1984 was a big year for me. As a 7-year old boy, I discovered my obsession for the sport of football. Everything about the game seemed magical to me. From CBS’ 10-Minute Ticker to some guy named Jimmy The Greek that looked like a TV mobster, to America’s Team and Dan Marino’s perm, I was absolutely fascinated with the NFL.
Former Bucs RB James Wilder.
My favorite color was orange, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like the team for me (I had no idea that they were sliding into an astonishing stretch of mediocrity).
Something incredible happened in 1984 that is almost certainly never talked about outside of Tampa, Florida sports bars. One of the gutsiest performances in NFL history took place over 16 weeks, and it’s time that we as football aficionados took a step back to appreciate a man who defined the term "Workhorse."
That man was James Wilder.
In 1984, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have NFL Network, and many people still didn’t have ESPN. We certainly didn’t see many Buccaneers highlights on the local news in West Texas, but whenever clips from the Bucs games were shown, inevitably I heard the name ‘James Wilder’.
I know he’ll never be inducted into the Hall Of Fame. He’ll never be talked about as one of the top 10 guys at his position, and he’ll never be spoken of with reverence amongst media members that cover the league. But the dude was a beast.
At 6’3 and 225 lbs, he was Steven Jackson before Steven Jackson. In college, he was a stud for Missouri, helping lead the Tigers to 3 consecutive bowl berths from 1978-1980. His success in Columbia prompted the Bucs to draft him in the 2nd round (34th overall) of the 1981 NFL draft. The Bucs had gone from an NFC Title Game Appearance in 1979 to a disappointing 5-10-1 record in 1980. They wanted to kick-start their running game, and he was a strong North-South runner that was equally adept at catching the ball out of the backfield.
He made solid contributions to the Bucs in 81, 82, and 83 both as a situational runner and a receiver out of the backfield on 3rd downs, but in 1984 Coach John McKay designed his offensive game plan around Wilder’s unique size and abilities.
McKay realized that after a dismal 2-14 campaign in 1983, he needed to ride the best player on his roster. To say that Wilder was the focal point of the offense might be an understatement…he was the offense. Wilder ran for 1,544 yards that year on an amazing 407 carries. That was a single-season NFL record, which has only been surpassed twice (Larry Johnson now holds the record with his 416 carries in KC in 2006). On September 30, 1984 he carried the ball 43 times against the Packers, which is the 2nd most carries in a single game in NFL history.
Okay, so the Bucs fed Wilder the ball a lot, you saw him a few times on the Sunday pre-game shows and liked their unis, but they went 6-10 that year and went on to stink for another decade. Big deal. Golf clap, right? Wrong.
In 1984, Wilder also led the Bucs in receiving with 85 catches. That’s not a type-o. He had 85 catches to go with those 407 carries. 492 times the Buccaneers put the ball in Wilder’s hands, hoping for something positive, and the end result was 2,229 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. 45% of the Bucs offensive plays ended up in his hands. That’s a lot of collisions, and a lot of pounding. No other player in the history of the NFL has touched the ball more in one season than James Wilder did that year.
Clearly, the Bucs rode the dude into the ground. He had another 418 touches in 1985, and from there his production and health took a drastic dive. He finished his 10-year career with over 6,000 yards rushing and 3,500 yards receiving, but he enjoyed only one winning season in his career. Meanwhile, his son, James Jr., is a sophomore at Florida State and is expected to be a key contributor to the Seminoles backfield this fall. Maybe there’s some glory for the Wilder name still to come.
As I pointed out in my column for NFP last week, the RB position has diminished value in today’s NFL. That leads me to believe that we’ll never again see a single season contribution from one guy like we saw from James Wilder in 1984.
Hats off to a true Workhorse.
Warren McCarty is the founder of My Passion is Football
Follow Warren on Twitter: @mpifradio
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