We have all heard statements about the running back window. Depending on who you speak to that window is two to three years, five years or under the age of 27. At least that seems to be the general consensus. Most people recognize that the RB window for effectiveness/production is two to three NFL seasons.
Now to trivialize what it means to rush for 1,000 yards in an NFL season. It only takes 60 yards per game to accomplish this goal in a 16 game NFL season. From 1961 to 1977 the NFL season was 14 games. I mention this here because season length will come into play at various points throughout this chapter.
Jim Brown started his pro career in 1957 when the NFL had a 12 game season. Shockingly enough Brown had three consecutive 12 game seasons where he rushed for at least 1,257 yards! In that span/12 game era, Brown went off one season to the tune 1,527 yards and 17 TDs (a per game average 127.3 yards).
In six of Brown’s nine seasons, he led the league in carries. He also led the league in rushing yards eight times! His best season came in his age 27 campaign. He rumbled for 1,863 yards. That’s a per game average of 133.1 yards, which is the second-best yearly average of all-time. Brown also achieved that yardage total on just 291 carries. To put that in perspective the year Eric Dickerson set the single-season yardage mark of 2,105 yards he did so on 379 carries! Brown’s window was a wide and glorious one.
O.J. Simpson set the NFL record for rushing yards per game in 1973. He averaged 143.1 yards in en route to becoming the first player in NFL history to break the 2,000-yard mark in a single season. When you extrapolate his average (which got him to 2,003 yards) out to a 16 game schedule, you get 2,289.6 yards! That would have been something! By the way, Juice achieved that on 332 carries.
Simpson’s window was five years. He was the first overall pick in the 1969 AFL-NFL common draft. Early in his career, Simpson was a victim two coaching and scheme changes. Lou Saban was brought in as the Bills head coach after 1971 season. Saban designed his offense with Simpson as the bell cow. Simpson went on to lead the league in rushing yards in four of the next five years. Before Saban’s arrival, Simpson had a career-high of 183 carries. During Simpson five seasons of glory, he averaged 302.6 carries per year.
Chris Johnson is likely not someone you consider as one of the all-time greats. He most known for his ridiculous 4.24 40-time at the NFL scouting combine in 2008. Still, CJ2k rushed for at least 1,047 yards in each of his first six NFL seasons. Johnson also entered an elite company in his second season as he became one of six (at the time, Adrian Peterson would join that group in 2012) RBs to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a single season. Johnson never had less than 36 receptions in any one of those seasons.
Rather than signing Johnson to a second contract, the Titans released him at the end of that six-year run. Johnson missed one game in those six seasons with Titans. Titan brass (with a vast understanding the RB window) realized they had gotten more than they could’ve ever asked for out Johnson. Historically this is all very true. Running backs (even really good ones) fall off that production plateau around the ages 27 or 28.
Riggins and his Multi Window Career
John Riggins was as manly, tough and hilarious as any running back in history. His nickname “Diesel” was indicative of his brute strength and natural power. His career certainly had its ups and downs. However, Riggins did something in his mid-30’s that would be absurd to even consider today. But before we get to that let’s start at the beginning.
The year was 1971 the New York Jets took a 6’2”235-pound jackhammer out of Kansas with the sixth overall pick. The Jets, in turn, make Riggo their starting fullback. Now drafting a fullback that high back then was not that uncommon as they played a healthy snap share. In fact, Green Bay drafted John Brockington three picks later, and he went on to become the 1971 Rookie of the Year. I-formation was more popular than marijuana in the 1970’s. Riggins averaged 15.2 rushing attempts per game during his five seasons in New York.
Before the days of “Running Back by Committee” or RBBC the fullback provided the between the tackles thunder. Some people will try and downplay Riggins legendary status by banging on his career 3.9 YPC. As a fullback the first nine years of his career Riggo had three 1,000 yard seasons. He also had another season with 944 yards. He even had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 1978 and 1979 at ages 29 and 30. That was window number one, but the best was yet to come. To summarize Riggo was an effective fullback and when given the touch capacity he gave you yardage.
The second window appeared when Riggins was used more in a tailback or halfback role. Ironically Riggins lead the league in rushing attempts (177) during the strike-shortened season of 1982. He was on pace for a 1,100-yard season had they played the full 16 game slate. This second window could have been three years and not just two. Riggins did have 610 yards in four playoff games that year while leading his Redskins to a victory in Super Bowl XVII. He averaged 152 yards per game in those playoffs, including a balmy 166 rushing yards in the Super Bowl. His fourth quarter 43 yard TD run (on 4th and 1) was the go-ahead/eventual winner. To this day that run is still legendary. Did I mention Riggins was 33 years old?
Now can you imagine how fantasy Twitter or dynasty Twitter would value a then 34-year-old running back for the upcoming season? Especially after 136 carries in four playoff games! They would say things like “I respect him for what he has done, but I can’t trust him.” Well, Riggins defied logic and thwarted rational thought as he rolled up 1,347 yards. Riggins also scored a then NFL-Record 24 rushing TDs. Remember he was 34 years old and he handled a career-high 380 touches.
After that Riggins took a slight dip in production 327/1,239/14. Those 14 scores were tied for the league lead in rushing scores. Riggins did officially fall from ancient grace in 1985 at the age of 36 with 176/677/8. He still had three 100 yard games that final season.
The point is what Riggins did from ages 34 to 35 was truly unbelievable and amazing. By today’s standards, his production window/peak at ages 29 and 30 would have barely been conceivable.
Earl Campbell was the first overall selection in the 1978 draft by Houston Oilers. I was born in 1977, so his career is like folklore to me. Thanks to NFL Films I believe I have felt and seen his true power. His production window was mighty and slightly better than the three-year trend.
Campbell led the league in rushing yards in each of his first three seasons. He also led the league in rushing TDs in his second and third years. During his third season, Campbell dropped a ridiculous 1,934 yards in just 15 games for a per game average of 128.9 yards. Do those numbers justify his first overall pick draft status?
He posted 1,376 yards and 10 TDs in his fourth season. Those rushing yards were tied for fifth on league leaderboard.
That blasted 1982 strike limited Campbell to nine games in his fifth season. He averaged 59.8 yards per game, so had he been able to play all 16 he would have likely reached 1,000 yards on the season.
Campbell recovered to rush for 1,301 yards and 12 TDs in year six. That season might as well been his last. The five-time pro bowler gained just over 1,000 yards during his final 30 games.
Billy Sims had a career that is indicative of the RB window as we commonly refer to it today. His five-year career essentially ended after a catastrophic knee injury in October of 1984. The first overall selection by Lions in 1980 never averaged less 71 yards per game during his career. In fact, his per game career average was 85.1 yards. Sims produced 1,000-yard campaigns in first four years in the league. As a rookie in 1980, he led the league in rushing TDs with 13. The eventual Rookie of the Year raked up 1,303 yards on 313 carries in 16 games. He also added 51 receptions for additional 621 yards (long of 87 yards) and three more TDs.
Sims seemed destined to become an all-time great. Year two saw Sims handle 296 for 1,437 yards (4.9 YPC) in 14 games. The 1982 strike held Sims under 1,000 yards. He was averaging 71 yards per game. He went for 1,040 in his fourth season in just 13 games. Year five brought that career-ending injury (he was averaging 85.9 yards per game, in eight games).
Shaun Alexander left an impact on the Fantasy community. Fifteen years ago the first two picks in every fantasy draft were either LaDainian Tomlinson or Alexander in no particular order. Alexander had five straight seasons with at least 1,175 rushing yards. During that same stretch, he also had at least 1,635 yards for scrimmage per season.
Alexander crescendo came in 2005 during his age 28-year-old season. The Seahawks straight up fed Alexander with a league-leading 370 rushing attempts. He roared his way to league-leading 1,880 yards on the ground. He also scored a then NFL record 27 rushing TDs.
Adrian Peterson is commonly referred to as a once in generation kind of player. Meaning players of his caliber only come along once every 10-15 years. It’s ironic since AP entered the league a decade ago the perception of a what an RB should be has changed. If he came out now, we would say he is nothing but a two-down between the tackles pounder. Additionally, his pass catching ability would be a significant strike against Peterson.
Peterson’s window needs a bit of clarity to fully understand it. He started his career with four straight seasons with at least 1,298 rushing yards. A torn knee in the twelfth game of his fifth season left him 30 yards of the thousand yard mark.
He bounced back the following year with an epic 2,097-yard season. That was followed up by a 1,266-yard season. A feat that he achieved in 14 games. As you can imagine AP saw nothing but stacked boxes the season after almost breaking an all-time record. Not to mention the 5-10 Vikes gave Greg Jennings 106 targets, Jerome Simpson (who the F) 100 targets and Cordarrelle Patterson 77 targets. John Carlson even out targeted Kyle Rudolph that year… ouch. That is one uncontrollable factor that can affect an RB’s yardage total. A team’s overall record and other weapons can hinder things.
A suspension followed in his eighth campaign, his age 29-year-old season. That ban cost him 15 games. Ultimately that froze time and added another year to his already incredible window. After hitting the weight room for almost a full year, Peterson returned to his usual form. His 327 attempts, 1,485 yards, and 11 rushing TDs were all league-leading totals. That all took place during his yearage 30 season.
During week three of 2016 season, another knee tear befell AP. He was generally ineffective during the first couple of weeks, averaging 1.9 yards per carry. Murmurs that he was washed up started heating up.
The 2017 season saw AP sign as a free agent with the New Orleans Saints only to be released after a four-game experiment and some usage disagreements. A desperate Arizona Cardinals team gave him a chance. They ran him until the wheels came off. Or in Peterson’s case until a neck injury landed on him on IR.