The sight of a running back making his way through a defense to eat up crucial yards, find a first down or even score a touchdown is one of the finest in football – unless you’re a fan of that defense, of course.
Certain players have had golden seasons that have seen them really rack up the rushing yards, and here, we’ll go through those who have finished those seasons with the highest rushing totals in NFL history.
We start at the top by going all the way back to 1984 and looking at the only man still to rush over 2,100 yards in a single season.
Most Rushing Yards in a Single Season in NFL History
1. 2,105 yards – Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams (1984)
It was almost 40 years ago but it still stands as the most impressive rushing season of all time. Having already broken the rookie record the year before when he ran 1,808 yards, Eric Dickerson upped his game in 1984 to 2,105 yards. That included surpassing 100 yards in a remarkable 12 games to breaking O.J. Simpson’s previous record, though he was helped by the NFL moving from 14 to 16 regular NFL season games in 1978. The expanded schedule allowed for the occasional forgettable performance, and that was his 38-yard effort in a 33-0 Week 9 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Within the context of that 1984 season’s rushing yards leaders, Dickerson outgained next-best rusher Walter Payton – perhaps you’ve heard of him – by 421 yards, and he did it on two fewer carries.
He ended the regular season with 14 rushing touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry and 131.6 yards per game on 379 attempts. Dickerson didn’t with the MVP in 1984, but that’s because he had the misfortune of setting his record the same season Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino set the single-season mark for passing yards. It’s Dickerson’s record that lives on, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
2. 2,097 yards – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (2012)
Adrian Peterson had already played five seasons with the Vikings before this explosive year. He had only just returned from eight months out with ACL and MCL tears and logged 84 yards and two TDs in Week 1. Though he only rushed over 100 yards once in his first six games, he then did so in nine of his last 10, beginning with a 153-yard effort in Week 7 against the Arizona Cardinals. He rushed for more than 200 yards in Weeks 13 and 15, while settling for 199 in Week 17 against the Green Bay Packers to come up eight yards short of the all-time record.
Peterson ended with 12 rushing TDs, an average of 6.0 yards per carry from 348 attempted and 131.1 yards per game, with a total of 2,097 yards for the season, the second-best of all time.
3. 2,066 yards – Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens (2003)
It wasn’t a complete surprise that Jamal Lewis made this list considering he broke Corey Dillon’s single-game rushing record when he ran an incredible 295 yards against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2 of the 2003 season. It was the first of six consecutive games of rushing for over 100 yards. He carried that form through the year, ending with 2,066 yards from 387 carries, recording 14 rushing TDs, an average of 5.3 yards per carry and a yards-per-game mark of 129.1.
Lewis’ single-game record was safe only until Adrian Peterson came along and surpassed it by one yard in 2007 against the San Diego Chargers.
4. 2,053 yards – Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions (1997)
The only man to appear twice on this list, Barry Sanders had looked the part of a 2,000-yard rusher his entire career. He flirted with 1,900 yards three years earlier, then made it happen in his second-to-last year in the NFL. It happened nine years after he set the college football rushing record with ease, amassing 2,850 yards in a single season with Oklahoma State.
Sanders was able to put up 11 rushing TDs and 2,053 yards from just 335 carries for an average of 6.13 per carry (the highest of players in this list). In fact, Sanders’ yards per carry for 1997 is the highest on record of anyone with at least 300 carries in one season (It should be noted that Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns averaged 6.4 yards per carry from 291 rush attempts in 1963). And Sanders did this after rushing for just 53 yards on 25 carries in the first two games of the season against the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From there, it was 14 straight games with at least 105 yards rushing in each, and he officially joined the 2,000-yard club with his 183-yard Week 17 effort against the New York Jets.
5. 2,027 yards – Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (2020)
Derrick Henry is the only player to break 2,000 yards in the last decade, though it didn’t look like he would early on in the 2020 season. While he racked up over 100 yards in two of his first four games, he only averaged 3.7 yards per carry. However, in Week 6 against the Houston Texans, he managed 212 yards in an overtime win.
A dream for fantasy football fans, Henry totaled 215 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14, before again thriving against the Texans with a 250-yard game in Week 17. His 2,027 yards overall came from 378 rush attempts, scoring 17 rushing TDs.
6. 2,008 yards – Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos (1998)
The first player to actually win the Super Bowl in the same year as he put up his entry for this list, Terrell Davis was a key part of the John Elway-led 1998 Broncos.
After being held to 75 yards in Week 1, he went the next seven with at least 100 yards in each, including 208 in the Week 6 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Davis reached 2,008 yards from 392 rush attempts for an average of 5.1 per carry. The 2,000-yard mark was anything but a given after a Week 16 performance in which the Miami Dolphins held Davis to 29 yards, but he bounced back with 178 in the final week of the season against that Seahawks defense he’d broken out against 11 weeks prior.
Davis didn’t score in either of those last two games but recorded 21 rushing TDs for the season. Only five players have ever scored more rushing TDs in a season – LaDainian Tomlinson (28 in 2006 for the San Diego Chargers), Shaun Alexander (27 in 2005 for the Seattle Seahawks), Priest Holmes (27 in 2003 for the Kansas City Chiefs), Emmitt Smith (25 in 1995 for the Dallas Cowboys) and John Riggins (24 in 1983 for Washington).
Davis rushed for another 468 yards in the playoffs, including 102 in the Super Bowl against the Atlanta Falcons.
7. 2,006 yards – Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (2009)
In just his second season for the Titans, Chris Johnson broke the 2,000-yard mark. Like Davis, he started slowly, with just 57 yards in Week 1, only to rush for 197 in Week 2 against the Texans. Three more games of under 100 followed, including just 34 yards from nine attempts against the Indianapolis Colts, but that was it. From then on it was over 100 all the way, ending the regular season with 11-straight games of rushing for three figures in yardage.
Johnson’s 2,006 yards came from 358 rush attempts, producing 14 rushing TDs and an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
8. 2,003 yards – O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills (1973)
While controversy was to follow after his NFL career, few would deny that O.J. Simpson was the best running back of his generation, but it took a few seasons to get going. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry in his first four seasons with nine 100-yard games and topped out at 1,251 yards in 1972. Things changed the following season. Simpson surpassed 100 yards 11 times to become the first player ever to rush for over 2,000 yards, and he did it in a 14-game regular season.
He announced himself early with 250 yards against the New England Patriots in Week 1 and put bookends on the season with 200-yard efforts in the final two games of the regular season against those same Pats and the Jets. He scored 12 rushing TDs, averaged a career-best 6.0 yards per carry and an impressive 143.1 yards per game.
9. 1,934 yards – Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers (1980)
The man nicknamed ‘The Tyler Rose’ certainly bloomed in the 1980 season. Having been the first pick of the 1978 draft, there were lofty expectations of Campbell, and he delivered two years later. Still, it’s impossible to not look back at it as a bit of a what-if year.
Campbell only had 50 carriers and 224 rushing yards through the first five weeks of the season after exiting Week 3 early with 11 yards against the Baltimore Colts and missing Week 4 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He exploded after that to rush for over 100 in all but two of his final 11 games, including four games posting over 200 (against the the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings). His 373 rush attempts came with a career-best average of 5.2 yards per carry and 13 rushing TDs, but he ultimately missed out on Simpson’s then-record 2,003 yards by 69 yards.
T10. 1,883 yards – Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions (1994)
We have a tie for 10th, starting with Sanders as he managed it in fewer rush attempts (331). The highlight of his 1994 season was rushing for 237 yards against the Buccaneers in a Week 11 win.
Overall, he ended with 1,883 yards at an average of 5.7 yards per carry, which stood as his career best until 1997.
T10. 1,883 yards – Ahman Green, Green Bay Packers (2003)
While Ahman Green matched Sanders’ efforts nine years later, it took him more rush attempts to do so (355). However, he also scored more than double the number of rushing TDs, with 15. Sanders had seven.
Green rushed for over 100 yards in 10 of his 16 games, including 218 in a Week 17 win over the Denver Broncos. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and, like Sanders in 1994, 117.7 yards per game.