The running backs that made this series belong to an exclusive club. There were entrusted by their coaches enough to surpass or to see 400 rushing attempts in a season. Can you imagine a team giving an RB that kind of opportunity nowadays? However ludicrous you think that idea is, there is no disputing that it happened. It has happened five times. It even happened as recently as 12 years ago. You can debate amongst yourselves whether it will ever happen again. My point here is not to prove its likelihood of recurrence. Rather, I would like to investigate the ”why, how” and “what” was at the heart of this when it happened. Each case will be different. As each player’s legacy has a different flavor before and after they joined The 400 Club. For more in this series or more RB Theorem, click here.
Eric Dickerson (404 rushing attempts)
Team Record: 10-6
Head Coach: John Robinson
Offensive Coordinator: n/a
Rushing Yards: 1,821
Yards Per Rush: 4.5
Yards Per Game: 113.8
Before: Dickerson was one of the most electric running backs of the 1980s. He was the second overall pick in the 1983 draft. His fame was already swirling from being a key piece to the infamous Pony Express backfield at Southern Methodist University (SMU). He dazzled in his final two seasons with Mustangs by rushing for over 3,000 yards and 36 TDs in just 22 games! He averaged 6.3 per carry during the same period, finishing his career as the schools all-time leading rusher.
The 6-foot-3 220 pounder was a horse to try and tackle. Especially for his size, Dickerson had deceptive and very quick feet. He was an upright runner who always remained extremely balanced. He ran with a certain high stepping motion to his running style that made near impossible to square him up.
As a rookie with the Rams, Dickerson nearly became a member of the 400 Club. Head Coach John Robinson gave him 390 carries (24.4 APG). He responded by gaining 1,808 yards (4.6 YPA) and scoring 18 TDs. He also caught 51 passes for 404 yards and two more TDs. Those 51 receptions would eventually be a career-high mark for Dickerson during his dozen NFL seasons.
His second NFL season was as historic as it was fascinating. Dickerson averaged 5.6 per carry on his way to an NFL record 2,105 yards. He handled 392 carries and scored 14 TDs for the 10-6 Rams. He averaged a sizzling 131.6 yards per game. At seasons end he had twelve 100-yard rushing performances. In seven of those games, he had at least 145 yards. His best day came in a week 15 win over Houston; Dickerson carved up the Oilers for 215 yards and two TDs on 27 carries. His role in the passing game was very slight with just 21 total receptions on the season.
In his third NFL season, Dickerson had the gall to miss two games due to a salary disagreement. He even failed to eclipse 300 carries on the season. His APG tumbled to a meek 20.9. He still ran for over 1,200 yards and 12 TDs. However, that was big down year for the future Hall of Fame player.
Dickerson did put on a playoff performance for the ages when he went off for 248 yards (on 34 attempts, 7.3 YPA) and two TDs in a wild-card win over Dallas. That yardage total is still an NFL playoff record by 39 yards. Unfortunately, he met the 1985 Bears in Chitown the following weekend.
During: The 1986 season was another in which the Rams were a contender. They stumbled through a 10-6 season by using three different starting quarterbacks. That makes it very easy to understand Dickerson’s increased usage. As for the rest of Rams offense goes, Henry Ellard led the team with 34 receptions for 447 yards and four TDs. Return specialist Ron Brown chipped with 25 receptions (one shy of his career-high total), and fullback Barry Redden had a career-high 28 receptions. Redden also saw a career high in rushing attempts with 100, which he turned into 467 yards.
The game logs reveal no games with less than 16 rushing attempts for Dickerson. I am not surprised either. He never had more than 46 receiving yards in a game. He also had five games with no receptions at all. (The game was very different in the mid-1980s, but RBs still were apart of the passing. Remember James Wilder Sr. had 85 receptions during his 400 carry season. Why was Dickerson not trusted in the same light? He and Wilder had the same type of frames.
No scheme is the same and some allow for more creativity. I believe Dickerson didn’t get receptions because he was too talented and valuable to the Rams game plan. Remember they used three QBs so preventing their 6-foot-3 workhorse from getting decapitated in the flat was paramount to their success. Wilder was not the same caliber of a thoroughbred as Dickerson. Also, I do realize the irony of saying the Rams protected Dickerson, during his 400 Club season, by not using him much in the passing game).
Peeling back another game log layer you will see four games with Dickerson getting 30 or more attempts. He averaged 25.3 APG on the season. He had seven games with more than 25 attempts. I also find it kind of interesting that he had just two games with two TDs and seven games without a score (including a four-game stretch). He compiled eleven 100-yard games, with his best effort coming when he dropped 207 yards in a week five win. He also never had less the 57 rushing yards in any one game. The Saints held Dickerson to 57 yards on 20 carries and five receptions for 12 yards (that’s still 11 PPR points). That was considered as ”containing” Dickerson.
The most oddly unique thing about Dickerson’s 400 carry season, is that it was his last full season with the Rams. It is hard not to draw parallels to the current Le’Veon Bell situation in Pittsburgh.
After: On Halloween day 1987 Dickerson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts. The player who led the league in rushing in three of his first four seasons was earning just $682,000 a year. The Rams offered him $975,000, but Dickerson believed he was worth more. The Colts thought so too. They essentially traded three first round picks, three second-round picks, and RB Owen Gill to acquire Dickerson. Indianapolis then signed the 27-year old back to a four-year 5.6 million dollar deal.
In just 12 games (three with the Rams and nine with Colts) in 1987, Dickerson still ran for 1,288 yards and 283 carries. The following season he returned to his league-leading form. He dropped a 388/1,659/14 slash line. The first two statistics were league-best marks. Not bad for a then 28-year-old. He also caught 36 passes for 377 yards and another TD. He averaged a career 10.5 YPC, and that yardage total was 27 yards shy of his best seasonal receiving yards output.
In 1989 Dickerson slashed 314/1,311/7. He was 29, and the highest paid RB in the league. That would be his last truly successful season. Usage had finally taken its toll on Dickerson’s frame. He played out two more seasons with the Colts. He was then traded to Oakland where he played one season. The Raiders then flipped him to Atlanta where he also played one year. He was traded to Green Bay after that and failed his team physical. After that, he signed a one day contract with the Rams and officially retired.
He ended his career with 2,996 rushing attempts for 13,259 yards and 96 total TDs in 146 games. Dickerson was also the fastest player to reach 10,000 rushing yards as he did so in 91 games! He retired number two all-time in rushing yards per game (90.8), behind only the great Jim Brown who played in 12 and 14 game seasons, as well as 28 fewer games total than Dickerson.
Dickerson was such a unique specimen. His iconic sports goggles made me feel better about myself upon getting glasses in the fourth grade.