If you take a second, and are spotted a guess or two, you could probably guess the career leader in rushing yards for every team. Some are immediately obvious, as is the case for franchises like Dallas, Cleveland, Detroit or Chicago. A couple might take a few guesses (Tampa Bay? Philadelphia? Arizona?) while others have been recently set (St. Louis, Green Bay and Carolina). But did you know that the oldest team rushing record belongs in San Francisco?
Jason Lisk wrote a fabulous piece on Joe “The Jet” Perry of the 49ers two years ago, highlighting not just his success but the struggles he endured in his post-playing days. Sadly, Perry died in April, as a result of complications from dementia. Perry is about to be in the news again soon: Frank Gore recently passed Roger Craig for second all-time on the 49ers career rushing list, and he is now just 149 yards from topping Perry. Of the 32 franchises, no team has seen one man hold its rushing record for as long as Perry has with the 49ers. In fact, since the team entered the NFL, no other man has ever been its career rushing leader.
Perry joined San Francisco in 1948, just two years after the color line had been re-broken in football and only one year after Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball. He became the first black player to play for the 49ers, but it didn’t take long for him to win over teammates and fans. In Perry’s first professional game — on his first very touch — he raced over 50 yards for a touchdown. In 1948, the Browns and the 49ers were the class of the All-America Football Conference, a rival football league to the NFL. That season, Cleveland and San Francisco went a combined 27-0 against the rest of the league. One of the stars for the 49ers was rookie Joe “the Jet” Perry, a fullback who led the league with 10 rushing touchdowns and averaged 7.3 yards per carry. In the season finale, Perry rushed 9 times for 160 yards against the rival Los Angeles Dons. But the Browns won their two head-to-head meetings, 14-7 and 31-28, respectively, to secure their place as the league’s premier team.
The following year Perry led the league in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry; he also played a big part in one of the biggest games in AAFC history. On October 9, 1949, Perry rushed 16 times for 155 yards and scored two touchdowns in a win over Cleveland, including having one of the game’s highlights on a 27-yard, one-handed catch and run score. San Francisco won the game 58-26, the first loss for the Browns in 30 games and two calendar years.
During the team’s first season in the NFL, Perry led the 49ers with 647 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns and a 5.2 yards per carry average, but the team struggled to a 3-9 record. Pretty soon, the team would feature one of the most memorable backfields in history.
When the Baltimore Colts folded, league placed all of their players in the same pool as the amateur draft. With the third pick, San Francisco — after winning a coin-toss to select in that spot — added Y.A. Tittle, who had led the league in completions as a Colt in 1950. In 1952 the 49ers drafted Hugh McElhenny (who had starred at Compton Community College — Perry’s alma mater — during Perry’s rookie season in Clevenad); two years later San Francisco signed John Henry Johnson, who had fled to the CFL after being drafted by the Steelers. It took six years, but after adding Perry in ’48, Tittle in ’51, McElhnny the following year and Johnson in ’54, San Francisco had the backfield to end all backfield. Dubbed the Million Dollar Backfield — all four members would eventually make the Pro Football Hall of Fame — the group would have immediate success. In 1954, 49ers led the league with 2,498 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns and a 5.7 yards per carry average, all marks that easily led the league in a 12-game season. Perry had led the league in rushing yards in 1953, but a crowded backfield didn’t prevent him from repeating the feat in 1954. In the process, he became the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
Perry was the best running back of the decade. He rushed for 7,151 yards in the 1950s, outpacing the runner up by nearly 3,000 yards. In 1958, he surpassed Steve Van Buren and became the all-time NFL leader in rushing yards. He led the 49ers after 1960, but came back for a final season at the age of ’36 in 1963. That year, Jim Brown pushed Perry aside in the league record books, but no one has ever gained more rushing yards as a 49ers than Perry.
The NFL does not count AAFC statistics as part of its official records, the way it does for the AFL (although the Hall of Fame does consider AAFC production when discussing a player). While Perry rushed for 9,723 yards in his career and 8,689 with San Francisco, only 7,344 of those yards came with the 49ers playing in the NFL. In a week or two, Gore will replace Perry as the 49ers’ all-time rushing leader. In the process, he’ll push aside a record holder who has been in place for over 60 years, as Perry has been the career rushing leader since the end of the 49ers very first season in the NFL. At that point, Jim Brown will again pass Perry, this time as the holder of the oldest franchise rushing record.
Below is a list of the career rushing leaders for all 32 teams. It shows the year in which the player became the career rushing leader, his career rushing yards for that team, the player whose record he broke, and the rushing yards that player had for the franchise.
Team Running Back Year Yds Previous RB Yds STL Steven Jackson 2010 8527 Eric Dickerson 7245 GNB Ahman Green 2009 8322 Jim Taylor 8207 CAR DeAngelo Williams 2009 4574 DeShaun Foster 3336 NOR Deuce McAllister 2005 6096 George Rogers 4267 SEA Shaun Alexander 2005 9429 Chris Warren 6706 NYJ Curtis Martin 2004 10302 Freeman McNeil 8074 KAN Priest Holmes 2004 6070 Christian Okoye 4897 SDG LaDainian Tomlinson 2004 12490 Paul Lowe 4972 NYG Tiki Barber 2004 10449 Rodney Hampton 6897 IND Edgerrin James 2003 9226 Lydell Mitchell 5487 HOU Domanick Williams 2003 3195 Jonathan Wells 1167 CIN Corey Dillon 2002 8061 James Brooks 6447 BAL Jamal Lewis 2002 7801 Priest Holmes 2102 TEN Eddie George 2002 10009 Earl Campbell 8574 JAX Fred Taylor 2000 11271 James Stewart 2951 MIN Robert Smith 2000 6818 Chuck Foreman 5887 DEN Terrell Davis 1998 7607 Floyd Little 6323 DAL Emmitt Smith 1998 17162 Tony Dorsett 12036 BUF Thurman Thomas 1996 11938 O.J. Simpson 10183 DET Barry Sanders 1992 15269 Billy Sims 5106 OAK Marcus Allen 1987 8545 Mark van Eeghen 5907 ATL Gerald Riggs 1987 6631 William Andrews 5986 TAM James Wilder 1985 5957 Ricky Bell 3057 PHI Wilbert Montgomery 1984 6538 Steve Van Buren 5860 WAS John Riggins 1984 7472 Larry Brown 5875 NWE Sam Cunningham 1981 5453 Jim Nance 5323 ARI Ottis Anderson 1981 7999 Jim Otis 3863 CHI Walter Payton 1979 16726 Rick Casares 5657 PIT Franco Harris 1976 11950 John Henry Johnson 4381 MIA Larry Csonka 1970 6737 Jim Kiick 3644 CLE Jim Brown 1958 12312 Marion Motley 1688 SFO Joe Perry 1950 7344 -----