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Greatest RB of All Time: Wisdom of Crowds Edition

Two weeks ago, Adam Steele administer a Wisdom of Crowds edition of the GQBOAT debate. Today, Adam has offered to run the same experiment but for running backs.  And we again thank him for that.



Who is the Greatest Running Back of All Time? In recent years, the practice of crowd sourcing has gained momentum in the analytics community, in some cases yielding more accurate results than mathematical models or expert opinions. For the initiated, here’s the gist: Every human being represents a data point of unique information, as all of us have a different array of knowledge and perspective about the world. Therefore, when you aggregate the observations of a group of people, they will collectively possess a greater and more diverse reservoir of knowledge than any single member of the group.

The readers of Football Perspective are an insightful bunch with areas of expertise spanning the entire football spectrum; we are the perfect group for crowd-sourcing these sorts of age-old football questions. And given how successful the last experiment was, there’s no reason not to look at other positions. If you’d like to participate in this experiment, there are just a few guidelines to follow:

1. Create a list of the top 20 running backs of all time, in order, using any criteria you believe to be important. I encourage readers to be bold in your selections – don’t worry about what others may think.

2. Commentary is not necessary, but most definitely welcome. In particular, I’d enjoy seeing a short blurb explaining the criteria you based your selections on.

3. Please compile your rankings BEFORE reading anyone else’s. Crowdsourcing works best when each source is as independent as possible.

4. Please DO NOT use multiple screen names to vote more than once.

The deadline to cast your ballot is midnight on Thursday the 26th, then analyze the results in a follow-up article. A first place vote is worth 20 points, second place 19 points, and so on. Let the process begin!

  • Patrick Gordon

    1. Barry Sanders
    2. Jim Brown
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Marshall Faulk
    5. LaDainian Tomlinson
    6. Emmitt Smith
    7. Eric Dickerson
    8. Adrian Peterson
    9. Terrell Davis
    10. Earl Campbell
    11. Marcus Allen
    12. Gale Sayers
    13. Curtis Martin
    14. Jamal Lewis
    15. John Riggins
    16. Shaun Alexander
    17. Priest Holmes
    18. Edgerrin James
    19. Franco Harris
    20. Clinton Portis

    • sacramento gold miners

      There’s a back who had a chance to crack a top 20 list, but injury derailed his career. William Andrews of the 1980s Atlanta Falcons was an outstanding player, but a severe knee injury sustained in a practice essentially finished him. I don’t know if younger fans even remember the name, but Andrews had the size of a fullback, but was a dangerous runner and receiver. Wore # 31, and was starting to put together a case for the HOF before the injury. Had speed, elusiveness, and power.

  • @ScottieRock28

    1 Walter Payton
    2 Barry Sanders
    3 Bo Jackson
    4 Jim Brown
    5 Marshall Faulk
    6 Emmitt Smith
    7 Gale Sayers
    8 LaDainian Tomlinson
    9 Edgerrin James
    10 OJ Simpson
    11 Curtis Martin
    12 Adrian Petersen
    13 Marcus Allen
    14 Eric Dickerson
    15 Terrell Davis
    16 Thurman Thomas
    17 Tony Dorsett
    18 Jerome Bettis
    19 Eddie George
    20 Franco Harris

  • Topher Doll

    Glad this series is going to continue. This will be a combination of both consistent play throughout a players career along with having high peaks to their career. Players with both long careers and great peaks in play will obviously rank very high on the list as well as those with transendant seasons (OJ’s 1973 and 1975 are good examples of this type of season).

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Walter Payton
    3. OJ Simpson
    4. Barry Sanders
    5. LaDainian Tomlinson
    6. Emmitt Smith
    7. Eric Dickerson
    8. Marshall Faulk
    9. Curtis Martin
    10. Franco Harris
    11. Tony Dorsett
    12. Thurman Thomas
    13. Marcus Allen
    14. Earl Campbell
    15. Edgerrin James
    16. Adrian Peterson
    17. Terrell Davis
    18. Shaun Alexander
    19. Priest Holmes
    20. Jamaal Charles

    It’s so hard to speak for some players who played decades before I was born (looking at you Brown, and Simpson) and have almost no film on them but looking at what they did compared to their peers (especially Brown and Simpson) I felt I have them at appropriate rankings. If I was to remove players prior to the first merger I’d add in players like Perry, Riggins, Csonka, Taylor and Portis. I’m sure I’m biased against those backs prior to the 1980’s but it’s so hard to really put those who are in the Hall on this list just because they are in the Hall. As always since it’s WoC, not as much research went into it as would be expected otherwise.

    • Thanks, Topher. Yes, I expect this list to be especially harsh on older RBs. While Graham and Baugh and even Luckman/Van Brocklin have held up somewhat over time, that just isn’t the case with older RBs other than Brown.

      • Bryan Frye

        I am expecting the worst treatment for guys like Red Grange, Johnny Blood, Bronko Nagurski, Ernie Nevers, etc. Too hard to find reliable stats on them, and without those it’s basically down to relying on hagiography.

  • 1-20. Barry Sanders

    (Just kidding.)

    In what I am sure will be a not uncommon issue, I have not thought about this nearly as much as quarterbacks. However, my Top 4 has pretty much always been the same and in the same order. After that: crapshoot. I hope it’s not embarrasingly bad despite my utter lack of consistent criteria. I especially have no idea how to rank the Sayers/Campbell/Davis types.

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Emmitt Smith
    5. Orenthal James Simpson (I can’t demerit for his overall crappiness in all other aspects of existing.)
    6. Marshall Faulk
    7. Marcus Allen
    8. LaDainian Tomlinson
    9. Adrian Peterson
    10. Eric Dickerson
    11. Earl Campbell
    12. Gale Sayers
    13. Tony Dorsett
    14. Joe Perry
    15. Curtis Martin
    16. Terrell Davis
    17. John Riggins
    18. Marion Motley
    19. Thurman Thomas
    20. Steve Van Buren

    Only 20, really? I didn’t have room for guys like Larry Csonka, Ricky Watters, Curt Warner, Roger Craig, Herschel Walker, Franco Harris, Fred Taylor, Tiki Barber…or even potential homer picks like Clinton Portis or Stephen Davis. (Some might credibly argue that Riggins being in the top 20 is a homer pick.)

  • PTP

    My number one was easy for me. I remember watching this game and figured I’d never see a box score like this ever.

    http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/198110040oti.htm

    I never have.

    1. Earl Campbell

    2. Jim Brown

    3.Walter Payton

    4. Gale Sayers

    5. Barry Sanders

    6. OJ Simpson

    7. Tony Dorsett

    8. Bo Jackson

    9. Emmitt Smith

    10 Eric Dickerson

    11. Adrian Peterson

    12.Jim Taylor

    13. Marshall Faulk

    14.LaDanian Tomlinson

    15 Shaun Alexander

    16 Marcus Allen

    17 Terrell Davis

    18 Franco Harris

    19 Thurman Thomas

    20 Fred Taylor

    • Wow — I had never seen that boxscore before, either! That is quite a unique one!

      • PTP

        I think what makes me laugh out loud every time, is seeing Ken Stabler’s one completion was to Earl Campbell 🙂

        These lists are neat (and way different than the QB list). But, man, when everyone in the stadium, everyone watching on TV, all the defensive players KNOW you are getting the ball and you bang them for 187? Freaking amazing.

        • sn0mm1s

          I always loved this one (where Dillon set the mark against the #1 rushing D at that time):

          http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200010220cin.htm

          • PTP

            That’s incredible. I had never seen that one and it’s similar. Akili Smith seemingly ineffective…… I think he mighta been drafted too high 🙂

          • For some reason, my first thought about that game is always Peter Warrick’s 77 yard run. I know, weird.

            I was writing on twitter the other day that it really feels like Dillon, Fred Taylor, Edge, and Jamal Lewis were size/speed freaks from another era. We don’t really have that today, except for Peterson, not sure anyone today can match that.

            • sn0mm1s

              PFR added a new feature to its leaderboards to give you a snapshot of what the leaderboard would look like at a certain point in time. I manually did something like this years ago and compared the all time rusher list in like 1975 or 1980 (I don’t recall exactly) to the current day (which might have been 8 years ago now).

              I think what you are saying is correct – but really it isn’t the size/speed it is the height/speed. If you look at the all time list in 1980 it is dominated by guys over 6 ft. If you look at it now it is dominated by midgets. BMI IIRC increased for a while as well. My general theory on why this was happening was.

              Tall RBs can’t avoid contact as well as the shorter RBs because their higher center of gravity doesn’t let them change direction as quickly. This leads to more direct collisions. This leads to the RB wearing down more quickly. Having longer limbs might also contribute to a higher risk of injury – especially in the knees and feet. Also, no matter how heavy a tall back is they aren’t going to be on of the biggest players on the field. Their size isn’t as much of an advantage and in some ways is a disadvantage.

              • PTP

                I bet, as you allude, it is more out of necessity. LB’s would get run over by Earl, or other big backs. Today LB’s are huge and fast, even safeties can pack a wallop. The Lynch’s of the world seem few and far between.

                I love watching Shady. He sees an LB and goes down, almost without fail. Preserving himself.

                What a bloodsport it is for RB’s. They deserve every penny they get. Bad knees, and a short, short career for a lot of them

              • As you know (since you commented on it), I did write this piece on running back size: http://www.footballperspective.com/running-backs-getting-shorter-and-heavier/

                RBs are getting shorter and heavier. I agree that center of gravity is the key; as for size, I think it’s just easier for shorter dudes to pack on muscle now than it was 30 years ago.

    • Richie

      The Oilers had 50 plays from scrimmage (not counting punts). Campbell was responsible for 38 of them – 76%. Is that a record?

      • PTP

        It might be? I went through this single game carries list and the ones I saw were not close. Most Qb’s threw the ball a bit. I am not sure if there has ever been a guy responsible for 98% of a games total offense.

        The leader on the all time carries list is wild, too. Washington had 69 offensive plays, 45 runs, only scored 17 points, and lost!

        http://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/rush_att_single_game.htm

  • Also, so I can start preparing for it:

    Will there be a WR poll or a WR/TE poll? And how many names will be allowed on those lists?

    • Assuming the demand is there, yes.

      For WR, probably 20. For TE, my guess is maybe 10.

  • Jack

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Walter Payton
    3. Barry Sanders
    4. Ladainian Tomlinson
    5. OJ Simpson
    6. Marshall Faulk
    7. Emmitt Smith
    8. Eric Dickerson
    9. Adrian Peterson
    10. Earl Campbell
    11. Tony Dorsett
    12. Gale Sayers
    13. Thurman Thomas
    14. Terrell Davis
    15. Curtis Martin
    16. Franco Harris
    17. Edgerrin James
    18. Jerome Bettis
    19. Marcus Allen
    20. Jim Taylor

  • sn0mm1s

    I have written a lot on RB rankings over the years… I could probably cut and paste a dissertation on debunking Barry Sanders myths from my posts around the web. As with my other rankings I will almost never put a player #1 if the majority of their career was played prior to 1975. I am especially harsh in regards to this with RBs because they truly are trying to physically beat multiple players on nearly every rush. I am not as impressed with players that are compilers nor am I that impressed with YFS if large portion of that is routinely receiving yards. Surrounding talent means a lot as does how other runners on the same team performed. I don’t factor in wins or rings with RBs (like I do with QBs) because I have yet to see a RB make a team a contender on his own. I am not a big fan of short yardage TDs because they are easy to get. I apologize in advance for the run on sentences and poor grammar… this is the internet.

    1) Barry Sanders – easily the #1 for me. No player has done more with less. He averaged 5 YPC in the toughest era to run in judged by YPC. While he played the average non-QB rush (excluding Sanders) was under 4 YPC (I believe it was 3.8 or 3.9) and this is the lowest in NFL history among players with over 1800 career carries. He took the highest % of his team’s non-QB carries (IIRC something around 86%). And, when I last checked, he was in the top 3 in % of team passes to RBs. He also scored the same % of non-QB rushing TDs for the Lions as Emmitt did for the Cowboys. All of those debunk the myths that he was pulled in passing downs, pulled in goal line situations, and pulled in 3rd downs. He also made the greatest impact as a rookie. The prior 4 years to Barry arriving on the Lions they were the worst rushing team in the NFL (all 4 of those years the Lions had Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover) he took them from literal worst in the NFL to first in the NFL in multiple categories. He played the majority of his career without a TE or FB and when he did finally get a standard offense all he did was rush for 2K yards averaging 6.1 YPC. He also had another season where he ran for 1800+ yards at a 5.7 YPC while non-QB league average was 3.7 YPC. He is also one of only 2 RBs in the HOF (the other being Floyd Little) that never played with another HOF and never played with a QB that got an AP or pro bowl nod.

    2) Walter Payton – Another guy who did a lot with very little. He was a great runner and a good receiver. He also ran very hard for a guy that was only around 210.

    3) Jim Brown – I think the era he played it was very weak compared to modern players. He makes it this far due to the fact that he was so dominant during his time – though some of the dominance was purely because he was taking 20 carries a game when 90% of the league was RBBC. Brown was really only competing against one *maybe* two other players in a season. Also, Bobby Mitchell, had a higher YPC and scored TDs at a greater rate while on the same team. He was also surrounded by HOFers (unlike the first 2 on the list).

    4) Emmitt Smith – I think many underrate Smith (as with other RBs that played in the 1990s). The 1990s was a difficult decade to run in. Emmitt had an amazing peak and obviously his longevity is unmatched.

    5) Tomlinson – I think the next 4 could be put in any order – but since I am forced to choose LT gets in at #5. I do think Marty liked padding his TD totals, but you still can’t argue with the overall production of Tomlinson. Also, the reason LT gets the nod over the next 3 guys is the fact that he just didn’t put the ball on the turf.

    6) Eric Dickerson – probably the most underrated of the great RBs. His running ability is better than LT but he did fumble quite a bit more. I am not positive, but I don’t think there is anyone that matches his first 4 years in the league. The guy was a monster.

    7) OJ Simpson – yes, he killed people – probably – but he was awesome on the field. He was misused early in his career which hurts his career totals. He played in that sort of transitional period in the NFL so I knock him down a bit for that. However, his peak seasons really can’t be matched.

    8) Marshall Faulk – Faulk has always been difficult for me to place. He was a borderline bust on the Colts (considering where he was drafted and what was expected out of him). He put up one of the worst rushing seasons ever at the age of 23 with RBs among RBs taking a similar number of carries (yes I know he had some toe issues). Faulk also got to play with some decent talent on the Colts. The Colts (not that recent history has shown the Colts know much about RBs) traded him for pennies if they really thought he was a HOFer. Edge came in as a rookie and had a better rushing season that Faulk ever had on the Colts. All that said, once he was in an offense that gave him space to work in he was unstoppable. His peak was so great that when most of us think of Faulk we think of the 3 healthy seasons he had for the Rams rather than the 4 he had on the Colts.

    9) Earl Campbell – dominant for a short stretch. However, even though I am not a big proponent of YFS, the guy just didn’t catch the ball. In fact, he never even scored a receiving TD his entire career.

    10) Adrian Peterson – at one point I thought Peterson would break into the top 5 but I don’t think so any longer. This past decade or so has been much easier to run in (judged by YPC) than previous decades so I am not as impressed with his 5.0 YPC in today’s game that seems to focus on passing with running being an after thought.

    11) Joe Perry – Imagine there was no Jim Brown. If there was no Jim Brown, Joe Perry would’ve held the all time rushing mark from 1955 to 1976 – over 20 years. Perry also had some amazing longevity considering the medical advancements during the time he played.

    12) Thurman Thomas – Imagine there was no Marshall Faulk etc. etc. Thurman had an amazing 4 year stretch with the Bills. I am pretty sure he is the only RB that led the league in YFS for 4 straight years. It is unfortunate for his legacy that Faulk was putting up his crazy numbers right as Thurman was exiting the league. There was a time in the early 90s where if you asked: “Who is the best RB in the NFL?” most people would agree that the answer: “I don’t know but he played for Ok St.” was a correct one.

    13) Franco Harris – was a key cog in the Steelers’ dynasty when running the ball was the thing to do.

    14) Corey Dillon – my controversial pick. I think, talentwise, Dillon is a HOFer. He played 7 years on a horrible Bengals team that never even managed a winning record but he rushed for over 1000 yards for his first 6 seasons and even broke Walter Payton’s 20+ year old single game record against the #1 rushing D in the league at the time. He gets labeled a malcontent, goes to the Patriots, and when he finally has a decent team around him he sets career highs in both rushing and TDs at the age of 30. I am not sure how many RBs set career highs in both those stats over the age of 30 – but it can’t be many. Surrounding talent can have a dramatic effect on RB production and I think Dillon got the short end of the stick during his prime and is still a top 20 all time rusher.

    15) Curtis Martin – my gut tells me that Martin isn’t a HOFer and that he was a compiler. Similar to Jerome Bettis, his career YPC is below league average for RBs while he played. However, if he is a compiler, then he is the greatest compiler the game has ever seen – and the guy just didn’t fumble. He is the guy that is really hard for me to place.

    16) Tony Dorsett – great player on great teams. He never really led the league in anything and that is a mark against him since he played on some good teams. He would be higher on my list if he didn’t fumble as often as he scored.

    17) Terrell Davis – I think the Bronco’s system makes the RB look much better than he actually is. Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Droughns, and Portis all looked great in that Denver system. Portis, at the same point in their careers, actually looked better. Davis gets this position because there isn’t a better post season runner ever – system or not. What the guy accomplished in the post season is nothing short of amazing.

    18) Edgerrin James – A workhorse back that could both run and catch. It is unfortunate that he probably won’t make the HOF.

    19) Tiki Barber – Another underrated back that peaked basically as he was exiting the league. He had some great rushing and YFS seasons and, what many don’t realize, is that aside from Barber the Giants were absolutely horrible at running the ball. I am pretty sure that compared to his teammates, Barber has one of the most significant improvement in YPC in the history of the NFL.

    20) Gale Sayers – career is too short, no matter how good, for me to put him above the others.

    ——– Those I left off:
    Bettis – never led the league in anything, YPC was below league average for his career, for being a short yardage RB he rarely broke double digit TDs, was never considered one of the best in the league.
    Allen – yes he had a good year or two – but playing like a 30 year old Tomlinson for a dozen years makes you a compiler in my book.
    Bo Jackson – Couldn’t stay healthy in college, couldn’t stay healthy in the pros, got to come in midseason rested (comparatively), wasn’t much of a receiver, Jamaal Charles had similar numbers at the same # of games in their careers IIRC and no one is putting Charles in their top 20 list (though he may deserve it more than Peterson in a few years)

    • sacramento gold miners

      Interesting list, and Corey Dillion was a terrific back. But his production declined dramatically after age 30, and he was a problem child with the struggling Bengals of that era. Marcus Allen could do it all, and his impressive career numbers would have looked even better if Al Davis hadn’t benched him for stretches in LA. Allen was also a superior back than Barry Sanders when it came to the postseason.

      Jerome Bettis has been a polarizing figure, just like the three other strong candidates from the SB 40 Steelers team which will be coming up for Canton in the future. If we go by production, and how it was reported at the time, Bettis was definitely considered in the grouping of elite backs during his peak. The definition of HOF players has never been just the top two or so during a specific time period, and no one has ever mandated a player must be a league leader. Bettis does own the identical YPC to John Riggins, and was the slower back. It does stand to reason a back of Bettis’ size would not have a great YPC, especially the way he was used in countless short yardage situations.

      The Hall does factor in winning, and Bettis was a key component for the Steelers in that regard. His third down conversion rate helped close out wins, and the voters remembered that. Also, it’s not surprising Bettis doesn’t have huge TD seasonal totals, the Steelers used Hines Ward and Heath Miller inside the red zone quite a bit.

      Also, few people are aware Bettis is in the top five in career 100 yard games, a remarkable feat. Combined with sixth all time rushing in league history, that’s a HOF back without question.

      • sn0mm1s

        Most RBs decline rapidly after the age of 30 and I don’t see how his numbers after 30 are worse than Bettis, or Tomlinson, or Dickerson, or many of the other RBs that don’t even play past 30.

        I know the arguments for Bettis – I am just not convinced by them. I never saw him in that top tier of RBs in the NFL. He was always in that next tier – which, to me, doesn’t make him a HOFer.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Definitely respect your opinion, but Bettis was better than Dillion after the age of 30. The year before Bettis retired, he nearly gained 1000 yards, helping lead the Steelers to a 15-1 regular season. During that year, he dominated both the NFC Champion Eagles and AFC Champ Patriots in those regular season matchups. For a back of that size to be a key contributor over 30, is rare.

          Tomlinson and Dickerson faded quickly towards the end, playing for different teams. In Bettis’ final season, while not the team’s leading rushing, still made important contributions to a world championship season. He gashed the Bears for over 100 in a key regular season win.

          Agree about Bettis not being in the inner circle of HOF backs, he’s in that other group, not at the level of Sanders, Payton, etc. Hall of Fame selections should always include career achievements, along with peak years, in my opinion.

    • Thanks for the well thought-out comment.

      What do you make of the myriad of anti-YPC posts I’ve written? While it doesn’t seem to dominate your analysis, you do seem to place quite a bit of emphasis on YPC. Do you disagree with the view I’ve shared, or are you just more comfortable with using YPC over the course of a career rather than a shorter time period?

      Also, no Jim Taylor love?

      • sn0mm1s

        No – and no Motley either (though I considered putting him over Sayers at #20 since Paul Brown said he was better than Jim Brown).

        I like YPC for a career. I also like TDs of 5+, 10+ yards.

        I guess the simplest response is that I think great RBs are the ones that have the ability to create outlier runs. IIRC, the median and mode for RBs (pretty much all RBs) is 3 and 2 yards respectively. I am not sure if you did that research, or FO, or Burke. IMO, the difference between the great RBs and the not so great is their ability to break out of that 2-3 yard bucket that most runs fall into.

        Here are my takes regarding the few alternative stats that I know of:

        1) FO’s DYAR, DVOA – I have argued forever on FO’s site that these stats heavily penalize RBs (and all players for that matter) that break off long runs. Also, their stats imply things that don’t pass the eye/common sense test – especially their DYAR stat.

        2) FO’s Success Rate – I don’t like FO’s success rate as much as Burke’s for a couple of reasons. One of which is that if a team is winning or losing late in the game the threshold changes. IMO this is a fairly significant bias for RBs on good teams. The difference between a 55% SR and a 50% SR could be 1 carry out of 20 in the 4th quarter.

        3) FO’s ALY – I do like this stat although I don’t know how much research/effort they have put into it since it was introduced a few years ago. It is the one stat I know of that tries to separate the yards gained by the RB from their Oline. I just wish they would tally up these yards with their RBs and not leave it linked to only the Oline as rate stats

        4) Burke’s SR/Expected points – I really like these stats as well but I don’t like the fact that he combines receptions with carries. I have asked probably a half dozen times over the years if he could break out the two but I never get any response.

        5) I know that you like rushes as a more sticky stat than YPC and my response to that was:
        http://www.footballperspective.com/thoughts-on-running-back-yards-per-carry/

  • Hannibal

    I choose to rank by overall impact a player had on the sport. So the achievements compared to their contemporaries take precendence in my list.

    1. Barry Sanders (He has the stats and it just feels like he was playing for some really bad teams)
    2. Jim Brown
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Earl Campbell
    5. OJ Simpson
    6. Ladainian Tomlinson
    7. Gale Sayers
    8. Marshall Faulk
    9. Emmit Smith
    10. Eric Dickerson
    11. Bo Jackson
    12. Marcus Allen
    13. Adrian Peterson
    14. Edgerrin James
    15. Tony Dorsett
    16. Franco Harris
    17. Terrel Davis
    18. John Riggins
    19. Tiki Baber
    20. Shaun Alexander

    After compiling this list I must say that starting from approximately number 10 it kind of feels like a crapshoot. I would probably rate differently in a couple of months.

  • Geoffrey Diddles

    Rankings based on “All other things being equal” and pure individual talent. in other words, who is best if using the same exact o-line, playing in the same era (now), etc. I say this to explain the Jim Brown rank. He was a guy built like players of today plowing through defenders built like my uncle Larry, the podiatrist.
    1. Barry Sanders
    2. Bo Jackson
    3. Gayle Sayers
    4. OJ
    5. Walter Payton
    6. Marcus Allen
    7. Tony Dorsett
    8. Adrian Peterson
    9. Eric Dickerson
    10. Jim Brown
    11. Marshall Faulk
    12. Earl Campbell
    13. LaDainian Tomlinson
    14. Cutis Martin
    15. Warrick Dunn
    16. Thurman Thomas
    17. Roger Craig
    18. Emmitt Smith
    19. Curt Warner
    20. Jerome Bettis

  • Dana Stewart

    Criteria: Taking into account their respective eras (as much as possible), who would I want starting in my backfield? Also factored in longevity – who played at the highest level consistently and for the longest time.

    1. Barry Sanders
    2. Jim Brown
    3. OJ Simpson
    4. Emmitt Smith
    5. Walter Payton
    6. Eric Dickerson
    7. Tony Dorsett
    8. Marshall Faulk
    9. LaDanian Tomlinson
    10. Curtis Martin
    11. Earl Campbell
    12. Fred Taylor
    13. Edgerrin James
    14. Adrian Peterson
    15. Thurman Thomas
    16. Franco Harris
    17. John Riggins
    18. Frank Gore
    19. Marshawn Lynch
    20. Marcus Allen

  • Weeb’s Boy

    Earl Campbell – The best I ever saw
    Jim Brown – The best I never saw
    Emmitt Smith – Cowboy homer
    Walter Payton
    Barry Sanders – retired too soon
    Eric Dickerson
    O.J. Simpson
    Adrian Peterson – OJ junior
    Marshall Faulk
    Thurman Thomas
    Gale Sayers – have to use reputation for some of these
    LaDainian Tomlinson
    Tony Dorsett
    Leroy Kelly
    Curtis Martin
    Marion Motley
    Edgerrin James
    Eddie George
    Lenny Moore
    Marcus Allen
    And 1 more bonus pick – Billy Sims – if they only knew how
    to fix knees back then

    • zarathustraNU

      Eddie George? Don’t get the logic there– if you’re going to include a runner like George, might as well just replace him with Jamal Lewis, another compiler who was better than George in all aspects. Unless we’re counting college careers, maybe?

  • CrispyBacon

    Jim Brown — His reputation and the little of him I’ve seen
    Barry Sanders — Unique
    OJ Simpson
    Terrell Davis
    Walter Peyton
    Marcus Allen
    Marshawn Lynch
    Adrian Peterson
    Eric Dickerson
    LT
    Marshall Faulk
    Bo Jackson
    Gale Sayers
    Emmit Smith Just don’t like him
    Franco Harris
    Larry Csonka
    Herschel Walker
    Priest Holmes
    Tony Dorsett

  • Roger Kirk

    It’s the septuagenarian creaking his way to the keyboard again. Why only 20 when there are so many more candidates than there were at QB? For that reason I left off Simpson and Peterson just because I hate them as human beings, a bit inconsistently since I included Roethlisberger among the QBs, but that was because there were so many fewer candidates. If this poll was limited to people my age, Brown would be the unanimous number one, and probably should be anyway. Motley and Matson would have had even better careers but for the racism of the times. I wonder if the white RBs of the 60s would look like Peyton Hillis if they were brought back today but I had to give them their due for what they did at the time. Thorpe and Grange for historic purposes even if we really have no idea. Roger Craig because I think he’s been seriously underrated, not because he’s named Roger.

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Emmitt Smith
    5. Eric Dickerson
    6. Marian Motley
    7. Ladanian Tomlinson
    8. Earl Campbell
    9. Franco Harris
    10. Marcus Allen
    11. John Riggins
    12. Ollie Matson
    13. Larry Csonka
    14. Jim Taylor
    15. Marshall Faulk
    16. Curtis Martin
    17. Jim Thorpe
    18. Red Grange
    19. Roger Craig
    20. Marshawn Lynch

  • Thanks to everyone for the comments. We really have a great community here, and I am loving the well thought-out comments we are receiving. And this GOAT/WOC series seems to really have brought people to get to commenting, so that’s great, too.

  • Richie

    For the guys I’ve seen play (this would begin around 1983), I ranked them amongst each other based on nothing but my personal opinion of how good they were. For guys before 1983, I used a combination of reputation, awards, etc. to try to sprinkle them in amongst the guys I know.

    I considered contributions as a pass-catcher and kick-returner, but didn’t weight them very heavily.

    Some of these guys it’s really just guessing. But a guy like Steve Van Buren had a short career, but it looks like he pretty much dominated for the 6 seasons right after WWII. He was constantly getting All Pros and leading in rushing yards. (I think he retired as the all-time yardage leader.)

    Lenny Moore is a tough one. He has some awesome yards/carry seasons, and caught a lot of passes, but his raw rushing yards weren’t great. But he has a ton of awards. I assume those are mostly based on his receiving heroics, so I left him off my list.

    Joe Perry was pretty good in his career, but also played a long time. His career shape seems similar to Marcus Allen, so I put them next to each other.

    1 Jim Brown
    2 Eric Dickerson
    3 Barry Sanders
    4 Walter Payton
    5 Emmitt Smith
    6 OJ Simpson
    7 Steve Van Buren
    8 Adrian Peterson
    9 Leroy Kelly
    10 LaDainian Tomlinson
    11 Ollie Matson
    12 Marshall Faulk
    13 Marcus Allen
    14 Joe Perry
    15 Edgerrin James
    16 Franco Harris
    17 Marion Motley
    18 Gale Sayers
    19 Jim Taylor
    20 Curtis Martin

  • Ian

    1) Jim Brown
    2) Barry Sanders
    3) Emmitt Smith
    4) Walter Payton
    5) Steve Van Buren
    6) Eric Dickerson
    7) O.J. Simpson
    8) Tony Dorsett
    9) LaDainian Tomlinson
    10) Earl Campbell
    11) Marshall Faulk
    12) Thurman Thomas
    13) Curtis Martin
    14) Jim Taylor
    15) Joe Parry
    16) Adrian Peterson
    17) Franco Harris
    18) Steven Jackson
    19) Marcus Allen
    20) Jamaal Charles

  • Jay Beck

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Walter Payton
    3. Emmitt Smith
    4. Barry Sanders
    5. LaDainian Tomlinson
    6. Marshall Faulk
    7. Eric Dickerson
    8. Thurman Thomas
    9. Curtis Martin

    10. OJ Simpson
    11. Jerome Bettis
    12. Franco Harris
    13. Tony Dorsett
    14. Marcus Allen
    15. Earl Campbell
    16. Adrian Peterson
    17. Ricky Watters
    18. Edgerrin James
    19. Herschel Walker
    20. John Riggins

    An exercise in futility if you ask me as successfully running the football is truly a team function and any one individual’s success hinges on the success of his teammates (particularly the threat of the QB and the overall functionality of the offensive line).

    I am a HUGE proponent of “Success Rate.” SR correlates much higher to winning than does yards per carry. The most thrilling, exciting, player I ever saw was Barry Sanders. No runner ever had more 40+ yard runs than Sanders. But he also lost more yardage than any runner in NFL history and very often put his team in difficult down and distances. Even in seasons where he put up monster numbers (like 94 for example), his success rate was below average. He was the epitome of a boom or bust guy.

    Emmitt Smith has become grossly under-appreciated in my opinion. Incredible durability, and was not insulated by surrounding talent nearly to the degree that many people assume.

    • sn0mm1s

      If you are referring to FO’s success rate there is a reason it corresponds well to winning – the threshold gets changed if team is winning or losing. I find it weird that they built their reputation/site around the idea that establishing the run is a myth and then do that. Years ago they made their name on the research that good teams don’t win because they are running – they are running because they are winning. Good teams gain their rushing edge late in the game. They then turn around and effectively pad their Success Rate stat by lowering the threshold late in the game when the team is winning. It is a self fulfilling prophecy at that point.

      • Wilson Zheng

        Do they not also pad their ypc?

        • sn0mm1s

          The yards a player gains on a rush doesn’t change if it is the first quarter or OT. It isn’t like if you are winning in the 4th quarter you are credited with a 5 yard rush when you only gain 3 yards. Similarly, if you are losing and run for 5 yards in the 4th quarter your stat sheet doesn’t bump that down to 3 yards. We aren’t talking about the same thing here.

          Though, to directly answer your question, no – I don’t think you can pad YPC to any significant degree if you are a workhorse RB (like pretty much every RB that gets mentioned in the GOAT discussions).

      • Richie

        The adjustment in the fourth quarter is small. It switches from 40%/60%/100% to 30%/50%/100% (if you’re ahead). This is basically a 1-yard adjustment on first and second down only. But doesn’t this make sense? Usually in the fourth quarter, you just want to keep the clock spinning.

        Sure, in the first quarter, it make sense that your RB should gain 4 yards on first down for the play to be a success. But if you are winning by 7 with 4 minutes left in the game, do you really care if your RB gets 4 or 3 yards? It’s not a big difference. You just like that he’s making progress and keeping the clock moving.

        • sn0mm1s

          It is an absolutely huge difference though when Success Rate is clumped together into one number. Start of the 4th quarter. A team is down 10 pts. RB A needs to gain 5 yards (because the threshold gets bumped up) to be considered a successful run. Conversely, if RB B is up by 1 point he only needs 3 yards for a successful run. Also, RB B is probably going to be running more which gives an edge as well.

          • Richie

            But doesn’t that make sense? If you are trailing in the fourth quarter, you need your RB to be just a bit more productive for you to have a chance at winning.

      • Jay Beck

        You’re wrong about Football Outsiders SR methodology. The only adjustment is: “Small adjustment in fourth quarter based on whether team is more than a touchdown behind or running out the clock.”

        I’ve personally charted entire seasons of running back attempts and the 4th quarter adjustments only pertain to a de minimis number of attempts in the final minutes of a game. For example, if a team is ahead 21-7 and there are 3 minutes on the clock, a run for 3 yards on 2nd and 6 would normally be considered an unsuccessful run, but FO will consider that run a success when a team is attempting to run out the clock. Often times, a backup running back is receiving those carries to begin with.

        • sn0mm1s

          When you are talking about maybe 20 carries in a game I don’t think any carry can be considered de minimis. The difference of 2 carries in the 4th quarter could be a 10% success rate swing.

          • Jay Beck

            Again, I’ve charted entire 300 carry+ seasons for several RBs using the standard FO SR and I never saw a success rate change by more than 1% for the entire season. In other words, a back with a SR of 48% might move to 49% on the season taking into account the 4th q adjustment.

            • Jay Beck

              The reason I find YPC to be next to worthless is because not a single NFL game goes by when you won’t see a RB gain 10+ yards on a draw play on 3rd and 20 or on a 1st down carry with less than a minute to go in a half. Those are absolute garbage yards that mean nothing and a RB’s longest run of a game might come on one or more of those meaningless attempts.

              • sn0mm1s

                I don’t have the time or resources to check your claim that the 4th quarter adjustment only tweaks the success rate by 1% across the board for individuals. But let’s assume that is true. Last year, there were a total of 41 carries on 3rd down with 20+ yards to go with the average rush being 6.9 yards. There were 109 non-kneels averaging 6.0 YPC on 1st and 10 with under 1 minute in the half (I didn’t make any field position judgment calls as to a rush being a decent play call). However, there were 127 1st down and 10 rushes for 3 yards by a leading team in the 4th quarter (resulting in a successful run that wouldn’t otherwise be considered successful) and 58 1st down and 10 rushes in the 4th quarter down by 8 or more resulting in 4 or 5 yards. How do those 150 rushes make YPC next to worthless but those other 185 support the greatest thing since sliced bread?

                • Jay Beck

                  Ridiculous comparison. There 430 runs in 2014 on 3rd and 7 or more yards to go. Anyone who has ever played or watched football would understand that running a draw play on third and long is a vastly different animal than trying to grind out the clock with a lead in the 4th quarter when everyone on the field and in the stand knows exactly what’s coming. Consider Super Bowl 49. The Seahawks have Robert Turbin on the field to start a drive w/ some 30 seconds remaining in the first half. They run a draw play and Turbin runs untouched up the middle for 20 yards. He ends the game w/ 2 carried for 20 yards. Marshawn Lynch carries 24 times for 102 yards. Nobody on earth thinks Robert Turbin is in the same class as Lynch.

                  • sn0mm1s

                    Sigh… of those 430 runs when you remove kneel downs (this is good for your position) and runs that resulted in 1st downs (I mean, how can you complain about runs that actually converted the down). You are left with 296 runs for 1302 yards that did not result in 1st down or TD that were run on 3rd down and 7+ yards to ago. Again, I didn’t make any judgment calls as to if this might be the correct play call (it might), or if it was a QB scramble or anything like that.

                    Last year there were 13688 rushes for 57002 yards for 4.1643 YPC.
                    removing those 296 runs that supposedly make YPC worthless you get:
                    13392 rushes for 55700 for 4.1592 YPC.

                    So all those runs that you think are horrible and skew YPC so much increase league YPC by .1%

                    • Jay Beck

                      Rushing Yards per Attempt: We Need a Better Stat

                      The difference in the success of run-heavy teams and pass-happy teams speaks directly to the difference in running and passing. Teams that are ahead will run to grind out the clock, while the teams that are behind will keep throwing in an effort to come back.

                      While we have a lot of ways to measure a team’s passing success, good old-fashioned yards per attempt usually does a reasonable job of picking out a winner (71.2 percent in 2011). But if we look towards rushing, the rushing yards per attempt (YPA) stat is less successful, with 2011 teams only winning 47.6 percent of games when boasting a higher YPA than the opponent.

                      In theory, rushing YPA makes a lot of sense. The more efficient you are at gaining rushing yards, the better the rushing team you are. However, unlike the passing game, rushing YPA does not correlate to winning, practically making it a trivial, irrelevant stat.

                      Look at the two dozen teams since the merger to have a rushing YPA of over 5.0:

                      Team Rushing YPA of 5.0+, Since 1970RkTeamYearAtt.YardsYPCRecordResult1Detroit199744724645.519-7Lost NFC-WC2Atlanta200653729395.477-9No Playoffs3Philadelphia201042823245.4310-6Lost NFC-WC4Carolina201144524085.416-10No Playoffs5Minnesota200749426345.338-8No Playoffs6Minnesota200247325075.306-10No Playoffs7LA Rams198454128645.2910-6Lost NFC-WC8Detroit199036619275.276-10No Playoffs9Tennessee200949925925.198-8No Playoffs10San Francisco199849125445.1812-4Lost NFC-D11Minnesota201144823185.173-13No Playoffs12Kansas City200246223785.158-8No Playoffs13San Diego200341721465.154-12No Playoffs14Detroit199440620805.129-7Lost NFC-WC15Buffalo197360530885.109-5No Playoffs16Atlanta200452426725.1011-5Lost NFC-C17Pittsburgh197249725205.0711-3Lost AFC-C18Buffalo197558829745.068-6No Playoffs19Philadelphia201145022765.068-8No Playoffs20Green Bay200350725585.0510-6Lost NFC-D21Indianapolis198548524395.035-11No Playoffs22NY Giants200850225185.0212-4Lost NFC-D23San Francisco199941820955.014-12No Playoffs24Miami197148624295.0010-3-1Lost Super Bowl

                      We have 24 teams, and 14 of them failed to even make the playoffs, including nine of the top 13 teams. These 24 teams won 51.7 percent of their games.

                      The postseason “success” is even more off-putting, with a 6-10 record. That includes some of the most fortunate wins in playoff history:

                      The only playoff win by the top 15 teams belongs to the 1998 49ers when they overcame a missed Jerry Rice fumble and got a game-winning touchdown pass to Terrell Owens to beat Green Bay.

                      The first playoff win in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers was thanks to Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception to beat the Oakland Raiders in 1972.

                      Green Bay advanced in 2003 after Matt Hasselbeck got the ball and wanted to score, marking the first NFL playoff game to end in overtime on a defensive return touchdown when Al Harris scored the winning pick six.

                      The 1971 Dolphins’ path to three straight Super Bowls may have started one-and-done if not for a double-overtime win in Kansas City in the longest game in NFL history.

                      The list also includes two teams from last season: No. 4 Carolina Panthers (5.41 YPC) and No. 11 Minnesota Vikings (5.17 YPC). The teams combined to win just nine games in 2011, and that includes a head-to-head meeting.

                      The correlation between rushing YPC and win percentage for the 1,221 teams is 0.17, which is not strong at all.

                      If rushing YPC is not a good way to evaluate the effectiveness of a team’s running game, then what is? Plain old yards, and of course carries, correlate well with winning, but that again is the result of teams with the lead running clock.

                      Consider this example. Since 1970, we looked at teams that ran the ball at least 30 times, but averaged less than 4.0 YPC, which would mean below average. Then we looked at teams that averaged more than 5.0 YPC (elite performance), but had fewer than 20 carries. Then we threw in a few more similar results.

                      TeamRecordPct.30+ Carries, <4.0 YPC3482-1096-410.7585.0+ YPC1287-389-90.767<20 Carries, <4.0 YPC185-1772-10.095

                      Whether you run for under 4.0 (.758) or greater than 5.0 (.767), as long as you hit 30 carries you are likely going to win the game over three-quarters of the time. The rushing effectiveness is irrelevant as the carries themselves tell us a lot about how the game played out.

                      Likewise, if you failed to exceed 20 carries, it does not matter if you averaged over 5.0 (.084) or under 4.0 (.095), you likely lost the game over 90 percent of the time.

                      Even if you average over 6.0 YPC, teams have a record of 15-169 (.082) when they are at 20 carries or less. In that case, it is likely one long run is boosting the average. No matter how good one run is, it still only can help you for one drive in a game.

                      Similarly, we looked at games where a team threw at least 35 passes, which would be an above-average amount since the merger, and again made note of the rushing yards per carry.

                      Teams – 35+ Pass Attempts 1970-2011SituationRecordPct.Team Rushing 5.0 YPC239-620-30.279

                      Once again, regardless of the rushing YPC, if your quarterback is throwing the ball at least 35 times, he is fighting an uphill battle for a win. We will be sure to have future studies in this realm of stats.

                      So if rushing YPC is meaningless, carries and yards are too score dependent, then what can we use to judge a running game?

                      Some formula involving success rate as it relates to down and distance. If you had a team that only decided to run the ball when they needed two yards for a first down or touchdown, and they gained at least those two yards every time, then what’s stopping us from saying they are the most effective rushing offense?

                      Work like this already exists at Football Outsiders, for individual backs and team rushing. You could also look at Advanced NFL Stats for stats on expected points added, success rate and win probability, though again you will see Carolina and Minnesota lead the way in expected points from the running game in 2011.

                      Perhaps we are just at a point in time where running fails to correlate to winning more than ever. Notice the 2011 New York Giants ranked dead last in Run EPA.

                      What an offense actually needs from the running game is short-yardage conversions, and enough carries to keep the defense guessing, and the receivers rested before they go full speed for another pass.

                    • Thanks for stopping by, Jay. Out of respect to authors and content providers, please do not just post articles without attribution like this. Thank you.

                    • Jay Beck

                      Sorry! That was Scott Kascmar’s work.

                    • Jay Beck

                      Believe what you want, but the fact is rushing Success Rate correlates with team wins at 0.40, vs 0.15 based on YPC.

                    • sn0mm1s

                      Who says success rate correlates with how good a RB is? I don’t have the resources but I am willing to bet the vast majority of successful/unsuccessful runs are 4 yards or less. Most runs in the NFL are for less than 5 yards.

                      Now, I have already said I don’t like FO’s DYAR/DVOA because they create some ridiculous results that defy commonsense. I did say I like their ALY stat because if you look at those stats what they are saying lines up a lot better with what we actually observed. When they are discussing ALY they are trying to separate out the quality of the offensive line compared to the RB. FO attributes the shorter runs to the oline and the longer runs to the RB. Due to the fact that the majority of runs are for 4 yards or less, I think Success Rate is more a measurement of the performance of the Oline – not the RB.

                      A great RB has the ability to get *more* than what the oline gives them. This is why I like YPC over SR when looking at RBs. The great RBs are defined by their ability to create “outlier” runs that systems like FO’s cap or practically ignores. Burke’s EPA doesn’t cap the run – but I mentioned earlier that the stat isn’t great since he doesn’t separate out rushes from receptions.

                      Let me give you an example (and I can post stuff like this all day).
                      1997
                      Barry Sanders rushes for 2053 yards on 335 carries averaging 6.1 YPC with 447 DYAR #2
                      Terrell Davis rushes for 1743 yards on 369 carries averaging 4.7 YPC with 526 DYAR #1

                      Sanders rushes for ~300 more real yards but ~80 less DYAR. According to FO, Terrell Davis is the better RB.

                      Now, what FO is also saying here is that if you gave a replacement level RB (which is a pretty poor RB) the same carries that the Lions gave Barry Sanders he would rush for 1606 yards averaging 4.8 YPC – a top ~50 all time rushing season by some no name backup .

                      Similarly, that exact same replacement RB, placed on the Broncos (with their great zone blocking scheme, a HOF QB, a HOF TE, and a borderline HOF WR) would rush for 1217 yards averaging 3.3 YPC.

                      Is that what history actually showed us? No – we see Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Droughns, and Portis all do extremely well in that system…. nothing close to a 3.3 YPC average (and they didn’t have the HOF QB). And, despite FO routinely telling us that a replacement level RB (not even a starter) would be rushing for 1300-1600 yards routinely on the Lions they were extremely poor once Sanders left. Their whole DYAR/DVOA/SR bit might correlate better to wins – but as they article you quoted ponders:

                      “Perhaps we are just at a point in time where running fails to correlate to winning more than ever. Notice the 2011 New York Giants ranked dead last in Run EPA.”

                      However, let’s take a look at FO’s ALY for 1997.
                      DEN – Oline ALY = 4.84 All RB YPC = 4.68 (TD’s was 4.7)
                      DET – Oline ALY = 4.11 All RB YPC = 5.83 (Barry was 6.1)

                      These results correlate more to what we actually saw once these RBs got replaced. In the case of Denver, it is saying the RBs are actually not even getting as many yards as the Oline is giving them (a -.16 difference). It is also implying that almost any RB would have success there because the Oline is so good (which is what we saw). Detroit OTOH, has a poor ALY and the RBs are gaining 1.7 more yards per carry than what the Oline is actually giving them.

                      Basically, Davis is getting almost exactly what his Oline is getting him on each carry while Sanders is getting about 2 yards more. Of course, this isn’t a perfect relationship – but this (as with other examples I have pointed out through the years) seems to fit what we saw more than DYAR/DVOA/SR

                      I am sure you have a membership to FO since you are charting for them. Do me a favor and go look at Marshall Faulk’s DYAR, DVOA, SR on the Colts vs. the Rams, do the same with Portis Den vs. Wash, Corey Dillon Cin vs. NE, and Bettis (all great RBs that switched teams with some gas left in the tank). You will see a dramatic difference in their DYAR/DVOA/SR when they switch to the better/worse team. The only guy that remained the same is Cmart – he went from a quality team to a quality team with the same head coach.

                    • Jay Beck

                      Both Scott Kacsmar (footballoutsiders) and Brian Burke (advanced football analytics) have written extensively on SR and how it unequivocally is a better indicator of team success than YPC. “Who says success rate correlates with how good a running back is?” Define “good.” I’d rather have a ground attack that can consistently pick up critical yardage than a guy who occasionally breaks a big play but fails far more frequently in those critical moments. I get why the average fan is taken by the Gayle Sayers, Tiki Barber, Barry Sanders, Fred Taylor, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson home run hitters. Those guys made lots of flashy, sexy long runs. But none of those guys have done a lot of winning. And they all had numerous seasons were their SR flat out sucked relative to the league average. In 1997, Sanders ran for 2000 yards and his SR was STILL only 46% (16th in the league). Terrell Davis’ SR that season was 56%. Note that Davis didn’t make my top 20 list mostly because he didn’t do it long enough and he had the EXTREME luxury of playing w/ Elway, Sharpe, Zimmerman, Nalen, and a plethora of talent around him (not to mention Kubiak’s ZB scheme which has made guys like Justin Forsett and Mike Anderson look like capable runners). But the proof is in the pudding. Breaking off an occasional long run does not add anywhere near the value over the course of a season that a critical third down conversion does or consistently putting a team in manageable down and distances.

                    • sn0mm1s

                      I don’t disagree that it correlates better – it is designed to change to make it easier if you are winning or harder if you are losing. But apparently, you completely missed my point that the Oline is more responsibly for the Success Rate than the RB. Did you even look at the ALY stats? “Ground attack” has 2 pieces the Oline and the RB.

                      Did you go look at Faulk when he went to the Rams? Did he all of sudden remember how to run the ball? Or Portis when he goes to Wash? Did he all of a sudden forget how the run the ball? Do you think a replacement level RB would rush for over 1600 yards for Detroit in 1997 or Minnesota in 2012?

                      In the FO world, a RB that takes 3 10 yard runs from the 20 to the 50 is worth more than 79 yard run that takes the team from the 20 to the 1. The 3 10 yarders correlate more to winning (and hence gets more FO points) because it is more repeatable. But which would you as a coach/team rather have? What is the better run?

                    • Jay Beck

                      One of the first things I wrote: “successfully running the football is truly a team function and any one individual’s success hinges on the success of his teammates (particularly the threat of the QB and the overall functionality of the offensive line).”

                      And I can just as easily counter with, which would you rather have, a back that can get you 4 yards on every single carry or a back that gets stuffed 15 consecutive times and then breaks a 70 yarder? And the answer irrefutably is the former.

                      1998, the only season of Sanders currently available on PF-REF, Sanders ran for 0 or negative yardage on 97 of his 343 attempts (28.3% of the time). Emmitt Smith in 1998 was 54 for 319 (16.9%). Yet Sanders had a higher YPC (4.3 to 4.2). The Lions went 5-11 and Dallas 10-6.

                      Whether you want to assign the blame to poor QB play, bad playcalling, poor blocking, or poor running ability (ie missing holes or dancing around in the backfield hoping to break a big gainer), a guy like Barry Sanders got stuffed entirely too frequently for my tastes.

                    • sn0mm1s

                      Yes, but you your example of 15 consecutive times + 70 yarder is so far removed from reality it isn’t even worth considering. I have plenty of examples of Sanders breaking off a 60+ yard run and not scoring.

                      Also, 1998 was Sanders’ worst year – he played injured for the last 1/3 of the season.

                      Look at it this way. Compare a RB A with a 4.0 YPC on 20 runs with a 50% SR vs. RB B with 100 yards on 20 carries with a 40% SR. The difference between a that 2nd RB having a 50% SR is likely 2-4 yards total (and likely on short carries that are more a function of oline play). While the RB A would need to gain 20 more yards to match RB B. That difference is much more likely the ability of the RB.

                      Tom Brady, is one of the least gifted runners in the NFL. However, he has some insanely good rushing seasons by FO standards because he has a good oline that can get him a yard. I would never say Sanders – someone who played without a FB or TE or a competent QB (aside from 1995) – would have the same sort of blocking and space that other RBs would get from their supporting cast.

                      Have you ever seen any of the old game film of Sanders? It is comical. I think my favorite was the playoff game vs. the Wash. The Lions trot out 4 WR sets almost every play and Washington stays in its base D – only 4 DBs on the field for 4 wideouts. Almost all of Sanders’ runs were vs. 7 in the box to his 5 . That was Sanders’ *best* team he ever played on.

                    • Jay Beck

                      I’ve seen volumes of Barry Sanders game film. And I love Sanders. Unbelievable talent and if I had to have a big run there’s no other guy I’d want. And that’s why people worship him and I get that. He could make something out of nothing. But he could also make nothing out of something. I mean, the guy had 13 carried for -1 yards in a playoff game.Just read this (if you didn’t before) and take from it what you want. http://www.coldhardfootballfacts.com/content/chff-super-study-the-evolution-nfl-pass-run-ratio/15992/

                    • sn0mm1s

                      Jim Brown had a playoff game of 7 carries for 8 yards – and that is with some HOFers blocking for him. I don’t see you holding that against him.

                      I read the article when it first came out. Hell, I have hardcopies of Football Outsiders’ Almanac back when it was called Prospectus (and when they actually had a bunch of original articles aside from team predictions). It still doesn’t change my opinion that SR is more of a Oline stat and YPC is more of a RB stat. Like I said, ALY gets it right in describing what we actually see – much more than DYAR/DVOA/SR. Unless you really believe a replacement RB would hit 1600+ yards with the Lions and Vikings – you seem to avoid answering those questions.

                      I mean, you compare Sanders and Smith when Sanders had a rookie QB, lost his best lineman from the prior year (Glover), and played injured for 1/3 of the year. When Smith had a HOF WR, HOF QB (for most of the season), a HOF guard, along with 2 other established linemen with 1st team APs on their resume. When Emmitt has to play with Quincy Carter vs. Troy Aikman his SR drops quite a bit as well.

                    • Jay Beck

                      At no point have I ever said anything whatsoever about DYAR or DVOA. I’m talking exclusively about Success Rate vs YPC. And I only chose ’98 because that’s the only season of data available for both Smith and Sanders on pro-football-reference. Barry Sanders got stuffed more than any back in NFL history. That is a FACT. That’s a consequence of handing the ball to a 5′ 8″ 195 lb scat back 3000+ times. The benefit (with Sanders in particular) is occasional big runs. You can blame the line, QB, whatever. That’s the difficulty of football analysis. There are 22 guys on the field at all times vs NBA (10) or MLB (9 vs a batter) so there are lots of variables and advanced stats in the NFL are way behind the other sports for that reason.

                      And Success Rate is so much more than just 1 and 2 yard plunges on 3rd downs (which are absolutely critical btw). When you’re talking about feature backs carrying the ball 200+-300+ times a season, SR captures what casual fans are missing. Even when Sanders (or Chris Johnson for example) are running for 2000+ yards, there success rate BLOWS. They are FAILING more often times than not. They’re not picking up 4 yards on first down. They’re not picking up 6 yards on 2nd and 9, they’re getting stuffed more frequently than league average. But they break off sexy 50+ yard runs a handful of times a year and end up with huge aggregate totals. And that just doesn’t help teams win as the data concludes.

                    • sn0mm1s

                      Actually, I would say it is more of a consequence of playing out of offenses with subpar QBs and a poor Oline.

                      Sanders’ career success rate was 47%, Emmitt Smith’s first 10 years had a success rate of 51% (career of 49%). That basically boils down to a less than a 1 carry difference in a 20 carry game. The difference being – Emmitt played with a HOF QB, HOF WR, HOF lineman, and what many consider one of the best Olines in the history of the league – and the SR difference was less than 1 carry a game.

                      Now, I don’t have the play by play either – but I would be willing to bet that Emmitt got a lot more of those 4th quarter bumps than Sanders did as well. If we don’t rig the game so that it is easier if you are already winning it is likely that the difference between Smith and Sanders – over their first 10 years – is likely closer 1 carry every other game.

                      If you read the description on all the FO’s pages here is what they say:

                      “These numbers do not separate the performance of a running back from the performance of his offensive line. (You’ll find numbers that try to do that on this page.)”

                      That links to the ALY page. Which, if you look at the numbers, make much more sense to what we actually see on the field. Barry Sanders making lemonade out of lemons and guys like Terrell Davis getting exactly what their line is giving them.

                    • Richie

                      I don’t think subtracting DYAR from actual yards tells us what a replacement runner would have done.

                      First, DYAR is defense-adjusted, but the actual yardage is a raw number – not defense adjusted.

                      Second, let’s say a player gains 10 DYAR on a particular drive and 40 regular yards. It’s possible that the early DYAR in the drive enabled some of those other 40 yards, because the player gained a first down. The replacement guy might have failed to convert a first down, eliminating the ability to gain some of those other 40 yards, because the team punted.

                      DYAR is more of a comparative stat to be able to compare the total (as opposed to rate) value a player contributed.

                    • sn0mm1s

                      I have email from Aaron (the guy who invented the stat) that all other variables held equal (Carries/TDs/Fumbles etc. etc.) it means exactly that.

                  • sn0mm1s

                    The other thing I find humorous is that Lynch had 7 such carries in the regular season of his 280 total carries and Turbin had 1 out of 74 carries.

                    And no, no one thinks Turbin in the same class as Lynch – but if you don’t understand the bias of sample size I don’t know what to tell you. I am sure I can find a game where a FB converts two 1 yard runs and has a success rate of 100% while the primary back has 20 carries for 45% SR and I can make the same statement that no one thinks the FB is better than the primary RB.

    • Richie

      I don’t know how the distributions really break out, but if a drive starts on the 20 and the first 3 plays are:
      Player A: 8 yards, 4 yards, 12 yards. Success rate 100%
      Player B: -1 yard, 3 yards, 37 yards. Success rate 33%

      Player B helped the team more, didn’t he?

      • sn0mm1s

        In the FO/DYAR/DVOA world – probably not. I will have to dig up some of my posts on their site – I know I got a definitive answer regarding a hypothetical like that.

      • Jay Beck

        Not necessarily. If the 8 yard run came on a 3rd and 20, and the 4 yard run came on a 2nd and 10, the success rate might be 33% in example A. In example B, if the 3 yard run came on a 4th and 2, the success rate might be 66%. Success rate over the course of 200 or 300 attempts to me is a better indicator of success than ypc and statistically has been shown to correlate much higher to winning than yards per carry.

        • sn0mm1s

          In the slightly older FO/DYAR/DVOA model a 79 yard run that takes a team from their own 20 to the opponents 1 is worth less points in their system than a RB making 3 consecutive 10 yard rushes from the 20 to the 50. I doubt that has changed much with the latest model.

  • Jon Shadinger

    1) Barry Sanders
    2) Jim Brown
    3) Walter Payton
    4) Bo Jackson
    5) Eric Dickerson
    6) OJ Simpson
    7) Earl Campbell
    8) LaDanian Tomlinson
    9) Marshall Faulk
    10) Emmitt Smith
    11) Adrian Peterson
    12) Marshawn Lynch
    13) Thurman Thomas
    14) Curtis Martin
    15) Steve Van Buren
    16) Corey Dillon
    17) Shaun Alexander
    18) Roger Craig
    19) Curt Warner
    20) Gale Sayers

  • Bryan Frye

    I went for peak over longevity (Davis over Bettis), for the most part, but gave a bonus to guys who maintained solid play for a long time (Smith). I tried to account for era (higher fumble rate long ago, for example) and take into consideration how they were viewed when they played (postseason awards). I value receiving contribution significantly, but I didn’t include players whose receiving yards were greater than their rushing yards (Moore et al.). I don’t account for personal behavior, so Brown and Peterson will not be knocked.

    1. Jim Brown – hit linebackers almost as hard as Eva Bohn-Chin
    2. Walter Payton – best all-around back
    3. Barry Sanders – exciting runner
    4. O.J. Simpson – killer runner
    5. Emmitt Smith – the best at taking what was there
    6. Eric Dickerson – second best start behind Brown
    7. Marshall Faulk – could have played receiver
    8. LaDainian Tomlinson – could run, catch, and block well
    9. Earl Campbell – humiliated tacklers
    10. Thurman Thomas – best back in a league with Smith/Sanders
    11. Marion Motley – playing against small white guys probably helped
    12. Gale Sayers – electric runner, dinged for getting himself hurt
    13. Jim Taylor – best non-Brown back of his era
    14. Steve Van Buren – led league in yards and TDs 4 times each
    15. Adrian Peterson – not great all-round, but the best at one thing
    16. Marcus Allen – should have been higher, but Al Davis
    17. Curtis Martin – compiler moniker is silly
    18. Edgerrin James – great pad level, solid in all phases
    19. Terrell Davis – best back in a league with Barry/Emmitt/Faulk
    20. Tiki Barber – great receiver, underrated chap

    • Adam Steele

      OJ Simpson, killer runner…lol

  • I think this will be a fun exercise and I’ll voice support for it, but I don’t really even know where to start for making such rankings myself, so I’m probably not participating.

  • Adam Steele

    1) Jim Brown
    2) Barry Sanders
    3) Walter Payton
    4) OJ Simpson
    5) Marshall Faulk
    6) LaDanian Tomlinson
    7) Eric Dickerson
    8) Emmitt Smith
    9) Fred Taylor
    10) Marcus Allen
    11) Curtis Martin
    12) Thurman Thomas
    13) Adrian Peterson
    14) Tony Dorsett
    15) Gayle Sayers
    16) Terrell Davis
    17) Franco Harris
    18) Priest Holmes
    19) Roger Craig
    20) Bronco Nagurski

    • I suspect those 8 will dominate the top 8 of most lists, although I can’t quite say for sure. Taylor and Allen will turn some heads being in the top ten. Martin seems right to me at around 11, but I suspect he’ll actually be a bit lower.

      Dorsett is one I’ve struggled to rank.

      I am curious to see where TD and Holmes shake out here.

      I suspect you will be one of the few with Bronko, although the list is still really modern-heavy. By my very quick glance, basically every RB entered the NFL in ’65 or later other than Brown and Nagurski. I’m not quite sure what the right ratio is, but there were a lot of good RBs not named Jim Brown in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s that I have a feeling will really fare poorly here. Oh well.

      • Adam Steele

        I would love to include more players from the old days, but simply don’t have enough information to create a reasonable ranking for them. It would be blind guessing, and that seems silly to do in this context.

        I always thought Fred Taylor was underrated. Yes he had durability issues, but he was a key piece during the strong years in JAX, and continued to play well as the franchise faded into irrelevance. If he had the same career in a large market, his legacy is remembered very differently.

        • I agree. Fred Taylor had legitimate potential to be in the discussion for greatest RB of all time.

          • Adam Steele

            Fred Taylor’s career essentially mirrors that of his longtime teammate, Jimmy Smith. Both great players for a long time, but are largely forgotten because they played in Jacksonville and never reached the Super Bowl.

            Who do you think are the best backs from the pre-Jim Brown era?

          • Alejandro

            If this were stretched out to Top 25, I would’ve fit Taylor in. I had him in my top 20, but names kept flowing in.

            Fred Taylor was a borderline HOFer in my opinion though.

        • Richie

          I always liked Taylor. I had him in a fantasy league as a rookie and loved him. Then suffered through his injuries for a couple years. I think he actually went on to be reasonably durable after getting through his first four Seasons.

    • Bryan Frye

      I was really close to putting Nagurski on my list, but I couldn’t get around the lack of available stats for his full career. If I go by honors and word of mouth, he’s obviously an all-timer. I thought about Johnny Blood , Red Grange, Joe Guyon, Ernie Nevers, and Ken Strong too, but the information is just too spotty. I’d rather not just go off of apotheosis from historians.

  • OMG 20! RBs. This is going to be harder than 25 QBs. Hmmm, and I ended up going over.

    This time I decided to include a few of the famous RBs from before my time, because even I had heard of them. Moreover, I think the running game has not changed as much over the years, well if you exclude those years of that weird V-formation, where the “line” just mowed the opponents down. Again, I built my list first from “reputation” players I have heard of or seen and was anxious about playing against (or cheering for). I think [yardage] records are more important for RBs than they are for QBs and wins are less important.

    I think this is a relatively uncontroversial part of my list, as in, not every one will put these as their top 9, but I’d be surprised if any of these were completely omitted from the top 20
    1. Jim Brown — As far as I can tell the most famous running back of all time for those who know about football. The stats and records seem to confirm that, so do the write ups I read about him.
    2. OJ Simpson — Hertz had him in their commercials for a reason. 200 yard games even in a slightly different time is quite the feat. He is one of the first FB players I knew anything about, after Namath.
    3. Walter Payton — Ok, so the trophy named after him extends beyond the playing field.
    4. Barry Sanders — Even when one didn’t respect the Lions, one respected him.
    5. Adrian Peterson — Maybe a bit unproven (and so I’ve overrated him) but he was to the recent Vikings what Sanders was to the Lions (This is the one entry which people might pick on most and might even exclude from their top 20, but this is *my* list.)
    6. Earl Campbell
    7. Eric Dickerson — I never liked his playing style (nor much of anything about the LA Rams)
    8. Emmitt Smith — and I voted for him on Dancing with the Stars too
    9. Marshall Faulk — I never really watched him play, so I actually know him most by reputation.
    ———-
    I like these two recent players particularly well
    10. LaDamian Tomilson — Those Charger teams were talented and should have done better
    11. Priest Holmes — I remember him like Sanders and Peterson
    ———–
    Some more uncontroversial players
    12. Gayle Sayers — perhaps too low, but I didn’t really see him play, mostly know him from the movie “Brian’s Song”
    13. Marcus Allen — maybe too low again, but don’t see who to move him over
    ———–
    14. Jamaal Charles — another modern player perhaps too high
    ———–
    Ok, now we get down to the list where I won’t be surprised if my picks are controversial
    15. Larry Csonka
    16. Otis Armstrong — bested OJ once for rushing yards and one of the main reasons (besides the Orange Crush defense) the Broncos made it to SB XII
    17. Tony Dorsett — I’m sure others will like him better
    18. Terrell Davis — the first of the “fungible” RBs, some of the credit needs to go to the OL and cut-blocking
    ————-
    These are the oldies but goodies, players I heard about before knowing much FB
    19. Jim Thorpe — I put him first, because I think I knew about his first
    20. Bronko Nagurski — I’m not sure which of these two to list first. I don’t really know either, but have heard of them both
    21. Red Grange
    ————-
    These players I think maybe should have made my list but didn’t
    22. Thurman Thomas
    23. Curtis Martin
    24. Clinton Portis
    25. Marshawn Lynch
    26. Herschel Walker
    27. Franco Harris

  • Matt

    1. Payton
    2. Sanders
    3. Brown
    4. Tomlinson
    5. Faulk
    6. E. Smith
    7. Dorsett
    8. Dickerson
    9. Thomas
    10. Martin
    11. Simpson
    12 James
    13. Bettis
    14. Van Buren
    15. Sayers
    16. Campbell
    17. Perry
    18. J .Taylot
    19. Csonka
    20. Riggins

  • Alejandro

    1. Barry Sanders
    2. Walter Payton
    3. Jim Brown
    4. Earl Campbell
    5. OJ Simpson
    6. Eric Dickerson
    7. LaDainian Tomlinson
    8. Marshall Faulk
    9. Emmitt Smith
    10. Adrian Peterson
    11. Curtis Martin
    12. Terrell Davis
    13. Tony Dorsett
    14. Marcus Allen
    15. Thurman Thomas
    16. John Riggins
    17. Jim Taylor
    18. Elroy Hirsch
    19. Larry Csonka
    20. Jerome Bettis

    • Ryan

      Hirsch at #18…he was a receiver.

      • Alejandro

        Dangit, you’re right. Serves me right for racking my NFL history up past midnight.

        I’ll move Csonka and Bettis up a spot and slide Fred Taylor into spot 20.

  • BGA

    1. Emmitt Smith
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Jim Brown
    4. Walter Payton
    5. OJ Simpson
    6. Marshall Faulk
    7. Eric Dickerson
    8. LaDanian Tomlinson
    9. Earl Campbell
    10. Adrian Peterson
    11. Jim Taylor
    12. Steve Van Buren
    13. Thurman Thomas
    14. Gale Sayers
    15. Joe Perry
    16. Curtis Martin
    17. John Riggins
    18. Tony Dorsett
    19. Tiki Barber
    20. Marcus Allen

    Let’s be honest, this could have been just a top 15. If I left off your favorite player, just assume he’s more or less equal to the bottom 5 listed.

  • David

    1. Walter Payton
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Emmit Smith
    4. Marshall Faulk
    5. Jim Taylor
    6. Jim Brown
    7. Eric Dickerson
    8. Adrian Peterson
    9. LaDainian Tomlinson
    10. OJ Simpson
    11. Joe Perry
    12. Tony Dorsett
    13. Hugh McElhenny
    14. Marcus Allen
    15. Thurman Thomas
    16. Terrell Davis
    17. Edgerrin James
    18. Marion Motley
    19. Gale Sayers
    20. Earl Campbell

    For what it’s worth (not that I imagine anyone is particularly interested) – I compiled an initial list based on the career rushing yards, yards per carry & yards per game lists, making sure that anyone in the top 20 was in my list (minus a couple of people that I would never rank that highly such as Riggins).

    I then did a quick bubble sort with the provisos that:
    – Due to age, I cannot rationally rate anyone I didn’t see play – this covers Taylor, Brown, Perry, Dorsett, McElhenny etc. In general, I tend to favour more recent players, but that’s a long & complicated rationale
    – It’s very hard to judge receiving value (I still can’t believe I have Faulk ranked so low, but whatcha gonna do…)
    – I haven’t considered any of the big names from the very early days (Grange, Nagurski etc.) as I have absolutely no idea how to rank them against Barry Sanders – it’s apples and oranges

    I really wanted to include Robert Smith, but he ended up 21st on my list, and I just couldn’t put him ahead of anyone in the top 20. To be fair, he probably wasn’t an all-time great really, but his numbers were better than I remembered. To be fair, his averages are helped by his early retirement.

    Is Payton really the best? There’s just no way to tell. Even in 20 years, the difference in the game between his heyday, and Faulk’s, make them very difficult to compare. In the end, Payton’s gap (when he retired) over the second best career yardage back is telling, in terms of how far ahead of his contemporaries he was.

  • zarathustraNU

    My primary criteria was—over the course of their career, who do I think did the best to help their offense be successful, above and beyond what an “average” league back at the time would have done? So you don’t get bonus points for the occasional breathtaking long run if a lot of your other runs are unsuccessful (the Chris Johnson phenomenon).

    1) Jim Brown
    2) Walter Payton
    3) Emmitt Smith
    4) Barry Sanders
    5) Earl Campbell
    6) Eric Dickerson
    7) OJ Simpson
    8) Marshall Faulk
    9) Tony Dorsett
    10) LaDanian Tomlinson
    11) Adrian Peterson
    12) Curtis Martin
    13) Thurman Thomas
    14) Marcus Allen
    15) Bronko Nagurski
    16) Terrell Davis
    17) John Riggins
    18) Priest Holmes
    19) Red Grange
    20) Corey Dillon

  • Duff Soviet Union

    It’s kind of weird how established the legend of Jim Brown is. It’s at the point that even pointing out easily provable facts like “the Browns still led the league in rushing the year after he retired” and “his backup was frequently just as good as him on a per carry basis” are called “trolling” and “hating”.

    • Brown certainly played behind a great OL — I don’t think there’s much denying that. But when talking about his backups, it’s without noting that they were both HOFers.

      And the legend of Brown may be established, but that’s with good reason. He led the league in rushing yards 8 times in 9 years, and lapped the field in YPC and rushing TDs: http://pfref.com/tiny/D79bL

      • Duff Soviet Union

        “Brown certainly played behind a great OL — I don’t think there’s much denying that. But when talking about his backups, it’s without noting that they were both HOFers.”

        I’m not sure about that one. I mean, yeah, they’re Hall of Famers in the sense that they’ve been voted into the Hall of Fame, but I’m pretty skeptical about a team having 3 HOF running backs in such quick succession, especially when it’s been shown repeatedly, both anecdotally and statistically, how dependent the vast majority of backs are on their line. It’s far more likely to me that the OL was just really, really, phenomenally good and that a lot of backs would have been “all-timers” if they’d run behind them.

        As for leading the league in everything, as Sn0mm1s points out, wasn’t pretty much the entire league doing RBBC back then? Who was he really competing against? Whoever they were, I bet they didn’t have a similar caliber offensive line.

        • sn0mm1s

          Yes, and no, the league was almost exclusive RBBC but his main competition would be Jim Taylor – who did have quite a few HOFers surrounding him. Here is something I posted on this site several months ago:

          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)

          • On the flip side, for Brown to run that much more often and still have that YPC?

            • sn0mm1s

              Compared to league average Sanders is just as impressive while playing in a modern league, without any HOFers on the field with him.

            • sn0mm1s

              Here is a decent breakdown:
              While Brown was playing non-QB rushes (excluding Brown too) averaged 4.04 YPC. He averaged 5.22
              A raw increase of 1.18 YPC and a % increase of 29.2%
              The next top 10 rushers averaged 4.44 YPC
              A raw increase of .78 YPC and a % increase of 17.6%

              Sanders
              League Average 3.94 his average 4.99
              Raw increase of 1.05 YPC, % increase of 26.7%
              The next top 10 rushers averaged 4.14 YPC
              A raw increase of .85 YPC and a % increase of 20.5%

              Brown is a little better vs. league average and Sanders is a little better vs. the top RBs. That is in a vacuum. Once you take into account era and surrounding talent I think the more impressive numbers are Sanders’.

              • Right but as you say Brown was also running a lot more often than his peers, which just a YPC-YPC comparison won’t capture. But I don’t want to argue this too strongly and I do have them at 1 and 2!

                • sn0mm1s

                  Well, when you talk about the top 10 rushers while he played you are still talking about 1000s of carries. Brown was taking more carries back then – but pretty much in line with a modern day featured RB.

                  • I didn’t mean that the sample of other backs is too low; I was basically trying to point out that Brown put up huge volume and huge efficiency at the same time. That’s hard to do (at RB or QB). I wouldn’t dog him too much for carrying the ball so much more than his contemporaries when he was averaging better than 5 yards a pop anyway. It’s not like he strung together a bunch of 1984 James Wilder seasons.

  • Glycoproteins

    Jim Brown
    Walter Payton
    Emmitt Smith
    Barry Sanders
    LaDainian Tomlinson
    Marshall Faulk
    Earl Campbell
    Eric Dickerson
    Thurman Thomas
    Curtis Martin
    Marcus Allen
    Tony Dorsett
    Frank Gore
    Edgerrin James
    O.J. Simpson
    Jerome Bettis
    Priest Holmes
    Steven Jackson
    Lenny Moore
    Gale Sayers

  • Kevin1021

    1. Barry Sanders
    2. Jim Brown
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Emmitt Smith
    5. Ladainian Tomlinson
    6. Adrian Peterson
    7. OJ Simpson
    8. Marshall Faulk
    9. Eric Dickerson
    10. Earl Campbell
    11. Curtis Martin
    12. Tony Dorsett
    13. Marcus Allen
    14. Thurman Thomas
    15. Franco Harris
    16. Terrell Davis
    17. Jerome Bettis
    18. Edgerrin James
    19. Joe Perry
    20. Gale Sayers

  • Jason Sharp

    Marshawn Lynch
    Earl Campbell
    OJ Simpson
    Barry Sanders
    Adrian Peterson
    Eric Dickerson
    Walter Peyton
    Bo Jackson
    Thurman Thomas
    Emmit Smith
    Marcus Allen
    Marshall Faulk
    Tony Dorsett
    Jerome Bettis
    Jim Brown
    Ricky Williams
    LeVeon Bell
    Curtis Martin
    Eddie George
    Corey Dillon

    • Adam Steele

      How did you arrive at the conclusion that Marshawn Lynch is the greatest RB of all time?

    • GorillaNation

      I enjoy seeing Jim Brown lower than everyone else has.
      I don’t think Bettis should be above him, but perhaps yes.

      Here’s why I think Brown is overrated: the level of competition he played against back then was terrible.
      Not being racist or anything, but there were almost all white guys on opposing defenses. Not saying white guys aren’t as good (see JJ Watt, Luke Keuchly as evidence), but 95% of DBs now are black guys.

      Can you imagine what Bo Jackson or Adrian Peterson would have done against those guys back in the 50’s & 60’s?
      Or Barry Sanders.

      My top-10 is:

      1- Sanders
      2- Payton
      3- Campbell
      4- The Juice
      5- Bo Jackson
      6- Peterson
      7- Emmitt
      8- Faulk
      9- Marcus Allen
      t10- Tomlinson
      t10- Terrell Davis
      I think if you put Eddie Lacy in Jim Brown’s shoes back then, Lacy would have put up better numbers.
      Same with Steven Jackson even.
      Fred Taylor would have dominated too.
      The defenses were atrocious back then.
      Barry Sanders would have averaged bigger numbers than he did at OK State against that level of competition. IT was better than NFL defenses were in the 50’s & 60’s.
      Sanders would have scored 4 TD’s a game.

      • Bryan Frye

        There’s no way to know if your theory is right or wrong (at least not yet), but I think there are some things you are overlooking. For Adrian Peterson to play on the same Browns teams that Jim Brown did, he would have had to have been born in the mid 1930s in Palestine, Texas. He would have gone to an all black school that would have probably received much less funding for sports programs; the school may not have been able to afford a football team at all. This means he may not have benefited from learning the game in an organized setting from the time he was young, which he was able to do having been born in 1985.

        When he went to college, there is no guarantee that Oklahoma would have recruited him given their preference for white players. If he was recruited at all, it would have been from a norther school, in all likelihood. He likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play for a major program and, thus, wouldn’t have had access to the best training facilities of his day.

        Even if he had access to the best training, nutrition, and medicine of his era, it wouldn’t come close to what he had access to as a person born in 1985. The Adrian Peterson you see embarrassing defenders on TV would not be the same Adrian Peterson if he were born in 1936. He’d probably still be a great athlete relative to his peers, because he has awesome genes, but he wouldn’t be a 217 pound 4.3 running freak (although Brown was a 232 pound, reportedly 4.5 running freak). All the injuries he’s had since college have been mitigated not only by his own fantastic genes, but also by medical technology that didn’t exist when Jim Brown played football. There’s a chance that if Peterson were born when Jim Brown was born, he wouldn’t have even stayed healthy long enough to make the NFL.

        Now, if you’re saying Adrian Peterson – as is – could take a time machine back to 1958 and dominate the NFL, then I agree wholeheartedly. But that seems like an odd way to look at it, even in a hypothetical fairy tale scenario. If we want all else to be equal, we need to make it equal.

        • Richie

          Great analysis. I think everybody can agree that the average professional athlete is better than the previous generation of athletes. So from that standpoint, there are probably very few players from 20+ years ago that should belong on any of these lists.

          But that’s not fun, nor reasonable. We have to compare athletes to their contemporaries.

          • sn0mm1s

            I would put the cutoff earlier than 20 years ago – more like 40ish. By the late 1970s, there was plenty of money for the players, NFL was popular, there were PEDs, and the NFL was truly integrated.

            • Richie

              According to this: http://www.businessinsider.com/nfl-50s-tim-tebow-would-have-been-an-offensive-lineman-2011-10?op=1

              the average lineman is 6’5″ 310 pounds. About the same in the 2000’s and 1990’s. But in the 1980’s, the average was 6’4″ 272 pounds. So probably somewhere in the 80’s is where the training improved to where athletic guys could bulk up to 300 pounds and keep their athleticism.

              So maybe 30-ish years is closer. But anyway, I think you get my point.

              • sn0mm1s

                I think we are talking about two different things here.
                The quality of the athlete vs. the training of the athlete.

                Training, nutrition, and medicine will always be improving. IIRC, there is a NFL strong man competition in the early 1980’s where LT says he doesn’t really lift weights.

                • Richie

                  OK, I think the quality is based on the training. I don’t think human genes have changed significantly in 40 years.

                  Instead, we have better youth athletic programs, better high school programs, better conditioning techniques, better nutrition, etc.

                  • sn0mm1s

                    The quality of the athlete? I don’t think so. We make comparison all the time as to which is the strongest college football conference. Every athlete/coach/trainer today has the same knowledge at their fingertips. The difference between the top conferences vs. the others isn’t training – it is the quality of athlete that wants to go to said school/conference. The early NFL wasn’t really integrated, didn’t really pay well on average, and wasn’t the most popular sport. There was a game called the Chicago Charities all star game that matched up the top college seniors vs. the NFL Champions. From the 1930s until this game:

                    http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/55399888/1963-college-all-stars-green-bay-packers-vince-lombardi-pat-richter-ron-vander-kelen

                    The college all stars won about 1/3 of the games. In the mid 1970s they ended the series because it was no longer competitive and their was too much money involved to risk injury.

      • sn0mm1s

        You need 20 players to make your list valid.

  • Matt

    1. Barry Sanders
    2. Jim Brown
    3. Eric Dickerson
    4. Earl Campbell
    5. Walter Payton
    6. OJ Simpson
    7. Tony Dorsett
    8. Emmitt Smith
    9. Marshall Faulk
    10. LaDainian Tomlinson
    11. Adrian Peterson
    12. Curtis Martin
    13. John Riggins
    14. Jim Taylor
    15. Thurman Thomas
    16. Marcus Allen
    17. Franco Harris
    18. Jerome Bettis
    19. Shaun Alexander
    20. Corey Dillon

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  • Dave

    After the top five, I started thinking about tiers, so you could easily move a guy up or down. I was more biased to guys I’ve seen play (I can’t recall ever seeing Dorsett). I think Jim Brown is a solid #1. There is one guy I won’t put on this list, even though he is in the HOF and was one of the most dominant RB’s in NFL history.

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Eric Dickerson
    5. LaDainian Tomlinson
    6. Emmitt Smith
    7. Marcus Allen
    8. Curtis Martin
    9. Adrian Peterson
    10. Marshall Faulk
    11. Edgerrin James
    12. Thurman Thomas
    13. Tony Dorsett
    14. Corey Dillon
    15. Marshawn Lynch
    16. Clinton Portis
    17. Tiki Barber
    18. Steven Jackson
    19. Earl Campbell
    20. Hershel Walker

    • Richie

      Since you are factoring in citizenship, you may want to bump Jim Brown (and Corey Dillon) down a few notches as well.

      In 1985 Jim Brown, the professional football star-turned actor, was arrested
      together with a woman companion Wednesday on suspicion of rape and
      sexual battery on a 33-year-old woman at Brown’s Hollywood Hills home.

      In 1965, he was accused of beating and sexually molesting two teen-age
      girls. One later dropped the complaint and the other went to court and
      lost, then filed a paternity suit which she also lost.

      Brown was arrested in June, 1968, and accused of assault with intent
      to murder when his 22-year-old girlfriend was found semi-conscious under
      the balcony of his Hollywood apartment.

      That charge was dropped
      when the woman said she had fallen while trying to leave the apartment
      when the police appeared on the scene. Brown was charged with resisting a
      deputy and was fined $300.

      In 1978, he was jailed for a day and fined $500 for beating up a pro at a
      Los Angeles golf course in an argument over the placement of a golf
      ball.

      http://articles.latimes.com/1985-02-21/news/mn-617_1_jim-brown

      • Dave

        I did not know any of that about Brown. I vaguely recall that he had some legal issues, but I wasn’t aware is was to that extent. Perhaps if I did the list again I’d take Brown, Dillon, and Peterson down a notch. I suppose the first to move up would be Walter Payton, who has the NFL Man of the Year award named after him.

        It’s just that OJ murdered his ex-wife and her boyfriend. MURDERED. That’s why OJ is off my list. Jim Brown may be a sexual predator, who from what I can tell had few charges dropped against him, but he never murdered anyone.

        • Richie

          Also, should be irrelevant to determining how good of a RB somebody was.

          • Dave

            “(U)sing any criteria you believe to be important”, such as, whether or not the RB murdered people. I mean, look, I know we’re not ranking the Twelve Apostles here, but I’m disqualifying OJ Simpson because he murdered his ex-wife and her boyfriend. To me, that is criteria I believe to be important.

            • sn0mm1s

              Well, he technically was found innocent of that 🙂

              I think he is in prison for some sort of well thought out Ocean’s 11 type plan in Vegas.

  • Jeremy Morse

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Bo Jackson
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Barry Sanders
    5. Marshall Faulk
    6. O.J. Simpson
    7. Gayle Sayers
    8. LaDanian Tomlinson
    9. Adrian Peterson
    10. Emmitt Smith
    11. Red Grange
    12. Thurman Thomas
    13. Earl Campbell
    14. Jim Thorpe
    15. Marcus Allen
    16. Eric Dickerson
    17. Terrell Davis
    18. Bronko Nagurski
    19. Tony Dorsett
    20. Fred Taylor

  • Robert Finkel

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Walter Payton
    3. Barry Sanders
    4. Eric Dickerson
    5. Emmitt Smith
    6. OJ Simpson
    7. Ladanian Tomlinson
    8. Earl Campbell
    9. Tony Dorsett
    10. Joe Perry
    11. Steve Van Buren
    12. Franco Harris
    13. Marcus Allen
    14. Marshall Faulk
    15. Gale Sayers
    16. Marion Motley
    17. Adrian Peterson
    18. Thurman Thomas
    19. Jerome Bettis
    20. John Riggins

  • Aaron McCurrie

    Here’s my list:

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Walter Payton
    4. LaDainian Tomlinson
    5. Adrian Peterson
    6. Emmitt Smith
    7. Marshall Faulk
    8. Eric Dickerson
    9. OJ Simpson
    10. Terrell Davis
    11. Curtis Martin
    12. Edgerrin James
    13. Thurman Thomas
    14. Tony Dorsett
    15. Steve Van Buren
    16. Priest Holmes
    17. Jamaal Charles
    18. Clinton Portis
    19. Ricky Watters
    20. Gale Sayers

  • Ryan

    1. Walter Payton
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Jim Brown
    4. Emmitt Smith
    5. LaDanian Tomlinson
    6. Marshall Faulk
    7. O.J. Simpson
    8. Eric Dickerson
    9. Adrian Peterson
    10. Thurman Thomas
    11. Earl Campbell
    12. Steve Van Buren
    13. Curtis Martin
    14. Terrell Davis
    15. Tiki Barber
    16. Marcus Allen
    17. Joe Perry
    18. Priest Holmes
    19. Edgerrin James
    20. Dutch Clark?!…looking for the best running back from the pre WWII era…is Dutch the guy?

  • Steve

    1a. Jim Brown
    1b. Walter Payton
    3. Barry Sanders
    4. Eric Dickerson
    5. O.J. Simpson
    6. Marshall Faulk
    7. Earl Campbell
    8. Emmitt Smith
    9. Steve Van Buren
    10. Ladainian Tomlinson
    11. Thurman Thomas
    12. Gale Sayers
    13. Tony Dorsett
    14. Franco Harris
    15. Adrian Peterson
    16. Marcus Allen
    17. John Riggins
    18. Jerome Bettis
    19. Curtis Martin
    20. Jim Taylor

    Honorable Mentions – Marion Motley, Edgerrin James, Leroy Kelly, John Henry Johnson, Larry Csonka, Bo Jackson

  • My reasoning hasn’t changed too much since I named the 32 greatest NFL running backs five years ago. I might have Adrian Peterson a little too low; rating active players is difficult, and I tend to handle them conservatively.

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Walter Payton
    3. Barry Sanders
    4. Emmitt Smith
    5. LaDainian Tomlinson
    6. Marshall Faulk
    7. O.J. Simpson
    8. Steve Van Buren
    9. Eric Dickerson
    10. Joe Perry
    11. Jim Taylor
    12. Gale Sayers
    13. Earl Campbell
    14. Adrian Peterson
    15. Hugh McElhenny
    16. Marcus Allen
    17. Thurman Thomas
    18. Herschel Walker
    19. Lenny Moore
    20. Tony Dorsett

    I feel good about the top 10, but the next 10 is malleable, with some guys it’s really hard to compare to one another. How you rank them depends heavily on what you value.

    At the risk of seeming like a jerk, I’m going to post my list here and get out. It’s a mental health thing. I have spent a sizeable portion of my adult life studying running backs. Several of you were kind enough to compliment my knowledge of quarterbacks; I know far more about RBs than QBs, and I have more confidence in my rankings at this position, although it’s more that I could give you a really good top-150 list off the top of my head than that I’m certain Hugh McElhenny deserves to rank 15th; I am not certain that these ranks are precise, just that they’re all pretty close.

    When other rankings differ significantly from mine, it’s going to make me unreasonably upset. Knowing this about myself, I wish you all good luck. Cheers.

    • Bryan Frye

      Posnanski’s Chris Johnson pick looks a little crazy with the benefit of hindsight. Solid list and reasoning in your article. It’s great to have this level of scholarship in a comments section.

      • Absolutely. Comments have been great of late.

  • Wilson Zheng

    1) LaDainian Tomlinson
    2) Walter Payton
    3) Jim Brown
    4) Barry Sanders
    5) Marshall Faulk
    6) Emmitt Smith
    7) O.J. Simpson
    8) Eric Dickerson
    9) Adrian Peterson
    10) Thurman Thomas
    11) Curtis Martin
    12) Tony Dorsett
    13) Terrell Davis
    14) Edgerrin James
    15) Earl Campbell
    16) Franco Harris
    17) Fred Taylor
    18) Bo Jackson
    19) Marcus Allen
    20) Jerome Bettis

  • Clint

    Dumb question.. so the deadline was this past midnight, or in 12 hours?

    • sn0mm1s

      12 Hours.

  • Chris

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Walter Payton
    4. Eric Dickerson
    5. Earl Campbell
    6. Emmitt Smith
    7. Marshall Faulk
    8. LaDainian Tomlinson
    9. Marion Motley
    10. Thurman Thomas
    11. Joe Perry
    12. Franco Harris
    13. Adrian Peterson
    14. O.J. Simpson
    15. Terrell Davis
    16. Marcus Allen
    17. Jim Taylor
    18. Steve Van Buren
    19. Tony Dorsett
    20. Lenny Moore

  • Tim Truemper

    My list is based on a review of the available data such as AV, overall productivity, and peak performance within a 5 year period. I do have a bias. As my pro football viewing days began in 1966, I subjectively weigh the older players. That includes those I have not seen directly prior to that first year. I have a had a long abiding interest in Football History so the old guys have an effect on me. So hear goes- and I await the sling and arrows of critique.

    1. Jim Brown- the most dominant of any RB relative to their era.
    2. Walter Payton- the best all around and endured some mediocre offenses.
    3. OJ Simpson- exquisite runner; 2000 yards in 14 game season; too bad about character
    4. Barry Sanders- the most elusive runner of all time who also endured mediocre offenses
    5. Emmitt Smith- great balance, vision, and durability- and great teammate
    6. Gale Sayers- incredible fluidity- the criterion of elusive running
    7. Earl Campbell- sure he didn’t catch the ball; but Isaiah Robertson probably has him listed high
    8. Jim Taylor- the powerhouse of the Lombardi era- did it all
    9. Joe Perry- beautiful runner who gave up carries to two other stellar backs with San Francisco
    10. Eric Dickerson- great combo of speed and power.
    11. Marcus Allen- I just like the way he played.
    12. LaDamian Tomlinson- great vision, and good power, speed, with just enuf elusiveness
    13. Steve Van Buren- a bad ass from his time period. Strong, and fast for his time period
    14. Tony Dorsett- super vision and speed. Stronger and tougher than some remember

    15. Curtis Martin- more than a compiler- just ask Parcells
    16. Edgerrin James- a complete back
    17. Fred Taylor- a great between the tackles runner with good speed as well
    18. Corey Dillon- big, bad, and got his SB near the end of his career
    19. Adrian Peterson- the best runner of the last few years- Dickerson/Tomlinson class
    20. Lenny Moore- reaching back. Watch some old video. Was the best back who played with Johnny U

    Interesting that for so many lists no AFL era back makes it. Like Abner Haynes, Keith Lincoln, Jim Nance. Just sayin.

  • Kibbles

    Don’t really have the energy to do a full set of rankings, but I do want to say that, for me, Marshall Faulk, Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Gale Sayers were the six best RBs in NFL history. Probably in that order, though the differences within the group are tiny compared to the differences outside the group, and I could easily be talked into a different one. I’d be fine with any one of those six names at #1 overall, to be honest. There’s a pretty big drop down to the rest of the pack after that.

    This is ignoring, of course, guys like Jim Thorpe and Ernie Nevers. Largely because I think it’s pretty much impossible to place them in any sort of context with the rest of the backs.

    • Seems like you are pretty down on Emmitt, O.J., Dickerson, and LT to make that comment. Care to share why?

      • Kibbles

        Not down on them at all. I think they were sublime talents. I just think that those six I mentioned were franchise-changers in a way no other RB in NFL history has ever managed to match. They were weapons who, at their peak, were capable of elevating an offense of scrap and spare parts into the upper echelons of the NFL.

        And yeah, I know that Campbell and Sayers and Payton played on some pretty mediocre offenses. But they had dreadful supporting casts and they pretty much just kept the entire unit afloat through herculean effort and sheer force of will.

        Which, I guess, could also be said of O.J. Simpson, too. And re-evaluating my rankings, maybe I should have had him higher, though I think the guys in the 7-11 range were also very close to each other for me, before another big drop down to #12. I would be fine reshuffling any of those names, too.

        I don’t know. If I were the Oakland Raiders, those are just the six RBs that I’d want on my team right now.

    • Kibbles

      Eh, screw it, I already have the top 6 so might as well fill out the rest. As with the QBs, my basic criteria is who I thought “could take his’n and beat your’n, then take your’n and beat his’n”. I also excluded anyone with more receiving yards than rushing yards. Sorry Lenny Moore. And yes, I included Thorpe and Nevers, even though I didn’t have any clue what to do with them. I just felt they needed to be included.

      1. Marshall Faulk
      2. Jim Brown
      3. Earl Campbell
      4. Walter Payton
      5. Barry Sanders
      6. Gale Sayers
      *gap left intentionally*
      7. LaDainian Tomlinson
      8. Emmitt Smith
      9. Adrian Peterson
      10. Jim Thorpe
      11. O.J. Simpson
      12. Eric Dickerson
      13. Steve Van Buren
      14. Terrell Davis
      15. Jim Taylor
      16. Marcus Allen
      17. Priest Holmes
      18. Jamaal Charles
      19. Tiki Barber
      20. Ernie Nevers

      Have at it!

      • sn0mm1s

        Why Faulk at #1? Faulk wasn’t really a franchise changer on the Colts (and he played there 5 years) and while he was a monster on the Rams he likely will have played with at least 2-4 other HOFers on offense. Sort of the same thought about Sayers – for as good as he was I don’t think he ever played in the postseason (though I am too lazy to look that up right now).

        • Kibbles

          Faulk is at #1 because I believe he is the greatest receiving back of all time; further, I’m convinced that if he had dedicated himself to the position, he could have been an All-Pro Wide Receiver. Or, at the very least, a pro bowler. I am biased towards receiving RBs, because passing is more important than rushing and because that versatility gives a team so much scheme flexibility. Plus, he was a monster in Indy, too. He had 1300 rushing and 900 receiving in his last year there. He was pretty terrible in 1996, but in his other four seasons he produced 16, 13, 12, and 18 points of AV, which is fantastic. Basically, AV is saying that his offenses might not have been great, but he was contributing an outsized amount to them compared to his contemporaries and that should be recognized. His seven seasons of 12+ AV are more than Emmitt Smith had, for instance. That’s one hell of a “second act”, (yes, it was actually a first act, but it’s obviously not what he’s best known for.)

          Gale Sayers played on mediocre teams in an era when only 20-25% of the field made it into the playoffs. In 1965, Chicago had the #2 offense, finished 9-5, and missed the playoffs. Then from 1966 to 1969 (the end of Sayers’ productive career), Chicago sent Sayers and Dick Butkus to the pro bowl every single season. The rest of the team accounted for just three pro bowlers in those four years.

          Sayers led the league in rushing yards per game in three of his five seasons (behind one of the worst offensive lines a “great” back had to play behind: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=3301) and was an outrageously good receiver, especially early in his career, (and as I mentioned, I’m a sucker for those receiving backs). And even despite all of that, he still wouldn’t crack my top six if not for the fact that he just might also be the greatest kickoff returner the league has ever seen.

          • sn0mm1s

            Cool – I don’t necessarily agree but it is nice to get an explanation as to the thought process. I think you are the only list with Faulk at #1 which to me meant you liked receiving RBs – but then you had Campbell at #3. I wasn’t sure what the rationale was since Campbell is the furthest thing from a receiving RB.

            • Kibbles

              Three MVPs and three OPoYs in his first three seasons behind bad offensive lines before injuries and overuse robbed him of his effectiveness.

              • Steve

                Is it accurate to say that Campbell’s o-lines were “bad”? True, none of them will end up in Canton, but (to single out two) Leon Gray got his share of honors both with the Oilers and before that with the Pats and Carl Mauck was in the league for 13 seasons.

                • Kibbles

                  According to this measure, of the top 100 RBs in career AV, Campbell’s lines ranked 75th, on average. And that measure probably understates the issue: by quick count, at least 15 or 16 of the guys who had “worse” lines according to that measure were specifically identified as players whose lines would have been underrated by that methodology, (either active players or RBs from the AFL).

                  So a pretty decent case could be made that, based on that methodology at least, Earl Campbell played with one of the 10-20 worst offensive lines of any “great” RB since 1950. Of guys being mentioned as top-10 all-time RBs, only Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, and LaDainian Tomlinson had it worse, (and remember that Tomlinson’s line was underrated by that measure because so many of his teammates were still active and accruing career value).

                  It’s no coincidence that Sayers and Payton both joined Campbell in my “top tier”.

                  • Steve

                    What goes into the calculations for that measure? Is it simply All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods? I’m guessing actual game footage study isn’t a factor.

                    • sn0mm1s

                      As far as linemen go it is pretty much that + how well the offense/defense did as a unit.

                    • Kibbles

                      It’s based on the methodology outlined in this post: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=2475

                      Basically, Chase took the three highest AV figures of an offensive lineman’s career, created a “Peak AV” value, and then adjusted that Peak AV along an age curve (so a 36-year-old LT who made a ton of All Pros in his late 20s would be properly discounted, for instance).

                      AV itself is calculated by measuring an offense’s total value, and then distributing that value among each individual player based on their individual contributions, (which for linemen means a heavy reliance on pro bowls and All Pros).

                      Looking at the players themselves… you had the final season of Greg Sampson, a LT with 53 career starts. You had George Reiner, a guy with 21 career starts who bounced in and out of the starting lineup before washing out. You had C Carl Mauk, who lasted 13 years in the league (11 as a starter), but was a journeyman (four career franchises) who didn’t play on any great offenses. RG Ed Fisher lasted 9 years in the league (7 as a starter), but again, no pro bowls, no great offenses. You had the final three years of Conway Hayman’s 6-year, 48-start career. Morris Towns- 8 years, 65 starts, no pro bowls. Bob Young, who lasted 16 years, had 146 career starts, made two career pro bowls and an All Pro team, (great!), but who played in Houston at age 38 in his final season as a starter (not so great!). John Schumacher- 6 years, 51 career starts, no pro bowls. David Carter- 9 years, 44 starts, no pro bowls. Ralph Williams- 4 years, 25 starts, no pro bowls. Doug France- another former pro bowler, but a guy who was three years removed from his last starting job and who was out of football for a year before landing in Houston for his final NFL season. Mike Munchak, a Hall of Famer, but a guy who didn’t come onto the scene until Campbell was already broken down and essentially done. Bruce Matthews- same story as Munchak.

                      Looking at it, it looks like the only legitimately good offensive lineman Campbell played with was Leon Gray, who missed Campbell’s 1978 MVP campaign but was around for ’79-’81. Gray was a 3-time All Pro and a 4-time pro bowler. Other than that, though, it looks like a couple of guys whose biggest claim to fame is managing to hang around the league for 9 years, a half-dozen guys with ~50 career starts who bounced in and out of the lineup, a few old standbys in their final season, and a pair of future Hall of Famers who arrived on the scene too late to do much for Campbell. Probably not the worst offensive lines any player has ever played behind, but certainly way below-average, especially when compared to most of the other names that are coming up on these lists.

  • Clint

    Explanations coming in my next comment…

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Walter Payton
    3. Ladainian Tomlinson
    4. Emmitt Smith
    5. Eric Dickerson
    6. O.J. Simpson
    7. Marshall Faulk
    8. Barry Sanders
    9. Thurman Thomas
    10. Adrian Peterson
    11. Jim Taylor
    12. Terrell Davis
    13. Tony Dorsett
    14. Franco Harris
    15. Steve Van Buren
    16. Curtis Martin
    17. Jamal Lewis
    18. Chris Johnson
    19. Clinton Portis
    20. Earl Campbell

    Honorable Mention:
    Fred Taylor
    Corey Dillon
    Priest Holmes
    Jamaal Charles
    Gale Sayers
    Joe Perry
    John Riggins

    • Clint

      Factors in my rankings:

      I value yards/tds per game moreso than career yards/tds per game

      Rushing yards

      Consistency/longevity (IMO, the truest and most difficult measure to achieve for good RB play)

      Scrimmage yards

      Playoff performance (Don’t really care if they won a Super Bowl or not, just their performances)

      Yards per game

      Touchdowns per game

      For the pre-sixteen game players, I adjusted their stats to a 16 game season by adding on 2-4 games (depending on how many games there were that season) per season and taking the yards/tds per game over their career and adding it on. Make sense?

      Also, to slightly adjust each player due to the era they played in, I took the leader in rushing attempts every season in every decade and found the average. From the 70s on, generally the league leaders average 350-380, but before then it was 272 in the 60s, 220 in the 50s and 177 in the 40s. Otherwise, a lot of numbers just don’t look very good compared to the 70s and on.

      *When I say total tds, I mean rushing and receiving. Any other td doesn’t have to do with being a running back. It’s easier for me to just say total tds.

      Tidbits about my reasoning for each player:

      1. Jim Brown- You can’t go wrong here. 1st all time in Rushing YPG with 104. Adjusted to 16 game seasons, his stats would come out to 15,080 yards and 154 total tds which would still be 4th and 3rd all time. Minus the adjustment, he’s still 9th and 10th in rushing tds. Averaged 1.07 touchdowns per game. 1400 total yards 8 years in a row. Oh and btw, he only played 9 seasons!

      2. Walter Payton- Still 2nd in rushing yards and 4th in rushing tds all time. Had 3 back to back seasons with 2K total yards and 4 all together. Had 1500 total yards in 10 out of 11 seasons at one point.

      Most people now think of Payton as a back from the 80s, largely due to the Super Bowl team he played on. People don’t seem to remember that he dominated the late 70s, had an injury-plagued ’82 season and then had his 3 2k seasons followed by a 1700 total yard season. He was perhaps even more dominant in the 2nd half of his career, which is so rare for a running back. Especially one who had over 300 carries in 10 out of an 11 year period, not to mention averaging 37 receptions per year. Nobody has ever had 300 carries or more 10 times.

      Why he is not #1? Despite having a four-year period where he averaged 14 tds per season, he did not sustain that throughout his career and ended up averaging 0.65 tds per game. His 88 rushing YPG is great, but this and the tds PG are considerably lower than Jim Brown.

      Fun note: Payton had 1852 yards rushing in 1977, the final year of 14 game seasons. He averaged 132 yards a game. Had he reached that average, he would have had 2116 yards, which would still stand today.

      Bottom line: No running back had the durability, volume and longevity that he did. No one.

      3. Ladainian Tomlinson- 2nd alll-time in rushing tds. 5th in rushing yards. Had 31 total tds (33 with two td passes) in 2006 which is the single most in a season. The kind of record that could stand for decades. The 2nd most was 28. Had over 10 tds each season over a 9 year period, and averaged 17 over that period of time. Unprecedented.

      LT had over 50 receptions in his first 9 seasons (56 per season for his career), along with well over 300 carries in the first 8. Also had 100 receptions in a season and had over 2300 yards total that season.

      I feel like he has been forgotten which is a shame. No running back has dominated this era quite like LT did.

      (then it’s everyone else)

      2nd Tier

      4. Emmitt Smith- Had 11 consecutive seasons with 1000 rushing yards. 95% sure this has never been done before. 1st all-time in rushing yards, attempts and tds. Stepped his game up in the playoffs and averaged over a td per game along with 93 rushing YPG compared to 81 in the regular season. Had over 20 tds two seasons in a row. 2nd in yards from scrimmage.

      Also, an underrated receiver. Four straight years of 50+ receptions.

      Why is he not further up? He was never dominant and may have benefitted from playing on some of the greatest teams in history. After ’95 Emmitt was very solid, but never approached his previous success. Also, he never had more than 1773 yards in a season, which is 29th all-time.

      Still, for my money, easily the best of his generation and better than anyone in the rest of this list.

      5. Eric Dickerson- Still has the most yards ever in a single season with 2105. Over 1400 yards from scrimmage in his first 8 seasons including 4 with over 2000. Averaged over 100 yards per game in 4 out of his first 5 seasons. Jim Brown type of numbers. Unfortunately, due to a very heavy workload (his 404 rushing attempts in ’86 are still the 2nd most all-time. Had 26 receptions that year too) he dropped off considerably after his 8th season. During his first 8 seasons he averaged 0.86 tds PG which is great, but is still below the standard Jim Brown set with 1.07 for 9 seasons.

      May get the award for most underrated and underappreciated back of all time. A close 2nd to LT

      6. O.J. Simpson- The first running back to get 2,000 yards in a season – 14 games. In that ’73 season he averaged over 143 YPG. Nobody has averaged within 10 yards of that for a season. Also averaged 129 YPG in ’75 which is also in the top ten all time.

      Had 2 seasons with over 2000 total yards. Averaged well over 5 yards a carry from ’73-76 including 6.0 in ’73.

      Wasn’t able to sustain much success outside of ’73-76, but was so dominant for his era and historically that I couldn’t put anyone else ahead of him.

      *Coincidentally, all six of these guys have been from different eras, and were arguably (IMO clearly) the best in each one.

      *Also, playoff performance wasn’t a factor with most of the first 6 players. They were either not on great teams, or didn’t really need the boost anyways. It’ll become a bit more prevalent as we get further down the list.

      7. Marshall Faulk- The 2nd player in NFL history to record 1000 yds rushing and receiving in the same season. From ’98-01 he had at least 1300 rushing yards, 80 receptions, 750 receiving yards, 2000 total yards and 10 tds in each season. Including 20 total tds two years in a row. Averaged 5.3+ YPC 3 years consecutively.

      10th all time in rushing yards, 7th in rushing tds & rushing/receiving tds, 6th in all-purpose yards, and 4th in yards from scrimmage.

      8.Barry Sanders- To me, statistically speaking, he is Jim Brown lite. Not even close to being a slight on him. 3rd in career rushing yards despite having played less seasons than everyone in the top 8. 2nd in career rushing YPG. His 5 YPA is 7th all-time, and two of those ahead of him are QBs.

      Had over 1300 total yards all ten seasons, including 1700+ in 8 of them. Typically an injury-riddled season breaks up a streak, but Barry’s 11 games in ’93 are barely noticeable, as he had 1100 rushing yds that season.

      3rd Tier

      9. Thurman Thomas- A less dominant Marshall Faulk, right? Thurman gained 1000 rushing yds eight years in a row. From ’89-92 he averaged over 1300 rush. yds, 50 receptions, 500 rec. yds and 12 tds. 9th in total yards all-time

      Was even better in the playoffs, averaging a TD per postseason game, compared to a TD in less than 60% of his career regular season games.

      10. Adrian Peterson- Scored at least 10 tds and gained at least 1100 total yards in each of his first 7 seasons – including only 12 games in ’11. Averaged over 80 rush yds per game during that time. Had 2097 rushing yards in 2012 which is 2nd all time. Tied for 7th in YPC with 5.0 and his 98 YPG is the 3rd best in history.

      11. Jim Taylor- 71 tds over a 5 yr period – just over 14 per season which had never been done- while playing 12-14 games each season. Was 3rd in career rushing yards from his retirement until 1975. Adjusted to 16 game seasons, his rushing yard total comes to 10,329, which is 2nd among anyone who played before 1970. All of this while playing with HOFer Paul Hornung and doing it with less than 275 carries per season. His 83 rushing touchdowns are 16th all time. Adjusted to 16 game seasons, it’s 99 and that would be 10th. Next to Jim Brown, arguably the best and most dominant back of his era.

      12. Terrell Davis- His 2008 yards in 98 is 5th all-time. Finished with over 97 YPG with is 4th in history. Also had 23 TDs in ’98.

      Had 581 and 468 rush yds in the ’97 and ’98 playoffs which are good enough for 2nd and 3rd all-time. Davis’s 8 tds in the ’97 playoffs are 1st in history. The 2nd most is 6. His 143 YPG is the highest mark by 14 YPG.

      From the start of the ’97 season through the ’98 Super Bowl, Terrell played 38 games, touched the ball 1030 times, for 5418 yards and 50 TDs. Over 5 yds per touch, 143 YPG and well over a TD per game.

      No player has played so well in the regular season and dominated even harder into the playoffs. Especially not 2 years in a row. Btw, they won both Super Bowls too. IMO no other running back has ever been as or more dominant in any two consecutive regular/post-seasons.

      4th Tier

      13. Tony Dorsett- When he retired in 1989, he had the 2nd most rushing yards in history. Now he is at #8. Had 1,000 yds in 8 out of his 1st 9 seasons. The only one he didn’t was a strike shortened one. He played even better in the playoffs, averaging more yards per attempt and 8 yds more per game.

      Also, his 99 yard run is the longest of all time and has never been matched nor will it ever be beaten.

      14. Franco Harris- 3rd in rushing yards when he retired in 1984 and is still 13th all-time. 4th in rushing tds when he retired, and is still 10th. From 1975-79 he averaged more than 10tds per season.

      Also performed better in the playoffs. Averaged a TD in over 80% of his games. The most rushing attempts in postseason history and is a close 2nd in yards (30 less than E. Smith). His 16 post season TDs are 2nd all-time next to Emmitt.

      15. Steve Van Buren- Averaged over 10 tds per season from ’45-49. When he retired in ’51 he had the most rushing tds in history with 69. The 2nd best had 38. He maintained the #1 spot through 1960. When he retired, his 5860 RYs were the most all-time by more than 1700 yards. He stayed in the top 8 through ’73.

      By far the most dominant running back in the 1940s

      16. Curtis Martin- 1 of 2 players to ever rush for 1,000 yds in 10 straight seasons. Had at least 1400 total yards in each of those years.

      Statistically, was perhaps even more effective in the playoffs. 8 tds in 10 games, 0.4 more YPC and almost a reception more than he averaged in regular season games.

      3rd in rushing attempts, 4th in yards, and 12th in rushing tds all-time.

      17. Jamal Lewis- My pick for most unheralded back of all-time. Very underrated. Seemingly forgotten. I bet he’s on very few lists so far, maybe not even any.

      His 2066 yds in 2003 is still 3rd all-time. At one point, he held the record for most rushing yards in a single game. In fact, he gashed the Browns for 500 yards in 2 games that season. Averaged 129 YPC that year which is the 7th most ever. Recorded 1000 yds in 8 of his first 9 season. His 81 YPG is 17th in NFL history.

      Why is he talked about so little as a great running back? He’s 23rd in rushing yards, which is respectable, but one or two more 1,000 yd seasons would’ve brought him up to 9th, ahead of Jim Brown. Suddenly he’d go from forgotten, to being a HOFer. That’s the difference.

      His career totals don’t jump out at you, but at his best, there were very few who were better.

      18. Chris Johnson- Had 1000 rushing yards and at least 1400 total yards in each of his first 6 seasons. He gained 2006 yards in ’09 with is 6th all-time. Recorded 2509 total yards in 2009 which is the most in NFL history.

      Couldn’t sustain his success, but at his best he was one of the best speed backs of all-time and was almost unstoppable.

      19. Clinton Portis- Remember this guy? Recorded 5.5 YPC, 1500 rushing yards, over 14 TDs, and 1800 yds in each of his first 2 seasons. Averaged 0.8 TDs per game through his first 7 seasons and had 1K yds rushing as well as 1500+ total yards in 6 of those years.

      His 87.8 yards per game is 7th all-time.

      20. Earl Campbell- Had over 10 TDs and averaged over 1500 total yards through his first 4 seasons. In 1980 he had 1934 yards and 128.9 YPG which are both still 8th all-time. Had 81.8 YPG which is 15th in NFL history.

      Honorable mentions/ #21’s

      Fred Taylor- The one I most hated taking out of my list. Possibly more injury-ridden than anyone on this list. He still managed to run for 11695 yards which is 15th all-time. His 4.6 YPC is pretty stout considering a bit of a downturn in his later years.

      Priest Holmes- Could easily argue him into the list. Will probably regret not putting him in. A few more good seasons away from being one of the greats of all-time. In 2003, had the 3rd most Rush/Rec tds ever with 27. Perhaps being undrafted and losing playing time to Jamal Lewis were what kept him from having the longevity to force his way into the list.

      Joe Perry- Statistically, 2nd to Steve Van Buren for his era

      Corey Dillon- Was on terrible teams during his prime and didn’t quite have the stats to back it up, but I remember him being one of the very best. Persistent, durable, tough and faster than you would think.

      At one point he held the record for most rushing yards in a single game.

      Finished his career with 3 straight seasons of 12 tds or more. Had 5 double-digit TD seasons for his career. 18th in rushing yards and 17th in rush TDs all-time

      Jamaal Charles- I bet he’d be on this list 3-5 years from now. his career 5.5 YPC is 4th all-time and by far the highest for a running back in the past 30 years.

      Gale Sayers- Still has the record for most TDs in a game with 6. Didn’t have the volume or longevity to make it in the list. Nor did he have the surgeries we have now that would’ve extended his career.

      John Riggins- 4th most rushing TDs in playoff history. 5th most rushing yds all-time when he retired.

      Unhonorable mention-

      Jerome Bettis- Personal vendetta. I can’t stand that he’s in the HOF. A Ben Roethlisberger shoestring tackle away from being a scapegoat in the ’05 playoffs. Fumbled at the goal line.

      Had double-digit TDs in 2 of 13 seasons. Averaged less than 4 YPC in 9 out of 13 seasons.

      He has the yards, but a Hall of Famer? I don’t get it.

      Side note: I spent at least 6 hours on this today. I never work this hard on anything. I actually lost track of time. The thing is, I still don’t think it’s as thorough and well-written as it could be.

      • Adam Steele

        Great explanations, Clint. Thanks for taking the time to do that.

  • Tim Truemper

    I’d have to say that after submitting my list, and then going thru the others (only glanced at a few to avoid any bias from the other participants) that I am impressed so many listed Jim Taylor and Steve Van Buren. Also saw earlier that someone put Dutch Clark at # 20. Pretty cool. Saw Red Grange too. Wonder how many raters know what Taylor and Van Buren both had in common?

    • Steve

      While there’s no question that Grange is an important figure in NFL history, I don’t think he belongs anywhere near a top 20 NFL RBs of all-time list.

    • Ryan

      Thanks Tim, I tentatively put Clark at #20, I wanted at least 1 pre WWII guy. Also, I wish I had a slot/could decide on another pre 1970s guy, Jim Taylor, Leroy Kelly, Gale Sayers, Lenny Moore, Ollie Matson, Marion Motley, etc…any suggestions/back story from you or others that can help inform us?

  • Tim Truemper

    Thanks Ryan for the response. I neglected Ollie Matson. Very good player. Another great from long ago was John Henry Jonson. He was part of the million dollar backfield with Joe Perry, Hugh Mcelhenny, and YA Tittle. And Steve, you are so right- ol’ Red is not in the top 20. Maybe the top 50? BTW Both Jim Taylor and Steve Van Buren went to LSU. They have streets named after them in Baton Rouge in the area called “Tiger Town.”

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