What are the current RB records in the NFL when it comes to a single season, career numbers, and rookie performances? Will we see any of the all-time RB records broken now that the NFL has switched to a 17-game season?
NFL RB Season Records
Who holds the season-long RB records for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and rushing attempts?
NFL Season Rushing Yards Record
1. Eric Dickerson — 2,105 yards (1984)
2. Adrian Peterson — 2,097 yards (2012)
3. Jamal Lewis — 2,066 yards (2003)
Eric Dickerson’s record of 2,105 rushing yards has stood for an incredible length of time. He also remains the only player to rush for over 2,100 yards in NFL history. Adrian Peterson came close in 2012 but fell an agonizing 8 yards short of matching Dickerson after a 199-yard performance in the final game of that season.
A name not on the list above, but perhaps the most remarkable performance in NFL history is O.J. Simpson’s 1973 season in which he became the first player to cross 2,000 rushing yards. Simpson achieved the feat in a 14-game season, averaging 143.1 rushing yards per game. That is 12 yards more per game than Dickerson achieved. If we extrapolate that out to a 16-game season, Simpson would have had an incredible RB season-long record of 2,289.6 yards.
NFL Season Rushing Touchdown Record
1. LaDainian Tomlinson — 28 touchdowns (2006)
T-2. Shaun Alexander — 27 touchdowns (2005)
T-2. Priest Holmes — 27 touchdowns (2003)
In the space of four seasons, the rushing touchdown record was set or equaled three times. First, it was Priest Holmes with the Chiefs in 2003 as he broke Emmitt Smith’s record of 25 rushing touchdowns in 1995.
Shaun Alexander then tied the record in his 2005 MVP season before LaDanian Tomlinson broke the record the following year. The impressive thing about Tomlinson’s 28 rushing touchdowns is he did that inside 14 games, failing to add another touchdown in his final two games that season.
The closest anyone has got since 2006 was Peterson in 2009 (18) and LeGarrette Blount in 2016 (18).
NFL Season Carries Record
1. Larry Johnson — 416 attempts (2006)
2. Jamal Anderson — 410 attempts (1998)
3. James Wilder — 407 attempts (1984)
When you look at the list of the top 10 RBs in terms of the record for rushing yards, it stands out that only three entries are from after the 2000 season. Nevertheless, Larry Johnson did set the record in 2006 with an incredible 416 rushing attempts. Unfortunately, that was the peak of Johnson’s career. He had just another 535 rushing attempts in the next five years of his career.
It is a similar story for Jamal Anderson, who set the record in 1998. He played just three more years in the NFL, rushing for a total of 356 times throughout that span. James Wilder was a slightly different story. After his record-setting 1984 season, he backed that up with another 365 rushing attempts in 1985. However, his career quickly fell off after that, never topping 200 rushing attempts again.
NFL RB Career Records
Which backs hold the career RB records, and are any of the all-time records under threat of being broken in the coming years?
NFL career rushing yards record
1. Emmitt Smith — 18,355 yards (1990-2004)
2. Walter Payton — 16,726 yards (1975-1987)
3. Frank Gore — 16,000 yards (2005-2020)
Emmitt Smith had an incredible career, and his numbers seem primed to last for a while — especially the career rushing yards record. Smith averaged 1,223.7 yards per season over the course of a 15-year career.
Among active players, Frank Gore is the closest at 16,000 rushing yards, with Adrian Peterson at 14,820. However, neither of those were signed with a team to start the 2021 season. Among players on a roster in 2021, Mark Ingram is the highest placed, but Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry are the most likely of the current generation of backs to challenge Smith’s record in the future.
NFL Career Rushing Touchdown Record
1. Emmitt Smith — 164 touchdowns (1990-2004)
2. LaDainian Tomlinson — 145 touchdowns (2001-2011)
3. Marcus Allen — 123 touchdowns (1982-1997)
Smith may have played 15 years in the league, but he broke the RB touchdown record within nine years. He then added another 39 TDs over the final six years of his career. Tomlinson looked like he might have a chance to break the record when he had 138 rushing touchdowns through nine seasons. Yet, he could only play two seasons after that and fell 19 short of matching Smith.
Peterson tops the list of active players with 118 rushing touchdowns. Of the current active players, Henry looks to have the best chance of breaking Smith’s record. Henry had 55 rushing touchdowns through his first five seasons and scored 45 of those between 2018 and 2020.
NFL Career Carries Record
1. Emmitt Smith — 4,409 attempts (1990-2004)
2. Walter Payton — 3,838 attempts (1975-1987)
3. Frank Gore — 3,735 attempts (2005-2020)
Smith averaged an incredible 293.9 rushing attempts per season during his career. To put that into context, in the last two seasons, only five backs have topped that number in a single season. Walter Payton actually bested it with an average of 295.2 rushing attempts per season in his 13-year career. This is one all-time RB record that could stand the test of time.
NFL RB Rookie Records
Which RBs hold the record for the most yards, touchdowns, and attempts as a rookie?
Rookie RB Rushing Yards Record
1. Eric Dickerson — 1,808 yards (1983)
2. George Rogers — 1,674 yards (1981)
3. Ezekiel Elliott — 1,631 yards (2016)
Dickerson is the king of rookie RB records. Unlike QB rookie records, which seem to be under threat every single season, the all-time RB rookie records are a different matter. Expectations surrounding young backs have shifted significantly in the past decade or so. Therefore, Dickerson’s records look unlikely to be threatened for a while.
Since 2010, only Elliott in 2016 and Alfred Morris in 2012 (1,613 yards) have even come close to matching or beating Dickerson’s number.
Rookie RB Touchdown Record
1. Eric Dickerson — 18 touchdowns (1983)
T-2. Ickey Woods — 16 touchdowns (1998)
T-2. Mike Anderson — 16 touchdowns (2000)
T-2. Clinton Portis — 16 touchdowns (2002)
T-2. Ezekiel Elliott — 16 touchdowns (2016)
This is another record of Dickerson’s that has a chance to stand for a while. Outside of Elliott, the only player to even get within 5 touchdowns of Dickerson since 2010 is QB Cam Newton.
Rookie RB Rushing Attempts Record
1. Eric Dickerson — 390 attempts (1983)
2. George Rogers — 378 attempts (1981)
3. Edgerrin James — 369 attempts (1999)
Since 2010, only Alfred Morris has topped 330 rushing attempts as a rookie, with Elliott the next highest at 322. Rookie running backs are simply not used as the bell-cow back for an offense that much anymore. However, in 2021, there is a name to watch in Najee Harris.
Through six games, Harris has 102 rushing attempts. Still, that averages out to 17 rushing attempts per game, and even over a 17-game season would total out to just 289 rushing attempts. Of Dickerson’s rookie RB records, this one has the chance to last the longest.