All afternoon in Anaheim Stadium, under a dazzling December sun, Eric Dickerson of the Rams ran through the Oilers' defense as if he were his childhood idol, O.J. Simpson, moving with apparent effortlessness, a grace that belied what he was doing. And what Dickerson was doing was relentlessly closing in on Simpson's NFL single-season rushing record of 2,003 yards. With 1,792 yards going into Sunday's game, Dicker-son needed 212 to break Simpson's mark, a total that just about everyone, including Dickerson himself, felt was out of reach on this day. Rather, if he was to break the record, he would do it in Friday's season finale at San Francisco.
"I thought the most he'd get today was about a hundred and a half, and then we'd go to San Francisco and he'd get 60 more for the record," said Bill Bain, a 6'4", 285-pound Ram offensive tackle, after the Ram's 27-16 win. "All of a sudden I looked up at half time and he had 106 yards. I thought, 'How did he get that?' But that's Dickerson. He runs, and it's eight or 10 yards, but unspectacular. I said then to [guard] Denny Harrah, 'Let's go get him the other 106.' "
Get those yards they did, if barely, and not before Dickerson had the crowd of 49,092 on its feet, roaring for the record, and the Rams' offensive unit standing on the sideline, screaming for the defense to get the ball. Finally, above the din, there was the Los Angeles quarterback, Jeff Kemp, beseeching his players in the huddle to calm down and concentrate. It was, in those closing minutes, a game as memorable for the Rams' offensive line as it was for Dickerson and the witnesses hollering from the stands.
The pulse of the proceedings began beating furiously in the fourth quarter when, with 6:29 left and L.A. leading 20-16, Dickerson drove around left end for two yards and the scoreboard lit up with the message ERIC DICKERSON HAS NOW RUSHED FOR 200 YARDS IN TODAY'S GAME. True, the Oilers had come to Southern California with the NFL's poorest defense against the run—they were yielding an average of 161.4 yards a game—but that didn't diminish the fact that Dickerson, with 25 rushes to that point, was gaining ground at the extraordinary rate of eight yards per carry.
Two plays later, after Kemp had hit Henry Ellard on a 34-yard pass to the Houston six, Dickerson took a hand-off, faked left and then sprinted right, angling for the corner. "It looked like he knocked down about four guys going in," said John Robinson, the Rams' coach.
In he went, to give the Rams a 26-16 lead, and the stadium erupted. With 206 yards rushing, Dickerson, in only his second year out of Southern Methodist, was on the threshold of fulfilling the prophecy that Simpson had made more than once since first watching Dickerson as a pro last year: "He can be the best ever."
The TD left him with 1,998 yards in 15 games this season, only six shy of breaking the record Simpson had set during a 14-game schedule in 1973. But now with time running out, the Oilers had the ball, and in recent weeks, behind their fast-maturing quarterback Warren Moon, they'd proved they could hold onto it for sustained periods. As the L.A. defensive unit took the field, the offensive line was exhorting them to get the ball back. Tight end David Hill was shouting, "Hey, we're going to get the record today! Let's get it out of the way!"
Indeed, Dickerson's rush for the record, and the attention it was commanding in the media, had become a diversion amounting to a nuisance for the Rams, most particularly for Dickerson himself. After he'd rushed for 149 yards against New Orleans on Dec. 2, a performance with which he was not at all pleased, he blamed his shortcomings on the distractions caused by his increasing celebrity. So he cut off the press, essentially granting no interviews. On Dec. 5 he complained, "I didn't sleep well last night. I was trying to sleep, and I had a dream about getting 2,001 yards." But the dream had stopped there, still three yards short of breaking the record.
Now, on Sunday, with six yards to go, Dickerson was dreaming no longer. The mark was there for the taking, if the Rams could get the ball back. So there was Bain, imploring the defense: "Hey, you guys have got to stop 'em!" Center Doug Smith bellowed, "Get us the ball! Come on, stop 'em and get us the ball!"
They did, and just when it appeared that Moon might hang onto it for the rest of the afternoon. A pass to running back Larry Moriarty went for a gain of eight. A false start brought the Oilers back five, but Moon then completed another pass for 16 yards and a first down. The clock was moving to 4:00. Moriarty plowed for three, eating up more time. On the next play, with the ball at the Rams' 49-yard line, Moon lofted a 44-yard bomb intended for Herkie Walls, but the Rams' strong safety, Vince Newsome, swept in, grabbed the ball on his five and returned it 31 yards to the Los Angeles 36.
Dickerson trotted out on the field to a roar of thunder. Only once, when he rushed for 208 yards against St. Louis this year, had Dickerson ever gained more ground in the NFL than he already had this day, and, as a pro, he'd never heard such a sustained salute as he was hearing now. For Bain and the rest of the offensive line the sensation of noise, of the high they were suddenly riding, was electric. "Let's get it on the very first run," he had yelled while taking the field. "No three, and three, and three.... Let's get a big one, and let's get it now!" Jimmy Raye, the Rams' offensive coordinator, signaled the play from the sideline, and the crowd was now so loud that the players had to tighten the huddle to hear Kemp call it.
Kemp sensed the electricity among his teammates as he shouted the play: 47 gap. It's a staple of Robinson's one-back offense, in which Dickerson takes the hand-off while the two weak-side linemen—Irv Pankey and Kent Hill—pull right, and the three men on the right side—Harrah, Bain and David Hill—block their men in. It's Dickerson's favorite play, giving him the option of cutting up the middle or, if that's clogged, of sweeping the right side.
"Hey, let's concentrate!" Kemp yelled. "Blow 'em off the line. Concentrate on the snap count. Let's not fumble, and no holding penalties. Just think and settle down!" As they broke from the huddle, Bain said, "This is for you, Eric. This is yours."
It was, to be sure. Taking the hand-off, Dickerson chose the high ground outside, a picture play, each man doing his bit. Neither Bain nor David Hill missed this moment. Hill took out his man and glanced over his shoulder, looking for Dickerson. Bain did too. "I wasn't going down and missing the play," he said later. "So I held my guy up—I didn't try to bury him in the ground—and glanced over my shoulder so I could watch it. He crossed that stripe, and I started screaming. I haven't been this excited since my daughter was born."
Dickerson slashed, and squirmed for nine yards before Oiler linebacker Gregg Bingham finally brought him down on the Ram 45-yard line. That run gave him 215 yards for the day on 27 carries—and 2,007 for the season. The Rams mobbed Dickerson on the field. Robinson, who had built his offense around the 6'3", 218-pound Dickerson after making him the second selection overall in the 1983 draft, behind John Elway, took him out of the game and later seemed pleasantly benumbed by it all. "It's shocking how good he is," said Robinson. "Really shocking."
Perhaps the least shocked of all was Dickerson. "I was ready to play today," he said. Clearly, the man was more relieved than anything. "It's fantastic, but I'm glad it's over."
So are those linemen. "What I love about the record is, we won't have to talk about it every day," Harrah said. "Hey, he got the record. We gave him the ball. He's going to put it on his mantel. He can tell his grandkids about it. He'll set more records in this league. He's just starting. There's no telling what this man can do."