The 1984 NFL season will be remembered as The Year They Went Back to Football. Gone, or all but, are the troubles that made headlines in recent years—the strike, the Raider lawsuit, drugs, the USFL signings. Instead, the big story will be the chase for Jim Brown's lifetime rushing record of 12,312 yards, which has stood for 18 years, as Franco Harris and Walter Payton close in on it.
About the end of September you'll start seeing statistical tables. You'll read countdown stories as Harris nears the record, and then a few weeks later you'll see more as Payton makes his move. It'll be like Hank Aaron's chase for Babe Ruth's home run mark. Will he do it this Sunday? Next Sunday? Alert the studio. There will be interviews with Jim Brown—"Yes, I'll come out of retirement if Franco breaks it.... No, wait a minute, I'll hold off if Walter catches him. He doesn't run out of bounds."—Red Grange, O.J. Simpson, Bronko Nagurski, if the canoe doesn't freeze over on the way to Iceville, Minn.
All this pure football talk comes as a welcome relief after the stories of recent seasons. Indeed, as the new season begins, the players strike of '82 is just a bitter memory. Gene Upshaw, who replaced Ed Garvey as the executive director of the Players Association last year, has thawed the cold war between the players and owners. As for the NFL's fiery legal hassles with the Raiders, they're now just embers. The U.S. Supreme Court probably will have the last word, but not for a year or two.
Nobody gets titillated by drug abuse stories anymore, although they still exist, of course. The bang effect is gone, and, callous as this might sound, that eliminates the NFL's major concern—the tarnishing of the league's image. Clubs are turning to self-policing: When's the last time you read a major drug story about pro football?
The USFL has wounded the NFL in the pocketbook, but now the young league seems to be a house divided. Do we go to a fall schedule or stay with spring football? If we go to the fall, where do we play? And what days? The USFL has commissioned surveys to supply the answers, but it was a survey that originally told the USFL that spring football couldn't miss. USFL teams skimmed 32 of the NFL's top 100 draft prospects this year, but the signing of NFL vets has slowed considerably. Still, NFL payrolls have jumped by about $30,000 per player. If the NFL's attendance and TV ratings slump this fall, one would have to assume that the country is getting a little footballed out. So far, though, few people in the NFL feel there's any need to change the league's basic strategy—sit back and wait for the USFL to outrun its supply lines. As far as the NFL's absorbing a few of the USFL's stronger franchises, as some USFL people have secretly hoped, well, that's unlikely.
"There's no sentiment for it," Pete Rozelle says. "We like to pick our own cities for expansion. As far as a merger is concerned, you'd clearly need an act of Congress, as you did when the NFL and AFL merged. And I'm sure this would be fought by the players' associations of both the USFL and our league. And, finally, there's the matter of dilution of TV money. Our people don't want to share it."
"I don't like to have somebody try to spend me broke and then say, 'You have to take me in as a partner,' " says Dolphin owner Joe Robbie.
So here we go into 1984, and the air will be filled with footballs once again, as it has been since 1978, when new rules opened up the passing lanes. But the major interest will be Payton and Harris and the march on Jim Brown's record. Passing is passing, but nothing quickens the pulse like watching a great back busting tackles and running to daylight. It's elemental. It also has been part of the game for more than 100 years. Generations of Willie Hestons and Ted Coys and Jim Thorpes came and went before anyone got excited about a passer. And now you've got two people taking a crack at a record that once seemed untouchable.
It was bound to happen. The 16-game season (in effect since 1978) cheapened a statistic that once had a high value: the 1,000-yard year. These days, if you average 63 yards a game and stay healthy, you'll get 1,000. Last year 16 runners did so. The one-back offense also helps; the great backs are carrying the ball more.
Brown ran up his yardage (he's 362 ahead of Harris and 687 ahead of Payton) in only nine seasons, four of them 12-gamers and five 14-gamers. He never missed a game, which is his most amazing accomplishment of all, and he quit when he was 29, at the height of his powers. If he knew then what he knows now, maybe he'd have stayed around five more years and put the record out of reach, but statistics didn't mean as much to him in those days. They didn't mean that much to anybody.
Quick now, can you tell me whose record Brown broke? We'll end the suspense. It was Joe Perry's. Brown passed the great 49er fullback early in 1963, his seventh season in the league and Perry's 14th and last. At the end of the year Brown had 9,322 yards, Perry 8,378. Actually, Brown should have had to wait another year. The NFL never gave Perry credit for his two seasons and 1,345 yards in the All America Football Conference, which was absorbed by the NFL in 1950, although the NFL later gave AFL players full credit for stats achieved in the AFL, which joined the NFL in '70.
When Brown moved ahead of Perry in lifetime rushing yards, no big deal was made of it. And not much of a fuss had been made in 1958 when Perry surpassed Steve Van Buren's record of 5,860 yards, which had stood for seven years.
And whose record did Van Buren break? Ah, now you're going back a bit, to the days when the stats were subject to periodic and unexplained readjustment, and nobody really cared much one way or the other. Well, the previous record of 3,680 yards was held by Clarke Hinkle, who had a 10-year career with the Packers (1932-1941). Hinkle's longevity was an oddity; running backs simply didn't last 10 years in those days.
Before Hinkle, the record books get a little whacky; official stats weren't kept until 1932. Cliff Battles, the earliest career rushing record holder, set his mark from 1932 to '38, according to old NFL manuals. But in '38 Battles had already quit playing and was backfield coach at Columbia, helping develop an All-America tailback named Sid Luckman. Battles had quit at the age of 28 because Redskin owner George Preston Marshall wouldn't give him a raise after he had led the league in rushing. Battles's career was later adjusted to encompass the years 1932-37, and his yardage, originally listed as 3,398, was set at 3,403 and then 3,542. Detroit's Ace Gutowsky, who broke Battles's original mark by reaching 3,467 yards in '39, now ranks behind him (Gutowsky's was later raised to 3,478.)
At the bottom of the entry for rushing records, there used to be an italic notation saying that Bronko Nagurski really should have been ahead of the whole bunch with 3,947 yards, if one included 1,290 yards Nagurski reportedly gained in 1930 and '31, before official records were kept.
Here's the interesting thing about the Bronk: He didn't carry the ball much. Even in his first two years out of Minnesota (1930 and '31), when he was a young horse and his legs were full of fire, Nagurski never averaged more than 10 carries a game, if we are to believe those old, unofficial stats. And in his later years the most carries Nagurski ever had in one year was 128—for a 13-game season. That gives added meaning to the accomplishments of today's backs, because they endure a lot more punishment. They carry twice as many times and catch infinitely more passes; in fact, Nagurski is credited with only 11 catches in his pro career.
Brown averaged 19.99 carries a game for his career, a figure unheard of at that time. He didn't block. On most plays in which he wasn't carrying the ball, he served as a decoy, which kept his legs fresh for his No. 1 job. Brown's almost 20 carries per game were a record, but now here's Payton, playing on a team without a consistently good line to block for him, without the strong passing attack that the Browns always had, a team that has reached the playoffs only twice during his career, and he has cranked out 20.5 carries per game for nine years. He has blocked, too. And he has missed only one game in his career.
Earl Campbell has averaged 22.2 carries a game in six years and George Rogers 21.6 in three. Last year's two top rookies, Eric Dickerson (24.4) and Curt Warner (20.9), are the only other players in history with career figures over 20. But no one has done it for as long as Payton has.
Payton is 30, Harris, 34, and once upon a time running backs in their 30s were rarities. If they lasted that long, they were usually spot players, mop-up men, but seldom keynote performers. Now, strange things are happening in pro football—weight training, minicamps, aerobics. Last year 34-year-old John Riggins carried the ball 375 times (the record, set last year by Dickerson, is 390) and gained 1,347 yards, his most productive season ever—by almost 200 yards. And Harris had his largest number of carries in five years and his first 1,000-yard season in the last four, even though he played behind a battered and patched-up line. Harris and Riggins are two of only five players in history who have gained 1,000 yards after reaching their 30th birthdays—John Henry Johnson, Tony Canadeo and Rocky Bleier round out the quintet—so you'd have to believe there are still a lot of giddyaps left in the legs of Payton and Harris.
Are there any other challengers in sight? Well, Riggins is more than 2,000 yards behind Payton, and he turned 35 on Aug. 4. Tony Dorsett, 1,100 yards farther back, is 30, and the Cowboys' offensive line is due for major rebuilding. Campbell is 29, and his body has taken an ungodly pounding through the years, but a young and talented line, aided by No. 1 draft choice Dean Steinkuhler, might help put a little lightness back into his steps. Campbell is in fifth place among the active rushers, 3,329 yards behind Payton.
From there the challengers drop to strictly long-range projections—such as the Cards' Ottis Anderson, 27 years old, 6,190 yards, and last year's baby phenoms, Dickerson and Warner. Check back in seven years or so.
It should be an unusually interesting NFL season, with Harris and Payton helping to brighten some of the grayness that settled on the game in '83. The Monday night TV schedule seems to be tuned in to the assault on Brown's mark, too. Harris appears on Oct. 1, just about the time when he should be easing by the record, and then again on Nov. 19, when Payton will be breathing down his neck. Payton appears on Dec. 3.