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:
|YEAR||TEAM||GAMES||RUSH. YDS.||REC. YDS.||TDS||RUSH. YDS.||REC. YDS.||TDS|
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
|PLAYER||YEAR||TEAM||GAMES||ATTEMPTS / GAME||ATTEMPT||GAME||16 GAMES|
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?
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.