Hey — You Stole My Touchdown!
This is a chapter from my book “Significant Figures: Statistical Stories Throughout NFL History,” which is available now!
As you read, you will see bolded numbers in parentheses. These refer to “notes” that can be found at the end of the chapter that provide bonus information, add context, or expand on topics that are related to the chapter.
It is highly recommended that you read the notes, either as they appear or after finishing the main chapter. Many of the coolest stats from the book are found in the notes!
This chapter is about touchdown vultures. To get us there, let me tell you a story about three men named Don.
The winningest coach in NFL history is Don Shula, with a career record of 328–156–6. He’s mostly remembered for being the coach of the Miami Dolphins for 26 seasons from 1970–1995.
In 1972, Shula’s Dolphins put together the only perfect season in NFL history. They repeated as Super Bowl champions the following year. Shula also coached Dan Marino for most of the Hall of Famer’s career.
But before Shula was the coach of the Dolphins, he led the Baltimore Colts for seven years, including a uniquely memorable 1967 season we’ll discuss next chapter and a 1968 season where the team won the NFL Championship before losing as massive favorites to the AFL’s New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
Shula’s exit from Baltimore was mired in controversy, as he was still under contract with the Colts when he accepted an offer to coach the Dolphins (which also made him the vice president of football operations and a part-owner of the team) after the 1969 season. This all took place during the AFL-NFL merger, which would see the two teams both end up in the AFC East. (1)
The Dolphins were found guilty of tampering, and as punishment forfeited their first-round draft pick in 1971 to the Colts.
Don Shula’s departure left the Colts with a head coaching vacancy in 1970 and an extra first-round draft pick the following year. Both spots were filled with Dons.
Baltimore’s next head coach was Don McCafferty, who had spent the previous 11 seasons on the team’s coaching staff. It wasn’t a difficult transition for McCafferty, as he immediately led the Colts to a victory in Super Bowl V. (2)
With their first-round pick from the Dolphins, the Colts drafted running back Don McCauley. He stayed with the Colts for 11 seasons, which is remarkable for someone who spent most of his career as a backup. McCauley’s best years rushing came in 1972 (675 yards) and 1973 (514 yards). In fact, those were his only seasons with at least 250 rushing yards.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, because a bit later in his career, McCauley became an all-time touchdown vulture.
Fantasy football players might be familiar with the term, which is used to refer to players who receive a disproportionate amount of their touches in goal-line situations.
Basically, touchdown vultures are guys who aren’t primary options on their teams in most situations but still score a lot of touchdowns, often stealing those touchdowns away from star players (aka, the guy on your fantasy team). Fantasy football was hardly a thing in the mid-1970s, but in this instance, Lydell Mitchell is “the guy on your fantasy team.”
Mitchell was the Colts’ second-round pick in 1972 and is one of the more underrated running backs in NFL history. He became the team’s starter in 1973 and peaked over a three-season span from 1975–1977 when he was named to the Pro Bowl each year.
During that stretch, he had at least 1,100 rushing yards and 1,700 scrimmage yards in every (14-game) season. To this day, only 15 players have accumulated 1,700+ scrimmage yards in at least three straight seasons. Chronologically, Mitchell was the second to do so, following Jim Brown.
For those three years, Mitchell was a machine. He just wasn’t the go-to guy when it was goal-to-go. Because while Mitchell racked up almost 3,000 more rushing yards, it was McCauley who had more rushing touchdowns.
That’s right. McCauley, who was 80th in the NFL in rush yards from 1975–1977, was fifth in rush TD, topping his standout teammate 25 to 19. For their rushing yards totals, McCauley was scoring at a rate more than seven times higher than Mitchell.
If the duo’s 44 combined rush TD were split proportionally based on their rush yards, 37 TD would have gone to Mitchell, and he would probably be remembered as one of the greatest RBs of his era. In reality, he only picked up half of those TD.
The reason why is obvious if you look at the distribution of Mitchell and McCauley’s rush TD by distance.
All but one of McCauley’s 25 rush TD were from fewer than five yards out (his other being a six-yard score). On the flip side, all but one of Mitchell’s TD came from at least five yards out. We don’t have full play-by-play from back then, but it’s safe to assume whenever the Colts got close, Mitchell came out and McCauley went in.
The size difference between the two backs wasn’t massive — McCauley was 6’1” and 211 lbs, while Mitchell was 5’11” and 204 lbs. Yet, the Colts clearly preferred McCauley in those short-yardage situations. Considering his TD total and how the Colts won their division in all three of these seasons after going a combined 11–31 from 1972–1974, it’s hard to blame them.
A contract dispute led to Mitchell being traded to the Chargers for RB Joe Washington (and a 1979 fifth-round draft pick) before the 1978 season. In his first year with the Colts, Washington immediately learned how difficult it is to score while playing with McCauley.
Washington posted what would be a career-best 956 rushing yards in 1978. He had zero rushing touchdowns. It’s the most rushing yards in a season for a player without a rush TD in NFL history. (3)
To be fair, the Colts weren’t scoring many touchdowns in general. The team went 5–11, averaging 14.9 PPG, the fewest of any team in the AFC, and scoring a league-low 9 rush TD.
But that didn’t stop Don McCauley from being a legendary TD vulture. He had the majority of the team’s rush TD despite having just 5.2% of the team’s rush yards. While he scored more in each of the previous three seasons, this is his tour de force of thievery, scoring at a rate more than 22-times higher per yard than the rest of his team.
It capped off a four-year stretch where McCauley rushed for 764 yards and 30 TD. For some perspective, he had 1,231 receiving yards over the same span and only 5 receiving TD.
At his “peak”, McCauley scored with an efficiency rivaled by few others in NFL history. However, it took him a while to reach that point. That was not the case for Brandon Jacobs, my introduction to the concept of a touchdown vulture.
Jacobs was a rookie in 2005, meaning he spent his first two seasons in the league backing up Tiki Barber, who was giving the Giants their best running back play in franchise history. From 2005–2006, Barber posted the only consecutive seasons with at least 1,600 rushing yards on 5.0+ yards/carry in NFL history.
That’s all fine and dandy, but Brandon Jacobs was 6’4” and 264 lbs, an absolute freight train who teased coming out of retirement in 2021 to play defensive end. What are they supposed to do, not give him the ball at the goal line?
In his rookie season, Jacobs finished with 99 rush yards and 7 rush TD. Then, in 2006, he led the team with 9 rush TD despite gaining roughly a quarter as many yards on the ground as Barber. Over those two years, Jacobs had 522 rush yards for 16 TD, while Barber had 3,522 rush yards for only 14 TD.
The following season, Jacobs would become a talented lead back in his own right (and maybe win a Super Bowl or something), but in the art of touchdown vulturing, he showed it’s possible to achieve greatness from the outset of one’s career.
Pete Johnson dared to ask the question, “why wait until the NFL?” He played for Ohio State from 1973–1976, spending his first three seasons in the backfield with Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner.
In 1975, Griffin won his second Heisman with 1,450 rush yards but had only 4 rush TD. Johnson, on the other hand, had 1,059 rush yards and…25 rush TD?! In one of the most ridiculous stats in college football history, Johnson had 21 more rush TD than the Heisman-winning RB on his own team.
Griffin was selected in the first round of the 1976 NFL Draft by the Bengals and had a solid rookie season, rushing for 625 yards and 3 TD. However, his chances of building on that campaign were about to hit a major obstacle. In the second round of the 1977 Draft, the Bengals selected none other than Pete Johnson.
Over the next four seasons, Griffin would fail to score a single rushing touchdown. Johnson had 31. I repeat: THIRTY-ONE.
Now, we can’t really say Johnson stole these TD, considering that he had more rushing yards over the span (2,959 to 1,981). Still, it is simply unreal that Johnson scored all 31 rush TD between the pair in their first four seasons as NFL teammates after Johnson scored 21 more TD than Griffin in their final season as college teammates, during which Griffin won the Heisman Trophy.
So far, Pete Johnson showed us how to translate TD vulturing in college to a successful NFL career. Brandon Jacobs made an impact on the art right away in the pros, while Don McCauley did so in his middle years. Gerald Riggs proved it’s possible to save the best for last.
By 1991, Riggs was in his 30s and playing in his final season. His days of being an every-down back were far from over, but he was more than available if you needed to get into the end zone.
Riggs was fine letting Earnest Byner lead the way. Byner rushed for 1,048 yards and 5 TD, making his second-consecutive Pro Bowl in the process. Rookie Ricky Ervins also performed well with 680 rush yards and 3 rush TD.
Despite receiving just 78 carries and picking up only 248 rushing yards, Riggs scored 11 rushing TD. It’s an incredible achievement, but not unprecedented — Don McCauley had 196 rush yards and 10 TD in 1975, while Pete Johnson had 205 rush yards and 12 TD in 1984, his final season. (4)
However, I said Riggs saved the best for last, and I meant that. We’re going to the playoffs. Washington went 14–2 in 1991 because for a decade, they were seemingly unstoppable unless Jamie Morris was on the team.
Washington made quick work of the postseason, taking down the Falcons 24–7 in the Divisional Round before coasting 41–10 over the Lions (who haven’t won a playoff game since and still have never made the Super Bowl) in the NFC Championship.
They faced the Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, handing Buffalo their second of four consecutive defeats in the Big Game by a score of 37–24. During that stretch, the Bills became well acquainted with the roman numerals X, V, and I, but even more so, the L.
Riggs was instrumental to the title run, scoring two rushing touchdowns in all three games, tying the record for the most rush TD in a single postseason (which has since been passed by Terrell Davis’ eight in 1997).
Oh, and one more thing — he didn’t have more than seven rushing yards in any of those games. The absolute legend.
He scored on more than half of his carries. He scored a TD every 3.2 rushing yards. He retired as a champion. I can’t imagine anything more perfect.
Riggs and Davis are the only players in NFL history to have 2+ rush TD in three separate games within a single postseason. Davis needed four games to do it. He finished the playoffs that season with 581 rushing yards. Again, Riggs had 19.
A high-powered offense isn’t worth much if it can’t gain those last few yards and punch the ball into the end zone. In 1991, Gerald Riggs ended Washington’s drives — and his own career — with a bang.
(1) I can’t pass up this opportunity to talk about how the NFC’s divisions were created following the AFL-NFL merger. Entering the merger, the NFL had 16 teams and the AFL had 10. To balance things out, the Steelers, Colts, and Browns joined the AFL teams to form the AFC while the remaining 13 teams from the NFL became the NFC.
The AFC was able to quickly decide which teams would play in which divisions, but that wasn’t the case in the NFC. After failing to reach a conclusion, numbers representing five different alignment plans were written on slips of paper, sealed in envelopes, and placed in a glass bowl.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s secretary Thelma Elkjer reached her hand in, pulled out “Plan 3,” and that was that.
Among the differences between the plans, Plan 3 was the only one that had the Cowboys in the NFC East, playing with the Giants, Eagles, and Washington. It was also the only one that kept the Vikings in the NFC Central (now the NFC North) with the Packers, Lions, and Bears.
It’s fascinating to consider how division alignment, something so fundamental to how we think about the NFL and something we take for granted, was decided by pure chance, and how things may have gone differently if any of the other plans were chosen.
(2) McCafferty’s Colts would face Shula’s Dolphins in the 1971 AFC Championship, with Miami advancing to their first of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Despite his successes, that would be McCafferty’s last full season with the Colts, as he was fired after a 1–4 start to the 1972 season for refusing to bench a 39-year-old Johnny Unitas.
Afterward, he spent 1973 as the head coach of the Lions but unexpectedly passed away before the 1974 season after suffering a heart attack while mowing the lawn. Coincidentally, legendary Packers coach Curly Lambeau died in the same manner.
(3) At some point, you just have to feel bad for Joe Washington. Not only does Washington hold the record for the most rushing yards in a season without scoring a rush TD — five years later, while playing for (get ready for this) Washington, he finished with 772 rush yards and 0 rush TD, giving him two of the top six seasons all-time.
But while the 1978 Colts were one of the NFL’s worst teams, Washington had the league’s best record (14–2) and scored more PPG (33.8) than any team in more than two decades.
So, where did Washington’s 30 rush TD go, if they weren’t going to Joe Washington? The main answer is John Riggins, who shattered the previous NFL record of 19 rush TD in a season with 24. This difference is even wilder considering Washington averaged nearly 50% more yards/carry.
Another 4 rush TD went to Reggie Evans in what was his only NFL season. Here are his numbers: 16 carries, 11 rush yards, and 4 TD. That’s the fewest rush yards in a season by an RB who scored 4+ rush TD that year.
Washington finished his career with 4,839 rush yards and only 12 rush TD. Since 1950, there have been 414 players with at least 2,500 rush yards. Among them, no one scored more infrequently than Washington.
And while we’re at it, let’s flip that last board on its head to show the most efficient scorers.
Would you look at that — it’s our friend Don, who just barely misses out on the top spot.
(4) Not only are those the only three seasons in NFL history where a player has recorded at least 10 rushing touchdowns on fewer than 250 rush yards — no one else has done so on fewer than even 370 rush yards. However, before you crown these seasons the Holy Trinity of vulturing, I’d like to suggest turning it into a Mount Rushmore instead.
It’s a bit late for introductions, but I want you to meet Hank Bauer, who spent six seasons with the Chargers from 1977–1982. In San Diego, Bauer carved out a role as one of the NFL’s premier special teams players, a man so tough (and reckless) that he played six games in 1982 with a broken neck before being diagnosed with the injury, which led to the end of his playing career.
Bauer also played as a running back, and although he was used sparingly at the position for most of his career, he had a pair of seasons that were quite special.
In 1978, Bauer received 85 carries (more than two-thirds of his career total), for 304 yards and 8 TD. The Chargers’ leading RB that year had 820 rush yards but only 3 TD. Wait a minute — didn’t I mention an RB getting traded to the Chargers in 1978 a bit earlier? Oh, that’s right — it’s Lydell Mitchell. Everything is connected.
Alright, that was cool, but let’s get to the main course — 1979. Hank Bauer had 22 carries for 28 yards and 8 TD. Every other player to have 8+ rush TD in a season in NFL history had more than four times as many yards.
His masterpiece came in Week 15 when the Chargers dispatched the Saints 35–0 on the road. Bauer had four carries for one yard and three touchdowns. All of his scores came from the one-yard line, meaning his only other carry went for a loss of two yards. Just fantastic.
Bauer’s longest rush TD of the season was from two yards out, while the other seven were one-yard scores. The Chargers won the AFC West with the NFL’s top passing offense, but when they needed to punch the ball in the end zone or pick up a short-yardage first down, they were happy to have Bauer operating ground control for Dan Fouts and Air Coryell.