Legends of The Fall: When Auburn Running Backs Ruled the NFL

In the annals of college football there was a time where USC had earned the moniker “Tailback U”. Then in the late 80s Oklahoma St churned out back to back Pro Football Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Yet go back another decade and you’ll have a hard time topping the talent Auburn sent to the NFL over a 10 year period.

From 1979 -1989 William Andrews, Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel “Litte Train” James, and Bo Jackson took the NFL by storm. While each touched a level of greatness during this era none would make it to the hallowed halls of Canton. Although injuries derailed 2 of these promising careers right at their zenith.

Of this list most think of Bo Jackson as the leading ground gainer who lost his prime to an injury. Not true the 1st of our super backs who had their career cut short was the punishing William Andrews. He’s the man that began this era of excellence unexpectedly as a 3rd round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the ’79 draft.

To offer some context consider Andrews was the powerful fullback blocking for the shifty and elusive Joe Cribbs and James Brooks. In ’78 Cribbs led the Tigers with 1,278 yards while Brooks spelled him gaining 514 more. Andrews was the 3rd choice with the fewest carries at 72.

He exploded onto the NFL scene rushing for 1,023 yards in his rookie campaign in ’79. Then followed it up with back to back 1,300 yards seasons in ’80 & ’81 yet came to be known as the running back who once knocked out Hall of Fame hitter Ronnie Lott. We don’t have that hit but we do have one encounter on a Monday Night fans everywhere remember during that era…

By 1983 Andrews had supplanted Hall of Fame Member Earl Campbell as the NFL’s premier power back. His ’83 rushing total of 1,567 yards stood as a team record until Jamal Anderson broke it in 1998. He was 2nd in the league in rushing to another Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. It was the 2nd time Andrews gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 3 years. Yet he was derailed with a knee injury that shortened a potential trip to Canton.

Take a look at how lethal he was both running and receiving from 79-83.

  • 79 – 239 car. 1,023 yds 3TDs / 39 rec. 309 yds 2TDs
  • 80 – 265 car. 1,308 yds 4TDs / 51 rec. 456yds 1TD
  • 81 – 287 car. 1,301 yds 10TDs / 81 rec. 735 yds 2 TDs
  • 82 – 139 car. 573 yds 2TDs (strike shortened year)
  • 83 – 331 car. 1,562 yds 7 TDs / 59 rec. 609 yds 4TDs

Andrews was either 1st or 2nd team All Pro 4 straight years and was in the Pro Bowl as well from 80-83. Guess who joined him in Hawaii for 3 of those Pro Bowls in ’80, ’81 and ’83?? Former “War Eagle” backfield mate Joe Cribbs. Do you realize in 1980 these former backfield mates wound up the #4 (Andrews 1,308 yds) and #6 (Cribbs 1,185 yds) rushers in the NFL??

In ’80 Cribbs blossomed into the AFC’s Rookie of the Year as he was the sparkplug in the Bills 1st division championship dating back to 1966. Cribbs juked his way to 1,185 yards rushing 11 TDs while gaining another 415 yards on 52 receptions. Quite simply he was Thurman Thomas before Thurman Thomas as he was a threat out of the backfield. He tortured linebackers trying to cover him.

Check out the move on the 1st vid at the 2:32 mark when he rushes for a 16 yard TD against New England. He makes 4 unblocked Patriots miss in a phone booth… just sick…

While being a Bills fan up close, it’s hard to choose between his rookie year or his 2nd year as his best. Both years the Bills were in the playoffs and in ’81 he rushed for 1,097 yards and only 3 TDs but made up for it with 7 TD receptions and another 603 yards on 40 receptions. He flashed on big play after big play as a the Bills rose to prominence challenging the NFL’s elite.

Amazingly Cribbs and Andrews were rarely used as receivers at Auburn and they’re game fully maturing on the NFL level is what elevated both. Auburn in ’78 completed just 5 passes a game in a run heavy offense.

Ironically this was the role James Brooks also found himself as the 3rd down back in his rookie season with “Air Coryell” in ’81. Chuck Muncie was the feature back and he scored an NFL record 19TDs rushing. Brooks was the change of pace scatback who recorded 46 receptions for 329 yards and 3 TDs and had to fit in where he could. He only ran the ball 109 times for 525 yards but had a whopping 4.8 yard average.

He was the AFC’s leading punt returner in 1981 and led the NFL in kickoff return yardage in 1982… so of course you’re asking “How is that dominant at the pro level?”

With a potential contract dispute looming, he was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. His 2nd season in the Queen City saw him improve with 929 yards rushing and 7 TDs. Out of the backfield he caught 55 aerials for 576 yards and crossed the goal line 5 more times.

Over the next 5 seasons Brooks would make the Pro Bowl as a runner 4 times while being selcted All Pro in the same seasons. He had 3 1,000 yard season and in 1988 finished with 931 yards. Had he gained another 69 he and Ickey Woods (1,066) would have been just the 4th set of 1,000 yard rushers in the same backfield in a season. Brooks and Woods powered the #1 offense to Super Bowl XXIII that year.

His 1989 season of 1,239 yards rushing was the most in Bengals history up to that point. Corey Dillon broke it in 2000. Try this vignette:

So if you’re keeping score, between 1980 and 1990, these 3 running backs accounted for 11 Pro Bowls, 11 All Pro selections, a Super Bowl appearance (Brooks XXIII) and 10 – 1,000 yard campaigns. Each saw success as the Bills and Falcons twice made it to the divisional round of the playoffs and 1 trip to the AFC Championship Game with Brooks in ’81.

While these men were killing it on the NFL level, Bo Jackson and Lionel “train” James were the new set of Auburn backs to make names for themselves. James was thought of to be too small for the NFL standing at 5’6 and 171 lbs soaking wet. Yet he would have to make a name on special teams and spot duty in the backfield.

As a rookie in ’84 James led the NFL in kick returns (49) and kick return yards (949) to prove he belonged. Of course you’re asking “How is that dominating in the NFL?” Well…then came 1985…

In a season where Roger Craig became the first 1,000/1,000 yard performer both rushing and receiving & led the NFL with 92 receptions out of the backfield. Guess who was 3rd with 86 receptions 1,027 yards and 6 TDs? “Little Train” James. He actually outgained the more celebrated Craig in yardage 1,027 – 1,016. This was an NFL record for receiving yards out of the backfield.

However by the time you add James 516 yds on 105 carries & 949 yards on 43 kickoffs, he set an NFL All Purpose Yardage record with 2,535 yards. This didn’t count another 205 yards on punt returns!

His reception yardage record didn’t fall until 1999 when Marshall Faulk broke it with 1,048. His all purpose yardage mark stood until 2000 when Derrick Mason of the Titans broke it. Do you realize James’ ’85 season still ranks 4th in history?? He’s been gone from the NFL 31 years. His last season with the Chargers was 1988.

His best game ever?? His 345 yard performance against the LA Raiders where he won it in overtime:

By the way… that was the 2nd most all purpose yardage in a game in NFL/AFL history. In a brief 5 year career… James could fly. His 1985 was so dominant that it changed the Pro Bowl voting as the following year special team kick returner was added to the vote. In 1986 Bobby Joe Edmonds of Seattle became the 1st voted in but we know who’s play created that spot. Lionel James!

Bo powering past perennial all pro Cornelius Bennett of Buffalo.

Then we finish with the Heisman winning Bo Jackson. He was so great that 30 years later we’re still watching Bo Knows in a 30 for 30 documentary of what could have been. He shocked the world when he didn’t play for Tampa who drafted him in ’85 and we know of his baseball and football exploits. When he came back to “take on another hobby” in ’87 with the Raiders, it didnt sit well with a young Chancellor. It seemed arrogant and then we saw what happened on the Monday Night in Seattle:

Yikes! Bo can do whatever the hell he wants. To watch him just dust Hall of Famer Kenny Easley who had the angle on him… I was done. Apparently so was the rest of America. For the next 4 years every football season began with “When is Bo coming over from baseball?” He had other great games but not as electric as that Monday Night.

In 1990 Bo Jackson became the 1st backup to ever make the Pro Bowl as he ran for just 698 yards and 5 TDs. League wide respect poured out over what he could do if he turned to football full time. He was an adonis with sprinter speed that made the best athletes in the world view his exploits in awe.

But alas … we never saw Bo get to full potential as he went out with a fractured and dislocated hip in a 1990 AFC divisional playoff against Cincinnati. He never played again.

“Little Train” James had knee injries slow a once promising career that lasted just 5 seasons.

None of these men will make the Pro Football Hall of Fame but each left an indelible mark on the NFL of the 1980s. They arrived on the scene and turned lesser than franchises into teams that contended for championships. What was remarkable was how complete these backs were catching the ball out of the backfield when they rarely exhibited this in college.

This was one of the great runs from one school in NFL history. Even USC’s best was really OJ Simpson and Marcus Allen. Two Hall of Famers that came out 12 years apart in ’68 and ’81 respectively. Not a series of game changing backs.

To think that 3 players out of the same ’78 Auburn Tiger backfield, Andrews, Brooks, & Cribbs would go on to produce 27,771 yards from scimmage and 162 TDs in the NFL is nothing short of brilliant. Especially with Andrews and Cribbs having brief careers.

An era of dominance to be remembered for all time.

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Legends of The Fall: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson

When I came up with  The Legends of The Fall, my thoughts were to remember Hall of Fame players of yesteryear, and those whose “what if” legacies due to injuries or circumstances that kept them from becoming all time greats. Yet we still talk about them because they were supernovas that burned bright in our collective mind when we think of their transcendent play. One of those players was Thomas Henderson.

Artwork by Clarence Pointer signed by Hollywood Henderson available.

Now everyone remembers Henderson as one of the most flamboyant players of the 1970’s and he was. However lost in why he was so acclaimed were the distinctions he brought to pro football many observers obscure. Not this historian…and we’re going to take you through a few today.

One of those was his becoming one of the social icons of his times as a man of the 1970’s. A black cultural icon of transcendent play, outspoken black identity, and a reach that went beyond the football field.

In 1974 the NFL instituted several rule changes, the most visible had been the goal post moved to the back of the endzone. A more subtle change was the narrowing of the hashmarks which eliminated the short side of the field as you still see in college football. This called for Outside Linebackers with greater lateral speed and range play after play to either side.

Another subtle NFL rule change in 1974 made it illegal for all but the outside players on the punt team to leave before the ball was kicked. Enter Thomas Henderson. The Cowboys second #1 draft pick in 1975 who had been discovered out of Langston by Red Hickey. It was his speed and athleticism that led to his being used to help revolutionize the game from a tactical standpoint. This gave birth to the modern gunner where Henderson was also used. His size allowed him to bull through the two DBs as he came off the ball in pursuit of the punt returner

He was a special teams standout on a veteran laden ball club that had to get him on the field. He flashed downfield to make tackles and was used on reverses. A Linebacker on reverses?? Do you remember his reverse on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl X??

It was one of the first glimpses into what he was doing down in Texas. By 1977 Henderson had become the starting OLB where his speed was on display to match with some of the NFL’s best athletes covering backs out of the backfield and covering TEs out in space. The NFL was speeding up as a sport on astroturf and Henderson was among the new breed of athletes being moved to defense.

What most pundits don’t realize is how 1 penalty altered the perception of Hollywood Henderson.

Over the next four years Henderson’s Cowboys were the best team in the NFC as they became Super Bowl champions in 1977 and repeated as NFC Champions in 1978. In those two seasons the Flex defense was ranked #1 and #2 in the NFL and going into Super Bowl XIII were ranked higher than the #3 ranked Steel Curtain. If they win they become a dynasty as back to back champions and Henderson, who had made his 1st Pro Bowl, would have been lionized instead of the team being scrutinized because of the loss.

We all remember Super Bowl media day when Henderson claimed Terry Bradshaw was so dumb he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “c” and the “a”. Well think back to the game. Henderson made a huge play when he sacked Bradshaw and Mike Hegman stole the ball to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead. Their only lead of the game.

In what became known as a seesaw game it really was one the Cowboys defense had taken over. They dominated the 2nd half as Pittsburgh couldn’t move the ball. It was the bogus pass interference penalty on Benny Barnes that changed the field position and put the Steelers in scoring position at the 22 late in the 4th quarter. Then a fumbled kickoff, two quick scores and they were up 35-17 en route to a 35-31 win.

That pass interference, which is now called incidental contact and no penalty, caused Henderson and the Cowboys to be scrutinized because of the loss. He had played a tremendous game but now pundits pointed to the press conference and even an on field altercation with Franco before his 4th quarter touchdown as turning points. Great story telling but very…very inaccurate accounting of the facts.

The history books don’t tell you Dallas had set a record holding the winning team to just 75 second half yards. Nor the fact Henderson is the only person in the 51 year history of the Super Bowl to be involved in scoring plays in both the conference championship and subsequent Super Bowl on defense. In the video above when he scored against the Rams, it was the finishing touch on a 28-0 win out in Los Angeles.

That Benny Barnes pass interference penalty made the Steelers the Team of the Decade and sent 10 Steelers to the Hall of Fame and only 4 of the Cowboys from that era.

Henderson smashes into Denver QB Norris Weese in Super Bowl XII.

We know of the pressures and build up to his release in Dallas but where would he have been had they become back to back champion?? Greatest defense in history?? No one has been #1 on offense and #1 on defense and champion since his ’77 Cowboys. How much did the fallout from Super Bowl XIII lead to his dismissal in Dallas??

Keep in mind Tom Landry in his A Football Life episode said on stage had he handled the situation with Henderson differently we could have won 6 or 7 Super Bowls. Dallas went on to lose the ’80, ’81, & ’82 NFC Championships without him. When you look back at those losses Dallas didn’t have a defensive playmaker on the field. Not like they had in 1977 and 1978. In fact he would have been in his prime going into his 6th, 7th, and 8th seasons. Lawrence Taylor & Bruce Smith recorded defensive player of the year honors in that 6th season.

Would Joe Montana have all that time to scramble to the sideline and find Dwight Clark with The Catch in the 81 NFC Championship had Hollywood been chasing him??

henderson.crush

I’m still mad at him for this…he ruined 2nd grade for a kid in Denver.

Henderson was still in the NFL…just not in Dallas where they would have featured him. What could have been?

Epilogue: Last Saturday on February 10, 2018, Thomas Henderson was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame. An incredible honor. If you think I was waxing hyperbole when I opined he would have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame had his career stayed on the same arc…guess where the BCFHOF is moving to?? Try Canton, Ohio inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

hollywood.hall

Congratulations on your induction Thomas Henderson!! A supernova! A Hall of Famer!

hollywood.henderson

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Legends Of The Fall: YA Tittle

One of the earliest stories I read in my formative years learning about the NFL was on YA Tittle. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was celebrated for his effort in trying to obtain an NFL title but never did. He was a part of the legendary Million Dollar Backfield in San Francisco where he teamed with Hugh McElhenny, Joe “The Jet” Perry, and John Henry Johnson. The first complete backfield to make the Hall of Fame ad we’re talking all four players.

Tittle as a member of The Million Dollar Backfield.

Tittle as a member of The Million Dollar Backfield.

Tittle quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers throughout the 1950s but couldn’t overcome the Los Angeles Rams and the Detroit Lions in the Western Conference to play in the NFL Championship game. The most glaring was the 1957 season where they finished 8-4 and in a tie with the Lions. Detroit was the vanguard of the West having played in 3 title games in the previous 5 years, winning 2. Tittle had a career year completing 63% of his passes while throwing for 2,157 yards and 13 TDs on the season. He also rushed for 220 yards and 6 scores.

Hosting the playoff game with Detroit in old Kezar Stadium, Tittle and the 49ers took a commanding 27-7 lead in the 3rd quarter. In many accounts the 49ers thought the game was over. They became victims as the Lions roared back to win 31-27. Over the next few years the Baltimore Colts emerged as the best of the west and the 49ers were broken up.

Tittle and McElhenny wound up in New York with the Giants who were afflicted with not fulfilling the promise of winning an NFL championship. They won in 1956 on the broad shoulders of Tom Landry’s defense. However they came up short in 1958 and 1959 in championship losses to Baltimore. In truth, the offense with Charlie Connerly, Frank Gifford, and Alex Webster had let them down. Although Tittle was in the twilight of his career he would be an upgrade at quarterback and aid an aging yet still formidable defense. Over the next 3 years, Tittle took the Giant offense to greatness.

In 1962, he broke Johnny Unitas’ single season touchdown record of 32, throwing for 33. He had never thrown for more than 20 in a season. He broke it the following year when he threw for 36, along with George Blanda over in the AFL, that stood until Dan Marino eclipsed it in 1984. Which was several NFL generations later. Tittle was the most productive in his career at 37 years of age. All he had to do was win the NFL championship to cement his legacy.

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Legends of The Fall: John Constantine Unitas

The name that comes to mind when it comes to quarterback – John Constantine Unitas…  I can’t remember hearing his complete name for the first time, but feel it needs to be brought up for the fans who need to know the greatness of this man. So glad they finished the documentary in 1999 before he passed. An old school American hero. The best ever quarterback conversation has this man’s name in it. Not Peyton Manning and Tom Brady where all the rules have been changed to manufacture what looks like greatness.

Unitas! Pictured in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium one last time.

Unitas! Pictured in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium one last time.

At the time of Unitas retirement, he held the record for passing yards (40,239) & touchdown passes (290). He was the first NFL quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in 1960 and once held the record for TD passes in a 12 game season with 32. In an era where the NFL game was rooted in the ground, Unitas took to the air where purists scoffed he was ruining the game. Through it all he raised quarterbacking to an art form by the way he played, his play calling ability, and field generalship in leading the Baltimore Colts. In fact, it was Unitas that invented the 2 minute drill in the most important game in NFL history…. the 1958 NFL Championship.

The ’58 NFL Championship ignited the passion for pro football for the masses as it overtook baseball for America’s heart. Lamar Hunt after this game decided to start the American Football League on the heels of this game’s popularity. A sense of irony between the AFL and Unitas’ would come to the fore later. Yet it was Unitas that became a superstar. Football had been booming with television in the 1950’s and it culminated with his championship heroics.

For an encore, when all eyes were upon him, he had his greatest season in 1959. Johnny U went 193 of 367 (52.6%) for 2,899 yards 32 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions in leading the Colts to a 2nd consecutive championship. By the way for those keeping score, this was in a 12 game season and the yardage and touchdowns were NFL records at the time. At the pace he was on, had it been a 16 game season, he would have thrown for 42 touchdowns. This was in an era where his receivers were hit everywhere on the field not just within a 5 yard contact zone. Legacy cemented.

His 47 straight games with a touchdown pass stood for nearly 50 years. After 40 of those years no one had come within 18 of that record. Drew Bees finally broke it because of all the rule changes…but if you dared to say Brees is in league with Unitas, you and I can’t talk football anymore. A final look back at his jersey retirement at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in 1977.

In watching the HBO documentary Unitas is where I first learned the plight of former players fighting for benefits from the NFL. When the elbow injury came up I immediately yelled out “1968!” That was the year he tore the tendons that attached the lower and upper arm, causing him to sit out the season and the late Earl Morrall played in his absence. They wound up losing Super Bowl III. Unitas wound up losing the ability to fully use the right hand that made the NFL what it is today. Not only was that a travesty but the anger that swelled in me is why I back all the former player’s groups, Footballer’s Wives, Dignity After Football, and Gridiron Greats to this day.

Sports Illustated cover featuring Johnny U.

Sports Illustated cover featuring Johnny U.

Whenever the mantle of greatness at the quarterback position is cheaply thrown around, as a historian I bristle. What would Unitas accomplish playing in the rules set up today?? How much greater would he have become training all year around like today’s players?? What would his stats look like if he played where he could hardly be hit??  He dwarfs all quarterbacks without the changes. With them he would have left marks that quarterbacks would still be chasing.

Unitas and his receivers, Lenny Moore, and Raymond Berry all made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The next time someone mentions greatest ever quarterbacks, start with Unitas and work your way down.

hof-unitasJohn Constantine Unitas: May 7, 1933- September 11, 2002

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Legends Of The Fall: Barry Sanders

As I watched Barry Sanders A Football Life, they began the episode with Sanders reading his retirement. The closure gained from it was immense. It wasn’t as though I was still sitting here thinking he was coming back after 15 years. We’ve already witnessed his induction into the Hall of Fame, but to hear his words publicly, laid to rest those feelings and emotions that lay dormant from the years immediately following his retirement. He was simply the greatest running back ever in the Chancellor of Football’s estimation.

Sanders with defenders left in his wake.

Sanders with defenders left in his wake.

To a prior generation of NFL historians, Jim Brown was the measuring stick yet when you think about it, he wouldn’t have been as effective against modern defenses. He played at a time when the NFL didn’t play black players at linebacker or safety. Brown was bigger and more imposing than the players he faced which wouldn’t have been the case had he played decades later. Brown was 230 lbs at the time when defensive linemen were 260 lbs themselves.

Sanders’ speed and elusiveness translated to any and every era in NFL history. He also did it against better defensive athletes. He played against Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Reggie White, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, the Kevin Greene’s, Chris Doleman’s, Keith Millard’s, and Howie Long’s of the more modern game. Terrorists who could swallow offensive linemen, split the double team and had the athleticism to catch a back from behind before he could get to the corner.

With teams now putting the best athletes on the defensive side of the field, Sanders used to terrify them with his start and stop jump cuts. No offensive player over the last 30 years put more fear in coordinators or defensive players. He could make a move and leave a defender embarrassed and grasping at air. Leave them with “broken ankles” as we used to say. Simply put he’s the greatest runner the NFL has ever seen.

In 1995 Sanders conceded his role as the sole focus in the Lions offense. Not only did they become the NFL’s #1 offense they became the first team in history to have 2 receivers amass 100 receptions in the same season. Scott Mitchell (346 of 583 4,338 yds 32TDs / 12 ints) and Brett Perriman (108 rec. 1,488 yds 9TDs) should have made the Pro Bowl. Herman Moore (123 rec 1,686 yds 14TDs) did make it to Hawaii. Moore set the NFL record for receptions in a single season while these 3 put up 4 other team records. Why is this being brought up when this article is about Barry Sanders?? In this crucible of talent he still amassed 1,500 yards 11 TDs while creating this book of highlights

Most will recall that season opener against Pittsburgh when Sanders shook fellow Hall of Famer Rod Woodson right out of his ACL with two quick moves. This following vignette covers Sanders’ last five seasons in the NFL

Did The Chancellor of Football say greatest ever runner in NFL history?? First consider the average running back’s career lasts 4 years. Then take into account the greatest runners had their highest rushing totals within those 4. Sanders ran for 2,053 in year NINE. It took Jim Brown 9 years to gain 12,312 yards rushing, where it took Sanders 10 to amass 15,269. Everyone forgets the near rushing titles to go along with the 4 he won.

In his rookie year he was 11 yards short of eclipsing Christian Okoye (1,480 to 1,470), yet told Coach Fontes to let his backup get some playing time. Okoye got his rushing title yet carried the football 90 more times than Sanders! Next case in point is the slanted description of Emmitt Smith missing the first 2 games of 1993, then coming back to win the rushing title. For every Cowboy fan that touts this, they casually omit Sanders missed the last 6 games of that season with a knee injury.

At the time of Sanders retiement, he was in striking distance of Payton to begin '99.

At the time of Sanders retiement, he was in striking distance of Payton to begin ’99.

Interesting… to think that Barry entered the NFL in ’89 and Emmitt in ’90, folks forget how big a lead Sanders had at the time of his retirement. Sanders was due to break Peyton’s record late 99, it took Emmitt another 3 1/2 years to break it. Paul Tagliabue should have got involved behind the scenes and facilitated a trade to keep Sanders playing. He blew it….

Sanders would have pushed the record to 20,000 guaranteed. As we alluded to earlier, most running backs have their greatest single season rushing total in the first 4 years of their career. Barry crossed 2,000 in year nine. Even in year 10 he wasn’t slowing down.

One of the greatest battles in NFL history in terms of effort, you need to check out the birth of the Baltimore Ravens as an elite defense in the final week of 98. Barry was trying to extend his streak of 1,500 yard seasons when late in the 4th quarter he had 1,495 yards. The next 6 or 7 carries the Ravens were determined to stop him and they fought tooth and nail. Barry didn’t make it to 1,500 but he made folks miss like no one’s business. Man I wore that tape out watching that.

We didn’t know what was happening at the time with Walter Payton’s health but the 1999 season we expected to see Sanders vault to the #1 all time rushing spot… instead we got this:

Thank goodness for the emergence of Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James because the beginning of the season didn’t feel right as Sanders’ abrupt retirement cast a pall over the start of ’99. It took years for the disappointment to go away and it was reawakened at the time Smith passed Payton.

One aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided those thrills in.

One aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided thrills in.

What was missing as a football fan and historian, I never had closure to his career. I can remember this Pro Football Almanac I purchased in the summer of 1990 and they foretold a fictitious story of Sanders crossing 15,000 yards in a decade. The Lions were supposed to be winning the Super Bowl over in Tokyo to conclude his tenth season also.

It was a very interesting take with half of it coming true. With all due respect to William Sanders, his son Barry was the greatest running back in NFL history.

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Legends Of The Fall: OJ Simpson

There is no more polarizing name in the history of the NFL than that of OJ Simpson. Once upon a time he was the greatest halfback in the history of professional football. A former Heisman Trophy winner from USC who was drafted #1 by the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1969. He restored respectability to a once great franchise.

OJ Simpson...an all time great runner.

OJ Simpson…an all time great runner.

Yet he is known now more for the events that transpired June 12, 1994 and the subsequent trial of the century. Simpson’s was a tragic fall and one we’ll get into later. Right now we want to focus on his previous life as the most electrifying running back the NFL had ever seen.

One interesting  note is he finished his career with 11,236 yards rushing, or 1,076 yards short of then all time rushing champion Jim Brown. Head coach John Rauch, who had been fired by Al Davis in Oakland, wanted to prove his genius and played OJ at wingback. So for his first three years he played in a position he was primarily misused until Rauch was replaced by incoming Bills coach Lou Saban.

Finally freed to play tailback as he had at USC, Simpson grabbed the imagination of NFL fans everywhere. He broke breath taking runs. His impromptu style brought shoulder fakes and make ’em miss moves that the casual fan could identify with. To watch him battle against defenses that feared the big play element he brought to bare was a thing of beauty. He was the prototype to the bigger half back at 220lbs that had the speed to break the big play.

Although he burst into the nation’s consciousness with 1,251 yards in 1972, it was his legendary 1973 season that he became an all time classic. His 2,003 yard season was marveled at, lionized, and written about ad nauseum for eclipsing a number no one thought possible. He did this in a 14 game season and raised the bar in an era where great backs got the ball 30 times a game.

Simpson was a superstar of the highest magnitude as he led the NFL in rushing 4 times in a 5 year span. It was his 1975 season that propelled Simpson to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as he broke numerous records including the most TDs in a season with 23. As for rushing for 2,000 yards?? He didn’t do that but he did gain 2,243 yards from scrimmage… Take a look

For the most part, Simpson’s work was condensed in the 5 years from 1972-1976. In these 5 years he rushed for 7,699 of his 11,236 yards or 68.5% of his overall total. He put in work against some great defenses too. He had several 100 yard performances against Miami’s “No Name Defense.”

Against the Steel Curtain in 1975, by the way #9 on our list of Greatest Ever Defenses, Simpson crushed ’em for 227 yards in Three Rivers Stadium no less. This was great considering he was within 24 yards of the all time single game rushing record. By the way he held that record also with a 250 yard rushing performance against the Patriots in 1973. Then he broke that record with a 273 yard performance against Detroit Thanksgiving 1976.

By this time the wear and tear began to erode his skill and ability to cut and change direction. Multiple knee surgeries followed an injury plagued 1977 where “The Juice” played in only 7 regular season games. He was dealt to his hometown San Francisco 49ers where he finished out his career. As the 1979 season came to it’s conclusion, it was time for OJ to say goodbye to the game.

NFL Films named Simpson pro football’s hero of the decade. Think about that a second.  Not Roger Staubach…not Terry Bradshaw… OJ was their choice and it was a logical one. His feats scaled the record books and he had gone where no other runner had gone before. He only played in one playoff game during his career, yet Pete Rozelle made sure he had primetime games to showcase his talents.

OJ Simpson….one of the best runners and greatest players in NFL history.

Epilogue: Once the events that took place on June 12, 1994, with the murder of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, it threw every Bills fan in a weird place. To see his descent into this tragic figure ripped our hearts out. It happened right after the Bills had lost our 4th straight Super Bowl in which he was a part of each NBC telecast.

The Chancellor of Football's pilgrimage to Buffalo. Bills v Cowboys 9 22 1996

The Chancellor of Football’s pilgrimage to Buffalo. Bills v Cowboys 9 22 1996

Regardless what you think of him now, I wanted to put up an article featuring what he once was. He left an impression on me as a young fan and why I’m still a Buffalo Bill fan to this day. I can remember going to Rich Stadium, named after the late Ralph Wilson now, and asking where his name was on the ring of fame. That was Sept. 22, 1996 when Buffalo was hosting the Dallas Cowboys, so the emotions were still raw. Especially among the season ticket holders where I sat.

So here it is, 18 years to the day later and as The Chancellor of Football thinking back to that day. Which had a mixed set of emotions as it always does now when OJ’s name is brought up. I remember when the late Tim Russert of Meet The Press fame, spoke of seeing his bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame the first time after the double murders. His expression was much the same as I would suspect with every other Bills fan.

Many people remember it as the murder and court case of the 20th century. No one outside of Bills fans think of it as the fall of a franchise’s greatest player. We live with that more than the 4 Super Bowl losses in the 1990s. Don’t forget…they happened at the same time.

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