Fittingly enough, the battle was fought at the farthest reaches of pro football's America.
In Miami, on his third run from scrimmage, O. J. Simpson darts for the hole between guard and tackle, finds it cluttered, and sweeps around left end for 75 yards and a touchdown.
In Seattle, as if telepathically in touch with his rival, Walter Payton pops for nine yards on a halfback draw, follows up with a 10-yard burst over center and then swings right for a 19-yard gain that sets up a touchdown.
Simpson stagnates for a bit—at least he seems stagnant—with 10 runs averaging merely four yards apiece. Then, early in the second half, he tries left end again for 19. Next, a pitchout that produces 16 more yards.
December 13, 1976
In the third quarter, Payton stays on the sidelines most of the time, exhausted, but returns to shoot right end for 18—only to have the run called back by a penalty. Still, he hangs in—eight yards, six, three, three, four, then a 36-yard spurt with a pitchout. With time running out, the message board in the humid Kingdome flashes word that Simpson has finished his day's work and taken the NFL rushing lead by three yards. Payton, who had sat out the previous series, goes back in with 58 seconds to play. He carries three times for 12 yards, ending the game with a five-yard thrust off left tackle.
Final score: O. J. Simpson 203 yards, Walter Payton 183. Along the way last Sunday, if anyone was really interested, the Miami Dolphins beat the Buffalo Bills 45-27 and the Chicago Bears manhandled the Seattle Seahawks 34-7. But the real battle was between the NFL's two leading rushers. Payton, who has led the league since early in the season, had the best day of his two-year pro career but still lost 20 yards to the fast-charging Simpson. Payton ended the afternoon with 1,341 yards on the ground—nine more than O.J.'s 1,332.
As the transcontinental combat so vividly demonstrates, 1976 has been the year of the running back. With only one weekend of the regular season remaining, eight men have already broken the once meaningful 1,000-yard mark, while three or four others need only average performances to surpass it in the final game. Besides Payton, who runs against Denver in his last game, and Simpson, who closes against Baltimore, this year's Grand Gang includes the Colts' Lydell Mitchell (1,166), Los Angeles' Lawrence McCutcheon (1,144), San Francisco's Delvin Williams (1,116), Minnesota's Chuck Foreman (1,077), Washington's Mike Thomas (1,035) and Pittsburgh's Franco Harris (1,024). Within shooting distance of 1,000 yards are Cleveland's Gregg Pruitt (who would probably be there now had he not been hampered by injuries in recent games), Denver's Otis Armstrong, Oakland's Mark van Eeghen and Pittsburgh's Rocky Bleier. New England's Sam Cunningham was headed for 1,000 yards until he hurt his shoulder; his replacement, Don Calhoun, has gained 540 yards in the last four games, giving the Patriots 1,325 yards from one position.
This year more players have run for 100 yards in a game than ever before. Along with the dozen players at or near 1,000, 31 others have rushed for 100 or more in at least one game. In the 181 games played so far, 43 players have rushed for 100 yards or more 93 times. Payton leads with seven such games, followed by Simpson with six and both Harris and Williams with five.
In addition to the group statistics, there has been at least one individual performance this season that borders on the miraculous: Simpson ripping the Detroit Lions wide open for 273 yards on Thanksgiving. That broke the professional record of 250 yards he held jointly with Spec Sanders, who played for the New York Yankees of the AAFC. What made the new record more impressive was the fact that only four days earlier, Payton had been held to only 40 yards in 17 carries by the stingy Lions, who then were leading the NFC in defense against the run. It also boosted Simpson, for whom this once looked to be a lost season, into the AFC's rushing lead for the first time this season.
Up to that point, Mitchell had been the AFC leader. Last weekend, for a little more than 24 hours, Mitchell was back on top, both in the conference and the league. That, though, was a fluke of scheduling. Mitchell gained only 54 yards against St. Louis in a Saturday game that the Colts lost 24-17, but he still took a slim lead over both Payton and Simpson.
Of the three main contenders for the rushing title, Mitchell, who had his—and Baltimore's—first 1,000-yard-plus season in 1975, is the smallest (5'11", 190 pounds) and the slowest (he barely breaks five seconds in the 40-yard dash)—and the only one who will be in the playoffs. He is shiftier in an open field than Pay-ton, and nearly as deceptive as Simpson. Mitchell also is one of the most durable backs in the business. His running style helps. "I run with my legs together, in a shorter stride than most other backs," he says. "That way I don't get caught with a leg out in front where somebody gets a good shot at my knee. I learned my first year that you can't run over people in this league—at least I can't. I try to give a tackier my side, rather than let him hit me head on. Like a boxer, I roll and turn to get my shoulder into his. Another thing, I'm blessed with a flexible body. When people bend me, I may stretch, but I don't break." His medical record attests to that: he has not had a single serious injury in five years of play. "The last time Lydell needed a trainer," says Baltimore Trainer Ed Block, "was when his mother changed his diapers."
While Mitchell and Simpson are known quantities, Payton, who had 679 yards as a rookie, is a fresh set of feet to contend with. At 22, he is the youngest Bear on a young and coming squad. Scarcely a "Monster of the Midway" at 5'10½", 211 pounds, he is nonetheless deceptively strong. "He's not a small back," says Chicago Offensive Backfield Coach Fred O'Connor. "He's just a short back. If he stood 6'2", he'd weigh 230." Quiet, almost dreamy off the field, Payton explodes from his set like a grenade from an M-79 launcher. When the middle is glutted, he can spin outside in three quick steps and turn the flank.
It was just such an impromptu performance that made him the first Bear since Gale Sayers (in 1969) to gain 1,000 yards in a season. The record run came on a third-and-one call in Chicago territory during a game against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. The middle closed up, so Payton whipped around right end for 42 yards. When the public-address announcer uttered the magical words that Payton had passed 1,000 yards, Bear fans and players alike went berserk. Guard Noah Jackson headed straight for the football and stole it for Payton. "You got to be thinking about these things," he said later. Then he went off into the mad melee, bellowing, "One grand for our man!"
The joy of the Bear offensive line is a reflection of Payton's consideration for his blockers. At Jackson State, where he set an NCAA record of 464 points, Payton always took a lineman with him whenever he was interviewed, a practice he maintains to this day. The hole punchers also appreciate how he gives one of them the football to spike every time he scores (12 touchdowns so far this season). Usually the spiker is Guard Revie Sorey, because he gets there first. "We don't get to be in the limelight very often," he says. Sorey is also the most creative spiker on the squad. Customarily, he delivers a smashing overhand, but once he pretended the ball was a bomb. Revie placed the ball gently in the end zone, then stared at it along with Jackson, slowly backing away and hissing. Then they ran off shouting "Pow!" and waving their arms wildly.
Payton is duly humble in the presence of established greatness. "It's an honor competing against O. J. Simpson," he says. "Or a challenge—a whole lot of stuff mixed into one. I always thought O.J. and Jim Brown and Gale Sayers were the premier running backs of all time. To be able to compete on the same level, that's really an honor. There's a lot I have still to learn—it's a never-ending process. I just hope I can adapt as fast as O.J. did. When he went over 2,000 yards in 1973, I was still in college. I walked around the campus saying that 2,000 yards in the NFL was my next goal, but I was just kidding. Now I kind of wonder if I might ever be able to reach that. Records are made to be broken."
No one is more surprised at Simpson's presence near the top of the rushing heap this season than the Juice himself. "It's hard for me to look at the 'Simpson-Pay-ton-Mitchell Battle' as a battle," he says, "since I felt that I was having one of the worst years of my career until a few weeks ago. It surprised me that one good game could put me ahead of most of the guys and move me so close to Payton. I'd been reading what a super year Walter is having, while I'd been depressed about the season I was having. I see where Lydell says he's the best back in the league now. That doesn't bother me, because I know Lydell. But I've never felt any need to claim that I was the top back. People make their own judgments on things like that."
O.J. is candid about his motivation in recent weeks. "The only thing left for me is yardage," he admits—a pointed reference to Buffalo's 2-11 record. "I thought I'd be doing well to gain 900 yards, when you consider that I didn't report until the night before our opening game; when you consider that we've spent more than half the season without a fullback who can block like our injured Jim Braxton; when you consider our absence of a passing game since Joe Ferguson got hurt; and when you consider that I got thrown out of one game in the first quarter."
Simpson missed most of the New England game last month when he was given the thumb for punching Mel Lunsford, a Patriots defensive lineman whom the Juice accused of roughing him up after the whistle. O.J. gained a whopping eight yards in that game, to go with totals of 28, 38 and 39 in his first three outings, 53 in the first Jets game and a puny (for him) 78 against Dallas. Yet he has now gone over 100 six times—and 200 twice. "I wasn't as mad about getting thrown out of the New England game at the time it happened as I am now when I realize how much it might cost me," he says.
When it became evident that the Bills were going nowhere in 1976, O.J. sat down with his Electric Company line to talk future goals. "One thing we discussed was having a shot at Jim Brown's alltime yardage record of 12,312." At present Simpson has 9,455. "I felt I had to have 1,500 yards both this year and next in order to break it, because I may slack off by 1978 and need the leeway."
Whether O.J. needs the leeway or not, and regardless of who wins the "Mover of the Year" trophy from Imperial Van Lines as the best running back, the Juice will remain the top rusher in the eyes of those "people who make their own judgments on things like that."
One such person who recently made his own judgment was Paul Naumoff, the 10-year linebacker of the Detroit Lions. As Simpson came through the Lions' locker room on his way to an interview following the Thanksgiving romp, Naumoff looked up and asked wryly, "Are you in here to contribute Christmas hams to our linebackers?"
O.J. just grinned and gave Naumoff a move.