As the old saying goes, records are meant to be broken. The NFL is no different in that regard as multiple all-time accomplishments have come and later gone. But while new all-time marks are set nearly every season, one has stood the test of time and will continue to do so unless the league changes its pass-favoring rule book drastically: the 1978 New England Patriots rushing for 3,165 yards; more than any other team in the Super Bowl era.
The Patriots during Chuck Fairbanks’ tenure as head coach (1973-1978) have always had a strong ground game. It has never been better than during Fairbanks’ final season. New England led the league in every important rushing statistic. Besides gaining the most yards, the team also was number one in the NFL in attempts (671), yards per attempt (4.7), rushing touchdowns (30) and – another NFL record –first downs gained on the ground (181).
After losing two of their first three games, the Patriots went on a seven-game win streak. One of the teams they defeated during the streak were the Miami Dolphins. While Miami would win the re-match in week 17, splitting the series allowed the Patriots to beat them out on a tiebreaker for the AFC East title – the first in franchise history. Overall, New England finished the regular season with an 11-5 record and the second seed in the AFC.
However, the team would eventually not take advantage of its playoff seeding. The Patriots, with Fairbanks already on his way out to take over the head coaching job at Colorado, lost the first ever playoff game in Foxboro 31-14 to the fifth-seeded Houston Oilers. It was the worst offensive outing by the league’s top-ranked offense and the ground game failed to crack 100 yards for only the second time all season. Still, their early playoff exit should not overshadow what the ‘78 Patriots were able to accomplish.
They broke the previous rushing record, held by the 1973 Buffalo Bills. They had 11 200+ yards rushing games. They featured five players running for more than 300 yards during the season: Sam Cunningham (768), Horace Ivory (693), Andy Johnson (675), Steve Grogan (539), and Don Calhoun (391) – all behind one of the best offensive lines in NFL history. Led by All Pros Leon Gray and John Hannah, the line, which also consisted of Bill Lenkaitis, Sam Adams and Shelby Jordan, paved the way for the rushing record.
Since 1978, a year that also saw the Kansas City Chiefs rush for 2,986 yards (the third best mark of all time), no team has come close to breaking the record. The 1984 Chicago Bears came closest by running for 2,974 yards (fifth best) while the 2006 Atlanta Falcons posted 2,939 yards (ninth best). But despite their productivity on the ground, they all failed to challenge the Patriots’ all-time best 3,165 rushing yards – a record that will never be broken.