Jim Brown’s exploits will likely never be matched
Jim Brown, who died on Friday at the age of 87, was truly one of the very best players to ever wear a football helmet. The best running back the game has ever seen, he also arguably was its best player.
He exited at the dawn of the Super Bowl era, retiring at the age of 29 and trading his cleats and helmet for a career in acting. No one had dominated the game the way he did.
At a time when passing games had not begun to develop into the intricate and effective attacks we now see in football, the running game ruled -- and Jim Brown ruled it like none other.
He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, for every carry of his nine-year career. He averaged more than 100 rushing yards per game, for every game of his nine-year career.
He obliterated the single-season rushing record in only his second season, gaining 1527 yards in only 12 games. That equates to 2,163 yards in a modern 17-game season.
His career high of 1,863 yards in a 14-game season translates to 2,262 under today’s schedule.
Jim Brown did it all at a time when every defender knew to be ready for the onslaught that occurred whenever Jim Brown got the ball in his hands.
He was one of a kind, a marvel to behold in the years before football became what it now is. He was a superstar in a sport that did not have the same nucleus of superstars it now enjoys. He ran through and around defenses like no one ever has.
In today’s game, no one can come close to that kind of sustained dominance, not with so many teams embracing the 50-year evolution that has made it far easier to move the ball through the air than it was in Jim Brown’s era. Even if a running back with his supreme physical talents, relative to his opponents, were to explode on the scene today, it’s unlikely that any team would build its entire offense around the sort of one-man wrecking crew that Jim Brown was.
For most who follow the game closely today, Jim Brown’s career predated their awareness of the game on a week-in and week-out basis. But for those of us who grew up in the 1970s, the name “Jim Brown” was uttered with universal reverence. Those who had seen what he can do knew instinctively that, until someone else like him came along, he would truly be one of one.
He still is, to this day. Even with all the great running backs the game has produced since Brown walked away from the sport, none impacted pro football the way Jim Brown did. None had the size and the speed and the strength and the raw determination to run through and around whatever was in front of him.
The closest running back today’s game has to Brown is Derrick Henry. Others, like Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson, provided similar raw excitement for the way they moved like men among boys. But there truly has never been another Jim Brown, and there likely will never be.
In today’s game, a man with the talents of Jim Brown -- if one ever appears again -- could easily end up playing quarterback, given that the foolishly unfair racial barrier to the position has become obliterated.
What if the option to play quarterback had existed for Jim Brown?
To run it or to throw it, and to do both in the same game. Given his skills at every sport he ever attempted (he was a legendary lacrosse player), a Jim Brown in today’s NFL would quite possibly become an MVP-caliber signal-caller, confounding defenses that would be forced to pick their poison, dying a not-so-slow death as Brown ran rings around his opponents or an even faster demise if/when he spotted a receiver running free, thanks to the obsession defenses would display in trying to keep Brown from tucking the ball and gaining 10, 20, or more yards at a clip.
He truly was one of a kind. A unicorn. An aberration. Not as much a man among boys as a god among men, perhaps the single most skilled athlete regardless of position or sport in American history.
That will seem like hyperbole to those who did not see what he did. The highlights are in plain view, for anyone who wishes to marvel at his skills. The numbers are undeniable. Jim Brown blazed a trail that no one since him has had the inherent skills to truly follow.
All we can do is wait for the next Jim Brown, and to assume/hope that instead of being the man who gets the ball from the quarterback, he’ll be the one who receives the ball from the center and creates magical mayhem for anyone who dares to try to stop him.