Legends of The Fall: Eric Dickerson

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.

Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton in 1984. Payton eclipsed Jim Brown to become the all time leading rusher  that year. Not to be outdone Dickerson broke OJ Simpson's single season record with 2,105 yards.

Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton in 1984. Payton eclipsed Jim Brown to become the all time leading rusher that year. Not to be outdone Dickerson broke OJ Simpson’s single season record with 2,105 yards.

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.

Dickerson and his former Ram teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, Jackie Slater.

Dickerson and his former Ram teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, Jackie Slater.

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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NFL Week 14 Recap: Adrian Peterson Chasing Eric Dickerson’s Record & Sports Medicine Evolution

Adrian Peterson striding into the endzone.

Adrian Peterson striding into the endzone.

 

When we think of certain NFL records there are some that are held with mythic quality. We see them as moments we’re not sure we will see broken. After today’s 212 yard performance against the St Louis Rams, Peterson is within 294 yards of the all time record. In 1984, Eric Dickerson gained 2,105 yards in his second season and his record has only had 1 other rusher seriously approach it. That was in 2003 when Jamal Lewis gained 2,066 with the Baltimore Ravens. In that year he set the NFL single game rushing record at 295 yards rushing which came against the Cleveland Browns. It stood until 2007, when Adrian Peterson burst for 296 against the San Diego Chargers, and now he needs to average 147 over the last two weeks for the all time single season distinction.

It’s quite amazing when you think about it. On December 24, 2011, Peterson tore both his MCL and ACL and his career was in jeopardy. The first thought was will he come back as the same back?? A legitimate question since the position of running back has had it’s history with players careers cut short or backs not bouncing back with the same physical abilities once a knee injury hits. However think about it for a second… he’s on the precipice of becoming the second running back in history to run for 2,000 yards in a season after reconstructive knee surgery. Remember Jamal Lewis in 2003 for the Baltimore Ravens when he ran for 2,066??

sayers40Let’s take this back to “The Kansas Comet” Gale Sayers. In 1968, his 3rd year he shredded his knee after Kermit Alexander of the 49ers undercut him. They used cat intestines to replace his ligaments and he was never the same player when he came back from injury. Sure he fought his way to a 1,000 yard season in 1969 but he was never the same player. His longest run was 28 yards that season. Gone was the sweet moves and burst that made Sayers a wonder to behold. Sports medecine in the 1960’s was in it’s infancy.

Fast forward to 1987 when Thurman Thomas injured his knee at Oklahoma St. He had his knee reconstructed but his draft status suffered because of it. He was drafted in the 2nd round and had to play his entire career with a knee brace on it per Buffalo doctors. He was able to maintain the speed and crisp moves he had as he powered the Bills to 4 Super Bowls. He finished with 8, 1,000 yard seasons and was one of history’s finest all around backs and a Hall of Fame member. He was once MVP of the league and ran for 12,074 yards in his career and had over 16,000 total. Yet he had that bulky brace to help him maintain his physical abilities. Sports medecine was making some progress.

p1_lewis_jamal_brutyWe move to 2001 and the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens had a bull of a back named Jamal Lewis. He was a big physical runner who ran with thunder. Yet he didn’t break really big runs. He did have several where he chugged it 30-40 yards for a touchdown after breaking a linebacker’s tackle. He had run for 1,364 yards as a rookie in 2000. He missed the entire season of 2001 after his knee was reconstructed. In 2002 he came back and started building momentum as he gained strength and confidence in the knee.

When he hit full stride in 2003, he didn’t even look like the man from a few years before…he was better! Stronger, faster, and his burst looked like what folks envision when they think of Bo Jackson. In fact the most frightening display of power and speed happened in the 2nd game of the season. The Browns looked helpless as he ran for 295 yards to break Corey Dillon’s NFL single game rushing record. He had 5 runs of 50 or more and they just couldn’t tackle him. He powered for that aforementioned 2,066 yards and Eric Dickerson was sweating bullets in that last Monday night game. No knee brace just an offensive terrorist leaving defenses in ruin.

Which brings us back to Adrian Peterson. By the way, none of this has come to the surprise of Taylor Blitz readers because we alluded to this happening already.

http://www.nfl.com/videos/auto/0ap2000000112061/Vikings-vs-Rams-highlights

It’s common to compare Peterson to Jamal Lewis, for it was his NFL record he broke when he ran for 296 in a game v. the Chargers in 2008. However with his injury, Peterson didn’t need a full year off like Lewis and is hitting full stride less than 8 months after the injury. So will he make it?? For the season he is averaging 129 yards per game. Yet a closer look shows you in his last four he is averaging 171 yards per game. In one of those he gouged the Packers for 214 in Lambeau Field. What do you think he’ll do with a wild card playoff on the line in a finale at home against them?? He’s had two 200 yard games in the last three weeks and now he only needs 294 to pass Dickerson??

Adrian Peterson without a knee brace after reconstructive surgery is tearing the NFL apart.

Adrian Peterson without a knee brace after reconstructive surgery is tearing the NFL apart.

What you are witnessing is a transcendent talent leaving his contemporaries behind. Adrian Peterson is that rare back that comes along once every 20 years or so. He’s a future Hall of Famer and his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery is to be marveled at. Although a nod has to go to sports medical advancement on knee surgery improvements over the last 40 years. Peterson almost looks bionic with his knee, he looks like he has more burst than he did before, now that the season has gone on. What will he do next year?? The Chancellor knows one thing…. somewhere else in Southern California, Eric Dickerson is sweating profusely.

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