Great Rookie Running Back Seasons During The 1970s

During the 1970s, there were several outstanding rookie running backs whose first year in the NFL were extraordinary. Any one of the following six players would have been a great addition to any team. Some of them were famous from their college days. Others gained national attention only when they produced in the pros.

John Brockington of the Green Bay Packers, Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Don Woods of the San Diego Chargers, Tony Dorsett of the Dallas Cowboys, Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers, and Terry Miller of the Buffalo Bills, each began their pro careers during the decade of the 1970s by breaking 1,000 yards rushing.

Last Decade of Running Back Prominence?

Now it’s important to note that the decade of the 1970s in pro football was thought of primarily as a decade where running the ball was the primary means of advancing the pigskin. At least that’s what most coaching staffs thought, and what most coaching staffs stressed to their offenses.

Naturally, most opposing defenses geared up to stop rushing attacks first and foremost. In a way, from at least 1970 to 1978, when several important offensive rules changes came about, the game of football still resembled what was seen many years prior, when the sport saw plowing straight ahead on running plays as the most natural way to gain yardage.

Great RB Rookie Seasons of the 1970s

John Brockington started this rookie class of runners to earn 1,000 yards in 1971 when he became the first runner ever to pass that yardage milestone in one season. Brockington gained a total of 1,105 yards in 1971, on 216 carries, for an incredible 5.1 yards per rush average.

For a big back like Brockington, who was 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, that average per rush is truly astounding. Brockington also scored four rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown in 1971, and he was named the unanimous Rookie of the Year in 1971.

Franco Harris came on the pro scene the following year, and he quickly took the league by storm. I mean, what can you say about Franco Harris that hasn’t already been said? His 1,055 yards rushing in his rookie year of 1972 was one thing, but his 5.6 yards per rush average was simply incredible.

He scored 10 touchdowns in 1972, and he was named to practically every honor by season’s end that one can be named to. Then to have a miraculous play like the Immaculate Reception cap off his rookie year, and you have what was the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. Harris was a member of a Steelers team that won four Super Bowls during the 1970s, and Harris himself was named the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl IX.

A couple of years after Franco Harris entered the NFL, the Green Bay Packers waived a rookie running back who was in their training camp by the name of Don Woods. The San Diego Chargers took a chance on him and claimed him for the $100 waiver fee.

All Woods did was run for 1,162 yards in 1974, and it was an incredible rookie success story. Woods also eclipsed the 5.0 yards per rush average in his rookie year by averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The Chargers only won five games in 1974, but without Don Woods, they would have never won anywhere near that many games.

In 1977, the first Heisman Trophy winner entered this listing of great rookie running backs. Tony Dorsett was a member of the 1976 National Champion Pittsburgh Panthers. He was drafted by the Cowboys…and then sat on the bench. He did not start in the Cowboys’ backfield until after the midseason mark, but once he saw regular action, his speed, instincts, and elusiveness did the rest. Dorsett ran for 1,007 yards in his rookie year, and he also scored 12 rushing touchdowns.

He also scored four rushing touchdowns during the 1977 postseason. Thanks to their new breakaway runner, the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII.

The following year, the state of Texas observed another outstanding rushing performance. Home-grown talent Earl Campbell – who was also a Heisman Trophy winner — came upon the NFL scene and combined a powerful, fullback-type physique, with the speed of just a notch behind that of Tony Dorsett.

Campbell gave the Houston Oilers instant credibility as a playoff team. His 1,450 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns in 1978 displayed his workhorse credentials, and he carried the Oilers all the way to the AFC Championship Game. His NFL Rookie of the Year award was a no-brainer.

The final running back on this list is quite possibly the most surprising. Terry Miller came to the Buffalo Bills in 1978 out of Oklahoma State University.

He only played four years in the NFL, the first three in Buffalo, and his final year in Seattle. He never enjoyed a greater season in the pros than what he experienced as a rookie. He gained 1,060 yards in his rookie year, and his 208-yard rushing performance against the New York Giants on November 26, 1978, was undoubtedly his main highlight of that season.

Whether a player like Terry Miller, who remained playing in the NFL for a fairly brief time, or a player like Franco Harris, Tony Dorsett, and Earl Campbell, players that had enough success and longevity to earn Hall of Fame careers…indeed all of these men that I have mentioned here have had exemplary rookie seasons, and they were all important moments worth celebrating in what I believe was the most important decade in pro football history.

Trivia Question:

True or False: Neither Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, and Gale Sayers…all Hall of Famers…none of them ran for at least 1,000 yards in their rookie seasons.

Host of Pro Football in the 1970s - Joe Zagorski

Throughout his days, Joe spent some time as a sportswriter and has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s.  Joe is also a proud member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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