A Look Through The Specs. Eric Dickerson And His Dominance With The Rams
When Eric Dickerson was attending Sealy High School he was being recruited by several schools, including the University of Southern California. The head coach doing the recruiting was John Robinson. Robinson knew Dickerson was fast and knew he was big. He was a Texas track and field state champion. He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds (current world record is 9.07) and he was 6’3” 202 lbs. His stature led most to believe he was more built to run through defenders, not around them. This first impression hid what would eventually be realized.
Dickerson passed on SC, opting to stay in Texas and attend Southern Methodist University. In 1979, the SMU Mustangs were all about the running game. Head Coach, Ron Meyer, had brought on three blue-chip running backs to be the driving force behind the offense. Dickerson, Craig James, and Charles Waggoner.
Waggoner was injured in ‘79, leaving Dickerson and James to split carries from there on out. The good news for them was there were plenty of carries to go around in this run-first offense.
In 1980, SMU attempted 225 passes for 1,386 yards. Running the ball, on the other hand, they attempted 567 rushes for 2,492 yards. In ‘81 there were 660 rushing attempts.
The duo was dubbed the Pony Express and they continued to split time for the remainder of their time at SMU. This, despite Dickerson’s emergence in their junior year as the superior back.
By their senior year, Dickerson had led his team to three straight winning seasons and two bowl victories. This thrust him into national prominence and he was in the running for the Heisman Trophy. The final vote tally put Dickerson in third place and sharing snaps may have been the reason for that.
Herschel Walker, the top vote-getter, ran the ball 335 times for 1,752 yards, at 5.2 yards per carry for 16 touchdowns. While Dickerson ran 232 times for 1,617 yards, 7.0 yards per carry and 17 touchdowns. Dickerson was as good or better statistically as Walker was, and did it with 103 fewer carries.
By this time, John Robinson had left SC for a head coaching job in the NFL. He took over the Los Angeles Rams and he wasn’t going to miss out on Dickerson for a second time. Robinson now knew that Dickerson was not only fast, but he saw first hand that he could really play ball. Robinson knew he wanted Dickerson, bad. They traded up a spot to draft Dickerson second overall in the 1983 draft. A draft that boasts eight Hall of Famers, Dickerson included.
If you were blind, he could run right by you, and I don’t think you’d know he was there unless you felt the wind.
The situation in LA, at the time, was similar to what Dickerson walked into as a freshman at SMU. A losing record and a coach committed to the ground attack. Robinson was brought on to turn the team around quickly. In order to do that he would need instant production from his team’s newest offensive weapon.
Early on during minicamps, he wasn’t pleased with what he saw, a rookie that seemed to be loafing it during practice. Robinson started shouting at Dickerson, “Run faster, Eric! Run faster!” And, “Hit the holes faster! You gotta go quick!” After several reps of this, Dickerson finally turned to Robinson and said, “Coach, I’m runnin’ as fast as I can. Let’s run together across this field. You’ll find out how fast I’m runnin’.”
Dickerson really was giving it his all. Robinson and Rams running backs coach, Bruce Snyder, were simply deceived because of Dickerson’s grace and fluidity in motion.
Snyder said of Dickerson’s running, “You couldn’t hear anything. You can usually hear a runner’s pads; they’ll flop around a little bit. And you’ll hear feet on the ground. And with a big man, you’ll get more sound vocally, a kind of breathing and grunting.”
And Robinson seconds that sentiment with “He made no noise when he ran. He was so smooth. That’s the thing that surprised me. If you were blind, he could run right by you, and I don’t think you’d know he was there unless you felt the wind. He’s unique in that way. He is an extremely powerful runner, but he’s so graceful it’s really deceiving. He’s the smoothest runner I’ve ever seen.”
Now it’s one thing to run in a straight line on a track and do it silently, but to do so juking and dodging linebackers and DB’s in your face is another. He was a Formula 1 race car in his ability to cut back and his field vision has yet to be matched. Coming into the league, his size and upright running style was very unusual. Running backs are coached to run low to reduce the access for defenders to grab on and wrap up. Dickerson ran tall like a track star, but defenders just couldn’t hold on.
Not only was he big and ran unlike any other back in the league, but he also carried himself differently. With more swagger. He sported a horse collar, a tight Jheri curl, and his signature racquetball goggles for his myopia. It is clear that Eric Dickerson was at the bleeding edge of what would later be called the player empowerment movement. This new kind of athlete would bring more personality, individualism, demands, and require a lot more money. This kind of swagger is now commonplace across all sports, but not then. Unlike his time at SMU, this time the offense was basically run solely through him. There was no pony express running back committee and no passing game to speak of. Dickerson rushed for 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns. Both of which stand currently atop the rookie rushing records.
Those 18 touchdowns accounted for 42% of the team’s points scored. Dickerson was named rookie of the year but came in second to Joe Theismann in MVP voting. The Rams finished with a 9-7 record and made the playoffs. They went 2-7 the year before.
In the playoffs that season, Dickerson was corralled by Dallas’ defense, holding him to 99 yards on 23 carries, but they were able to pull out a win by converting three turnovers in the second half to 17 points.
In the divisional game, the Rams were forced to rely on the passing game when Washington scored on their first five possessions. Dickerson was a non-factor. He rushed for 16 yards on 10 carries in the 51-7 beat down.
In 1984, Dickerson set the single-season rushing record at 2,105 yards, that record also stands today. In this season, even more of the Rams offense was run through Dickerson. The Rams threw the ball, a league fewest, 358 times for 16 touchdowns and 2,142 yards. Dickerson alone ran for the aforementioned 2,105 for 14 touchdowns. This time he accounted for 44% of the team’s points and he accounted for 45% of the team’s combined yards. In several games that year, Dickerson was the Rams offense. For instance, in week 10, against the St. Louis Cardinals, he accounted for 208 of the 261 total yards.
The Rams improved to 10-6 and made the playoffs for the second straight season. Even though Dickerson was only the second player to ever break 2,000 yards in a season and break the record, he came up second in MVP voting, this time to Dan Marino. To be fair, Marino also set the single-season records for passing yards and passing TD’s. 1984 seems to be the year the NFL first caught the passing bug. Teams would begin to rely more on their QB’s arm rather than looking to the ground attack. This change came just as Dickerson was hitting his peak. QB’s have thrown for 4,000 yards or more 201 times. Before 1984, it had only happened seven times.
The Rams sole playoff matchup was against Bill Parcells’ and Lawrence Taylor’s New York Giants. The Giants defense was formidable and held Dickerson back, but he was able to fight for 107 yards and scored the team’s only touchdown.
The ’80s were a fraught time for labor discussions in the NFL. 1982 saw a strike-shortened season and another one would come in 1987. In true empowered player fashion, Dickerson made his voice heard. After a record-setting season, Dickerson wanted a contract extension commensurate with other star running backs because he proved he was exactly that. The Rams didn’t feel the same way, despite the team putting nearly all the weight of the offense on him. In those days, there were even fewer guarantees for players. Dickerson sought protection and compensation for putting his body (and brain) at risk.
Dickerson would sit out for 47 days, missing the first two games of the season. At the time, these kinds of demands were so unheard of, especially from a young black football player, Coach Robinson called it “almost blackmail.” The Rams even had a policy in place that stated that they wouldn’t enter into negotiations concerning contract extensions.
Two games into the season, the sides were able to come to terms (one of the agreements was to give Dickerson $4 million in disability insurance in case of injury). The Rams were 2-0 and after Dickerson rejoined the team, they won the next five games too. But Dickerson struggled to find his rhythm. In those five games, he averaged just 3.27 yards per carry. But the Rams defense was clicking, holding opponents to under 13 points per game.
Over the next nine weeks, the wheels came off a bit. Dickerson seemed to find his footing in weeks nine and 10, rushing for over 100 yards in both games, but out of the blue, the Rams decided they were a passing team, putting the team in the hands of quarterback Dieter Brock. Brock, as we all know, played exactly 17 games in the NFL before getting injured and being replaced by Steve Bartkowski. In weeks 11 through 16, Dickerson averaged 17 carries per game. Over his first two seasons, he averaged 24 per game. Despite this cut in plays and missing the first two games, Dickerson managed 1,234 yards and 12 TDs.
Although the team faltered in the second half of the season, going 4-4, the team was able to make the playoffs for the third straight season. In the divisional game, they faced the Dallas Cowboys. In their previous meeting, Dickerson had a good game rushing for 100 yards. In this game, Dickerson was unstoppable, which was good because Brock wasn’t up to the challenge. He went 6 for 22 for 50 yards, an interception, and a fumble.
Dickerson, on the other hand, proceeded to set the single-game playoff rushing record at 248 yards, which also still stands. He scored 14 of the team’s 20 points. The defense pitched a shutout, sacking Danny White five times and picking him off three times. They held Tony Dorsett to 58 yards.
The Rams then ran face-first into one of the best defenses of all time. Enter the ‘85 Bears. Dieter was shut down, but this time so was Dickerson. He could only muster 46 yards against “The Refrigerator,” William Perry, and the rest of the defense.1986 started off business as usual for Dickerson and the Rams. They were back to a rushing team, despite making a huge trade for rookie Jim Everett. Dickerson was back to 25 carries a game and averaged 131 yards per game. He finished the season with 1,821 which led the league by a country mile. The next highest rusher was more than 300 yards behind. Dickerson was a consistent offensive weapon, yet the team would try to make the shift toward a passing offense.
The temptation to do so was right there atop the NFC West. Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers were leading the passing revolution with the West Coast offense and regularly edging the Rams out as the top seed in the west. But the 49ers also had Joe Montana. Steve Bartkowski wasn’t Joe Montana, and the Rams hoped Jim Everrett was going to be a lot more like Montana.
1986 was the perfect example of the Montana>Bartkowski principle. If the Rams relied too heavily on throwing the ball they would usually lose. In their six losses, they threw for 174 yards per game and rushed for 123.1 yards. But in wins, they rushed for 208.4 yards per game and passed for 110.4 yards. Not all the losses were on Bartkowski, Everett was put in starting in week 11. He went 3-4 including the playoff loss against Washington.
If 1986 was business as usual for the Rams, 1987 was a seismic shakeup, not only for the Rams but for the whole league. The NFLPA went on strike after week 2, which resulted in the cancellation of games in week three. In weeks four, five, and six teams fielded replacement players. These scab games drove down TV ratings, which fell 20%. Attendance of these games dropped, as well. Philadelphia saw the lowest with only 4,074 fans in attendance. Obviously, the NFL moved quickly to come to an agreement with the players union. By week seven the starters were back, but by week eight the league’s best running back was sent to Indianapolis in a massive three-team, 10-player trade.
The Colt’s 27-year-old GM, Jim Irsay spearheaded the deal. He was three years into the job and had yet to produce anything resembling a good team. Irsay’s, whose position was entirely based on nepotism rather than acumen, was desperate to prove to his dad and team owner Robert Irsay that he wasn’t a complete loser. He picked the most obvious answer to solving his problem; trade for the guy who was the best single offensive weapon in the league. Luckily for him, the Rams were happy to deal Dickerson away (not that they wouldn’t make the Colts pay, more on that later).
The Rams were back at the negotiating table with Dickerson. He was again unhappy with their offer for his new contract. What the Rams were offering is unknown, but Dickerson wasn’t interested. The negotiations got heated and personal and Dickerson asked to be traded. Irsay had put the word out that he was interested in Dickerson.
In the trade, the Rams received running backs Greg Bell and Owen Gill, and SIX first and second-round draft picks from 1988 and 1989. When asked about the trade Coach Robinson has said, “In my view, the trade was necessary once the disruptive influences got into the everyday life of the football team.”
It was in the Rams’ opinion that this trade would ensure the future success of the franchise by allowing them to build around Jim Everett.
Dickerson was also happy to be out of LA, he felt that the fans didn’t appreciate his contribution. The fans held a grudge against Dickerson. Almost a full two years later, when the two teams squared off, they threw monopoly money at him as he left the field.
Dickerson was also happy to have a familiar face in Indianapolis. Former SMU coach, Ron Meyer, was now the head coach for the Colts and both men were happy to be on the field again together. Ultimately, Dickerson was finally content about the amount he was paid. Once the trade was finalized the Colts quickly renegotiated his contract to pay him $5.6 million over four years.
Picking the winner of this trade is hard. The true winner is probably the Buffalo Bills, the third team in the trade, and Cornelius Bennett.
The Rams went on to have some success building around Everett. They made it to the playoffs the next two seasons, making the Conference Championship in 1989. But the long term success they envisioned from the trade never materialized. The Rams wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 1999.
For Dickerson, he led the Colts into the playoffs in 1987, the only time between 1977 and 1995. He rushed for over 1,000 yards for the next three seasons, winning the rushing title in 1988. The Colts winning ways would end shortly thereafter. They logged winning seasons in ‘87 and ‘88 and quickly returned to the basement of the standings.
Dickerson’s career began to fizzle out after 1989 due to several injuries and he wore out his welcome in Indianapolis. Ever a gadfly, Dickerson was suspended for ‘conduct detrimental to the team’ and ‘insubordination’ in 1991 and was traded after the season. He played short stints for the Raiders and the Falcons before retiring in 1993.
Dickerson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. He was the fastest player to reach 10,000 yards rushing, which still stands. He was first-team All-Pro five times and a six-time Pro Bowler.
Despite the acrimonious departure from LA, Dickerson has been welcomed back into the good graces of the franchise. Although, not without its moments of controversy.* He was officially named the VP of Business Development for the team and is unofficially the Rambassador (a title he gave himself). He was also one of the leading voices in bringing the team back to Los Angeles.
For that reason and all the other ones, LA has a lot of appreciation for Eric Dickerson, and this time he feels it.
*Dickerson made his feelings about Jeff Fischer very clear and Fisher banned Dickerson from the sidelines. Dickerson is also critical of the new uniforms. He’s not wrong, but there is more unpack there…