-defining play that year was a 91-yard touchdown run against the Texans, but an often-overlooked aspect of his 2009 campaign was the fact that he also grabbed 50 catches for 503 yards.

Honorable Mention: Emmitt Smith, Cowboys (1995)

Smith, the league’s MVP in 1993, had a stronger year in 1995. He rushed for a then-NFL record 25 touchdowns and 1,773 yards, leading the league in both categories. Smith rushed for nearly 300 yards and six touchdowns in the playoffs as the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl of the 1990s. Smith also grabbed 62 receptions during the regular season.