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There is no doubt that in modern times, passing is king. But until pretty recently, we were at the peak level in NFL history with respect to individual rushing performance. On the team level, rushing production ebbed and flows, with high points in the late ’40s, mid-’50s, and mid-’70s, but on the individual level, the 2006 season may have been the high point.

That year, Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker rushed 337 times for 1,494 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, but Parker ranked just sixth in rushing yards. He also caught 31 passes for 222 yards, but Parker ranked only 7th in yards from scrimmage. That season, the average leading rusher on the 32 teams gained 1,124 rushing yards. Again, that was average. Last year, the average leading rusher gained 912 yards. Consider that in 1991, after Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and Thurman Thomas, the fourth-leading rusher was New York’s Rodney Hampton, and he gained 1,059 yards. In other words, 2006 and its surrounding seasons — even if it might not feel like it — really was a different era of football for running back statistics.

The graph below shows the average rushing yards gained by the leading rushing for each team in every season since 1932. All team seasons of fewer than 16 games were pro-rated to 16 games1; the NFL line is in blue, while the AFL/AAFC line is in red.

Avg Rush Yd

What if we only look at individual seasons but only give credit for rushing yards above league average? For example, in 1973, O.J. Simpson rushed for 2003 yards. That was in a 14-game season, so his production gets pro-rated to 2,289 yards. The (pro-rated) league-average that season was just 989 yards, which means Simpson rushed for 1300 yards over average. That’s the most ever, just narrowly edging Jim Brown’s best year. In 1963, Brown rushed for 1,863 yards, or 2,129 pro-rated yards. The (pro-rated) league average was 830, giving Brown 1,299 rushing yards over average. The table below shows the top 200 rushing season according to this formula. By default, only the top 25 are displayed, but the table is fully sortable and searchable, and you can change the number of plays displayed by using the dropdown box on the left.

1O.J. SimpsonBUF1973200322899891300
2Jim BrownCLE1963186321298301299
3Walter PaytonCHI1977185221179411176
4Jim BrownCLE1958152720368681168
5O.J. SimpsonBUF1975181720779641113
6Eric DickersonRAM1984210521059981107
7Adrian PetersonMIN20122097209710091088
8Earl CampbellHOU1980193419348841050
9Barry SandersDET19972053205310341019
10Chris JohnsonTEN2009200620069931013
11Jim BrownCLE196515441765803962
12Jamal LewisBAL2003206620661115951
13Barry SandersDET199418831883938945
14Terrell DavisDEN1998200820081068940
15Eric DickersonRAM198618211821894927
16Jim NanceBOS196614581666807860
17Jim BrownCLE196414461653824828
18Shaun AlexanderSEA2005188018801067813
19Tiki BarberNYG2005186018601067793
20Eric DickersonRAM1983180818081022786
21Jamal AndersonATL1998184618461068778
22Jim TaylorGNB196214741685909776
23Emmitt SmithDAL199217131713937776
24Eric DickersonIND198816591659884775
25Ahman GreenGNB2003188318831115768
26Emmitt SmithDAL1995177317731005768
27Beattie FeathersCHI193410041473706766
28Jim BrownCLE1959132917721007765
29Spec SandersNYY194714321637875761
30Adrian PetersonMIN200817601760999761
31Jim BrownCLE196012571676919757
32Otis ArmstrongDEN197414071608852756
33Barry FosterPIT199216901690937753
34Emmitt SmithDAL199115631563817746
35Ricky WilliamsMIA2002185318531113740
36O.J. SimpsonBUF197615031718983735
37Barry SandersDET199115481548817731
38Marcus AllenRAI1985175917591029730
39Earl CampbellHOU197916971697967730
40Jim BrownCLE196114081609885724
41Charles WhiteRAM198713741466741724
42Steve Van BurenPHI194710081344623721
43Steve Van BurenPHI194911461528811717
44Terrell DavisDEN1997175017501034716
45Michael TurnerATL200816991699999700
46LeSean McCoyPHI201316071607912695
47LaDainian TomlinsonSDG2006181518151124692
48Gerald RiggsATL1985171917191029690
49Walter PaytonCHI198416841684998686
50Joe PerrySFO195410491399715683
51Larry JohnsonKAN2005175017501067683
52Larry JohnsonKAN2006178917891124666
53Joe PerrySFO195310181357704653
54Steve Van BurenPHI19458321331679653
55Maurice Jones-DrewJAX201116061606959647
56Walter PaytonCHI197916101610967643
57George RogersNOR1981167416741035639
58Ottis AndersonSTL197916051605967638
59Eric Dickerson2TM198712881374741633
60Jerome BettisPIT1997166516651034631
61Herschel WalkerDAL198815141514884630
62Joe MorrisNYG198615161516894622
63Curtis MartinNYJ2004169716971077620
64Shaun AlexanderSEA2004169616961077619
65Edgerrin JamesIND2000170917091090619
66Roger CraigSFO198815021502884618
67Arian FosterHOU2010161616161002614
68Tony DorsettDAL1981164616461035611
69Jim TaylorGNB196113071494885609
70Chris WarrenSEA199415451545938607
71Walter PaytonCHI197613901589983606
72Edgerrin JamesIND199915531553948605
73Alfred MorrisWAS2012161316131009604
74Emmitt SmithDAL199314861486887599
75Frank AkinsWAS19457971275679597
76Tony CanadeoGNB194910521403811592
77Barry SandersDET199615531553962591
78Thurman ThomasBUF199114071407817590
79Curt WarnerSEA198614811481894587
80Steve Van BurenPHI19489451260675585
81Rick CasaresCHI195611261501919582
82Marshawn LynchSEA2012159015901009581
83Christian OkoyeKAN198914801480900580
84Gale SayersCHI196612311407827579
85Walter PaytonCHI198014601460884576
86Terrell DavisDEN199615381538962576
87Leroy KellyCLE196712051377803574
88Jim NanceBOS196712161390817573
89Frank GoreSFO2006169516951124572
90Cliff BattlesWAS19378741271700571
91LaDainian TomlinsonSDG2002168316831113570
92Leroy KellyCLE196812391416846570
93Barry SandersDET198914701470900570
94Corey DillonNWE2004163516351077558
95Dan TowlerRAM19528941192641551
96Thurman ThomasBUF199214871487937550
97Priest HolmesKAN2001155515551006549
98Jim TaylorGNB196011011468919549
99Hoyle GrangerHOU196711941365817548
100James WilderTAM198415441544998546
101Emmitt SmithDAL199414841484938546
102William AndrewsATL1983156715671022545
103Wilbert MontgomeryPHI197915121512967545
104Jerome BettisRAM199314291429887542
105Tiki BarberNYG2006166216621124539
106Jim MusickBOS19338091135605530
107LaDainian TomlinsonSDG2003164516451115530
108Earl CampbellHOU197814501450920530
109Deuce McAllisterNOR2003164116411115526
110Walter PaytonCHI1985155115511029522
111Curtis MartinNYJ199914641464948516
112DeAngelo WilliamsCAR200815151515999516
113Mark van EeghenOAK197712731455941514
114Jim TaylorGNB196411691336824512
115Larry Brown Jr.WAS197011251286776510
116John David CrowSTL196010711428919509
117Curtis MartinNYJ2001151315131006507
118Garrison HearstSFO1998157015701068502
119Priest HolmesKAN2002161516151113502
120Jamaal CharlesKAN2012150915091009500
121Barry SandersDET1995150015001005495
122LaDainian TomlinsonSDG200714741474982492
123Gerald RiggsATL198414861486998488
124Clinton PortisWAS200814871487999488
125Curtis MartinNWE1995148714871005482
126O.J. SimpsonBUF197212511430950479
127Leroy KellyCLE196611411304827477
128Clinton PortisDEN2003159115911115476
129Don WoodsSDG197411621328852476
130Walter PaytonCHI197813951395920475
131Swede HansonPHI19348051181706474
132Lawrence McCutcheonRAM197712381415941474
133Edgerrin JamesIND2004154815481077471
134Jim BrownCLE19579421256786470
135Jerome BettisPIT199614311431962469
136Ottis AndersonSTL198013521352884468
137Dan TowlerRAM19538791172704468
138Floyd LittleDEN197111331295829465
139Jamaal CharlesKAN2010146714671002465
140Bill PaschalNYG19447371179715464
141Eddie PriceNYG19519711295834461
142Franco HarrisPIT197512461424964460
143Rueben MayesNOR198613531353894459
144Fred TaylorJAX2003157215721115457
145Stephen DavisWAS199914051405948457
146Freeman McNeilNYJ19827861397943454
147Barry SandersDET199013041304853451
148Clinton PortisWAS2005151615161067449
149Paul LoweSDG196511211281832449
150Emmitt SmithDAL199913971397948449
151Ricky WattersPHI199614111411962449
152Doug MartinTAM2012145414541009445
153Thurman ThomasBUF199012971297853444
154Tiki BarberNYG2004151815181077441
155Larry Brown Jr.WAS197212161390950439
156Walter PaytonCHI198613331333894439
157Edgerrin JamesIND2005150615061067439
158Rob GoodeWAS19519511268834434
159O.J. SimpsonBUF197411251286852434
160John BrockingtonGNB197111051263829433
161Gerald RiggsATL198613271327894433
162Marshall FaulkSTL199913811381948433
163Robert SmithMIN2000152115211090431
164Cliff BattlesBOS19337371034605429
165Thurman ThomasBUF199313151315887428
166Curt WarnerSEA1983144914491022427
167Matt ForteCHI201313391339912427
168Stephen DavisWAS2001143214321006426
169Mike GarrettKAN196710871242817425
170William AndrewsATL198013081308884424
171Barry SandersDET1998149114911068423
172Steven JacksonSTL200914161416993423
173Bill OsmanskiCHI19396991017595421
174Alan AmecheBAL19559611281862420
175Eddie GeorgeTEN2000150915091090419
176Billy SimsDET198013031303884419
177Dick BassRAM196610901246827418
178Lawrence McCutcheonRAM197411091267852415
179Barry SandersDET199213521352937415
180Arian FosterHOU2012142414241009415
181Dutch ClarkDET19347631119706413
182Natrone MeansSDG199413501350938412
183Eric DickersonIND198913111311900411
184Thomas JonesNYJ200914021402993409
185Eddie GeorgeHOU199613681368962406
186Ray RiceBAL201113641364959405
187Tony DorsettDAL197813251325920405
188Steven JacksonSTL2006152815281124405
189Cookie GilchristBUF196210961253849404
190Bill DudleyPIT19426961012609403
191Billy SimsDET1981143714371035402
192Dorsey LevensGNB1997143514351034401
193Ron JohnsonNYG197211821351950401
194Lydell MitchellBAL197511931363964400
195Walter PaytonCHI1983142114211022399
196Maurice Jones-DrewJAX200913911391993398
197Ron JohnsonNYG197010271174776398
198Mike AndersonDEN2000148714871090397
199Gale SayersCHI196910321179784396
200John Henry JohnsonPIT196211411304909395
  • Walter Payton and Sanders lead the way with nine top-200 seasons. After them comes Brown, who has 8 top-200 seasons despite playing for only nine years.
  • Eric Dickerson and Smith have six top-200 seasons, while Simpson is the only player with exactly five top-200 performances.

What if we calculate the number of rushing yards over league average produced by each player over the course of his career? By ignoring all below-average seasons, this is a good way to avoid giving undue credit to compilers while also adjusting for era. Take a look:

RkNameFirst YrLast YrRYOvAvgHOF?
1Jim Brown195719657202Yes
2Barry Sanders198919985868Yes
3Walter Payton197519875825Yes
4Eric Dickerson198319934844Yes
5Emmitt Smith199020044643Yes
6O.J. Simpson196919794080Yes
7LaDainian Tomlinson200120113278Not el.
8Adrian Peterson200720133258Not el.
9Curtis Martin199520052968Yes
10Earl Campbell197819852943Yes
11Steve Van Buren194419512890Yes
12Tony Dorsett197719882816Yes
13Jim Taylor195819672814Yes
14Thurman Thomas198820002582Yes
15Edgerrin James199920092554Not el.
16Joe Perry194819632359Yes
17Terrell Davis199520012344No
18Clinton Portis200220102326Not el.
19Jerome Bettis199320052306No
20Franco Harris197219842218Yes
21Tiki Barber199720062148No
22Shaun Alexander200020082127No
23Ottis Anderson197919922095No
24Chris Johnson200820132091Not el.
25Leroy Kelly196419731930Yes
26Eddie George199620041824No
27Corey Dillon199720061820No
28Gerald Riggs198219911804No
29Jamal Lewis200020091772Not el.
30Marshall Faulk199420051766Yes
31Lawrence McCutcheon197219811584No
32Curt Warner198319901530No
33Frank Gore200520131527Not el.
34Ricky Watters199220011517No
35Fred Taylor199820101512Not el.
36Gale Sayers196519711498Yes
37Jim Nance196519731493No
38Jamaal Charles200820131467Not el.
39Michael Turner200420121450Not el.
40Ahman Green199820091448Not el.
41Stephen Davis199620061440No
42Larry Brown Jr.196919761435No
43Dan Towler195019551407No
44Maurice Jones-Drew200620131368Not el.
45William Andrews197919861367No
46Ricky Williams199920111365Not el.
47Priest Holmes199720071356No
48Larry Johnson200320111349Not el.
49Steven Jackson200420131348Not el.
50Marshawn Lynch200720131340Not el.
51Lydell Mitchell197219801297No
52Arian Foster200920131294Not el.
53Cliff Battles193219371291Yes
54Marcus Allen198219971259Yes
55John Riggins197119851249Yes
56Thomas Jones200020111213Not el.
57Chris Warren199020001212No
58Wilbert Montgomery197719851211No
59Cookie Gilchrist196219671147No
60George Rogers198119871143No
61John Brockington197119771132No
62Joe Morris198219911128No
63LeSean McCoy200920131123Not el.
64Ray Rice200820131103Not el.
65Paul Lowe196019691098No
66Spec Sanders194619501091No
67Larry Csonka196819791082Yes
68John Henry Johnson195419661072Yes
69Terry Allen199120011051No
70Billy Sims198019841032No
71Eddie Price195019551006No
72Herschel Walker19861997995No
73Alfred Morris20122013966Not el.
74Chuck Foreman19731980962No
75Calvin Hill19691981955No

Using this method, Smith, the career rushing leader, drops to 5th on the list. And Simpson, who ranks 18th in career rushing yards, vaults to sixth. Campbell is 33rd in career rushing yards, but tenth here.

Among running backs eligible but not yet in the Hall of Fame, it’s not Jerome Bettis who ranks highest on the list. Bettis, who ranks 6th in career rushing yards, finishes two spots behind Terrell Davis using this methodology. Should Davis be a Hall of Famer? That’s outside the scope of this post. This analysis tends to support his case, though, and it even ignores his touchdowns and his postseason play (it also ignores his lack of receiving and the value he gained from playing in Denver).

Let me know your thoughts on the process in general, and some of the individual results, in the comments.

  1. But this does not pro-rate for injury. []
  • Red

    I really like this method. Since RB is a relatively fungible position, it makes sense to only count above average seasons so as to not reward compilers. Bettis’ 12 spot fall is by itself enough to justify using this system. However, it’d be even better if you used Adjusted Rush Yards (a 20 yard bonus for TD’s).

  • The graph in this entry would emphasize teams that use the same running back every time. There have been teams who ran the ball very well, and who used a few different running backs in the same season.

  • ubrab

    I think a column with the yearly average of yards over league average(!) would be nice, even though we can do it intuitively it would single out the “freaks” like Jim Brown, or Purple Jesus (to a lesser degrees) vs the durable, consistent over-performers like E.Smith

  • When watching Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Shaun Alexander go crazy on the record books, it definitely felt like a weird time in rushing history. From 2001 to 2006, it seemed like there were 10 guys with double digit rushing touchdowns each year.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seemed like individual receivers used to be better at getting in the end zone as well. QBs are throwing for more scores today, but there aren’t many (or any) guys putting up consistent 10 TD seasons like we saw from Harrison, Owens, and Moss. Maybe I just got spoiled watching three of the great receivers of all time all at once. I can’t imagine Moss or Owens in their prime putting up 1964 yards but someone only ending up with 5 touchdowns.

  • Marc

    This data gives us valuable information about running back usage through the last few decades. However, it does not help us quantify the quality of play of the teams’ leading rushers through the years. It mostly signifies that during certain periods, the #1 running backs were given more opportunities to carry the ball than their teammates. Barry Sanders was clearly the #1 back on the Lions during a time which saw teams split the carries between players, resulting in an advantage for Sanders in the rankings. I still think Barry was the greatest but this methods tells us little to prove it.

    • sn0mm1s

      Not sure where you are getting that idea. From 2004-2013 (past 10 years) the top 16 ball carriers per season (took 1/2 the total teams) took an average 289 carries/season. While Barry played that same top 1/2 of the league took 288/carries a season. Also, out of those top 10 players on the list above only Sanders and Peterson never led the league in carries.

      Jim Brown is the guy that should get the asterisk if you are discussing the advantage of playing in a league with split workload backfields. He was getting a modern workload when *nobody* else was even close. He would often lead the league in carries by 40-80 carries in only 12 game seasons.

      • Chase Stuart

        Please tell me this is shtick.

        • sn0mm1s

          In what regard shtick? What do you take issue with? I am not claiming that you should put an asterisk next to Brown. However, if the poster I was replying to was putting one next to Barry then he absolutely needed to put one next to Brown.

          1957 Brown 202 carries, Leader 204 carries 12 games (3rd place 167) (-2 carry difference)
          1958 Brown 257 carries, 2nd place 176 carries 12 games (+81 carry difference)
          1959 Brown 290 carries, 2nd place 207 carries 12 games (+83 carry difference)
          1960 Brown 215 carries, Leader 230 carries 12 games (-15 carry difference)
          1961 Brown 305 carries, 2nd place 243 carries 14 games (+62 carry difference)
          1962 Brown 230 carries, 2nd place 272 carries 14 games (-42 carry difference)
          1963 Brown 291 carries, 2nd place 248 carries 14 games (3rd place 216) (+43 carry difference)
          1964 Brown 280 carries, 2nd place 235 carries 14 games (+45 carry difference)
          1965 Brown 289 carries, 2nd place 207 carries 14 games (+82 carry difference)

          Brown averaged 20.0 carries per game for his career and led the league in carries 6 of his 9 years.

          Barry Sanders also averaged 20.0 carries per game for his career and led the league in carries a grand total of zero times.

          1989 Sanders 280 carries, Leader 370 carries (-90)
          1990 Sanders 255 carries, Leader 297 carries (-42)
          1991 Sanders 342 carries, Leader 365 carries (-23)
          1992 Sanders 312 carries, Leader 390 carries (-78)
          1993 Sanders 243 carries, Leader 355 carries (-102)
          1994 Sanders 331 carries, Leader 368 carries (-37)
          1995 Sanders 314 carries, Leader 377 carries (-63)
          1996 Sanders 307 carries, Leader 353 carries (-46)
          1997 Sanders 335 carries, Leader 375 carries (-40)
          1998 Sanders 343 carries, Leader 410 carries (-67)

      • Marc

        I did not check the data, I just looked at the graph. Sorry for my laziness. Consider I make the same argument but with Jim Brown as my example instead of Barry Sanders.

        • Chase Stuart

          Why did Brown lead the league in carries so often?

          • Marc

            Brown was the best of his time. I agree with that. That he led the league in carries does not prove that statistically. It proves that his coach thought that he was the best and should have a heavier workload so the team would benefit more from his talent.

            Jamaal Charles was not worse because he shared his carries with Thomas Jones. His impact was lessened on the team’s results but his ability was the same as if he had 50% more touches.

          • sn0mm1s

            Because he was getting a modern day, featured back workload in an era where a split back workload was the norm for the vast majority of teams.

            • Chase Stuart

              Why was he getting a modern-day, feature-back workload?

              • sn0mm1s

                Coaching philosophy obviously.

                I find it a little odd that you prorate per/game stats in this article to compare across eras yet seem to take issue with what is essentially the same sort of argument regarding the discrepancy in carries amongst peers.

                • Chase Stuart

                  I think the fact that Brown led the league in carries 6 times is pretty good evidence of how dominant he was. No player has ever done it 5 times, and Walter Payton and Steve Van Buren are the only other players to do it four times.

                  • sn0mm1s

                    This has much more to do with coaching philosophy than dominance – unless you have some sort of logical reason why other players couldn’t take as many carries. Sure, you aren’t going to get carries if you aren’t a good player – but it isn’t like Brown was averaging some obscene number of carries compared to the modern player. Assuming 1 starter, take the top 1/2 of the ball carriers while Brown played (6-7 players/season) and give them the same number of carries – Brown wins 5 rushing titles in 9 years… same as Sanders if you take the top 14-15 players while he played.

                    Sanders blows away the field when it comes to % of team carries. He took 86% of his team’s non-QB carries. No one in NFL history comes close to that mark. Brown only took 63% of his team’s non-QB carries. Brown was so dominant ~40% of the time another skill player got their number called. Now, I already know the rebuttals that are coming – but I think the point is made. The way the game was played/called during a player’s career shouldn’t be ignored.

                  • Marc

                    I’m not saying what you say is untrue, but that it has nothing to do with statistical analysis. Brown was obviously one of the greatest and the best of his time. The number of carries must be one of the worst statistics to evaluate him.

  • Mike Carlson

    Brown was leading the league in carries because a. he was the best back in the league and Paul Brown didn’t have Otto Graham at QB, and b. in a league where most teams had a bruising fullback and a quicker halfback, Brown could fill both roles, since he could run outside. Even teams without the elusive halfback might still share carries between two ‘power’ runners (eg: NYG w Mel Triplett and Alex Webster). Younger readers think of Csonka, Kiick, and Mercury Morris.

  • Mike Carlson

    Brown was leading the league in carries because a. he was the best back in the league and Paul Brown didn’t have Otto Graham at QB, and b. in a league where most teams had a bruising fullback and a quicker halfback, Brown could fill both roles, since he could run outside. This is part of what led the Browns to trade Bobby Mitchell, who could have filled that halfback role very well. Even teams without the elusive halfback might still share carries between two ‘power’ runners (eg: NYG w Mel Triplett and Alex Webster). Younger readers think of Csonka, Kiick, and Mercury Morris.

  • Tim Truemper

    Why was Brown getting so many carries? When you’ve got a big gun, you shoot it.

  • Tim Truemper

    One way to consider the points made about Jim Brown being in what seemed like a primary “one-back” back situation vs the multi-back systems that seemed to exist for other NFL teams of that era is too compare what the differential is between the # 1 and #2 runners were for other teams. During Jim Brown’s career, for 7 of the 9 seasons the 2nd back carried the ball > 100 times vs Brown > 250 (about a 1: 2.5 ratio). The 2nd back avg. during those 7 years was 500 yards with a peak of 743 by Bobby Mitchell. Of those 7 seasons it was either Bobby Mitchell (before he was moved to WR) or Ernie Green (a capable runner/blocker) as the 2nd leading rusher. I did not take the time to do this but a similar situation may exist for the Packers of the 1960’s in which Jim Taylor got the bulk of the carries and that Hornung was a relative distant second. When people look at the year to year rushing statistics for the Packers of the Lombardi era, they may be somewhat surprised as two how much the ball was carried by Taylor, and how it was not entirely a balanced two-back attack. I think Mike Carlson has a good point too such as using the two back set for the NY Giants. But even then I bet Alex Webster had a preponderance of carries relative to whomever was # 2 (such as Mel Triplett for a handful of seasons).

  • Kyle Frank

    Thank you for compiling this. I wonder what statistical analysis would show if you compared the starting RB ypa to the other RB’s ypa on the same team, basically how much better they are then the backup.