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Last year, DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards. The 32nd-ranked rusher last season rushed for 570 yards, which means Murray rushed for 1,275 yards more than the Nth-ranked rusher, with N representing the number of teams in the NFL. That’s obviously excellent, although not quite the best of all time.

That honor, as regular readers could have guessed, belongs to O.J. Simpson. In 1973, Simpson rushed for an incredible 2,003 yards, while the 26th-ranked rusher in the 26-team NFL rushed for 655 yards. As a result, Simpson is credited with 1,348 yards over the Nth-ranked rusher. Then again, remember that this was a 14-game NFL season; we need to pro-rate that number to 16 games to make for a fairer comparison. That brings Simpson’s season up to +1,540, slightly edging out Adrian Peterson‘s 2012 season (2,097, 564, +1533).

What if we use that methodology for every player during every season of his career? That, to me, is an improvement on just a list of the career rushing leaders, since we don’t give players any benefit for junk seasons. That may be the only thing this list is an improvement on — after all, it is still based on only one statistic — but hey, it’s Friday. Below are the career grades for the top 150 running backs (note that by default, the table only displays the top 25). I have also listed for each back his career rushing yards and his rank in that category.

RkRuning BackCar Rush YdCar Rush RkFirst YrLast YearHOFValue
1Emmitt Smith18355119902004Yes9517
2Walter Payton16726219751987Yes9364
3Jim Brown12312919571965Yes9338
4Barry Sanders15269319891998Yes9324
5Eric Dickerson13259719831993Yes7270
6Curtis Martin14101419952005Yes7258
7LaDainian Tomlinson13684520012011Not El.6671
8Tony Dorsett12739819771988Yes6007
9Jerome Bettis13662619932005Yes5921
10Edgerrin James122461119992009No5790
11Adrian Peterson101902820072014Not El.5572
12O.J. Simpson112361919691979Yes5530
13Thurman Thomas120741419882000Yes5435
14Franco Harris121201319721984Yes5217
15Marshall Faulk122791019942005Yes5173
16Eddie George104412619962004No5120
17Ricky Watters106432219922001No5072
18Corey Dillon112411819972006No5014
19Tiki Barber104492519972006No4926
20Fred Taylor116951519982010Not El.4917
21Jamal Lewis106072320002009No4836
22Earl Campbell94073319781985Yes4813
23Clinton Portis99233020022010Not El.4667
24Frank Gore110732020052014Not El.4663
25Jim Taylor85973819581967Yes4636
26Ottis Anderson102732719791992No4534
27Shaun Alexander94533220002008No4424
28Steven Jackson113881620042014Not El.4412
29Chris Johnson86283620082014Not El.4189
30Marcus Allen122431219821997Yes4107
31Terrell Davis76075319952001No4063
32Steve Van Buren58609119441951Yes3985
33Ahman Green92053419982009No3927
34Ricky Williams100092919992011Not El.3824
35Marshawn Lynch86953520072014Not El.3786
36John Riggins113521719711985No3733
37Joe Perry97233119481963Yes3631
38Warrick Dunn109672119972008No3524
39Thomas Jones105912420002011Not El.3496
40Gerald Riggs81884319821991No3302
41Stephen Davis80524819962006No3287
42George Rogers71765719811987No3275
43Matt Forte77045120082014Not El.3265
44Jamaal Charles68566120082014Not El.3262
45Priest Holmes81724419972007No3260
46Leroy Kelly72745619641973Yes3155
47Terry Allen86143719912001No3142
48Curt Warner68446319831990No3106
49Chris Warren76965219902000No3081
50Garrison Hearst79664919932004No3056
51Arian Foster63097520092014Not El.3046
52LeSean McCoy67926620092014Not El.3041
53Maurice Jones-Drew81674520062014Not El.2989
54William Andrews59868719791986No2980
55Herschel Walker82254119861997No2870
56Michael Turner73385520042012Not El.2862
57Lawrence McCutcheon65787019721981No2842
58Rodney Hampton68975919901997No2832
59Robert Smith68186419932000No2799
60Wilbert Montgomery67896719771985No2790
61Lydell Mitchell65347119721980No2711
62Willis McGahee84743920042013Not El.2639
63Jamal Anderson533611119942001No2600
64Freeman McNeil80744719811992No2579
65Rudi Johnson59798820012008No2540
66Gale Sayers495613219651971Yes2536
67John Henry Johnson68036519541965Yes2534
68Ray Rice61807820082013Not El.2528
69Roger Craig81894219831993No2464
70Larry Johnson62237620032011Not El.2445
71Deuce McAllister60968120012008No2412
72Billy Sims510612219801984No2380
73Larry Brown58759019691976No2320
74Wendell Tyler63787219771986No2317
75Mike Pruitt73785419761986No2294
76Joe Morris558510119821991No2279
77James Brooks79625019811992No2273
78Don Perkins62177719611968No2267
79Larry Csonka80814619681979Yes2244
80Chuck Foreman59508919731980No2232
81Alfred Morris396220220122014Not El.2178
82Willie Parker537810920042009No2161
83DeMarco Murray452615720112014Not El.2128
84Chuck Muncie67026819761984No2126
85Jim Nance540110719651973No2077
86Mark van Eeghen66516919741983No2074
87Travis Henry60868220012007No2055
88Dan Towler349325119501955No2028
89Neal Anderson61667919861993No1991
90Paul Lowe499512819601969No1970
91John Brockington5185115.519711977No1966
92Cookie Gilchrist429317119621967No1962
93DeAngelo Williams68466220062014Not El.1938
94Joe Cribbs535611019801988No1925
95Greg Bell495913119841990No1911
96Earnest Byner82614019841997No1877
97Clem Daniels513811919601968No1856
98Calvin Hill60838319691981No1827
99J.D. Smith467214619561966No1807
100Greg Pruitt56729619731984No1795
101Adrian Murrell519911419932003No1783
102Floyd Little63237419671975Yes1761
103Rick Casares57979419551965No1757
104Cliff Battles351124819321937Yes1739
105Delvin Williams559810019741981No1728
106Duce Staley57859519972006No1683
107Antowain Smith68816019972005No1678
108James Wilder60088619811990No1671
109Charlie Garner70975819942004No1667
110Christian Okoye489713519871992No1664
111Ken Willard61058019651974No1661
112Marion Motley472014419461955Yes1659
113Eddie Price329227419501955No1653
114Tony Canadeo4197179.519411952Yes1635
115Mike Garrett548110219661973No1573
116Brian Westbrook63357320022010Not El.1559
117Abner Haynes463015219601967No1529
118Cedric Benson60178420052012Not El.1521
119Spec Sanders290033419461950No1515
120Barry Foster394320419901994No1513
121Alan Ameche404519219551960No1499
122Napoleon Kaufman479214019952000No1491
123Marv Hubbard454415519691977No1481
124James Stewart58419219952002No1452
125Marion Butts5185115.519891995No1444
126Earnest Jackson416718219831988No1444
127Natrone Means521511319932000No1439
128Dick Bass541710619601969No1433
129Otis Armstrong4453159.519731980No1429
130Pete Johnson56269919771984No1418
131Ron Johnson4308167.519691975No1417
132Ryan Grant414818420072012Not El.1413
133Rashard Mendenhall423617720082013Not El.1362
134Bill Brown58389319611974No1360
135Mike Anderson406719020002007No1339
136John David Crow496312919581968No1313
137Errict Rhett414318519942000No1304
138Gary Brown430017019911999No1298
139Rueben Mayes348425219861993No1278
140Dorsey Levens495513319942004No1271
141Hoyle Granger365322919661972No1261
142Bill Paschal243040319431948No1254
143Reggie Bush546510320062014Not El.1250
144Domanick Williams319528820032005No1246
145Ryan Mathews406119120102014Not El.1225
146Dave Hampton453615619691976No1222
147Reuben Droughns360223820012008No1219
148Karim Abdul-Jabbar341125819962000No1211
149Fred Jackson56469720072014Not El.1179
150Sam Cunningham545310419731982No1173

I’d be careful not to read too much into the list, but I think it’s a fun idea. What stands out to you?

  • anm_sa

    Sorted by “Last Year”, the lowest ranking I see for a back that is in the HOF (with the cutoff date being 1980) is Marcus Allen, at 30.

  • macatawami

    I think a more relevant baseline might be the median starter or the average starter. It’s tough to credit a guy too much for being slightly better than the worst.

    • Dr__P

      I was just going to post that, when I saw your post.

  • macatawami

    Actually, the more I think about it, average starting running back is a better baseline because using the worst starting running back captures a lot of guys who aren’t actually a starting running back. For instance, the 2014 Patriots didn’t have a single running back who had more yards than the “worst starting running back” so there is at least one running back used for the baseline who isn’t actually a starter. Using the median starting running back would more accurately reflect how starting running backs are doing, and wouldn’t be as affected by work splits.

  • Clint

    Corey Dillon has the same all-time ranking either way. Haha
    There is a run of players from 16-23 (except Campbell) who are from a forgotten era. Eddie George, Jamal Lewis, Clinton Portis and Corey Dillon will barely even be considered for the HOF, but they are pretty underrated. All of em were one or two 1500yd seaons away from serious consideration, in my opinion.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Agreed, and I would toss Tiki Barber, Warrick Dunn, Edgerrin James, and Ricky Watters into that mix of guys who are close HOF caliber backs. Barber was kind of different in the fact he had outstanding production late, but then inexplicably retired. He tried a comeback a couple years later, but it was too late.

      There’s also something to be said for not ending your career on a whimper, and that hurts George, Lewis, Portis, and Dillion. I think if you’re not a HOF lock, then a bad ending to the career affects the perception. Also, at least a couple of those players decline rapidly, and longevity does matter. I’m struggling to think of highlights in each of those players’ final season, they just faded away. Also, players like Watters and Dillion had incidents of selfish play, and those are the kind of things which affect borderline candidates.

      • Clint

        I’m not sure how many people really remember Jamal Lewis in 2009 though. Awful. Such a good offensive line too.
        Production and lack of Super Bowls keeps a few of them out. I’m convinced that if Clinton Portis had a Super Bowl win, we would consider him. Also, if Jamal Lewis just had one more great season.

  • This is an interesting idea, every a very good idea, as long as we only apply it to trivia.

    There’s so much that’s left out of a running back’s production by looking only at rushing yards, so there are certain players who are massively overrated or underrated by this technique — we shouldn’t draw any conclusions from it. This method puts rush yards in a better context, but it’s not an effective evaluation of players. And while the nth-team baseline makes sense, a more scientific approach would use some sort of average of the bottom performers, so we’re not skewed by weird gaps and random outliers. That said, this is fun as a quick-and-dirty way to have a different look at a single statistic (career rush yds), and I’d be interested to see this applied to individual seasons, as well.

    • Yes, nothing more than trivia. Well, that and what I said in the article, which is I think it’s an improvement on regular rushing yards.

      As for single seasons, you won’t have to wait too long 🙂

      • Adrian Edwards

        I’d like to see this statistic for yards from scrimmage. Guys like Marshall Faulk and Thurman Thomas contributed a lot in the passing game.

  • Richie

    If a player ranks 33rd or lower in a given season, does he score zero or negative?

  • The correlation coefficient between Rushing Yards and this metric is 0.85, for these 150 running backs. The best-fit formula is:

    VALUE = -1003.5 + 0.5426 * Career Rush Yards

    Let’s look at the biggest outliers. From the “compiler” side we get Earnest Byer (career rushing yards of 8,261, expected VALUE of 3,479, actual VALUE of 1,877, so a shortfall of 1,602). After him are Marcus Allen (12243, 5640, 4107,-1533), Warrick Dunn (10967,4947,3524,-1423), John Riggins (11352,5156,3733,-1423), and Thomas Jones (10591,4743,3496,-1247).

    Dunn and Jones are interesting. I don’t really think of them as compilers, tho they were. For me, I have a slightly different view, which is that both players were able to play for a long time despite not being great players. I think Dunn was the better player, but what impressed me is the ability both had to stay at a consistent level well into what should have been (for their talent level) the decline years.

    No surprise that Jim Brown is the top on the other side, although remember he’s also boosted by the pro-ration thing we’ve got in this formula (12312, expected 5677, actual 9338,+3661). He’s followed by Barry (15269,7282,9324,2042), Steve Van Buren, Walter Payton, and Dan Towler. Van Buren and Towler are obviously helped by the pro-ration element in the formula. Terrell Davis also fares pretty high in outperforming expectations, which is of course to be expected (7607, 3124, 4063, +939). Davis jumps from 53rd on the career rushing list to 31st here.

    • I once looked at career rushing yards over certain thresholds in a game. Terrell Davis ranks 16th in yards over 100 and 11th in yards over 120. 894 of his yards came after the first 120 (11.8% ties him with OJ Simpson).

  • lordcalvert

    It should also be remembered that the 1973 Bills were starting a talented, but still a rookie quarterback (Joe Ferguson) who was trying to find his bearings in the league. Saban was relying on Simpson a lot more than he would have if he had had a capable veteran as his starting quarterback. I’m curious as to how many of these others also had inexperienced quarterbacks they were protecting.