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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Flem File: Climbing over Rice, Dickerson

By David Fleming
ESPN The Magazine

Flem
As Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson rise toward records, what can they learn from their predecessors?
When it comes to the NFL benchmarks for rushing and receiving in a single season, history couldn’t be more clear: It’s now or never for both Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson.

This week Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings face the Houston Texans, needing 294 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s 1984 mark of 2,105 yards rushing in a single season. Meanwhile, Megatron and the Detroit Lions host the Atlanta Falcons Saturday night, with Johnson just 182 yards shy of Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 yards set in 1995.

What Peterson and Johnson should know, however, is that in a strange statistical and historical quirk few people either remember or realize, both Dickerson and Rice set their legendary records with monster performances in Game 15.

In Game 15 of 1984, Dickerson exploded for 215 yards in a 27-16 win over the Houston Oilers. Fifteen years later, Rice piled up 289 yards in a Game 15 win against the Vikings.

With Peterson and Johnson now on the doorstep of history and heading into their own make-or-break Game 15s, the FlemFile went back and examined the critical penultimate performances of Dickerson and Rice searching for clues, context and corollaries.

Here’s what we found:

1. With 14 catches for a career-high and team-record 289 yards and three TDs, Rice set the single-season record for receiving yards in Game 15 of the 1995 season on Dec. 18 in a wild 37-30 win against 8-7 Minnesota. The Vikings were ranked 28th against the pass despite being coached by a young, up-and-coming defensive coordinator named Tony Dungy, whose protégé Leslie Frazier now coaches the Vikes. This week Johnson goes up against the Falcons, who are 17th against the pass and coming off a shutout of the Giants and Eli Manning.

Warren Moon
Both Dickerson and Rice broke their records against teams quarterbacked by Warren Moon.
2. The opposing quarterback when Dickerson set his mark in 1984 and again when Rice set his in 1995 was the same player: Hall of Famer Warren Moon.

3. Dickerson dreamed of breaking the record in the weeks leading up to the Oilers game. But he told reporters at the time his dream always ended with him at 2,001 yards, two yards short of the record.

4. Dickerson set the record against the 28th-ranked rush defense. This week Peterson faces the Texans, who are ranked fifth. The Texans have only allowed two backs to gain more than 80 yards in a game all season. Peterson plays the Packers in the season finale. He gained 210 yards against Green Bay in Week 13 -- and don’t forget, we could have a potential Brett Favre-laying-down-so-Michael-Strahan-could-get-the-sack-record scenario if the Packers end up resting their starters in the regular-season finale.

5. Dickerson rushed for 364 yards over back-to-back games to set the mark. Peterson needs 294 but he has done that nine times in his career. More freaky stats (from the New York Times): Peterson has run for 1,313 yards in his last eight games, the most in a half-season stretch since at least 1960; and four times this season he has rushed for more than 8 yards per carry in a game. And, more (from me): Peterson is averaging almost half a yard more per rush (6.3 yards) than Vikes QB Christian Ponder is gaining per pass attempt (5.95 yards).

6. Rice was 33 when he set the record. The next 33-year-old receiver on the all-time yardage list in a single season is Henry Ellard, 68 spots below Rice. According to The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa after the game in 1995, QB Steve Young, then 34, said to Rice: “Let’s do this together until we’re 40.” Rice responded: “Forty? How about 43?” (He made it to 41.)

7. Rice lasted so long because of his uncanny ability to elude contact in the open field. In the game against the Vikings, Dungy has him boxed in with three defenders on almost every play yet you never see them get a clean hit on the slippery 6-2, 200-pound Rice, who was famously known for not having blazing speed.

8. Wide receivers today still study film of Rice’s route-running, which was as technically close to perfect as you can get. Against the Vikes, his body language in his first three steps was so consistent it gave away no clues about his route. He superbly and effortlessly avoided getting jammed at the line of scrimmage; no one got more separation when the ball was in the air; no one waited longer to break stride and extend his hands for the catch. Re-watching him during his record-setting season in 1995, Rice’s route-running is as close as football will ever come to art. “He can’t be human” is how teammate Tim McDonald described Rice after the Vikings game.

9. Megatron, on the other hand, is a different kind of receiver -- a freak of nature, for starters, at 6-5, 239 pounds with 4.35 speed and a 45-inch vertical giving him a reach of 8.5 feet. To put the physical differences into perspective between Rice and Johnson: In 1995, the Vikings' leading tackler was linebacker Ed McDaniel, who was six inches and 10 pounds smaller than Megatron. Counterpoint: Rice caught balls from two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Johnson has worked with Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill, Dan Orlovsky and Jon Kitna.

Jerry Rice
Rice's route-running is as close as football will ever come to art.
10. Technically, in ’95 Rice broke his own NFL record of 1,570 (set in 1986) while fending off Detroit’s Herman Moore and the Rams' Isaac Bruce. In 1995 Moore piled up 1,686 and Bruce (No. 2 all-time) finished with 1,781 yards. Playing in the AFL in 1961, Charley Hennigan finished with 1,746 yards receiving, good for third all-time.

11. Before cutting to a commercial break during the game when Rice set the record, NBC showed the 49ers' creepy miner mascot doing the Cabbage Patch dance on the sidelines.

12. Watching highlights from the 49ers in 1995, the perfectly synched timing and rhythm of Young and Rice in the West Coast offense is truly something to behold. At the end of his drop, Young’s left foot hits and plants and he begins to drive the ball forward at the exact same time that Rice plants his left foot and cuts across the face of his defender into the middle of the field where he’s already created two feet of separation. Every time Dungy tried to cover Rice one-on-one, he made them pay -- and usually over the middle.

13. Dickerson broke the single-season rushing record in Game 15 of the 1984 season on Dec. 9 in a 27-16 win, with 27 carries for 215 yards and 2 TDs against the 3-12 Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans), who were ranked 28th against the run.

14. Dickerson broke the record on a play called 47 Gap with a 9-yard carry with about three minutes left in the game. It was a staple of Rams coach John Robinson -- he joked they had run it about 33 times already that game -- where two weakside linemen pull to the right and clear the outside defenders toward the sideline while the three interior linemen seal their men to the left, creating a running alley that gave Dickerson the option of blasting up field toward the sideline or cutting the ball back against the grain on over-pursuing defenders. With the speed and athleticism of defenders today, though, this kind of Student Body Right play is too slow to develop and has too much backside exposure to be effective even once a game, let alone 33 times.

15. Dickerson was all of 24 when he set the record. He led the NFL in rushing in three of his first four seasons with 1,808 as a rookie, 2,105 his second season and 1,821 in 1986. He was so good, in fact, he managed to make sports goggles look cool.

16. Before the NFL became a pass-happy league, rushing records were to pro football what home-run marks were to MLB. Dickerson broke the mark of 2,003, set by O.J. Simpson in 1973 in just 14 games. (O.J. bested Jim Brown’s mark of 1,863, set in 1963.) “O.J.’s still the best,” Dickerson said at the time, “because he did it in 14 games.”

17. A new rushing record doesn’t mean the rebirth of the running game, just the opposite. In part, offenses are now simply taking advantage on the ground now that defenses have softened a bit up front in order to stop the pass. Many times, for example, modern defenses use a third cornerback instead of a bigger, more physical second safety. Contrast that with 1984, when Dickerson faced a nine-man front most of the second half against Houston (five defensive linemen, two linebackers and two defensive backs creeping up toward the line of scrimmage before each snap.)

Eric Dickerson
The Oilers' trash talk inspired Dickerson to set the record.
18. “I only planned on getting 179 or 180 yards today,” Dickerson told reporters after breaking the record. The plan was to add a chunk of yards against the Oilers and then break the record the following week on national television in San Francisco in front of Dickerson’s mom and O.J. Simpson. But when the Oilers defense made the huge tactical error of trash-talking and hitting late, Dickerson and his line decided to run the ball down their throats. “They really, really pissed me off,” Dickerson said at the time. J.J. Watt: Are you listening?

19. Dickerson had only gone over 200 yards in a game once before. But the bad blood with the Oilers started when Dickerson, who grew up in Sealy, Texas, completed his college career at SMU and declared that he didn’t want to play for the Oilers. “I thought they had a lousy football team and I thought the media in Houston was lousy and negative,” Dickerson told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

20. Peterson is making his run at the record just a year after tearing his ACL. Most backs will tell you that it takes a year to recover physically and two years to recover mentally from this kind of injury. In July 1984, before setting the record, Dickerson was rushed to the hospital after spraining his neck during a non-contact drill. Unable to move after hitting his chin on a teammate’s shoulder pads, Dickerson was taken from the field on a stretcher. He says that on the way to the hospital, he had already written off football. But a few hours later, when he was able to get up and walk, he no longer took the game or his talents for granted -- and that helped drive him toward breaking the record just five months after barely avoiding a serious neck injury. I can’t help but think Peterson is motivated by a similar dose of perspective.

21. With the success of both Peterson and the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles just a year after ACL surgery, I guarantee you that somewhere out there a running back with a wobbly, but not technically injured knee is considering pre-emptive ACL surgery thinking it can strengthen and improve his game the same way Tommy John surgery seems to help pitchers.

22. In August 2011, Peterson stepped in as guest editor-in-chief of The Magazine. During his tenure he got to meet one of his heroes, Reggie Miller, who told him his biggest regret was not winning a title. Dickerson only played in seven postseason games and no Super Bowls. Peterson has 268 yards rushing in three playoff games and no Super Bowls. The 1995 49ers and the 1984 Rams were both playoff teams. If the playoffs started today, the Vikings would be in as the sixth seed. The 4-10 Lions, at least according to coach Jim Schwartz, are officially, and once again, “off the rails.”

23. Dickerson played at 6-3, 218 pounds. Peterson is 6-1, 217. Their styles are similar in their extreme, break-the-mold versatility -- if that makes any sense. Both have the strength and size to run angry on the inside and punish tacklers in the trenches at the point of attack. Both have remarkable feet, balance and field vision to anticipate and exploit holes and creases created by the tiniest flaw in run-gap discipline. Both have explosive, flash-bulb speed in the open field. What separates these two, however, from all other backs (save for Jim Brown, O.J. and Walter Payton) is how they manage to incorporate all three gears on nearly every carry. Which is why, on film from 1984, you see Oilers defenders face down, pounding the AstroTurf in frustration after getting flattened or faked out by Dickerson.

24. You won’t see a more telling stat about Peterson’s heart than this: According to ESPN Stats & Info, he leads the league with 909 yards after initial contact. Let me just repeat that so that it properly sinks in: Peterson will likely hit the benchmark of excellence for normal NFL running backs -- a 1,000-yard season -- after defenses have had their first shot at him.

25. Neither Rice nor Dickerson won the MVP award in their record-breaking seasons, if you can believe that. Brett Favre won the first of his three consecutive MVPs in 1995. And in 1984, the award went to Miami quarterback Dan Marino, who threw for 5,084 yards and 48 TDs. Brace yourself for the same thing to happen this year. My prediction: Peterson finishes with 2,137 yards and Johnson ends up with 1,916 -- and, somehow, golden boy Peyton Manning wins MVP.