James Wilder’s unbreakable(?) record

Thirty years is a long time for an NFL record to last. Eric Dickerson’s season rushing record of 2,105 yards, for instance, will turn 30 in 2014 — if the fates and Adrian Peterson permit it. (Though some might say O.J. Simpson’s 2,003 yards in 14 games in 1973, a 143.1-yard average, is a greater feat than Dickerson’s 131.6-yard average in 16 games.)

But that’s a blog for another day. The blog for this day is that Dickerson’s record, which has survived challenges from the likes of AP (2,097), Jamal Lewis (2,066), Barry Sanders (2,053), Terrell Davis (2,008) and Chris Johnson (2,006) in the past two decades, might not have as much staying power as another, less celebrated mark set in 1984: James Wilder’s 492 touches for the Bucs.

Many fans probably feel about touches the way Paul Reiser’s character felt about “nuance” in Diner: It’s not really a Football Word, not like block or tackle or sack. It’s a tad too, well, touchy-feely.

What 492 touches — in this case, 407 rushes and 85 receptions — reflect as much as anything is endurance, the ability to just take it. You’d think that would make the mark revered, this being a tough-guy game and all. But I get the feeling it’s thought of in the same vein as Joey Chestnut scarfing down 69 hot dogs at Coney Island. You just never hear football people talk about it.

Wilder did a lot with those touches, too. He finished third in the league in rushing (1,544), second in yards from scrimmage (2,229, the third-highest total in NFL history up to then) and second among running backs in receiving yards (685). It was, by any measure, a monster year. Unfortunately, his Tampa Bay team wasn’t very good — 6-10 — which helps explain, no doubt, why his accomplishment has been overlooked.

(He did have the benefit, though, of playing for John McKay, a coach who never worried much about putting mileage on his backs. McKay liked to joke that “the ball’s not heavy” — leaving out the fact that the defenders slamming into his ball carriers often were.)

To put Wilder’s season in perspective:

● His 492 touches broke Dickerson’s record, set the year before, by 51 — almost two games’ worth.

● He still holds the mark by 35.

● Only six quarterbacks that season had as many pass attempts as Wilder did touches — Dan Marino (564), Neil Lomax (560), Phil Simms (533), Steve DeBerg (509), Dan Fouts (507), Paul McDonald (493). (In pass-crazed 2013, 16 QBs did.)

Why does Wilder’s record endure — without anybody taking a serious run at it? For one thing, the game has changed. Teams run the ball less now and aren’t as likely to have one back carry as much of the load as James and his contemporaries did. Running Back by Committee is the preferred approach.

Beyond that, though, Wilder had the kind of year that virtually assured his mark would have legs — if not eternal life. Consider: His 407 rushes were an NFL record, and his 85 catches were second all time for a back. Here are the Top 5 in those departments through the ’84 season:

Year  Running back, team Rushes Year  Running back, team Catches
1984  James Wilder, Bucs 407 1978  Rickey Young, Vikings 88
1983  Eric Dickerson, Rams 390 1984  James Wilder, Bucs 85
1984  Walter Payton, Bears 384 1983  Ted Brown, Vikings 83
1984  Eric Dickerson, Rams 379 1980  Earl Cooper, 49ers 83
1981  George Rogers, Saints 378 1979  Joe Washington, Colts 82

Finally, a chart showing the Top 5 in touches before Wilder’s career year (left) and today:

Year  Running back, team Touches Year  Running back, team Touches
1983  Eric Dickerson, Rams 441 1984  James Wilder, Bucs 492
1979  Walter Payton, Bears 400 2006  Larry Johnson, Chiefs 457
1981  Earl Campbell, Oilers 397 2000  Eddie George, Titans 453
1981  George Rogers, Saints 394 2002  LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers 451
1983  William Andrews, Falcons 390 2000  Edgerrin James, Colts 450

Three decades later, Wilder still has the third-most rushing attempts in a season, trailing only Johnson (416, 2006) and Jamal Anderson (410 with the ’98 Falcons). He’s also still in the Top 20 for receptions by a running back in a season (16th, with Larry Centers’ 101 for the ’95 Cardinals leading the way).

Thirty years from now, it’s entirely possible Wilder’s record will still be standing. Let’s just hope it’s a little more appreciated by then. It deserves to be.

Source: pro-football-reference.com