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Bob Ford, a longtime fan of Pro-Football-Reference and Football Perspective, has contributed a 2-part guest post on Yards Per Carry Leaders. Bob is the owner and founder of GOATbacks.com, which looks at the greatest running backs of all time. Thanks to Bob for yesterday’s and today’s articles!


Yesterday, I looked at the YPC leaders for the 46 seasons since the merger was completed, 1970-2015 at the 100/120/180-carry cutoffs. Today, a look at the YPC leaders since 1970 at three higher thresholds.

The table below sorts for a minimum of 180 carries.

YearPlayerYPCCarriesRush Yds.Scrmg. Yds.Games
1970M. Lane4.72069771,34214
1970L. Brown4.72371,1251,46613
1971L. Csonka5.41951,0511,16414
1972F. Harris5.61881,0551,23514
1973O. Simpson63322,0032,07314
1974O. Armstrong5.32631,4071,81214
1975O. Simpson5.53291,8172,24314
1976O. Simpson5.22901,5031,76214
1977W. Payton5.53391,8522,12114
1978T. Reed5.12061,0531,53616
1979W. Tyler5.12181,1091,41716
1980E. Campbell5.23731,9341,98115
1981W. Montgomery4.92861,4021,92315
1981B. Sims4.92961,4371,88814
1982NA
1983T. Collins4.82191,0491,30616
1984E. Dickerson5.63792,1052,24416
1985S. Mitchell5.51831,0061,50816
1986J. Brooks5.32051,0871,77316
1987E. Dickerson4.62831,2881,45912
1988I. Woods5.32031,0661,26516
1989J. Brooks5.62211,2391,54516
1990J. Brooks5.11951,0041,27316
1990B. Sanders5.12551,3041,78416
1991T. Thomas4.92881,4072,03815
1992R. Watters4.92061,0131,41814
1993E. Smith5.32831,4861,90014
1994B. Sanders5.73311,8832,16616
1995B. Sanders4.83141,5001,89816
1996B. Sanders5.13071,5531,70016
1997B. Sanders6.13352,0532,35816
1998G. Hearst5.13101,5702,10516
1998T. Davis5.13922,0082,22516
1999M. Faulk5.52531,3812,42916
2000M. Faulk5.42531,3592,18914
2001M. Faulk5.32601,3822,14714
2002C. Portis5.52731,5081,87216
2003C. Portis5.52901,5911,90513
2004C. Brown4.92201,0671,21411
2005T. Barber5.23571,8602,39016
2005L. Johnson5.23361,7502,09316
2006F. Gore5.43121,6952,18016
2007A. Peterson5.62381,3411,60914
2008D. Ward5.61821,0251,40916
2009J. Charles5.91901,1201,41715
2010J. Charles6.42301,4671,93516
2011R. Bush52161,0861,38215
2012C. Spiller62071,2441,70316
2012A. Peterson63482,0972,31416
2013D. Murray5.22171,1211,47114
2014J. Forsett5.42351,2661,52916
2015D. Martin4.92881,4021,67316

Thoughts at 180 Carries

The first whole-season casualty appears at the 180-carry minimum, with strike-shortened 1982 eliminated from consideration. Three players that year, John Riggins, Andra Franklin, and Tony Dorsett all had 177 carries, but none hit the 180-carry threshold.

At 180 carries the 1981, 3-way tie at 4.9 YPC between Kenny King, Billy Sims and Wilbert Montgomery becomes a 2-way tie between Sims and Montgomery as King’s 170 carries are eliminated. The 1981 YPC lead shared by Montgomery and Sims will survive all the way through our last sort at 280 carries. Duane Thomas’ 1970 season of 151 carries at 5.3 YPC is bumped by a 2-way tie between MacArthur Lane and Larry Brown at 4.7 YPC.

Tatum Bell’s 2005 season of 5.3 YPC on 173 carries is also replaced by a 2-way tie. Tiki Barber and Larry Johnson emerge as the ’05 leaders at 5.2 YPC, with both RBs putting up huge rushing and scrimmage numbers that year. Barber’s 357 carries represent a 106.4% increase in workload over Bell’s, and Johnson’s 336 carries a 94.2% increase, but Johnson and Barber were only 1.9% less efficient than Bell. In ’05 Johnson and Barber posted a combined 3,610 rushing yards and 4,483 yards from scrimmage. The 1998 tie between Garrison Hearst and Terrell Davis accounts for nearly as much production, combining for 3,578 rushing yards and 4,330 yards from scrimmage.

The table below sorts for a minimum of 220 carries.

YearPlayerYPCCarriesRush Yds.Scrmg. Yds.Games
1970L. Brown4.72371,1251,46613
1971S. Owens4.22461,0351,38514
1972D. Hampton4.32309951,23913
1972L. Brown4.32851,2161,68912
1973O. Simpson63322,0032,07314
1974O. Armstrong5.32631,4071,81214
1975O. Simpson5.53291,8172,24314
1976O. Simpson5.22901,5031,76214
1977W. Payton5.53391,8522,12114
1978E. Campbell4.83021,4501,49815
1979C. Muncie52381,1981,50616
1980E. Campbell5.23731,9341,98115
1981W. Montgomery4.92861,4021,92315
1981B. Sims4.92961,4371,88814
1982NA
1983W. Andrews4.73311,5672,17616
1984E. Dickerson5.63792,1052,24416
1985K. Mack52221,1041,40116
1986R. Mayes4.72861,3531,44916
1987E. Dickerson4.62831,2881,45912
1988G. Anderson52251,1191,30114
1989J. Brooks5.62211,2391,54516
1990B. Sanders5.12551,3041,78416
1991T. Thomas4.92881,4072,03815
1992T. Thomas4.83121,4872,11316
1993E. Smith5.32831,4861,90014
1994B. Sanders5.73311,8832,16616
1995B. Sanders4.83141,5001,89816
1996B. Sanders5.13071,5531,70016
1997B. Sanders6.13352,0532,35816
1998G. Hearst5.13101,5702,10516
1998T. Davis5.13922,0082,22516
1999M. Faulk5.52531,3812,42916
2000M. Faulk5.42531,3592,18914
2001M. Faulk5.32601,3822,14714
2002C. Portis5.52731,5081,87216
2003C. Portis5.52901,5911,90513
2004C. Brown4.92201,0671,21411
2005T. Barber5.23571,8602,39016
2005L. Johnson5.23361,7502,09316
2006F. Gore5.43121,6952,18016
2007A. Peterson5.62381,3411,60914
2008D. Williams5.52731,5151,63616
2009C. Johnson5.63582,0062,50916
2010J. Charles6.42301,4671,93516
2011R. Mathews4.92221,0911,34614
2012A. Peterson63482,0972,31416
2013L. McCoy5.13141,6072,14616
2014J. Forsett5.42351,2661,52916
2015D. Martin4.92881,4021,67316

Thoughts at 220 Carries

At 220 carries the tie between C.J. Spiller and Adrian Peterson in 2012 is broken as Spiller’s 207 carries fall away, leaving Peterson in sole possession of 2012 at 6.0 YPC for an incredible 348 carries, one of 3 RBs in NFL history (Simpson, Sanders) to sustain 6.0 YPC for more than 300 carries. The tie between MacArthur Lane and Larry Brown in 1970 is also broken as Lane falls away and Brown emerges alone with 237 carries at 4.7 YPC.

At 220 carries Franco Harris’ ’72 season (his rookie year) falls away and a three-way tie emerges between Dan Hampton, Larry Brown and O.J. Simpson at 4.3 YPC. That’s a 23.2% drop in efficiency from Harris’ 5.6 YPC, a pretty hefty “single-sort” decline. But Simpson’s 292 carries represent a 55.3% increase in workload over Harris’ 188 that year. In 1972 Simpson, by actual carries and not percentages, carried the ball 104 more times in 14 games than Harris did, or 7.43 more carries per game, and in “real-game” terms basically 21 carries per game (Simpson) to 13 carries per game (Harris). That’s a huge difference in workload, and Harris never again sustained the efficiency he did in ’72. Simpson not only matched his 1972 rushing efficiency but vastly increased it in 3 ensuing, historically dominant seasons.

At 220 carries Jamaal Charles’ 5.9 YPC, 2009 season finally gives way to Chris Johnson’s 2,006 rushing yards at 5.6 YPC on 358 carries, an 88.4% workload increase over Charles’ 190 carries. Johnson’s 408 total touches that season are 77.4% more than Charles’ 230, yet Charles’ rushing efficiency in ’09 is only 5.4% better than Johnson’s. And at 220 carries the 1990 tie between James Brooks and Barry Sanders at 5.1 YPC is broken and Sanders, with 255 carries at 5.1 YPC emerges in sole possession of the YPC lead.

The table below sorts for a minimum of 280 carries.

YearPlayerYPCCarriesRush Yds.Scrmg. Yds.Games
1970NA
1971F. Little42841,1331,38814
1972O. Simpson4.32921,2511,44914
1972L. Brown4.32851,2161,68912
1973O. Simpson63322,0032,07314
1974NA
1975O. Simpson5.53291,8172,24314
1976O. Simpson5.22901,5031,76214
1977W. Payton5.53391,8522,12114
1978E. Campbell4.83021,4501,49815
1979O. Anderson4.93311,6051,91316
1980E. Campbell5.23731,9341,98115
1981W. Montgomery4.92861,4021,92315
1981B. Sims4.92961,4371,88814
1982NA
1983W. Andrews4.73311,5672,17616
1984E. Dickerson5.63792,1052,24416
1985W. Payton4.83241,5512,03416
1986R. Mayes4.72861,3531,44916
1987E. Dickerson4.62831,2881,45912
1988R. Craig4.93101,5022,03616
1989B. Sanders5.32801,4701,75215
1990B. Humphrey4.22881,2021,35415
1991T. Thomas4.92881,4072,03815
1992T. Thomas4.83121,4872,11316
1993E. Smith5.32831,4861,90014
1994B. Sanders5.73311,8832,16616
1995B. Sanders4.83141,5001,89816
1996B. Sanders5.13071,5531,70016
1997B. Sanders6.13352,0532,35816
1998G. Hearst5.13101,5702,10516
1998T. Davis5.13922,0082,22516
1999S. Davis4.82901,4051,51614
2000R. Smith5.22951,5211,86916
2001P. Holmes4.83271,5552,16916
2002P. Holmes5.23131,6152,28714
2003C. Portis5.52901,5911,90513
2004S. Alexander4.83531,6961,86616
2005T. Barber5.23571,8602,39016
2005L. Johnson5.23361,7502,09316
2006F. Gore5.43121,6952,18016
2007L. Tomlinson4.73151,4741,94916
2008A. Peterson4.93631,7601,88516
2009C. Johnson5.63582,0062,50916
2010A. Foster4.93271,6162,22016
2011R. Rice4.72911,3642,06816
2012A. Peterson63482,0972,31416
2013L. McCoy5.13141,6072,14616
2014D. Murray4.73921,8452,26116
2015D. Martin4.92881,4021,67316

Thoughts at 280 Carries

At 280 carries two more entire seasons, 1970 and 1974, go missing in action along with 1982. In 1970 the Giants’ Ron Johnson rushed 263 times, and in ’74 O.J. Simpson carried 270 times for 1,125 yards at 4.2 YPC. Obviously neither met the 280-carry threshold.

At 280 carries more rushing and scrimmage heavyweights emerge, notably Priest Holmes bumping both Marshall Faulk in 2001 and Clinton Portis in 2002. In fact at the 280-carry sort Marshall Faulk’s iron grip on 3 of his legendary seasons, 1999, 2000, and 2001 is finally broken. Stephen Davis supplants him in ’99 with 4.8 YPC on 290 carries and Robert Smith claims Faulk’s 2000 spot with 295 carries at 5.2 YPC. Stephen Davis isn’t discussed much anymore as a top shelf running back, but he did break 1,400 yards rushing 3 times in his career, twice in 14 games.

Priest Holmes’ ’01 and ’02 seasons were massive, as he rushed for 3,170 yards in 30 games, 105.7 yards per game, and posted 4,456 yards from scrimmage that was split more or less evenly between both seasons, with no big skewing outliers. Holmes posted his 3,170 rushing yards on 640 carries, a 30-game average of 4.95 YPC.

Clinton Portis’ first two seasons, 2002 and 2003, were excellent by any standard, with Portis sustaining 5.5 YPC for 563 carries over 29 games. His ’03 season is actually remarkable, and I think often under-appreciated. He rushed for 1,591 yards on 290 carries in just 13 games, an average of 122.4 yards per game, which works out to 1,958 rushing yards if Portis sustains it for 16 games.

At 280 carries Barry Sanders grabs his 5th YPC-leading season, his rookie year in 1989, at 5.3 YPC on exactly 280 carries as James Brooks’ 221 carries at 5.6 YPC fall away. Oddly enough, Sanders actually loses his 1990 slot as he only carried 255 times, replaced by Bobby Humphrey’s 288 carries at a comparatively pedestrian 4.2 YPC. Other relatively high-efficiency/high-output seasons to emerge at the 280-carry threshold include William Andrews in 1983, Frank Gore in ’06, LaDainian Tomlinson in ’07 and Arian Foster in 2010.

And at 280 carries Justin Forsett’s grip on 2014 with 235 carries at 5.4 YPC finally gives way to DeMarco Murray’s superb 1,845 rushing yards on 392 carries at 4.7 YPC.

I thought this was an interesting exercise, and I tried to mention what I thought were a handful of the more interesting changes/dynamics as we progressed through the carries, without getting too long-winded about it. I’m sure you’ll all find a slew of compelling dynamics I missed, or at least neglected to mention, and I’d be interested to know all of ’em.

As always, a big thanks to Chase for the airtime and support, and to Pro Football Reference for the most comprehensive, well-designed pro football database on the Internet. Take care.

  • Clint

    Seems like the majority of the time, these guys at 280+ don’t get back to that type of production again. Maybe I’m stumbling upon some curse of 370 type of thoughts..

    • Brendan Scolari

      Or it could just be that those are outlier seasons that are difficult to repeat no matter your skill level. See the 50 home run club in baseball.

      Doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with heavy usage leading to longer term injury.

      • sacramento gold miners

        I don’t know if heavy usage necessarily leads to longer term injury, although injuries are inevitable. Rather, it’s the wearing down of the body, backs lose both speed and quickness over time.That’s why greatness is associated with sustainability. A back who had three tremendous seasons is usually not as valuable as a back who stood out for several years.

        • Brendan Scolari

          That’s a hypothesis. It’s not necessarily true though.

          Backs lose speed and quickness due to age as well as injury. You’d need to prove the heavy load seasons are actually causing decreased performance. I’m not aware of any current research that shows that.

          • sacramento gold miners

            Age catches up to us all, but the punishment is an accelerator. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the sidelines on an NFL game, but each collision is worse than what you see on TV. Honestly, it’s like a car accident, and the best HDTV set can’t replicate the speed, sound, and impact of these hits in live action.

            There’s no research needed here, former players have talked about this for years. Delvin Williams, the former Dolphins and 49ers back was interviewed on a documentary and said after playing a few years, you’re lucky if several parts of the body don’t ache after each carry. Players are good about hiding pain, but the wear and tear is real, aside from the catastrophic injuries.

            Eddie George, the outstanding Titans back, had the wear and tear catch up with him, it’s just a fact of football, and those high usage seasons take a toll.

            • Brendan Scolari

              I don’t don’t that wear and tear could harm long term performance, I’d just like to see some data on it. The Curse of 370 thing was not conclusive.

              • sacramento gold miners

                Wish there was some data, but it falls in the category of things which can’t be measured. Toughness, leadership, teamwork, drive, would be some of the others. On the running backs theme, John Riggins is a good example of a back who didn’t have early, heavy, usage, and the Redskins reaped the dividends later on.

      • sn0mm1s

        Yes, really only Simpson and Sanders were consistently duplicating their success over a large number of carries. Jim Brown would have similar results.

  • Tom

    Bob – this was enjoyable read, thanks for posting. Not much to say, except that in the “Minimum 280 carries” category, I’m impressed by how much some of these guys “carried” their team (or at least, were apparently expected to carry the team)…Chris Johnson made up for almost half his team’s yardage in 2009…that seems ridiculous to me.

    • Thanks Tom,
      The production beasts really start to emerge at 280. Interestingly, Jamal Lewis’ ’03 season, 2,066 yards rushing at 5.3 YPC, ends up being the only 2,000-yard rushing season not represented at 280 carries. Clinton Portis at 5.5 YPC keeps him out, yet Lewis actually rushed more efficiently than Terrell Davis did (5.1 YPC) during his 2,000 yard season. Jamal just can’t seem to get any love for that season.

  • Great stuff, Bob.

    With an 180-carry minimum, Sanders would have won 5 YPC crowns, instead of the 1 he actually did. He lost in ’89 to Cunningham (104 carries), in ’95 to Garner (108), ’96 to Kaufman (150), and in ’97 to McNair (101).

    A 180-carry minimum is a lot fairer, and Sanders obviously does really well then.

    • Very true, Chase. Barry’s lost YPC crowns were to guys who weren’t shouldering anything resembling the kinds of workloads he sustained. The 4 “lost crowns” you mentioned above were to guys who carried an average of 115.8 times in the seasons when Barry lost to them, and only 2 of them are QBs. Yet another argument against the value of YPC??

    • Nicholas Webster

      I always thought the YPC qualification threshold was 100 carries, but it’s odd that it was never adjusted for scheduled games. If it’s 100 in a 16 game season should be 75 for 12, bringing in a ton of guys from the 50’s, alternately have it be >100 today and Barry gets many of his “titles” back.

      • sn0mm1s

        I always thought QBs being able to win it was odd since sack yardage doesn’t get counted but scramble yardage does. It gives an inherent advantage to the QB.

  • TN

    I’m pretty sure that ought to be Dave Hampton leading the league in 1972, not Dan Hampton.

    • TN,
      Yep, definitely Dave Hampton. Good catch. Thanks!