When it comes to great hitting in the NFL, the first vision that comes to mind are those of defenders teeing off on offensive players. Yet some of the most frightening collisions were those that took place when Earl Campbell ran with the football. His aggressive style of play burst onto the NFL scene in 1978 and for the next four seasons was the most dynamic force the league had seen since Jim Brown’s retirement more than a decade before.
In the lineage of great power backs he was Larry Csonka’s successor in the 1970’s while raising the profile of the Houston Oilers. He was used as a bludgeoning weapon to hammer defenses into submission. The only defense he couldn’t beat down with regularity was the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. In back to back AFC Championship Games in 1978 and 1979, they kept Campbell short of a deserved Super Bowl visit. Yet against Atlanta’s Gritz Blitz, Denver’s Orange Crush, or even Dallas’ Doomsday Defense, he was the Oilers complete gameplan. Some of his best games came against the best defenses of his day.
In 1977 the Atlanta Falcons had set the record for fewest points given up in a 14 game NFL season with 129. They’re “Gritz Blitz” of Jerry Glanville had first shot at the former Heisman winner in game one of 1978. Campbell smashed off tackle for a 73 yard touchdown in the 1st quarter en route to 137 yards for the game. The fact they were behind for much of the game is why he only carried 15 times. He showed he belonged.
Against the Dallas Cowboys in 1979, a national televised audience tuned in on Thanksgiving to see Earl Campbell vs. Doomsday at Texas Stadium. Again he broke off tackle trampling Cowboys on the way to a 61 yard touchdown that set the tone for the day. His 195 yards rushing was the most ever given up (at that time) in the history of Texas Stadium. He was the star of the game.
Yet when you think of Earl Campbell, it was the collisions that come to mind. He was the most physical runner in NFL history. You’d have to give him the nod over Jim Brown because of the size of the fronts he faced. In the 1960s Brown faced defenses that averaged 250 lbs on the defensive line. He outweighed the linebackers of the time and the contemporary talent was fractured with so much defensive size being displayed over in the AFL. Campbell was facing defensive linemen in the 280 lbs range with middle linebackers outweighing his 225 lbs.
He was able to produce more force than both Brown and Larry Csonka because of the additional room taking the ball on pitches and handoffs back in the I formation and not from a fullback setting. Who was the most punishing runner in NFL history in your eyes?? The Chancellor’s vote is in.