The NFL has become a passing league. Running backs are rarely the focal point of an offense, and oftentimes teams rely on tandems as opposed to a single workhorse back. Of course, that hasn’t always been the case. Back in the day, running backs could be the star of the show. Here are the players who have accrued the most rushing yards in a season for every NFL franchise. This includes one running back who is still a star and just set a new record for his team in 2020.
Talk about starting your career off with a bang. Anderson won Offensive Rookie of the Year by putting up 1,605 yards in 1979 for the St. Louis Cardinals. He had a few more really good seasons in his career, but Anderson never had a season quite like that again, and it remains the franchise record for the Cards, even after the move to Arizona.
From one Anderson to another, Jamal was doing the “Dirty Bird” all through the 1998 season that culminated with a trip to the Super Bowl for the Falcons. Anderson rushed for a whopping 1,846 yards, turning him into one of the stars of the NFL. Unfortunately, injuries pretty much ended his career after that.
From one Jamal to another – these guys are making these traditions so easy – we get to the first player on this list to have crossed the 2,000-yard mark in a season. Lewis tore it up for the Ravens in 2003, finishing with 2,066 yards in the campaign. At the time, it was the second-most yards ever in a season, and it’s still the third-most ever.
It’s never easy to talk about O.J. these days, for obvious reasons. However, the fact is he rushed for 2,003 yards in the 1973 season. This was back when the NFL only had 14 games in the season. Simpson averaged 143.1 yards per contest, which is higher than any other member of the 2,000-yard club.
Williams and Jonathan Stewart were quite the dynamic duo for the Panthers, but in 2008 it was Williams that was the star. He rushed for 1,515 yards and led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns. While he was a second-team All-Pro that year, weirdly it was 2009 when he made his only Pro Bowl.
Payton is still a legendary running back, and one of the faces of the stories Bears franchise. He’s held the Chicago rushing record for quite some time, as he set it back in 1977. Of course, “Sweetness” had the most-career rushing yards in NFL history for quite some time, so it’s not surprising his record has stood for a while, and will likely stand forever. Payton had 1,852 yards in that 1977 campaign.
Somebody has to have this distinction, and it’s Johnson that has the fewest yards accumulated in a franchise-record season. The 1,458 yards that Rudi racked up in 2005 are fewer than any of these other 31 players on this list. While that’s certainly not a bad season, there have indeed been many seasons of 1,500 or more yards in NFL history.
We have another noted distinction with this entry, as Brown has the earliest season on this list. It was way back in 1963 when Brown set the Cleveland record. In a 14-game season, Brown rushed for 1,863 yards. Hey, this is a guy who had 1,527 yards and 17 touchdowns in a 12-game season. There’s a reason why many consider Brown the best running back ever.
No, it’s not Emmitt Smith that owns the Cowboys’ franchise record, even if he is the all-time career rushing yards leader. Murray had a wild outlier of a season, rushing for 1,845 yards in 2014, winning Offensive Player of the Year. However, he also had 392 carries that year. The Cowboys decided not to bring Murray back as a free agent, and he signed with the Eagles. He lasted one year there and only had 702 yards. Two seasons later he would be retired after only seven seasons.
John Elway was the face of the Broncos, but Davis was the one making the offense move in the late ‘90s when the team won back-to-back Super Bowls. Between 1996 and 1998, Davis was unstoppable. He won an Offensive Player of the Year award in 1996, and in 1998 he won MVP after rushing for 2,008 yards. The peak was high, but so was the fall. Davis never played more than eight games in a season again, but those three years still got him into the Hall of Fame.
It had been over a decade since anybody had rushed for over 2,000 yards in a game when Sanders started the 1997 campaign. The shifty running back – and a rare bright spot in Detroit Lions history – was unstoppable that year. He broke tackles and sped past defenders en route to 2,053 yards, which felt seismic at the time. Sanders is another back in the discussion for the best ever, and 1997 was his best season.
Green played in Nebraska’s old-school option offense in college, and the man knew how to hit and hole and take off. That didn’t work great when he was in Seattle, but when he moved to the Packers he found the offense that worked for him. Green made four Pro Bowls in a row from 2001 through 2004, all with the Packers. The best year of the bunch came in 2003 when he racked up 1,883 yards.
Foster wasn’t drafted out of college, and he only appeared in six games as a rookie. Then, in his sophomore campaign, he exploded out of nowhere to lead the NFL in rushing yards with 1,616 and rushing touchdowns with 16. The 2010 season would be Foster’s best, but he had three more seasons with over 1,200 yards for the Texans, a franchise that did not have much of a history when Foster arrived.
Some were confounded when the Colts took James over Ricky Williams in the 1999 NFL Draft. Then as a rookie, he was Offensive Rookie of the Year and an All-Pro. He led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie with 1,553 but in the 2000 season, he led the league again while setting a Colts franchise record with 1,709 yards.
MJD is the best back in Jaguars history, and in 2011 he was one of the best backs in the league. Jones-Drew notched 1,606 yards on the ground to go with eight touchdowns, though it was the last time he had over 1,000 yards in a season. After retiring, MJD moved into the media world, and that’s gone quite well for him so far.
Priest Holmes had been tremendous for the Chiefs, so how could they possibly move on from him? Well, by having Johnson show up and becoming the best back in the league for two seasons. In 2005 and 2006 Johnson was a dominant back. He rushed for 1,750 yards and a whopping 20 touchdowns in 2005, but then in 2006, he outdid himself on the yards front with 1,789 yards (and 17 touchdowns for good measure). Unfortunately, Johnson’s excellence on the field has been marred by a lot of problematic and disconcerting behavior off the field and in retirement.
Back when the Raiders were in Los Angeles, Allen was the face of the team. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1982, the team won the Super Bowl in 1983, and then in 1985 Allen was named MVP. He did that on the strength of 1,759 rushing yards, a Raiders record. On top of that, the Hall of Famer had 67 catches for 555 yards.
The Chargers traded down from the first-overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, giving up the chance to draft Michael Vick in over to take Tomlinson. It worked out for them, as they ended up with the best running back of the 2000s. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first eight seasons, and he led the league in rushing touchdowns three times. However, his MVP season of 2006 was clearly his peak year. In addition to rushing for 1,815 yards, he had 28 rushing touchdowns, which is still an NFL record.
To this day, nobody has rushed for more yards in a season than Dickerson. His 1984 campaign is the stuff of legend. Sure, he had two more games than O.J. to do it, but Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards for the Rams that year. A couple of players have come close, but Dickerson has more than the Rams’ franchise record. He has the NFL record.
A lot of people see Williams’ career as a disappointment, because the Saints traded away their entire draft to select him, plus all the marijuana-related suspensions that, by modern standards, feel excessive. When he was on the field, though, Williams lived up to the hype. In fact, in 2002 he set the Miami record with 1,853 yards.
When you are talking about the best backs of the new millennium, Peterson is one of the first names you have to mention. The man has been an All-Pro seven times in a sport where a lot of backs don’t even last seven seasons. His 2012 season may end up being the last time a player who isn’t a quarterback wins the MVP award. He did that because he rushed for 2,097 yards, the second-most in a season. He’s hopped around after leaving the Vikings, but the fact he’s managed to play into his mid-thirties is impressive in and of itself.
Dillon carried the Bengals’ offense to start his career, rushing for over 1,000 yards in six-straight seasons. He then headed to the Patriots, where he immediately hit the ground running. He racked up 1,635 yards and won a Super Bowl in 2004, the last hurrah in what was an underrated career.
Alvin Kamara racks up a lot of touchdowns, but no Saints running back has piled up yards like Rogers. Rogers won the Heisman for the 1980 season and was then the first-overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft. He immediately paid that off by winning Offensive Rookie of the Year with 1,674 yards. That set the Saints’ franchise record, and that record still stands. Unfortunately, in 1982 he would check into rehab for cocaine addiction and his career was fairly short, but he was definitely a talented player.
Barber had issues with fumbles, but he had no issues picking up the rushing yards. In fact, he finished his career with over 1,200 yards in his final five seasons. In fact, the last three seasons of his career were arguably his best, including the 2005 season when he rushed for 1,860 yards. Barber decided to retire early when he was still clearly a good back, but he still owns plenty of Giants records.
In 2004, Dillon joined the Patriots and set their franchise rushing record. That same year, Martin – a former Patriots – back, set the record for New England’s heated rival in New York. Martin rushed for 1,697 yards in 2004, his 10th season in a row with over 1,000 yards. It was also his last season with over 1,000 yards and he would retire after missing the 2006 season with an injury.
In his prime, the shifty Shady McCoy was a ton of fun to watch. Eagles fans certainly agree, as they saw him lead the league in rushing touchdowns and in rushing yards in separate seasons. In the 2013 season he racked up 1,607 yards, one of the six times he was named to the Pro Bowl.
No, the record doesn’t belong to Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, or Willie Parker. It’s Foster, who had a true outlier season in 1992. Foster played in five NFL seasons, and only rushed for over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns once. That year, he had 1,690 yards and 11 touchdowns, making the All-Pro team and ensuring his place in history.
We’re used to Alabama running backs excelling in the NFL these days, but Alexander is a Crimson Tide back of a different vintage that dominated as much as anybody. While he was overshadowed by Tomlinson a bit, Alexander had an excellent five-year span that culminated with him winning the MVP in 2005. He rushed for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns, the latter of which was an NFL record at the time. The 1,880yards is still the Seahawks’ record.
We think of Gore these days as a testament to perseverance and longevity. He just finished an NFL season at 37, and he’s third in all-time career rushing yards due to how long he’s stuck around. No running back has played in more games, but we’re sure Gore still remembers his sophomore campaign. In 2006, he rushed for 1,695 yards, the 49ers’ franchise record.
Wilder is kind of forgotten as a player, mostly because the Bucs were terrible in the ‘80s, and Wilder played from 1981 through 1989 with the team. He still leads the Buccaneers in career rushing yards, and he actually had the career receptions record for a while as well. In 1984, Wilder rushed for 1,544 yards, a franchise record, and he made his only Pro Bowl.
Here’s a fresh entry. Henry just set the Titans’ franchise record in 2020. In leading the NFL in rushing yards for the second season in a row, Henry rushed for 2,027 yards. It felt like nobody would ever rush for over 2,000 yards again in this modern era, but Henry thought otherwise.
John Riggins is the first running back you may think of, but the Washington record was set by a rookie who was a sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic. Morris rushed for 1,613 yards, and he would follow that up with a couple more 1,000-yard seasons in that Washington run game. Since then, he’s just sort of been hanging around the NFL and jumping from team to team, hoping to reclaim that rookie-season glory.