The 2,000 Yard Men

The 2,000 Yard Men
Reading Time: 13 minutes.

Who are the 2,000 yard men? The backs who have done the season long graft for a pro football team. Then come away with 2,000+ yards on the ground to show for it.

If you do a cursory search online you might think there have only been seven. Even the Pro Football Hall of Fame only lists eight 2,000 yard men.

Which if you are looking at just NFL history is fine. But it doesn’t cover it all because two other major Pro leagues have had someone achieve it too.

The CFL saw Mike Pringle have the league’s only ever 2,000 yard season and the USFL saw Herschel Walker go over the magic mark too.

So let’s take a look at those ten seasons and what happened to the 2,000 yard men on the football field after them.

O.J Simpson – 1973 NFL

OK so these days with OJ Simpson the first thing you think about is definitely not the fact that he was the first pro back to rush for over 2,000 yards.

I am not going into that here though. This is about his football career – I am sure you can find plenty of places to read about the rest!

In a 14 game NFL regular season in 1973 Simpson, whilst playing for the Buffalo Bills, Simpson ran for 2,003 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Bills would finish 9-5 and out of the playoffs.

2,000 yard season Stats: 332 carries, 2,003 yards, 6 yards per carry, 12 Touchdowns, averaging 143.07 yards per game. Named MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.

To get to 2,000 yards in 14 games, O.J. had to average 143 yards a game, which is the all-time record.

This was Simpson’s 5th season with the Bills. He would be with them for 9 seasons in all before finishing out his career in San Francisco.

1973 is his most memorable season. However in 1975 when he ran for 1,817 yards he actually had more yards from scrimmage going for a total of 2,243 compared to the 2,073 yard total of this year.

On-Field Legacy

Simpson went to the Pro Bowl on six occasions, and was selected first team all Pro five consecutive years from 1972-1976. He won 4 rushing titles whilst in the NFL.

He was also elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This after finishing with 11,236 rushing yards and 14,368 combined net career yards.

Simpson is also a member of the NFL All-Decade team for the 1970’s.

Eric Dickerson – 1984 NFL

In a 16 game NFL regular season Dickerson ran for 2,105 yards and 14 touchdowns whilst playing for the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams would finish 10-6 and make the playoffs as a Wild card team. They would lose that game at home 16-13 to the New York Giants.

Dickerson did not receive either the MVP or Offensive Player of the Year awards this season. This was because Dan Marino stole his thunder by setting a barrage of passing records and winning the individual recognition instead.

2,000 yard season Stats: 379 carries, 2,105 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 14 Touchdowns, averaging 131.56 yards per game.

Decades later Dickerson remains the NFL single season rushing leader with this 1984 performance. Bear in mind too that his QB, Jeff Kemp, only threw 13 touchdowns, and no receiver gained 1,000 yards.

This was Dickerson’s second season as a Ram and over those 2 years he ran for a remarkable 3,913 yards despite being known to be the team’s primary weapon.

He spent 4 and half seasons in LA before being traded to the Colts. He finished his last 2 seasons spending a year each with the Raiders and the Falcons. In truth though those who remember tend to visualize him as either a Ram or a Colt.

On-Field Legacy

Dickerson was the 7th running back to reach 10,000 yards rushing. He remains the fastest ever to do so, reaching the milestone in just 91 games.

Selected to six Pro Bowls, Dickerson was also a 5 time All-Pro (1983, ’84, ’86, ’87 & ’88).

He was also elected to the Hall of Fame. This after finishing with 13,259 rushing yards and 15,396 combined net career yards.

Dickerson is also a member of the NFL All-Decade team for the 1980’s.

Herschel Walker – 1985 USFL

In an 18 game USFL regular season Walker ran for 2,411 yards and 21 touchdowns whilst playing for the New Jersey Generals. The Generals would finish 11-7 and lose their only playoff game 20-17 to the Baltimore Stars.

Walker was named the USFL MVP for 1985 & his 2,411 yards rushing remain a pro football single season record.

This was the second of Walker’s three years in the USFL with the Generals. The end of those three years saw the league wound up. At least partially because Donald Trump, the owner of the Generals, convinced most of his fellow owners to move to an Autumn schedule in 1986. The idea was to contend and force a merger. Instead the league wound up and talent like walker found themselves looking elsewhere for employment.

The Dallas Cowboys picked up Walker and he was with them from 1986 to part way through the 1989 season. That was when Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys engineered one of the most famous trades in the modern NFL. The Cowboys ended up with barrage of draft stock and Walker found himself in Minnesota.

He would also play for the Eagles and Giants during his time in the league.

2,000 yard season Stats: 438 carries, 2,411 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 21 Touchdowns, averaging 133.94 yards per game. Named League MVP.

While Walker had a successful individual NFL career, he never played on a championship team.

On-Field Legacy

Walker was named to Sporting News and USFL All-League Teams in 1983 and 1985 and named MVP by both in 1985.

From 1983-5 in the USFL he had 1,143 carries for 5,562 yards and 54 touchdowns. An incredible performance.

He would go on to run for 8,225 yards in the NFL. This left him with 3,097 career carries for 13,787 yards and 115 touchdowns. He also caught 642 passes for 6,343 yards and 28 receiving touchdowns. He burnished this with 218 kick returns totaling 5,153 yards.

That’s a total of 25, 283 career yards between the USFL & NFL. He is not in the Pro football Hall of Fame and when you look at those career numbers you think they should rename it the NFL football Hall of Fame.

Barry Sanders – 1997 NFL

In a 16 game regular season Sanders ran for 2,053 yards and 11 touchdowns whilst playing for the Detroit Lions. The Lions finished 9-7 and made the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Once there they would lose 20-10 to Tampa Bay.

2,000 yard season Stats: 335 carries, 2,053 yards, 6.1 yards per carry, 11 Touchdowns, averaging 128.31 yards per game. Named MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.

Barry would also have 33 catches for 305 yards giving him 2,358 yards from scrimmage.

This was Sanders’ 9th season with the Lions. He had become the focal point of a team that had qualified for the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons – the best stretch in franchise history.

During the final 14 games of the 1997 season Sanders rushed for exactly 2,000 yards on 310 carries (6.5 yd./carry). A 14 game stretch that holds up pretty well against Simpson’s 1973 numbers.

To get to that point he gained a 100 yards or more in 14 consecutive games. A league record.

He would play only one more season in the NFL before retiring from pro football having spent a decade with the Lions.

On-Field Legacy

Barry Sanders was a human highlight reel. If you didn’t see him play, you missed out. Check out the highlights on YouTube – they are eye-poppingly brilliant.

Sanders holds some key NFL rushing records. These include most seasons, 1,400 or more yards rushing (7), most seasons, 1,500 or more yards rushing (5), and most consecutive seasons, 1,500 or more yards rushing (4).

For each of his 10 years in the league he was elected to the Pro Bowl and was an 8 time All-Pro.

Barry Sanders was elected to the Hall of Fame following a career that saw him rush for 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns.

There is little doubt he could have played on and broken the all-time rushing record but his heart had gone out of the game and he walked way on his own terms.

Mike Pringle – 1998 CFL

In an 18 game CFL regular season, Pringle ran for 2,064 yards whilst playing for the Montreal Alouettes. The Als finished 12-5-1 and won a Division Semi-Final before losing 24-22 in a Division Final match-up with Hamilton.

The CFL is over sixty years old, but this is the only recorded 2,000 yards rushing season in CFL history. The closest anyone has come was in 1994, when Pringle himself ran for 1,972 yards.

2,000 yard season Stats: 347 carries, 2,064 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 9 Touchdowns, averaging 114.66 yards per game. Named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player.

Pringle added 26 catches for 349 yards. This gave him 2,414 yards from scrimmage on the season. A figure which is still the CFL single season record. It has only been matched once. By Pringle himself in 1994.

1998 was Pringle’s fifth season with the Alouettes franchise and 7th overall in the league. He would play 4 more seasons in Montreal before capping his career with 2 years in Edmonton.

On-Field Legacy

At his retirement, Mike Pringle was the all-time leading rusher in CFL history. He still holds the record, 16,425 yards rushing, as well as the record for most yards from scrimmage (20,255).

He was voted the CFL Most Outstanding Player in 1995 & 1998. As well as being named a CFL All-Star on 7 occasions an Eastern All-Star on 7 occasions and a Western All Star once.

Pringle won the Grey Cup on 3 occasions (1995, 2002 & 2003). They were all with the same franchise and the latter two were won under the Alouettes banner. However the ’95 win was with the Baltimore Stallions – the only time a US based team has won the CFL title.

Mike Pringle was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame following a career that saw him run for 16,425 yards and score 137 touchdowns. 13 seasons in the CFL averaging 1,263 yards per year makes him one of the most consistent performers on this list.

Terrell Davis – 1998 NFL

1998 was clearly a special year for running backs. The only time in pro football history that two backs went over 2,000 yards albeit in separate leagues.

In a 16 game NFL regular season Davis ran for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns whilst playing for the Denver Broncos. The Broncos finished 14-2 behind Davis’ running and went on to win the Super Bowl for the second year in a row.

Davis posted 23 total touchdowns in 1998, 21 on the ground and 2 through the air. He had proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle for Denver to win the Super Bowl.

Prior to his arrival they had lost in the big game 3 times. Each game had been a lopsided defeat including the biggest Super Bowl defeat of all.

2,000 yard season Stats: 392 carries, 2,008 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 21 Touchdowns, averaging 125.5 yards per game. Named League MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.

This was Davis’ 4th season with the Broncos. Since his arrival they had gone 45-17 and won 2 Super Bowls.

After the 1998 season injuries would curtail Davis career and he would only play in 17 games over the next 3 years.

On-Field Legacy

Davis was the lowest ever drafted player to go over 1,000 yards when he rushed for 1,117 yards in his rookie season. He followed that with 1,538 yards in 1996, 1,750 yards in 1997 & 2,008 yards in 1998. An incredible 6,413 yards and 56 touchdowns punctuated his pre-injury time in the league.

That meant he started his career at a ridiculous pace, averaging 1,603 yards and 14 touchdowns per year. He was named NFL MVP in 1998 and Offensive Player of the Year in 1996 & 1998.

Davis was elected to 3 Pro Bowls and named first team All-Pro from 1996-1998.

The pinnacle was having his career highlighted by being named Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl XXXII as he would have 30 carries for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Despite a short career Davis’ impact was so great he was elected to the Hall of Fame having rushed to 7,607 yards and 60 touchdowns in just 78 career games. That’s a 97.5 yard per game clip. We’ll never know what might have been if he hadn’t had a devastating knee injury.

Terrell Davis remains the only player in NFL history to have 2,000+ rushing yards and 20+ touchdowns in a single season. He also holds the record for most rushing TD’s in a single post-season (8 in 1997).

Jamal Lewis – 2003 NFL

In a 16 game NFL regular season, Jamal Lewis ran for 2,003 yards and 16 touchdowns whilst playing for the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens ended the season 10-6 and lost a Wildcard playoff game to the Tennessee Titans 17-20.

Lewis also had 26 receptions for 205 yards giving him 2,271 yards from scrimmage.

Alongside Lewis for the 2,003 season the two quarterbacks for the Ravens, Anthony Wright and Kyle Boller, combined for 2,459 yards 16 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. So as with some of the other backs featured here, opponents knew in advance he would be the Ravens main weapon.

2,000 yard season Stats: 387 carries, 2,066 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 14 Touchdowns, averaging 129.12 yards per game. Named NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

This was Lewis’ 4th season with Baltimore, although his third active season as one had been lost to injury.

With Lewis in the lineup the Ravens went 32-16, but limped to a 7-9 season in his absence in 2002.

Lewis had picked up a Super Bowl ring as a rookie contributing 27 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown as Baltimore beat the Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV.

On Field Legacy

Jamal Lewis was elected to one Pro Bowl, and once named First team All-Pro, both in 2003.

However he was so consistent that he was still elected to the NFL 2000’s All-Decade team (as a second option).

In the NFL for a decade, and playing for nine seasons, Jamal Lewis finished with 10,607 career rushing yards and 58 touchdowns. A further 1,879 yards and 4 touchdowns were added as a receiver.

In 2012 he was elected to the Baltimore Ravens ring of honor.

Chris Johnson – 2009 NFL

In a 16 game NFL regular season Chris Johnson ran for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns. Setting a new single season mark for yards from scrimmage in the NFL whilst playing for the Tennessee Titans. The Titans ended the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

Chris Johnson’s 2009 season was remarkable. He gained 2,006 yards on the ground, and 503 in the air. With his combined rushing and receiving yards he broke Marshall Faulk’s single-season yards from scrimmage record.

2,000 yard season Stats: 358 carries, 2,006 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 14 Touchdowns, averaging 125.37 yards per game. Named NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

This was Johnson’s second season in Tennessee and followed a 1,228 yard rookie season that saw him average 4.9 yards per carry.

Tennessee would be home for the first six years of his NFL career and would be where he saw most success. Whilst with the Titans Johnson recorded six straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons. Amassing 7,965 yards and 50 touchdowns during that time.

Going on to play for the Jets and Cardinals he would never have the same success again. The closest he came was in 2015, when as a Cardinal he had 814 yards after 11 weeks of the season only to fracture his tibia in a week 12 game.

On Field Legacy

Much like Jamal Lewis before him, Johnson was voted All-Pro only once, That being in 2,009 when he was the NFL rushing leader.

As noted he set the yards from scrimmage record that year. A record that still stands.

Three consecutive pro-bowl selections were also earned at the start of his career, as Johnson was selected from 2008-10.

Chris Johnson finished his NFL career with 9,651 yards rushing and 55 touchdowns. He added 2,255 yards and 9 touchdowns on 307 receptions.

His big play ability can be ascertained from a raft of records he still holds. These include being the only player in NFL history with a touchdown of 50, 60, & 90 yards in a single game. (a 57-yard rush, a 69-yard reception, and a 91-yard rush during Week 2 against the Texans, 2009).

Johnson is also the only player in NFL history with 6 touchdown runs of over 80 yards & the only one to have 4 touchdown runs of over 85 yards.

Not to mention becoming the first player in NFL history with 6 consecutive games of 125+ rushing yards and a 5.0+ yards per carry average. Which saw him beak records set by Jim Brown – illustrious company.

Adrian Peterson – 2012 NFL

As we started with this list, so we end it with a player for whom the first thing some people think of won’t be his 2,000 yard season or general playing career.

In a 16 game NFL regular season Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns whilst playing for the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings would finish the season 10-6 and lose a Wild-Card game to the Packers 24-10.

After the 2012 season ended Peterson had an operation for a sports hernia. He appeared to have been playing injured for the final quarter of his 2,000 yard campaign.

The performance in 2012 was all the more amazing given that it took place less than a year after he tore his ACL.

During the run he was extremely careful with the ball fumbling a little over one percent of his touches (four of 388 total) and losing fewer than one percent of them (two).

Peterson’s 2,097 rushing yards were 484 yards greater than the second-most productive rusher on the year, rookie Alfred Morris of Washington. (1,613).

The last time the gap had been that big? 2009 when Chris Johnson (2,006) led Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams (1,416) by 590 yards.

2,000 yard season Stats: 348 carries, 2,097 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 12 Touchdowns, averaging 131.06 yards per game.

This was Peterson’s sixth season with the Vikings who he would eventually represent for a decade setting franchise records for carries (2,418), rushing yards (11, 747) & rushing touchdowns (97).

He has since represented New Orleans, Arizona and latterly Washington where in 2019 he was awarded the Art Rooney award.

On Field Legacy

Peterson has another year on his contract in Washington. So he may yet add to his achievements, but for how much longer?

He seems certain to head to Canton after retirement and is a 7 time Pro- Bowl selection, and 7 time All-Pro (first team on 4 occasions).

So far Peterson’s NFL career has seen him rush for 14,216 yards and 111 touchdowns. A further 2,365 yards and 6 touchdowns have been added through the air.

Adrian Peterson has NFL records for most rushing yards in a single game (296), Most 60+ yard touchdown runs (13), and he is tied with O J Simpson for most 200 yard games in his career (6).

Derrick Henry – 2020 NFL

In a 16 game NFL regular season Derrick Henry ran for 2,027 yards and 17 Touchdowns whilst playing for the Tennesse Titans. The Titans would finish the season 11-5 and lose a Wild-Card game to the Ravens 20-13.

Behind Henry’s running the Titans had their first double-digit winning season and division title since 2008. 

Henry carried the ball 470 yards further than second placed man Dalvin Cook’s 1,557 yard rushing season for the Vikings. During the run he was extremely careful with the ball fumbling a little under one percent of his touches (three of 378 total).

Henry also had 19 receptions covering 114 yards giving him 2,141 yards from crimmage for the season.

2,000 yard season Stats: 378 carries, 2,027 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 17 Touchdowns, averaging 126.69 yards per game.

This is Henry’s fifth season with the Titans. And it is clear he has hit a purple patch in his short career. For the second straight year he is the leading NFL rusher by yardage and rushing touchdown scorer.

On Field Legacy

It is still very early in Derrick Henry’s career to know how we will regard this in years to come.

After spending the first years of his career splitting time in the backfield, in 2019 Henry became the clear backfield number one in Tennessee. A move that has paid dividends for him and the team. In these two years he has amassed 3,567 yards and 33 touchdowns.

As well as being the first NFL player to run for 2,000 yards since Adrian Peterson in 2012, Henry also became the first player to win back-to-back rushing crowns since LaDainian Tomlinson from 2006 to 2007.

A good sign for Henry is that since 1970, seven players have won consecutive rushing titles, and all are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Having established career highs in carries (378), yards-per-carry (5.4) and rushing touchdowns (17) in 2020 it will be interesting to see where Henry goes from here.

What does it all mean?

When this article was originaly published in February 2020, it had been eight years since we saw a 2,000 yard rushing season in pro football. Then Henry came along and gave us another.

We had asked if this was possible in the modern game. Perhaps a more important question should be is it be worth it? Henry’s Titans went 11-5 and were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

That record isn’t that much of a disparity. The teams of these 10 backs who went over 2,000 yards was 104-52-1 in the regular season. Then 4-7 in the playoffs.

In fact Terrell Davis being on a 14-2 squad was highly anomalous. If we take that out they finished 90-50-1 in the regular season and 1-7 in the playoffs.

We have seen a steady favouring of the passing game, and whilst the running game needs to be good to keep a D honest these figures don’t suggest it’s the key to playoff success.

This article was updated on the 12th of January 2021 to reflect on Derrick Henry joining the 2,000 yard men.

There is a chance we will see a 2,000 yard back again. Watching them rack up the yards over a season is a joy, but as joyful as it would be to see would it bring success? Only time will tell.

Featured Image: One of the great sights – Barry Sanders in full flight. Image from Detroit Metro Times.

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