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|At age 24, Eric Dickerson averaged 5.6 yards per carry and 131.6 yards per game in 1984.|
(Editor's note: The following is an updated version of a story originally published on ESPN.com in January 2008.)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady enjoyed a 2007 regular season so dominant that he made us ponder how his performance stacked up against the greatest years in the history of the league. Five years later, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is doing the same thing, inspiring us to update our list of the 10 greatest individual seasons in NFL history.
How do we determine the best individual years ever in the NFL? Some people think it all comes down to the players who possess the best numbers. Others view context as being more critical, especially when some players -- such as O.J. Simpson and Jerry Rice -- set their records in fewer games than the players who broke them.
So here's what we think about the matter of which players enjoyed the greatest seasons since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We're sure you'll have your own opinions:
|Among the NFL's top eight seasons in passing yardage, Dan Marino's 1984 performance is the only one to have occurred before 2001.|
In fact, there is one chief reason his performance still ranks better than those produced more recently by Peyton Manning and Brady: The application of the rules was different. Both Manning and Brady benefited from the league's decision in 2004 to place greater emphasis on enforcing the illegal contact rule, which penalizes defenders who touch receivers more than five yards beyond from the line of scrimmage. If Marino had that advantage going for him, nobody would've ever matched the season he produced 24 years ago.
2. Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams, 1984: All you have to know about Dickerson's record-breaking season -- he gained 2,105 rushing yards that year -- is that the Rams didn't have much of a passing game. Their offense hinged primarily on Dickerson's running right, Dickerson's running left and Dickerson's running just about everywhere else in between. That he generated so much yardage is a testament to the men who blocked for him and the remarkable skills he was blessed with. The man was one of the best pure runners the NFL has ever seen.
Some skeptics complain that Dickerson needed 15 games to reach the 2,000-yard mark -- while O.J. Simpson did it in just 14 games back in 1973 -- but Dickerson was both spectacular and steady. As proof, just consider that Dickerson set a record that year by eclipsing the 100-yard mark 12 times that season. You don't do that by getting extra touches. And you don't hold the record for rushing yardage as long as Dickerson has without doing something truly special.
3. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, 2012: Even if Peterson doesn't surpass Dickerson's record, he's put together a season for the ages. No running back has done what he has done with so many factors working against him: the surgically repaired knee, the lack of offensive weapons around him, the inconsistency of a passing game led by a second-year quarterback. Just getting close to the 2,000-yard mark with all those challenges tells you the man has accomplished something we may never see again. Through 15 games, Peterson is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and 126.5 yards per game.
4. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, 2004: Only one quarterback in NFL history -- Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers in 2011 -- has ever been more efficient over a full season as Manning was during this campaign. Yes, Manning's season is remembered mostly because he threw a then-record 49 touchdown passes. But another league mark that Manning broke that season -- his passer rating of 121.1 easily eclipsed the former record of 112.8 set by former 49ers quarterback Steve Young in 1994 -- was just as remarkable. It basically meant that Manning didn't have a performance that was less than excellent all season. (Rodgers went on to break Manning's record with a 122.5 rating in the pass-happy 2011 season.)
Manning was so hot that he set league records by throwing at least four touchdown passes in five straight games and producing six overall games with at least four scoring tosses. However, the really scary part is what he could have done with more action. Because the Colts sat him in the fourth quarters of at least five blowout wins and for nearly all of a meaningless season finale, Manning attempted 497 passes (compared to 578 for New England's Tom Brady this season). With a few more opportunities, Manning would've set records that Rodgers and others would never be able to touch.
5. Tom Brady, New England, 2007: Most people expected Brady to be his usually reliable self when the Patriots added wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth to their roster during the previous offseason. But few could've predicted the assault that he'd make on the NFL record books once the regular season began. It wasn't just that Brady made history with his 50 touchdown passes and his streak of 10 consecutive games with at least three scoring tosses. The man's focus never waned as the Patriots stormed to a perfect regular season.
Along with the touchdown passes, Brady set a career low for interceptions (eight), and he led the NFL in passing yards (4,806) and passer rating (117.2). Combine those numbers with the fact that New England became the first team to go 16-0 during the regular season and you get a year that will never be forgotten. Brady was easily the best big-game quarterback of his generation even before the 2007 season. Now he's given us ample reason to believe he might be the NFL's best signal-caller ever by the time he's finished.
6. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego, 2006: The NFL has seen other backs go on crazy scoring streaks in recent memory -- specifically, Dallas' Emmitt Smith and Seattle's Shaun Alexander. They never achieved like Tomlinson did six years ago, though. He set league marks for rushing touchdowns (28), total touchdowns (31) and points (186) in one season. He also threw a pair of touchdown passes.
Overall, Tomlinson set 13 league records during his remarkable year, but that isn't even the amazing part. What is truly jaw-dropping is how dominant Tomlinson became in the second half of that year.
In retrospect, Tomlinson actually scored 23 of his touchdowns in just eight contests. He scored only eight times in his first six games of that year and he didn't produce a touchdown in his final two contests. By the way, Tomlinson also led the league in rushing (1,815 yards) while compiling 2,323 total yards. That last number ranks as the seventh-highest total in league history.
|Drew Brees might have enjoyed the best contract year ever in 2011, breaking Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in the last year of his pact.|
7. Drew Brees, New Orleans, 2011: Brees broke Marino's record by throwing for 5,476 yards last season. If that wasn't enough, he connected on 71.2 percent of his attempts with 468 completions -- both league records -- and added 46 touchdown passes. Brees gets the nod over Rodgers' 2011 season based on the fact that the record Brees broke (passing yards by Marino in 1984) stood much longer than the one Rodgers broke (passer rating by Manning in 2004). But when it comes to sheer dominance, Brees' numbers don't seem nearly as devastating as what Marino, Manning and Brady did in their career years. If anything, they exemplified how pass-happy the NFL has become recently. Had Brees accomplished this feat in a different year, he might be ranked higher here. But since he reached that milestone in a season when 10 different quarterbacks threw for 4,000-plus yards, two others (Brady and Detroit's Matthew Stafford) threw for 5,000 and an offseason lockout affected defenses around the league, the accomplishment takes a hit on this one.
8. Jerry Rice, San Francisco, 1987: Rice is another player on this list who has enjoyed so many phenomenal campaigns that it's hard to pin down one season among others. But 1987 stands out for one reason: his production in an abbreviated amount of time. Even with a players strike limiting Rice to 12 games, he still managed to produce an NFL-record 22 touchdown receptions. He also scored 23 touchdowns overall, a total that was one shy of tying the single-season record John Riggins held at the time.
Of course, some people might argue that Rice had years when his numbers were more prolific in other areas -- for example, he caught 122 passes for a then-record 1,848 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1995 -- but there are plenty of receivers who have tons of receptions and yards. The really special ones get into the end zone. And since it took New England's Randy Moss all of 16 games to break Rice's record (with 23 in 2007), we'll say the old man belongs on this list. By the way, Rice also won the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award that year.
|Lawrence Taylor terrorized opposing quarterbacks|
in the 1986 season on his way to the MVP award.
9. Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants, 1986: Taylor enjoyed several great seasons with the Giants, but nothing he did for that franchise compared to what happened in '86. He produced a career-high 20.5 sacks. He added 105 tackles, five pass deflections and two forced fumbles. The man was so brilliant that it wasn't enough to name him NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He also became the first defender to win MVP honors since Minnesota's Alan Page did it in 1971.
Taylor's dominance didn't end with the regular season, either. He helped lead the Giants through the playoffs -- they outscored their NFC opponents, San Francisco and Washington, 66-3 -- and on to a 39-20 win over Denver in the Super Bowl.
10. O.J. Simpson, Buffalo, 1973: It would be easy to say that Detroit's Barry Sanders (2,053 yards in 1997), Baltimore's Jamal Lewis (2,066 yards in 2003) or Tennessee's Chris Johnson (2,006 rushing yards and an NFL-record 2,509 yards from scrimmage in 2009) belongs on this list -- but Simpson deserves credit for this ground-breaking campaign. When Simpson gained 2,003 rushing yards in 1973, it was one of the most amazing moments in sports. He was the first running back to hit the 2,000-yard mark and none of the five players who've accomplished that feat since has done it in 14 games. In fact, it's still a safe bet that no other runner will be that productive in as short a span.
Simpson's season is all the more impressive because of how it ended. He actually had 1,584 yards going into the final two weeks of that season, but his offensive line cleared enough room for him to reach the record books. He gained 219 yards against New England before churning out another 200 against the New York Jets in the finale. That effort alone should tell us how extraordinary Simpson was.