The running backs that made this series belong to an exclusive club. They 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. In fact, 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.
James Wilder (407 rushing attempts)
Team Record: 6-10
Head Coach: John McKay
Offensive Coordinator: n/a
Rushing Yards: 1,544
Yards Per Rush: 3.8
Yards Per Game: 96.5
Before: The 6-foot-3/225 James Wilder Sr. was a second round (34th overall) selection of the 1981 draft. Wilder was punishing straight ahead runner. He actually never had a 1,000 season as a three starter for the Missouri Tigers. He was an effective player, however, who scored 24 TDs in 34 collegiate games.
Tampa Bay officially designated Wilder as a fullback. As a rookie, he opened holes for tailback Jerry Eckwood. He was also second on the team in rushing attempts with 107. Additionally, Wilder hauled in 48 passes (2nd most on the team) for 507 yards (3rd most of the team).
Wilder became the lead back in the strike-shortened 1982 season. He only averaged 9.2 APG. Backup James Owens ended with 9.5 APG in one fewer game played on the season. Wilder was once again dynamite in the passing game with 53 receptions for 466 yards (5.9 RPG). No other Buccaneer had more than 28 receptions or had a higher RPG.
Entering Wilder’s third NFL season, Tampa lost their starting QB. Doug Williams (yes the same Doug Williams who would win Super Bowl MVP just five years later) left the team because the owner Hugh Culvershouse refused to give the extra $200,000 raise that Williams had requested. That meant the “Throwin Samoan” himself Jack Thompson was the new starting QB for the Bucs. Tampa went 2-14, but Wilder still got his. He set a career high in rushing attempts (161), yards (610) and 16.1 APG. He also averaged 64.0 YPG. Unfortunately, he missed six games due to injury. Had he continued on that same pace, 1,000 rushing yards would have been a very realistic possibility. One interesting stat of note was Wilder’s reception total. He again led the team with 57 catches. Even with the QB change, Wilder was the preferred option by 2.7 RPG. His 57 receptions were also a new career high. However, he had 86 fewer receiving yards than he did the season prior (when he had 53 receptions).
***If you keep reading you will find out why I made a point to keep you updated on Wilder’s yearly reception totals.***
During: Can I just ask why? Did McKay lose his sense of creativity? Is it possible that McKay was the original Jeff Fisher? Or was he old school to a fault? Why else would a 6-10 team give their RB1 nearly 500 touches in a single season?
While Wilder’s 400 attempt season remains an impressive feat, it is even more amazing that he somehow also had 85 receptions. The history books do not give us a target total from 1984. That is extremely unfortunate. Let’s just say Wilder endured his fair share in ‘84. Wilder also caught passes from yet another new QB in veteran signal caller Steve DeBerg.
Wilder’s historic usage season is often forgotten for two main reasons. Reason numero uno: his team was 6-10. After starting 0-2 they managed to run their record to a balmy 3-7. Then they closed out the season by going 3-3 in the final six contests. Reason numero dos: one of most stellar NFL feats was accomplished in the same year. Eric Dickerson (then with the Los Angeles Rams) broke an 11-year old record for rushing yards in a season (OJ Simpson 2,003 yards). In doing so he became just the second player in NFL history to run for 2,000 yards in a season. Dickerson is also the only player break the 2,100-yard mark (2,105 to be exact), and his record still stands today nearly 35 years later. To put this in dueling perspective, here is Wilder’s slash line versus Dickerson’s.
It is pretty easy to see why Wilder’s histrionics were swallowed up.
Now that you know more important history was achieved, we can get back to Wilder. His game logs reveal just two games with fewer than 20 attempts. It is also pretty amazing to see that his 85 receptions resulted in zero receiving TDs. He had five games with at least with 30 attempts (including a 43 attempt game in a three-point win over Green Bay). Those 43 attempts set a single-game record at the time. Wilder also only had five 100-yard games. The 26-year was fed 27, 28 and 31 carries in the season’s final three games. I would assume McKay was acutely aware that the attempts record was 390. This was an incredibly well-known stat since it was achieved by Dickerson in 1983, just 12 months prior. McKay salvaged the Bucs season (ultimately his last season as HC) by having Wilder make history, albeit not immortal history.
Wilder also threw a 16-yard TD pass to cap his monumental season.
Aftermath: The season that followed was almost dually impressive. Wilder dropped a 365/1,300/10 stat line. His YPA dropped to 3.6, but it was admirable considering his 1984 usage. New HC Leeman Bennett and OC Jimmy Raye watched their Bucs suffer through yet another 2-14 season. Wilder also led the team in receptions (53) and again failed to score a receiving TD.
The Bucs were led by a combination of DeBerg (1-10 as a starter) and another future Super Bowl MVP Steve Young (1-4 as a starter) at QB. This was Young’s rookie season.
In the 1986 season, Wilder would miss four games. The tread was clearly wearing thin on his tires, and Wilder only reached 190 carries. He also continued to be a receiving asset by catching 43 passes (good for second most on the team). Tampa Bay squeaked out another meager 2-14 season and HC Bennett was fired.
In 1987 Wilder reverted to a fullback role. He still led the team in rushing attempts with 106 under new HC/OC Ray Perkins. Wilder once again led the team in receptions with 40 as Tampa was forced to start four different QBs throughout the season. He would again miss four games due to injuries.
Wilder slowly disappeared after the Bucs drafted three RBs in 1988. He was 30 years old, and he was north of 1,400 career rushing attempts. It was not an instant descent after his 400 club season. However, a peak of 772 carries in 32 NFL contests will surely leave some wear. He still remains the team’s all-time leading rusher as well the franchise leader in receptions.