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The curse of the rushing champ

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Mike Beacom

msbeacom@yahoo.com
Contributing writer

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Posted Nov. 08, 2012 @ 9:13 p.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

NFL fans are well aware of the Madden Curse. Whoever appears on the video game’s cover is doomed to struggle or suffer injury. But the NFL could have a curse of another kind — one that affects the previous year’s top running back.

For many years, the list of NFL rushing champions consisted mostly of repeat winners. Beginning in 1957, Jim Brown won it in eight of his nine seasons; his successor, Leroy Kelly, won it in 1966 and ’67. O.J. Simpson won it four times over a five-year stretch in the 1970s, and Houston’s Earl Campbell closed out the decade with three straight titles (1978-80). In the 1980s, it belonged to Eric Dickerson four times, and either Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith owned the crown each year from 1990-97. In short, over those 41 seasons, only 18 men led the NFL in rushing.

Things have drastically changed in the years since. Over the past 14 seasons, 12 different backs have sat atop the leaderboard, and only Edgerrin James (1999-2000) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2006-07) have won it more than once during this period.

There are many things that could help explain this, but the one thing that cannot be explained is the “poor luck” most of these backs have suffered in the years following their rushing title. Consider the evidence:

• In 1998, Terrell Davis followed Barry Sanders’ last title and led the league with 2,008 yards. But Davis tore up his right knee in the first month of the 1999 season and his career was never the same.

• James suffered a similar fate following his second win in 2000. He missed 10 games the following year, and although he had some strong seasons in the mid-2000s he never reached the same totals as he had had in his first two seasons.

• Priest Holmes is an exception to the rule. He led the league with 1,555 yards in 2001 but actually gained more yards the following year; too bad for him, the Dolphins handed Ricky Williams the ball 383 times in ’02 — good for 1,853 yards. Williams’ follow-up was not a disaster, either, but his failed drug test that December led to his first retirement from the game.

• Jamal Lewis joined the 2,000-yard club in 2003. His drug arrest in early 2004 led to a four-game suspension, which cost him any shot at defending his crown.

• Curtis Martin became the oldest back to win a rushing title in 2004 when he set career bests for carries (371) yards (1,697) and yards per carry (4.6) at the age of 31. The next year Martin strained his knee. After struggling through the season, he retired.

• Shaun Alexander led the league in 2005 with 1,880 yards and set a single-season touchdown record (28). Alexander broke his foot early in the following season and missed six games, failing to reach 1,000-yard mark. It probably didn’t help that Alexander also had been featured on the cover of Madden prior to that season.

• The sharp decline Tomlinson experienced in his final years began following his two titles. Consider that he gained 5.2 yards per carry in 2006, and 4.7 in ’07. In 2008, Tomlinson’s average plummeted to 3.8 and then down to 3.3 in ’09.

• Adrian Peterson hardly had a letdown following his ’08 title. He gained 1,383 yards the next year — a good number, but nowhere near Chris Johnson’s 2,006 yards. Of course, Johnson’s numbers fell in 2010 and have been falling since.

• Had Arian Foster not missed three games last season, he might have defended his 2010 title. A bum hamstring was the culprit.

A decade-long string of coincidences, or a curse to anyone who finishes the year with more ground yards than his peers? Depends on what you’re willing to believe. One thing is for sure, though — last year’s rushing champ has virtually no chance of repeating. Maurice Jones-Drew’s foot injury kept him out for a third consecutive game Thursday night. And, so, the curse of the rushing champ continues. Take that, Madden.

Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.

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