December 9, 2011

1984: Eric Dickerson Breaks NFL Season Rushing Record

In his second season in the NFL, Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams had already established himself as one of the premier running backs in pro football. As a first draft choice out of Southern Methodist in 1983, he set a rookie ground-gaining record with 1808 yards on 390 carries with 18 touchdowns. Now in his second year he was within striking distance of O.J. Simpson’s single-season rushing record as the Rams prepared to host the Houston Oilers at Anaheim Stadium on December 9, 1984.

It was the next-to-last game of the season for the Rams, and with Dickerson 212 yards from surpassing Simpson’s 1973 total of 2003, it was anticipated that, if he was to break the record, it would most likely not happen until the season finale, which was to be a nationally-televised Friday night showdown with the 49ers. LA was 9-5 under Head Coach John Robinson and looking to secure a wild card playoff spot (San Francisco had lost only once and had the division title sewed up). The Rams had lost QB Vince Ferragamo to an injury three weeks into the year, but it hardly mattered as backup QB Jeff Kemp directed the ball-control offense and kept mistakes (and passes) to a minimum. The 6’3”, 218-pound Dickerson had an outstanding line to run behind and the stingy defense was as tough at defending against the run as the offense was at producing on the ground. However, coming into the game, LA was without 34-year-old star DE Jack Youngblood, who had an injured back that ended his consecutive game streak at 201.

The Oilers, coached by Hugh Campbell, were a good team to run against. They had lost their first ten games, and while they then won three of the last four contests, they were 3-11 overall and had the NFL’s worst run defense.

There were 49,092 fans in attendance at Anaheim Stadium. Less than two minutes into the game, the Rams scored when Kemp passed to WR Drew Hill, who had gotten past CB Willie Tullis, for a 57-yard touchdown to finish off a five-play, 77-yard drive. Houston cut the lead to 7-3 thanks to a 21-yard field goal by Joe Cooper to cap a 10-play series, but Los Angeles responded with a 71-yard drive in which Dickerson accounted for 46 of that total, including the last seven for a TD. Mike Lansford added a 35-yard field goal to make it 17-3 after a quarter of play.

The Oilers began to come back behind the passing of QB Warren Moon, the former CFL star in his first season in the NFL. Cooper booted a 42-yard field goal and then RB Larry Moriarty ran for a four-yard touchdown that narrowed the margin to 17-13 with 6:13 remaining in the half. Lansford kicked a 19-yard field goal for LA to make it 20-13 at halftime. Dickerson had gained 106 yards thus far – half of what he needed to catch Simpson.

The Rams started off the third quarter by moving into scoring position, but Kemp was sacked for a 10-yard loss and then Lansford missed a field goal attempt from 41 yards out. The feisty Oilers kept the game close as Cooper kicked his third field goal, this time from 18 yards, and LA’s lead was just 20-16 entering the final period.

On a series highlighted by a 34-yard pass from Kemp to WR Henry Ellard, Dickerson scored on a six-yard run. The Rams were up by 11 points, and the star running back was tantalizingly close to the record – the only question was whether he would get another chance at it in this game.

However, an interception by SS Vince Newsome with 3:30 to play gave Dickerson his final shot at the mark with the ball on the LA 36. Eight seconds later, and with the crowd cheering wildly, he took off on one of his signature plays, the 47 Gap, and running behind G Dennis Harrah, RT Bill Bain, and TE David Hill, cut outside for nine yards and the record. Dickerson finished the contest at 2007 yards after 15 games (one more than the 14-game schedule that was in effect when Simpson set the mark).

Eric Dickerson achieved the new standard in fine style, rushing for 215 yards on 27 carries with two TDs. It was his 12th hundred-yard performance and second over 200 yards in ’84.

The Rams outgained Houston by 453 yards to 338, although the Oilers had more first downs (23 to 21). Unsurprisingly, 276 of LA’s total came on the ground. The Rams didn’t turn the ball over at all, while Houston gave it up twice.

In addition to Dickerson, RB Dwayne Crutchfield ran the ball seven times for 61 yards for the Rams. Jeff Kemp completed 12 of 23 passes for 199 yards and a TD. With 57 yards on his one scoring catch, Drew Hill led the club in pass receiving yardage. Henry Ellard had three receptions for 49 yards and David Hill caught three for 43.

For Houston, Warren Moon was successful on 19 of 29 throws for an even 200 yards with one intercepted. WR Tim Smith grabbed 6 of those passes for 69 yards. Larry Moriarty gained 102 yards on 24 carries that included a TD.

Afterward, Dickerson expressed relief that the chase was over. “Now I can focus in on the playoffs and not worry about 2,000 yards.”

John Robinson praised him as “the greatest football player I've ever been around or seen. He's really pretty good.”

The Rams were defeated in the season finale to end up at 10-6, but in the playoffs. They went on to lose a close 16-13 game to the Giants in the Wild Card round. The Oilers finished at the bottom of the AFC Central with a 3-13 record.

Eric Dickerson topped out at 2105 yards on 379 carries for a 5.6-yard average gain and 14 touchdowns. With his upright running style and wearing his signature goggles, he continued to be one of the league’s most productive runners throughout the decade. He led the NFL twice more in ground-gaining on his way to a career total of 13,259 yards (second all-time in 1993, his last year) and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.