Jim Brown’s exploits will likely never be matched

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
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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.

30 responses to “Jim Brown’s exploits will likely never be matched

  1. People talk about him like he was a one-dimensional back in a league that rarely passed, but he had like 2,500 career receiving yards (and 20 touchdowns!) out of the backfield. The man could do whatever was asked of him.

  2. I wish I had seen him play. He was likely the best runner the game has ever had. Walter Payton though may have been the better football player? No one will ever know for sure.

  3. Jim Brown never played second fiddle to anybody. On or off the field. I really can’t think of a greater American. Ever.

  4. You cannot compare him to today’s game. He played against substitute teachers and car salesmen.

  5. Bo Jackson might have come close if not for the injuries. But of course the fact that Brown never got hurt was just another amazing part of his legacy.

  6. Did you just mention Henry and Peterson but no Walter Payton? Even Gale Sayers was more impressive than those two.

    Emmitt Smith, Riggins, etc. Numerous RBs had great stretches

    Adrian Peterson is not in the same ballpark.

  7. Just not possible in todays game for someone to be that much better than those around him.

    Look at those highlights. Who’s trying to tackle him? Looks like a bunch of Tom, Dick and Harrys who still work their offseason jobs at the factory, whose idea of nutrition is a pack of cigarettes and a pot of coffee for breakfast, a ham sandwich and a glass of milk for lunch, and a case of beer every night.

    Jim Brown had the body of today’s NFL athlete at a time when the guys chasing him couldn’t crack 5 seconds in the 40.

  8. for those of us who actually watched JB play, no superlatives can do him justice

    he truly was one-of-a-kind, never to be duplicated

    imagine if Derrick Henry were faster, quicker, more resilient, and more punishing…… hard to believe, but that truly was Jim Brown

    if I recall correctly, I believe he was also an “Iron Man” in that he reportedly never missed a game

    those players in the pre-Super Bowl era were of a different breed

    Prayers & Condolences to the Brown Family, the game lost a legend today

  9. Mr Florio, I could not have said it better. Thanks for the great tribute. If I recall, Brown was working on the “Dirty Dozen” movie, which took longer than expected, and Browns owner Art Modell told Brown to “get his ass into training camp”. Brown already had more film offers, and as he put it, “I’d rather be tackled by Raquel Welch than Sam Huff,” he being a tough-tackling Giants linebacker. He was so good that, as boys, we thought the Cleveland Browns were named after him.

  10. Had the privilege of seeing him play in St Louis and he was truly a beast. Could do it all! Best ever, bar none! Shame he didn’t play longer.

  11. For those who may have missed it, this comment from yesterday’s article about Jim Brown is most poignant. Credit to stankapl for posting it:

    stankapl says:
    May 19, 2023 at 5:18 pm
    From the Washington Post. The game referred to was in 1961: ‘The Redskins were the only one of 14 National Football League teams not to hire black players — and their owner, George Preston Marshall, was bent on keeping his team all white. Perhaps Marshall’s most famous critic was Shirley Povich, longtime sports editor of The Washington Post. Povich often referred in print to the Redskins’ colors as “burgundy, gold and Caucasian.” In a column, he observed that “Jim Brown integrated the Redskins’ end zone three times yesterday.”‘

  12. RIP to the best of all time. Only RB who might have a chance to join the conversation is Sweetness.

  13. Nice write-up, Mike, thank you. When talk of the greatest running backs of all time came up, it was generally acknowledged that the debate was for the second best of all time (Barry Sanders, OJ, Emmitt Smith, etc.) since Jim Brown defined the best ever.

    What a player.

  14. minime says:
    May 20, 2023 at 12:17 am
    Never in the current pass happy NFL.

    Jim Brown would be the same superior player and athlete in today’s NFL as he was during his era. In fact, he had 2499 receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns in his career. You cannot disrespect his ability and career no matter how hard you try.

  15. David Bennett says:
    May 20, 2023 at 12:53 am
    You cannot compare him to today’s game. He played against substitute teachers and car salesmen.

    A host of Hall of Fame defensive players from Jim Brown’s era disagree with you.

  16. Deshaun Watson tried to match his off the field exploits…

    Jim Brown was a remarkable football player and social activist, but as a man he was despicable. Multiple women over multiple decades would recall a much different person than the selective praise that’s been stated here.
    For someone who so often, and rightfully, points out the contemptible flaws of current players, at what point Mike do you plan on telling the full story about his life?

  17. I was fortunate enough to see the man play. Jim Brown is the best running back ever. Period. He had speed, strength, cutting ability, field vision, endurance, power, could catch the ball well, and was perhaps the best athlete ever to play in the NFL. We will not see his like again.

  18. Thank You Mike. That piece of literature right there, was very very well said, well done. Thank You.

  19. Unfortunately he would not of had the same success in today’s game. The players are on average so much better than they were back in the 50’s

  20. While I thoroughly agree that Brown was one of the greatest players ever to play the game it is impossible to say who is the greatest of all time because the game changes, the people playing the game change, training techniques and methods change and our perception of “greatness” changes.

    Just as an example probably the earliest nationally known “great” player was Bears running back Bronko Nagurski. By today’s standards his figures look paltry, yet in a playoff game, with the ball on the Bears 20, and needing a touchdown to win, with every body in the stadium KNOWING Nagurski was going to get the ball in 4 running plays he ran 60 yards. He retired in 1937 and came back to play in 1943 (due to s shortage of players everybody being in the military) as a TACKLE.

    He was also a multi-time World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.

    He was THE dominant player of his time.

    Could he play in today’s NFL? Maybe maybe not, there is no way to tell what that kind of raw talent could be turned into today.

    Jim Brown WAS great, I got to watch him play. I’d take him over ANY RB in the game today in a heartbeat.

    Was he the GREATEST player of all time ….. impossible to say. But a fun discussion to have!

  21. Barry Sanders’ dad frequently reminded him that Jim Brown was better.

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