If you traveled back to the 1980’s in the NFL, Eric Dickerson was described as a running back from the future. Everything from his upright running style to the way he wore so much in the way of protective equipment. He had the speed of a sprinter yet at 6’3 220 lbs he could run over small defensive backs who came up to support the run. Now that we’re 30 years removed from his rookie year of 1983 there is only one player The Chancellor thinks is the 2nd coming of Dickerson. It’s Adrian Peterson.
One of the greatest open field sprinters in NFL history, Dickerson was a threat to break it the distance every time he touched the football. What made him great was his sprinter’s speed in the open field with his size. He’d break into the open field and cornerbacks tried to take angles on him and couldn’t run him down. Only Peterson can be compared to him for how far above the rest of the running backs they competed against.
In 1983, you have to remember the Rams wanted to shake up their offense. You had the great quarterback class of 1983 and the bright star from SMU. The Rams had a 1,000 yard rusher in Wendell Tyler but saw a more explosive runner in Dickerson. It was interesting because we hadn’t seen Dickerson carry the total load since he alternated series with Craig James while in college. With the Rams desperate to catch the 49ers, who had risen to power in the NFC West, they took Dickerson.
The clear understanding was he would pay immediate dividends over the quarterbacks who would take 4 to 5 years to develop. At least that was the NFL’s thinking of QB development at the time. Dickerson took the National Football League by storm rushing for 1,808 yards and 18 TDs as he powered the 9-7 Rams to a wildcard playoff entry. The Rams had missed the playoffs the previous two years and were energized by their rookie rushing champion. He was the first to do so since Earl Campbell and second to do so since Jim Brown in 1957. They were a run oriented team with spartan quarterbacking and Dickerson still got his yards. Going into 1984 most pundits weren’t predicting a sophomore slump but a possible run to the record books. Dickerson delivered in grand style.
Although the 2,000 yard season has been achieved several times in the 29 years since Dickerson’s magical 1984, his was the most appreciated because teams saw it coming but couldn’t stop it from happening. Jamal Lewis and Adrian Peterson were both coming off knee reconstructions when they accomplished theirs. He was a sight to behold and led the league in rushing in 3 of his first 4 seasons. Each of which with over 1,800 yards which is amazing. No runner in league history can touch that. The only reason he didn’t do it four straight times was his holdout in a contract dispute before the 1985 season.
Without training camp that year he had a slow start and finished with only 1,234 yards. Marcus Allen led the league in rushing that year with 1,759 yards. Yet he hit his stride as the playoffs loomed. In the divisional round he torched the Dallas Cowboys with a National Football League playoff record 248 yard performance. That 20-0 win sent the Rams to Soldier Field where they lost to the Bears 24-0 in the NFC Championship Game.
However if you’re keeping score, after three years he held league records for most yards rushing as a rookie, most yards in a season, and most ever in a playoff game. Aside from a Super Bowl, the biggest fight he had was with the front office. Yet nothing prepared us for his being traded to the Indianapolis Colts at the beginning of the 1987 season.
For all he had accomplished in Los Angeles it was his 1987 and 1988 seasons that cemented Dickerson as a greatest ever runner. The argument when a player is accomplishing these feats is what fuels it?? Is it the offensive line or the running back?? You just heard that Charles White, in Dickerson’s absence, won the 1987 rushing title with 1,347 yards rushing. Dickerson was second with 1,288. The ’88 year saw him reclaim the rushing title with 1,659 yards and 14 TDs where back in LA, White only gained 328. More importantly he had legitimized the Colts as a franchise in Indianapolis.
Before his arrival in ’86, the Colts were 12-36 in their previous three years in Indianapolis. In fact HBO’s Inside The NFL was there to chronicle if they were going to join the ’76 Bucs as the second winless team after an 0-13 start. They acquire Dickerson and he powers them to the 1987 playoffs with a 9-6 record. His ability to control the ball allowed what was a laughingstock of a defense in ’86 to be the league’s 2nd toughest to score upon at only 15.9 points per game. Ladies and gentlemen that is tilting the field.
The only record he didn’t have at this point of his NFL career was the late Walter Payton’s 275 yards in an individual game. You can blame the Denver Broncos for that. During what was probably the most electrifying game of his career, the Broncos couldn’t keep pace on the scoreboard and eventually he was pulled in a 55-23 blowout. Thanks John Elway. Personally I pulled for Denver to keep scoring so he’d stay on the field for a chance at the record. No such luck….take a look
One of the unique aspects of that game against Denver: Had the Colts beat the Cleveland Browns in the ’87 AFC Divisional Playoff, this would have been the AFC Championship Game the year before. Dickerson would go on to rush for 13,289 yards 90 touchdowns while catching 281 passes for 2,137 yards and another 6 scores. As the game seems to be phasing out the dominant rusher, he starred as the league took to the air.
He was the equivalent of the great quarterback class of 1983 and captured the imagination of NFL fans everywhere. Although I compare him to Adrian Peterson, no other runner ever truly looked like him. If I could splice some film side by side, the person that looked most like him when they ran was Deion Sanders. He ran with an effortless gazelle like stride and when he broke into the open field it was curtains. You weren’t catching him. Well unless you’re Darrell Green.
What would he have accomplished had he completed his career in Los Angeles?? Would he have gone past Walter Payton for the all time NFL rushing champion had he stayed?? Would the Colts franchise have moved again without his arrival?? What would he have rushed for had he not spent time off the field fighting for a higher salary?? He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. Ironically when the Colts and Rams were involved in another trade of a Hall of Fame running back in Marshall Faulk.
Eric Dickerson was a one of a kind talent. At his best he was an unstoppable force. Sure his career left us with many questions but at his best none put fear in modern defenses like he did.
A last look back at his 1986 season:
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