Was O.J. Simpson's 1973 the best season in NFL history?

O.J. Simpson was the first NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season (Getty Images)
O.J. Simpson was the first NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season (Getty Images)

This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL's past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport's history.

Through the history of the NFL — really, through the history of all team sports — O.J. Simpson’s 1973 season is among the most famous ever. The number “2,003” still matters even though his rushing total that year has been surpassed a few times. That speaks to how momentous Simpson's 1973 was.

The legacy of that season is obviously a lot more complicated now. Simpson’s life, including his criminal and civil trials for the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, will be dissected over a riveting five-part documentary on ESPN, “O.J.: Made in America.” (Read Shalise Manza Young's review of the documentary here.)

A big part of Saturday’s first episode of “O.J.: Made in America” focuses on Simpson’s rise to fame. You can’t tell that story without Simpson’s 1973 season with the Buffalo Bills, and the episode spends a fair amount of time discussing it.

Simpson already was well known before 1973. He became a household name at USC, where he won a Heisman Trophy. He was the first pick of the 1969 NFL draft. And after three mediocre seasons to start his career in Buffalo, he was an All-Pro in 1972.

But 1973 took Simpson to another level. The Hertz campaign, the Rolling Stone cover story, the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, movies and the rest of the fame that came Simpson’s way might not have happened without his 1973 season.

There are probably two different questions when we talk about Simpson’s 1973 season. First, is it the most famous single season in NFL history? It’s on a very short list, with Lawrence Taylor’s 1986, Dan Marino’s 1984, Eric Dickerson’s 1984, Randy Moss’ 1998, Tom Brady’s 2007, Peyton Manning’s 2013 and LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2006. When you mention any of those seasons, NFL fans instantly know what you're talking about. You can easily put Simpson’s 1973 season ahead of all of them. Of all the players who have ever played in the NFL, Simpson’s 2,003-yard season might be the most well known of them all.

But is it the best single-season effort of all time? That’s a different category, and a little tougher to answer.

Pro Football Reference doesn’t even rank 1973 as Simpson's best season. Using its approximate value metric (think win shares for baseball), PFR ranks Simpson’s 1975 as his best season. Using PFR's approximate value, Simpson's 1975 is tied for the second-best in NFL history. Only Tomlinson’s 2006 season, in which he scored 31 total touchdowns, ranks higher.

Simpson didn’t reach 2,000 rushing yards in 1975, but he had better overall numbers. Simpson had just 70 receiving yards and no receiving touchdowns in 1973. In ’75 he increased that to 426 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns. So he went from 2,073 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns in 1973 to 2,243 and 23 two years later.

O.J. Simpson wouldn't do an interview after breaking the 2,000-yard barrier unless his offensive teammates could join him. (Getty Images)
O.J. Simpson wouldn't do an interview after breaking the 2,000-yard barrier unless his offensive teammates could join him. (Getty Images)

Simpson’s 1973 was still special, of course. Simpson had an astonishing 143.1 rushing yards per game, which is still 10 more rushing yards per game than any other player in NFL history over a single season. It was the first 2,000-yard rushing season in NFL history, and it remains the only 2,000-yard rushing season in a 14-game season. He had 11 100-yard games and a 99-yard game. Of the seven 2,000-yard seasons in NFL history, only one came in a 14-game season and only three of those backs averaged 6 yards per carry — Simpson and Adrian Peterson in 2012 averaged 6, and Barry Sanders in 1997 averaged 6.1.

In the final two games, chasing Jim Brown’s single-season record and 2,000 yards, Simpson had 219 yards against the New England Patriots and 200 yards against the New York Jets in the finale. He was unstoppable.

"That was like someone breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record," Bills Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure said in the documentary, about Simpson beating Brown's record and passing 2,000 yards. "It was unheard of."

If you want to argue that Simpson's 1973 season is the greatest ever, it's that he put up unprecedented numbers even though he was the Bills' only option on offense. Rookie Joe Ferguson started all 14 games at quarterback for the Bills that season and he completed 73-of-164 passes for 939 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, that’s over an entire NFL season. And despite an offense that had a starting quarterback who didn’t even crack 1,000 yards, the Bills went 9-5. Buffalo had 4,085 yards on offense and Simpson had more than half of that, with 2,073. That will likely never happen again.

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Based on pure production and not the romanticism over round numbers, there have been better NFL seasons than O.J.'s 2,003-yard season. Simpson’s 1975 was better in a few ways, although he didn’t hit a milestone like 2,000 rushing yards and he didn’t carry such a massive percentage of the offense. Barry Sanders’ 1997 was great, Tomlinson's 31-touchdown season was incredible and Chris Johnson’s 2009 has somehow become underrated. Jerry Rice’s 1,848-yard season in 1995 was special, and so was his 1987 when he scored 22 touchdowns in 12 games. Manning’s record-breaking 2013 (that's my pick for greatest single season in NFL history, and I wouldn't think twice about it) and Brady’s unbelievable 2007 were transcendent too.

But 43 years later, no season resonates like Simpson's 2,003-yard campaign. It’s the most famous season in NFL history. It was a catalyst for him reaching a new level of fame, and eventually an unforeseen level of notoriety.

Previous Shutdown Corner NFL throwback stories: Joe Montana's underrated toughness | Barry Sanders' long-forgotten final game | Jake Delhomme's playoff nightmare | Barry Switzer, outspoken as ever | Was Sebastian Janikowski worth a first-round pick?How Jim Harbaugh punching Jim Kelly helped Colts land Peyton Manning | Jay Cutler makes the greatest throw ever | "Has anyone ever kissed your Super Bowl rings?" | How the Patriots once faced a fourth-and-63 | The Packers survived a miserable two-decade run | "NFL PrimeTime" changed how we watch football | One of pro football's greatest games happened in the crazy USFL | The time Warren Moon should have had 650 yards in an NFL game | In 1979, Lyle Alzado boxed against Muhammad Ali. Seriously | Meet the NFL team that lost its only game before folding | In 1969 the NFL demanded Joe Namath sell his bar, so he retired | Let's Ram It! An oral history of 1985 Los Angeles Rams' rap song | The historic AFL-NFL merger 50 years ago

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!