Updated: May 5, 2020
No position in sports is more physically demanding, or requires greater athleticism, than the NFL running back. Speed, agility, balance, strength and vision are all attributes of a successful pro back. No one exemplified these qualities better than Jim Brown.
When Brown entered the NFL as a first round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1957, he was something the league had never seen before. He possessed the power of Marion Motley, the speed of Joe Perry, and a determination that was without equal.
The rookie phenom from Syracuse was dominant from the start, leading the league with 942 yards rushing his first year. His second season was even more impressive, as he set an NFL single season record with 1,527 rushing yards, beating the previous record of 1,146 by Steve Van Buren in 1949. Brown also averaged a lofty 5.9 yards per carry, and scored 18 touchdowns.
The dominance continued as Brown would go on to lead the league in rushing his first five seasons. In 1961, his role as a receiver expanded, as he caught 46 passes for 459 yards, making him even more of a nightmare for opposing defenses. His 1,867 yards from scrimmage were the most in NFL history up to that point.
After failing to lead the NFL in rushing for the first time in 1962, Brown had the best season of his career in 1963. He ran for 1,863 yards, shattering his own record by more than 300. He also averaged an incredible 6.4 yards per carry, and became the first player in league history to have over 2,000 yards from scrimmage with his total of 2,131.
In 1964, Brown would reach the pinnacle of team success as he led the Cleveland Browns to the NFL Championship. He rushed for 114 yards and caught three passes for 37 more in Cleveland’s 27-0 rout of the Baltimore Colts in the title game.
After rushing for 1,544 yards and scoring a career-high 21 touchdowns, Brown found himself in the NFL Championship Game for the second straight year in 1965. This time the Browns would lose to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers 23-12.
Despite that loss, everything seemed to be going Brown’s way. He was the league’s best player on a championship caliber team. That’s what made July 14, 1966 such a shock to football fans everywhere. In a press conference held from the set of “The Dirty Dozen,” Brown’s second film role, the best runner the league had ever seen announced his retirement at the age of 29.
With a budding film career and a passion for political activism, Brown felt it was time to invest his energies elsewhere. After all, what else did he have left to accomplish in football?
The final numbers speak for themselves. Brown’s 12,312 rushing yards were the most in NFL history. Perry was second with 9,723 in 16 seasons. Remarkably, Brown had 2,589 more yards while playing seven less seasons than Perry. His career yardage mark would last until October 7, 1984 when Walter Payton passed him in his 136th career game, 18 more than Brown’s career total of 118.
Brown’s 126 touchdowns were also the most in league history. Second place at the time was Lenny Moore with 106. His 14,811 yards from scrimmage were over 3,000 more than the second place Perry.
To this day, Brown’s 104.3 rushing yards per game is the highest in NFL history. The only other player to average more than 100 is Ezekiel Elliott, who has 101.2 yards per game through his first three seasons.
But there is one stat that demonstrates Brown’s dominance more than any other. When he retired at the end of the 1965 season, Brown possessed six of the top seven single season rushing yardage totals in league history. The only other player to make the top seven was Jim Taylor, who is also the only player to ever beat him out for a rushing title. Brown ended up leading the league in rushing eight of his nine seasons in the NFL. No other player has ever led the league more than four times.
The evidence is overwhelming. Although there have been many great running backs since he retired over 50 years ago, it is hard to imagine anyone dominating the position like Jim Brown.