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O.J.’s Football Fame Was Mostly Based On Two Great NFL Seasons

O.J. Simpson entered the national consciousness 49 years ago, two years before the Apollo 11 moon landing and five years before the majority of American households owned a color television set. In 2016, thanks to two well-received new series — a dramatization of the trial on FX starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, and a five-part ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, part three of which airs Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN1 — he is strangely famous and infamous once again.

When Simpson went to trial in 1994-95, nearly three in five Americans were old enough to remember his football prime. Today, only one-third of the population can say that. In fact, more Americans are too young to remember O.J. in the courtroom than are old enough to remember his best years on the field.2

For most, “O.J. the football player” is little more than vague preface to everything that came after. And at this point, he is more infamous for being O.J. Simpson than he is famous for what made him O.J. Simpson in the first place – football. But Simpson’s fame is critical to understanding his stature in 1994, and his football prowess is critical to understanding that fame.


Simpson led the nation in rushing in each of his two seasons at the University of Southern California;3 the Trojans won the national championship in 1967 and he won the Heisman Trophy in 1968. Fresh off a 1-12-1 season, the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills selected Simpson first overall in the 1969 NFL/AFL draft. He went on to play for 11 seasons, only thrice on teams finishing with a winning record (1973, 1974, 1975) and only once making the playoffs (1974, then as the lone wild card team).

Here’s how Simpson fared for his career:

TOTAL PER GAME
YEAR TEAM GAMES RUSH. YDS. REC. YDS. TDS RUSH. YDS. REC. YDS. TDS
1969 BUF 13 697 343 5 54 26 0.4
1970 BUF 8 488 139 5 61 17 0.6
1971 BUF 14 742 162 5 53 12 0.4
1972 BUF 14 1,251 198 6 89 14 0.4
1973 BUF 14 2,003 70 12 143 5 0.9
1974 BUF 14 1,125 189 4 80 14 0.3
1975 BUF 14 1,817 426 23 130 30 1.6
1976 BUF 14 1,503 259 9 107 19 0.6
1977 BUF 7 557 138 0 80 20 0.0
1978 SFO 10 593 172 3 59 17 0.3
1979 SFO 13 460 46 3 35 4 0.2
Career 135 11,236 2,142 75 83 16 0.6
Simpson won the rushing title in 1972, 1973, 1975 and 1976

Source: pro-football-reference.com

When Simpson retired in 1979, he was second in career rushing yards behind Jim Brown; today he is No. 21 on the career rushing list. He led the NFL, not long after it had merged with the AFL, in rushing four times (1972, 1973, 1975, 1976) and finished third in 1974. Two of those seasons are among the best in pro football history.4

In 1973, Simpson became the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season; he is the only player to do so in 14 games. That year, O.J. averaged 143 rushing yards per game, still the best single-season, yards-per-game average in history. Two years later, he averaged 130 rushing yards per game, currently sixth best all time.5

If we consider yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, Simpson was even better in 1975. Simpson’s 160 rushing and receiving yards per game that season is second only to Priest Holmes’s 163 yards per game in 2002,6 his 1.64 touchdowns per game is eighth all-time, and (for kicks) his 25.4 fantasy points per game is seventh. Football Reference’s Approximate Value statistic places his 1975 season in a second-place tie for best ever by any player at any position since 1950.7

Ten players in history averaged 125-plus rushing yards per game in a season, which equates to 2,000-plus yards over 16 games. Simpson and Brown are the only ones who did it twice:8

YARDS PER
PLAYER YEAR TEAM GAMES ATTEMPTS / GAME ATTEMPT GAME 16 GAMES
O.J. Simpson 1973 BUF 14 23.7 6.0 143.1 2,289
Jim Brown 1963 CLE 14 20.8 6.4 133.1 2,129
Walter Payton 1977 CHI 14 24.2 5.5 132.3 2,117
Eric Dickerson 1984 RAM 16 23.7 5.6 131.6 2,105
Adrian Peterson 2012 MIN 16 21.8 6.0 131.1 2,097
O.J. Simpson 1975 BUF 14 23.5 5.5 129.8 2,077
Jamal Lewis 2003 BAL 16 24.2 5.3 129.1 2,066
Earl Campbell 1980 HOU 15 24.9 5.2 128.9 2,063
Barry Sanders 1997 DET 16 20.9 6.1 128.3 2,053
Jim Brown 1958 CLE 12 21.4 5.9 127.3 2,036
Terrell Davis 1998 DEN 16 24.5 5.1 125.5 2,008
Chris Johnson 2009 TEN 16 22.4 5.6 125.4 2,006
Players who averaged 125+ yards per game in a season (2,000+ yards over 16 games)

Source: pro-football-reference.com

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Brown achieved the feat most efficiently in 1963 (6.4 yards per carry), followed by Barry Sanders (6.1 in 1997), Simpson (6.0 in 1973), Adrian Peterson (6.0 in 2012), and Brown again (5.9 in 1958).9

In 1973, Simpson combined volume and efficiency better than anyone in history.10 His 6.0 yards per carry that season is best among the 90 times a player averaged 22 or more carries per game in a season; it is seventh best among the 1,500-plus times a player averaged 12 or more.11

But what about the rest of Simpson’s playing career?

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This chart is perhaps most telling. Simpson’s 1973 and 1975 seasons sparkle, but beyond those two all-time performances, he had only one excellent season (197612) and two very good seasons (1972, 1974) — a decidedly short prime compared to those of many other elite backs. He ran well in 1977 but played only seven games. Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Peterson and Sanders only managed to match Simpson’s second-best single-season yards-per-game performance once apiece, but they each boast another six to nine very good or excellent seasons. The best single-season averages from career rushing leaders such as Emmitt Smith (first all-time), Curtis Martin (fourth), LaDainian Tomlinson (fifth) and Jerome Bettis (sixth) were about as good as Simpson’s third-best season, but they delivered sustained production throughout their careers.

Overall, Simpson’s shorter prime (and shorter seasons) land him right around No. 20 all-time for running backs in career volume categories.13 He fares better, as you might imagine, in per game, prorated and relative-to-league-average measures for his career, ranking as high as the bottom end of the top 10 at his position.

His incredible peak brought stardom, and that stardom endured and evolved beyond his handful of great football years, ultimately setting the stage for the rest of the O.J. Simpson story.

CORRECTION (June 16, 11:00 a.m.): A previous version of the first table in this article mislabeled the three columns under the “per game” heading. The correct order is, from left to right, rushing yards, receiving yards and touchdowns — not receiving yards, touchdowns and average touchdowns.

Footnotes

  1. FiveThirtyEight is owned by ESPN. ESPN and ABC are owned by the Walt Disney Co.

  2. At least 7 years old in 1972 to remember his prime. At least 7 years old in 1995 to remember the trial.

  3. After playing junior college football at City College of San Francisco from 1965 to 1966.

  4. This analysis includes the NFL, AFL, and All-America Football Conference (AAFC).

  5. When measured relative to the average performance of top rushers in a given season, Simpson’s 1973 ranks as the seventh-best rushing season in history and his 1975 ranks eighth.

  6. Holmes played 14 of 16 games in 2002; he missed the final two games with a hip injury.

  7. When prorated to a 16-game schedule, Simpson’s 1975 ranks as the best yards-from-scrimmage season in history and his 1973 ranks eighth (Bryan Frye, GridFe). Holmes’s 2002 is penalized for games missed.

  8. Earl Campbell is the only one who missed a game in the season he did it. The NFL began playing a 16-game regular season in 1978. Simpson played all but his final two seasons in the 14-game era; Brown played in the 12- and 14-game eras.

  9. League-wide yards per carry is fairly stable since 1947, with an average of 4.03 yards and a standard deviation of 0.12 yards (seasons equally weighted). There was a slight uptick in the past two decades. The NFL narrowed the hashmarks in 1972; rushing attempts generally increased through 1977, but yards per carry was largely unaffected. For further reading, Chase Stuart at Football Perspective has written extensively on yards per carry.

  10. Era-adjusting for rushing attempts is not a straightforward endeavor. Leaguewide rushing attempts trend downward over time, with the notable exception of the 1970s, when teams averaged 34.8 runs per game (compared to 27.5 since 2000, seasons equally weighted). But carries by top backs actually trend upward until 2004. In fact, top-tier backs in the late 1990s and early 2000s carried the ball more than those of any other era.

  11. Simpson’s yards per carry in 1973 is about three standard deviations above the mean for both groups.

  12. 107 rushing yards per game, 39th all-time for players with at least 120 rushing attempts in a season.

  13. 21st in career rushing yards, 23rd in career yards from scrimmage, and 17th in career approximate value.

Greg Guglielmo researches and writes about sports and other topics under the name ELDORADO.

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