No. 92: Eric Dickerson

What’s left now is the explosion. Bill James likes to say that in baseball, it’s the statistics that survive. As the years go on, people remember fewer and fewer of the specifics, the daily battles, the Tuesday nights in Milwaukee, the trade rumors, the practical jokes, the little things that make up a player and a person. Instead, over time, players merge with their numbers, their achievements, the back of their baseball cards … they become 300-game winners, lifetime .300 hitters, three-time MVPs and so on.

This is because baseball is a counting game. Football statistics don’t work like that. You can be an obsessive football fan without memorizing a single statistic. Oh, it’s certainly possible that you know what might be pro football’s most famous number, 2.105, which is Eric Dickerson’s now 37-year-old record for rushing yards in a season. But it’s just as likely that you don’t. It’s not like 2,105 ever seemed magical, like Maris’ 61 or Gibson’s 1.12.

Being honest, it never even seemed as magical as O.J. Simpson’s 2,003.

But whether you know the number or don’t … Eric Dickerson is not 2,105 the way DiMaggio was 56 or Clemente was 3,000 or Rose is 4,256.

No, what survives in football is movement and the jaw-dropping awe that it inspires — Gale Sayers turning a defender inside out, Aaron Rodgers making a football jump out of his hands like it’s a living thing, Barry Sanders stopping and starting and stopping and starting like he has his own pause button, Randy Moss rising to the sky for the football, Lawrence Taylor turning the corner.

Nobody ever ran a football more explosively than Eric Dickerson.

This is what survives, this is what Eric Dickerson is forever, he’s wearing goggles and oversized shoulder pads, and he’s running upright like a sprinter, and it barely looks like he’s trying, but nobody can catch him. This was the wonder of Dickerson … he ran with such ease, such effortlessness, that his Rams coach John Robinson used to scream at him, “Damn it, Eric, you’ve got to run faster!”

Robinson said this so many times that Dickerson finally barked back, “Coach, if you think I’m not running fast, come out and run with me.” Robinson couldn’t run with Dickerson. Nobody could. Well, maybe one guy: You might remember Washington’s Darrell Green chasing him down in a 1986 playoff game, but Darrell Green was world-class fast. And Darrell Green wasn’t carrying a football.

Dickerson was a beautiful runner, utterly graceful, DiMaggio in football cleats. “The smoothest runner I’ve ever seen,” Robinson called him. But he was more than graceful; he was also 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, pure power, pure force. Yes, that’s what survives. There has never been a more explosive runner than No. 29, Eric Dickerson.

And as for the rest …

“One of the most overrated players in the history of the sport,” writer Pete Axthelm called him.

“He is as talented as any running back ever,” Jim Brown said. “But he doesn’t always show heart.”

“Money was more important to him than anything,” Mike Downey wrote in The Los Angeles Times after the Rams traded him. “More important than the contract he endorsed, more important than the men he played with … Dickerson is gone and the Rams are better off.”

… as for the rest, it’s complicated.

Eric Dickerson returned the first kickoff he ever saw for a touchdown. That was in the seventh grade in Sealy, Texas. When people used to ask Dickerson about how he developed his running style, he would shrug. Born with it. Never thought about it. In the offseason before 1984, the season when he broke the rushing record, he never even worked out. “Running,” he would say, “is so natural to me.”

Dickerson grew up without knowing his father. He was raised by his great aunt and uncle and believed them to be his parents. He would tell reporters that it never bothered him to find out that they were not or that the woman he thought was his sister, Helen, turned out to be his mother. He was focused on his own future.

Dickerson was a high school superstar both in football and in track, and he was recruited by everybody. He originally committed to Texas A&M and was soon driving around a Trans Am that became unofficially known as a Trans A&M. But then, suddenly, the Trans was gone, and he was off to SMU a few years before that school got the death penalty from the NCAA.

He teamed up with Craig James at SMU — they were known as the Pony Express and they were utterly unstoppable. Even playing only half the time, Dickerson finished third in the Heisman voting. He was the No. 2 overall pick behind John Elway in the 1982 NFL draft.

And right away with the Rams, Dickerson was a phenomenon. Ran for 1,808 yards and scored 20 touchdowns as a rookie. Then he ran for 2,105 yards and broke O.J. Simpson’s all-time rushing record in his sophomore season. It was a remarkable achievement when he did it … but it has only grown more remarkable as the years went on. Dickerson’s rushing record has been challenged multiple times — by Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Derrick Henry, Chris Johnson, Terrell Davis, among others — but nobody has gotten there yet.*

*Peterson came closest; he went into the last game of the season against Green Bay needing 208 yards to break the record. Peterson ran for 199, as the Vikings kicked a field goal with no time on the clock to win the game.

Dickerson’s 1984 season — it’s almost beyond belief. He averaged a remarkable 5.6 yards per carry, and unlike his rookie season that average was not pumped up by a lot of long runs. Incredibly, Dickerson — one of the great breakaway backs in the game’s history — had only two 50-plus-yard runs in 1984. Instead, his season was made by eight-yard runs, nine-yard runs, 10-yard runs, time after time, he found daylight, sprinted through, broke a tackle, dragged a defender, fell forward.

The run that broke Simpson’s single-season record was typical of that season — it was Dickerson’s favorite play, 47 gap. On the play, both the left guard and left tackle pulled right, and Dickerson had the option to either follow all his blockers wide or cut back toward the middle.

Dickerson took the handoff, saw his opening was wide, followed his blockers, ran upfield as only he could, stumbled a touch as he broke outside, pulled through a tackle, and fell forward for nine yards and the all-time record. “It’s shocking how good he is,” John Robinson said.

It was, indeed, shocking.

There would be many more great runs in Dickerson’s career … but in so many ways, this was as good as it ever got.

“Eric has had the taste of the easy life on the West Coast with all those pretty palm trees. He’s going to come in here and see nothing but bare trees.”

— Walter Payton before the 1986 NFC Championship Game between the Rams and Bears.

One week before the 1986 NFC Championship Game, Eric Dickerson ran for an astonishing 248 yards and two touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys. It was another NFL record for Dickerson, the playoff rushing record, and everybody was in awe. The Cowboys had prepared all week just to stop him — they had no other defensive gameplan. Nobody in Dallas was even slightly worried about the Rams’ passing game or their 34-year-old rookie quarterback Dieter Brock, a former Canadian Football League star (there was no need to worry; Brock completed six of 22 passes for 50 yards in the game).

But even with 11 defenders watching Dickerson every moment, they could not stop him, they could not slow him, they could not defeat him.

“Eric Dickerson,” Robinson said, “just played as great a game as I’ve ever seen a man play.”

Dickerson felt vindication. It had been a long season. He’d run for just 1,234 yards — 900 or so less than his record-breaking season — and for the first time, there were questions. People were criticizing his toughness. They were wondering why he couldn’t break away. “The media said I lost my desire,” Dickerson said after the game. “They said I wasn’t running the same way. But I love football, and every time I go out there I give it my best.”

With that, Dickerson had carried his team to the shadow of the Super Bowl.

Alas, it would be the only time that Dickerson would get close to the Super Bowl.

And, in that moment of promise, he had the misfortune of going up against the 1985 Bears.

“It’s going to be a long day for him,” the Bears’ Steve McMichael said going in.

It was indeed a long day. Nothing went right for Dickerson. He got the ball eight times in the first quarter. He gained just 14 yards. Of the 17 times he carried the ball in the game, five ended up gaining 0 or negative yards. When the Rams drove deep into Bears territory at the end of the first half — their only realistic chance to score — they gave Dickerson the ball, and he stayed in bounds, and the clock expired even with the Rams still having a timeout.

Then, the first time he carried the ball in the second half he fumbled.

Dickerson was furious and frustrated after the game. He knew that the Rams’ only chance was to just keep giving him the ball, and instead they let Dieter Brock throw it 31 times (he completed 10 of them for 66 yards).

“We never established a running game,” Dickerson said. “We were going to wear them down and run the football. We didn’t get a chance to run the football, and we didn’t wear them down … A running game doesn’t mean, ‘run, run, pass, run, run. It means, ‘run, run, run, run, run run.”

In the end, I suspect, those Rams could have play those Bears 100 times and never won. The Bears, for the month of January ’86, were the greatest defensive team in the history of professional football.

But something about Dickerson’s career was altered in that game. Oh, the Rams kept on running him — giving him the ball 404 times in 1986, making him just the second player in NFL history to carry the ball 400 times.* And he became the first running back to rush for 1,800 yards in three different seasons.

*Do you know who was the first player to carry the ball 400 times in a season? I certainly didn’t — it was James Wilder with Tampa Bay in 1984. Wilder was a powerhouse 6-foot-3, 225-pound back from Sikeston, Mo. — he was sometimes called “the Sikeston Train” in college. Lawrence Taylor once called him the toughest back he ever hit. Anyway, that year, Wilder carried the ball 43 times against Green Bay and offered the classic quote: “By Monday night, I’ll be so sore it will hurt to smile.”

But it didn’t feel the same to him. Dickerson seemed to be growing tired of the whole scene. He fumbled 15 times; Dickerson had always fumbled a lot but now it was all anybody seemed to be talking about. In the Rams’ playoff game, Dickerson ran for 158 yards against Washington. But he also fumbled the ball three times.

We talked about his fumbling all week,” Washington’s Darryl Grant said. “We didn’t know if he’d do it, but we thought we’d give him a little encouragement by hitting him as hard as we could.”

After the game, Dickerson was philosophical about it all.

“Now, I know what you’re all trying to get at,” Dickerson said to the press. “You’re going to say we lost because of me. But I’m not going to let you place all the blame on my shoulders. … There has always been a tendency to make me out to be some Superman. Whatever I do. if it’s good, it’s larger than life. If it’s bad, it’s a lot worse than it really is.”

He would be gone from Los Angeles within months.

On Halloween 1987, Jim Gray — who was then an announcer at ESPN — came to visit Eric Dickerson. By that point, Gray was pretty much the only reporter Dickerson was speaking with. The season had been an utter fiasco. Dickerson had decided he was grossly underpaid … which, to be fair, he was. He threatened to hold out. He called Rams vice president John Shaw, “an eel.” Dickerson pointed out that John Robinson made more money than he did and suggested, “Let him run the 47 Gap.”

It was an ugly scene. Dickerson felt like criticism was coming at him from all directions. and again, he wasn’t wrong. Newspaper columnists savaged him. Fans called him greedy. When his hero, O.J. Simpson, said that Bo Jackson was a better running back, Dickerson bristled. When Jim Brown said in repeated interviews that Dickerson lacked heart, Dickerson lashed out.

“That’s a joke,” he said. “I’ve played hurt my whole career. Jim Brown played when guys were 170 pounds. Now they’re 280 and running 4.5 40s. Jim Brown ran about a 4.8 40. Jim Brown was great in his day, but his day is gone.”

By Halloween, it was clear that the status quo simply was not sustainable. Jim Gray called Dickerson to set up the evening, and Dickerson said: “You better get over here right away.”

“Why’s that?” Gray asked.

“I’ve been traded to the Colts.”

It was one of the most stunning deals in NFL history — a three-way deal right in the middle of the season that sent Dickerson to the Colts, Pro Bowl linebacker Cornelius Bennett to Buffalo and a whole bunch of draft picks and running back Greg Bell to the Rams. The Colts immediately announced they had made Dickerson the highest-paid running back ever.

“I’m satisfied,” Dickerson said after he called the Rams “stupid” one last time.

But Eric Dickerson was not built to be satisfied. His time with Indianapolis was decidedly mixed. He did help the Colts make the playoffs in ’87, but they lost convincingly to Cleveland (Dickerson ran for 50 yards and caught a touchdown pass). That was Dickerson’s last playoff game.

He led the league in rushing for the fourth time in 1988, going for 1,659 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns. But the Colts went just 9-7.

And then the Colts and Dickerson began their decline. By 1991, Dickerson played in just 10 games and averaged 3.2 yards per carry, and the Colts went 1-15. This is the trouble with being a running back in the NFL; time is short. Throughout his time in Indianapolis, Dickerson kept holding out and fighting for money, fighting for what he was sure he was worth.

The Colts traded him to the Raiders in 1992, and the Raiders traded him to Atlanta in 1993, and the Packers wanted him after that but Dickerson failed a physical, and anyway, there rarely is anything good to say about the end of a great running back’s career. Some of the greatest in NFL history — Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, in particular — got out before the inevitable pain.

Dickerson finally retired in 1993 — “he didn’t announce his retirement, he conceded it,” Dallas columnist Kevin Sherrington wrote — and the stories mostly focused on what might have been had he stayed in Los Angeles. Dickerson had been so great. And yet, there was this powerful feeling that he could have been more.

“I’m not sure what happened to Eric,” said Steve Endicott, who recruited Dickerson to Southern Methodist. “It’s just such a shame.”

Was it a shame? Dickerson retired with the second-most rushing yards in NFL history behind Payton. He set a record that might never be broken.

Anyway, Dickerson was defiant to the end. “I don’t really play for glory,” he said when asked about his legacy. “It’s just not that big of a deal to me.”

But maybe it is — Dickerson has a book coming out in January called Watch My Smoke, so he can tell his story. It’s a complicated story. But what isn’t complicated is the way Eric Dickerson ran. That was as clear as the sky over Hawaii. All you have to do is go back and look at a few highlights; it’s vividly there. He was the most explosive runner that ever was.