Barra on Football: he coulda been a contender

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 18, 2006



By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Allen Barra
 
We've only seen two rounds of the pigskin prize fight that is the 2006 NFL season, but some dominant heavyweights are already emerging.
 
The Ravens are an unexpected 2-0 and have outslugged their opponents by an impressive total of 55-6 – though it's possible that the judges may deduct a few points from their 27-0 decision over the Raiders (if you don't beat Oakland by at least 30 points, the win is somewhat tainted). It's too soon to tell if this is a return to the Ravens' glory season of 2000, when they rode a stingy defense and a strong running game to victory in Super Bowl XXXV. But it can be said with near certainty that Jamal Lewis, their leading rusher, won't be seeing a return to his glory years.
 
Lewis had a respectable game against Oakland, with 19 carries for 70 yards, and he has accumulated 148 yards so far this season. He is averaging 4.0 yards per carry, which is exactly the league average. If you were a boxer who landed only 40 percent of his punches but that was the average for your division, you'd probably be considered a "journeyman" and called "mediocre." But that's what "mediocre" means – performing at precisely the average. The term is cruel when applied to running backs because it's so hard for any of them to be better than average. 
 
They're all good in the NFL, at least compared to the competition they faced in college, and all the defenses are good, too. The bad running backs get weeded out long before they make it to the pros, and even the good ones have the lifespan of mayflies: A recent study by the NFL players' union revealed that the career of the average running back is slightly less than 2.6 years.    
 
Lewis is just 27 but in his seventh year if you count 2001, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp. In 2000 and 2002, he had sensational seasons, averaging 4.4 yards per carry while gaining 1,364 and 1,327 yards, respectively. But in 2003, Lewis was unbelievable, producing 2,066 yards and 14 touchdowns on 387 carries – good for an average of 5.3.
 
Let's put that in perspective. On Dec. 28, 2003, in the final game of the season against Pittsburgh, Lewis went into the fourth quarter needing just 44 yards to break Eric Dickerson's single-season mark of 2,105. The Steelers, who lost 13-10 (in OT), were not about to let Lewis get that record. They stacked the line and held him to just 5 yards on 8 carries in the fourth quarter and overtime. Still, he averaged a remarkable 129.1 yards per game over the course of the season.
 
So, pound for pound and yard for yard, how did Lewis measure up in 2003? Let's go to the tale of the tape and compare him with the other running backs who have averaged more than 120 rushing yards per game for a full season. That elite club has only eight members, with O.J. Simpson having accomplished the feat twice.
 
Here is a breakdown of the nine best rushing seasons ever, based on average yards per game (remember, the NFL did not go to a 16-game season until 1978):
 
Running Back (Year)
Att.
Yards
Avg.
NFL Avg.
Diff.
Games
YPG
O.J. Simpson (1973)
332
2,003
6.0
4.1
1.9
14
143.1
Jim Brown (1963)
291
1,863
6.4
4.1
2.3
14
133.1
Walter Payton (1977)
339
1,852
5.5
3.8
1.7
14
132.3
Eric Dickerson (1984)
379
2,105
5.6
4.1
1.5
16
131.6
Simpson (1975)
329
1,817
5.5
4.0
1.5
14
129.8
Jamal Lewis (2003)
387
2,066
5.3
4.2
1.1
16
129.1
Barry Sanders (1997)
335
2,053
6.1
4.0
2.1
16
128.3
Terrell Davis (1998)
392
2,008
5.1
4.0
1.1
16
125.5
Earl Campbell (1980)
373
1,934
5.2
4.0
1.2
16
120.9
 
First off, it's interesting to note how close to 4.0 the average yards per rush in the NFL has been over the last four decades. In the nine seasons represented, the average gets above 4.1 only once – 4.2 in 2003, the year Lewis went over 2,000 yards – and under 4.0 only once – 3.8 in 1977, Walter Payton's best year. (The 1977 season, as loyal Cold, Hard Football Facts readers know, was the height of the NFL's Dead Ball Era. Not only did it boast the lowest average per carry in modern times, it boasted the lowest league-wide passer rating of the past five decades.)
 
Second, there is no question that Jim Brown's 1963 season is the best of any modern rusher. At the rate Brown (pictured here) was gaining yards, had he played 16 games, he'd have accumulated 2,129 yards, an all-time single-season high. Both his yards per rush (6.4) and differential from the league average (2.3) are the highest on the list. Barry Sanders is next-best in both categories.
 
The eight men above also hold the distinction of rushing for over 900 yards in a six-game span. Brown did it twice. Last year, Kansas City's Larry Johnson joined them when he piled up 912 yards in six games during the second half of the season. The full list can be found here.
 
In any event, Lewis's 2003 season stacks up very well, and it earned him a prominent place in the record books:
  • Lewis owns the single-game rushing record with 295 yards.
  • Lewis owns the second-best rushing total for a season with 2,066 yards.
  • Lewis owns the sixth-best per-game rushing average for a season with 129.1 yards.
The difference between Lewis and the other rushers who averaged more than 120 yards per game is that they all had great NFL careers. That sentiment is even true of Terrell Davis, whose four stellar seasons and two Super Bowl championships (and one Super Bowl MVP award) were followed by three injury-plagued years. But the same can't be said of Lewis, at least not yet.
 
Although he isn't throwing in the towel, Lewis has barely gotten his once-promising career off the canvas in recent years. He has served two separate drug-related suspensions (in 2001 and 2004) and a four-month prison sentence (in the 2005 off-season). And his on-field performance since 2003 has gone down like a ton of bricks: 1,006 yards and a 4.3 average in 2004, 906 yards and 3.4 in 2005.
 
With the Ravens' apparent resurgence, it's possible that Lewis could get another shot at a title. But there is limited likelihood that he will return to the form he flashed in 2003.
 
Lewis might still have a puncher's chance of making the Hall of Fame, but we're not betting on him. He could have been a contender ... but he seems to have become a palooka.

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