By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Browns-shirted thug
Jim Brown was the most dominant running back in the history of football and one of the great athletes in the annals of American sport.
Brown owned the college gridiron as a two-way star at Syracuse and then with the Cleveland Browns he dramatically rewrote the standards by which pro football running backs are measured. His numbers stand the test of time a half-century later.
In Brown’s spare time he was a lacrosse Hall of Famer, a pro basketball draftee and an Olympic-qualifying decathlete.
But even a player of his stature may have been denied an incredible historic milestone by NFL stat keepers.
At least that’s the argument made by football analyst Brian Marshall of Toronto. He is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Assocation
and the author of the 1995 book, “Jim Brown: A Statistical Presentation of His College and Pro Football Careers.” We met Marshall in June at NFL Films
, where he made a presentation about Brown's lost 1,000-yard season.
Brown, says Marshall, was mistakenly denied a 1,000-yard season in 1962 – a milestone which would further cement Brown’s reputation as the greatest running back of all time.
Official NFL stats say that Brown ran for 996 yards in 1962. But those numbers conflict with data found in game-by-game reports kept by the Cleveland Browns organization and shared with Marshall for his research.
Brown’s “official” 1962 numbers: 230 attempts, 996 yards, 4.33 YPA, 13 TD
Brown’s gamebook 1962 numbers: 231 attempts, 1,011 yards, 4.38 YPA, 13 TD
The record books say that Brown topped 1,000 yards seven times in his nine-year career. But in reality, he topped 1,000 yards eight times in nine years, including eight years in a row: a record that should have stood for more than three decades.
They are stunning numbers. Keep in mind, only five runners in NFL history had topped 1,000 yards in a season before Brown arrived on the scene in 1957 and re-invented the standards of pro football.
The NFL's only 1,000-yard rushers before Brown made it an every-year habit were Beattie Feathers (1934), Steve Van Buren (1947,1949), Tony Canadeo (1949), Joe Perry (1953, 1954) and Rick Casares (1956).
Put another, NFL fans witnessed seven 1,000-yard seasons from 1920 to 1956. Jim Brown matched those seven 1,000-yard seasons all by his lonesome in the space of nine years (1957-1965). In fact, he actually surpassed those seven 1,000-yard seasons.
Jim Brown’s second-rate season
Brown’s 1962 season leaps off the record books as a vastly under-performing down year by his lofty standards.
He rushed for just 996 yards and averaged 71.1 yards per game, far below the standards of his career. Even if you use the higher numbers in question, Brown averaged just 72.2 yards per game. In either case, it was the worst season of his career.
The 1962 season is, in fact, the only one in which Brown failed to lead the NFL in rushing.
There is a good reason for the sub-par performance, says Marshall. Brown injured his left wrist in Week 4 game against the Cowboys. It was a problem because Brown normally carried the ball in his left hand. The powerful man used his stronger right arm to beat back defenders. (Note the photo at the top of the story: ball in left hand, right hand out to fend off opponents.)
But with the injury, Brown was forced to carry the ball in his right hand in 1962 which, says Marshall, “reduced his ability to defend himself and which in turn negatively impacted his rushing numbers.”
There’s no doubting that those numbers in 1962 were a clear under-achieving statistical outlier in Brown’s career. So the injury theory and the numbers seem to jibe well.
But even injured, Marshall insists that Brown should be entered in the record books with another 1,000-yard season.
Marshall uncovered several conflicts between the game-by-game records of 1962 and official NFL records today. Specifically, there are five games in conflict. The “official” records deny Brown 1 additional carry and 15 additional rushing yards.
Game 7 vs. Pittsburgh
21 carries, 93 yards
21 carries, 96 yards
Game 8 vs. Philadelphia
20 carries, 69 yards
20 carries, 79 yards
Game 10 vs. St. Louis
19 carries, 79 yards
19 carries, 78 yards
Game 13 vs. N.Y. Giants
14 carries, 55 yards
14 carries, 56 yards
Game 14 vs. San Francisco
22 carries, 135 yards
23 carries, 137 yards
Those extra 15 yards, as noted above, would have boosted Brown from 996 yards to 1,011 yards in 1962.
Brown’s Browns vs. Taylor’s Packers
Brown still would have fallen short of the rushing title that year, even with the additional 15 yards.
The honor that year belongs to Jim Taylor (1,474) who powered the NFL champion Green Bay Packers to what was probably the greatest team rushing season in history. (Taylor, by the way, set the white guy single-season rushing record in 1962, an honor he still holds.)
The 1962 Packers ran the ball 518 times for 2,460 yards, 4.75 YPA and 36 touchdowns – still the single-season rush TD record.
Even the great Jim Brown had to be impressed by that performance.
In fact, Brown (who never missed a game) returned from his injury with a great vengeance the following year, producing perhaps the greatest individual rushing season of all time.
Brown in 1963 ran 291 times for 1,863 yards, 12 TD and an incredible 6.40 YPA.
His average of 133.1 yards per game remains the second-best performance in NFL history, behind only O.J. Simpson in his 2,003-yard campaign of 1973 (143.1 YPG). Keep in mind Simpson ran the ball 41 more times than Brown did in 1963 – basically, Simpson needed three more carries per game to produce that additional 10 yards per game. Simpson averaged 6.03 YPA to Brown's 6.40.
Meanwhile, no player in history toted the ball nearly as often while maintaining such a prolific average per attempt as Brown did in 1963.
In fact, only four other players in history touched the ball at least 100 times and averaged 6.40 YPA in a season. And the next closest to Brown (Mercury Morris) ran the ball just 149 times – almost half as many attempts. See the list here
More interestingly, the 1963 Browns can challenge the 1962 Packers for greatest rushing team in history.
Cleveland that year ran the ball 460 times for 2,639 yards, 15 TD, well below Green Bay's scoring output, but an awesome team-wide average of 5.74 YPA – still the greatest single-season team rushing average
But Brown is largely responsible for that honor. The rest of the 1963 Browns ran the ball 146 times for 776 and 5.32 YPA.
The statistical fallout over 1962
Jim Brown’s 1,000-yard season of 1962 doesn’t materially change much of NFL history. For example, whether he ran for 12,312 yards (his "official" mark) or 12,327 yards (the "unofficial" mark), Brown is still No. 9 on the all-time rushing list, one spot behind Tony Dorsett (12,739) and one spot ahead of Marshall Faulk (12,279).
The closest active player to Brown on the all-time rushing list is something of a surprise: Thomas Jones, who's produced 10,591 yards with five different teams, most recently in Kansas City.
But there is the matter of recording history correctly or incorrectly. Football researchers, meanwhile, are frustratingly familiar with the history of poorly kept NFL statistics. Even today, the NFL engages in an infuriating practice of re-issuing stats with slight changes in the middle of each week of the season.
The missing 1,000-yard season, meanwhile, does offer some tantalizing if trivial what-ifs:
For example, any football fan age 40 or older remembers well the scene in Chicago on Oct. 7, 1984, when Walter Payton surpassed Jim Brown as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
Payton bounced around left end behind a Matt Suhey block for a 6-yard gain against New Orleans
. He earned a spot among football immortality with that single play.
Even Saints players stopped to congratulate Payton as Soldier Field exploded and cameras rushed onto the field to capture the historic moment in the third quarter of the game.
In reality, Payton was still a few carries shy of the record. After all, Brown produced 15 more yards than the record books told us.
More specifically, Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders each later entered the record books with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons – a feat both executed from 1989 to 1996.
In reality, they didn’t set the record for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. They merely tied the standard set by Jim Brown 31 years earlier.
Sanders went on to 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons, a feat matched by Curtis Martin from 1995 to 2004. Then Emmitt Smith set the new standard with 11 straight from 1991 to 2001.
Every player with eight or more consecutive 1,000-yard seasons has his name listed in the NFL Record & Fact Book. Brown, who also produced eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, is denied that spot on the list.
Keep in mind that Thomas, Sanders, Martin and Smith – all Hall of Fame running backs – enjoyed the luxury of 16-game seasons. The great Jim Brown executed similar feats of 1,000-yard excellence in 12- and 14-game seasons.
Brown’s dominance on the football field was profound and has never been matched by anyone at the position – even if the record books inadvertently refuse to give him his total statistical due.