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Peyton Manning’s time in Indianapolis was peppered with record-breaking moments that have been very well-publicized. But a relatively unknown record occurred during the nascent days of the Manning Era. In 1999, Edgerrin James rushed for 1,553 yards, an impressive accomplishment in any era. But here’s what’s really crazy: Manning was second in the team in rushing yards with 73! Keith Elias was the only other running back to record a carry, and he finished with 28 yards (Marvin Harrison and Terrence Wilkins added six total rushing yards). This means James recorded 93.6% of all Indianapolis rushing yards that season, still an NFL record, and one that is in no danger of being broken in the near future.

Second on the list of “largest percentage of the rushing pie” is … Edgerrin James for the Colts the following season. In 2000, he was responsible for 91.9% of all Indianpolis rushing yards. Only three other players have ever gained 90% of all team rushing yards: Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and … Travis Henry. The table below shows the top 100 seasons as far as percentage of team rushing yards:

RkRunnerYrTm9/1 AgeRshYdTmRYdPerc
1Edgerrin James1999IND21.11553166093.6%
2Edgerrin James2000IND22.11709185991.9%
3Emmitt Smith1991DAL22.31563171191.4%
4Barry Sanders1994DET26.11883208090.5%
5Travis Henry2002BUF23.81438159690.1%
6Marshall Faulk1998IND25.51319148688.8%
7Edgerrin James2005IND27.11506170388.4%
8Jamal Anderson1998ATL25.91846210187.9%
9James Wilder1984TAM26.31544177686.9%
10Edgerrin James2006ARI28.11159133886.6%
11Ricky Watters1999SEA30.41210140885.9%
12Barry Sanders1996DET28.11553181085.8%
13Barry Sanders1995DET27.11500175385.6%
14Edgerrin James2007ARI29.11222144084.9%
15Steven Jackson2006STL23.11528180584.7%
16Jamal Anderson2000ATL27.91024121484.3%
17Tiki Barber2005NYG30.41860220984.2%
18Edgerrin James2004IND26.11548185283.6%
19Larry Johnson2006KAN26.81789214383.5%
20Barry Sanders1997DET29.12053246483.3%
21Barry Sanders1992DET24.11352164482.2%
22Deuce McAllister2003NOR24.71641200082.1%
23Reuben Droughns2005CLE271232150382%
24Ahman Green2001GNB24.51387169381.9%
25Curtis Martin2000NYJ27.31204147181.8%
26Maurice Jones-Drew2011JAX26.41606197081.5%
27Travis Henry2003BUF24.81356166481.5%
28Napoleon Kaufman1997OAK24.21294158881.5%
29Terrell Davis1998DEN25.82008246881.4%
30Shaun Alexander2004SEA271696209581%
31Emmitt Smith1992DAL23.31713212180.8%
32Emmitt Smith1995DAL26.31773220180.6%
33Rudi Johnson2006CIN26.91309162980.4%
34Eric Dickerson1983RAM231808225380.2%
35Barry Sanders1991DET23.11548193080.2%
36Curtis Martin2003NYJ30.31308163580%
37Dick Riffle1940PHI25.623829879.9%
38Tiki Barber2004NYG29.41518190479.7%
39Curtis Martin1995NWE22.31487186679.7%
40Adrian Peterson2012MIN27.42097263479.6%
41Steven Jackson2009STL26.11416178479.4%
42Earl Campbell1981HOU26.41376173479.4%
43Curtis Martin1997NWE24.31160146479.2%
44Doug Martin2012TAM23.61454183779.2%
45Arian Foster2010HOU241616204279.1%
46James Wilder1985TAM27.31300164479.1%
47Rudi Johnson2004CIN24.91454183979.1%
48Chris Johnson2010TEN24.91364172779%
49Adrian Murrell1996NYJ25.91249158378.9%
50LaDainian Tomlinson2002SDG23.21683213778.8%
51Deuce McAllister2002NOR23.71388176478.7%
52Steven Jackson2010STL27.11241157878.6%
53Garrison Hearst1995ARI24.71070136378.5%
54Curtis Martin1996NWE23.31152146878.5%
55Barry Foster1992PIT23.71690215678.4%
56Frank Gore2006SFO23.31695217278%
57Tiki Barber2003NYG28.41216155978%
58Marcus Allen1985RAI25.41759226277.8%
59Craig Heyward1995ATL28.91083139377.7%
60Willis McGahee2005BUF23.91247160777.6%
61Priest Holmes2001KAN27.91555200877.4%
62Chris Johnson2009TEN23.92006259277.4%
63Jamal Lewis2003BAL242066267477.3%
64Tiki Barber2006NYG31.41662215677.1%
65Bob Davis1944BOS30.336347177.1%
66Corey Dillon2001CIN26.91315171276.8%
67LaDainian Tomlinson2003SDG24.21645214676.7%
68Corey Dillon2004NWE29.91635213476.6%
69Shaun Alexander2005SEA281880245776.5%
70Rudi Johnson2005CIN25.91458191076.3%
71Barry Sanders1998DET30.11491195576.3%
72Ricky Watters1998SEA29.41239162676.2%
73Errict Rhett1995TAM24.71207158776.1%
74Emmitt Smith1994DAL25.31484195376%
75Herschel Walker1988DAL26.51514199575.9%
76Fred Taylor2003JAX27.61572207375.8%
77Jim Nance1967BOS24.71216160475.8%
78Corey Dillon2002CIN27.91311173075.8%
79Ricky Williams2003MIA26.31372181775.5%
80Adrian Peterson2008MIN23.41760233275.5%
81Stephen Davis2000WAS26.51318174875.4%
82Lorenzo White1992HOU26.41226162675.4%
83Robert Edwards1998NWE23.91115148075.3%
84Dorsey Levens1997GNB27.31435190975.2%
85Tony Dorsett1985DAL31.41307174175.1%
86Willie Parker2006PIT25.81494199275%
87Ricky Watters1996PHI27.41411188275%
88LaMont Jordan2005OAK26.81025136974.9%
89Edgar Bennett1995GNB26.51067142874.7%
90Curtis Martin1999NYJ26.31464196174.7%
91Frank Gore2007SFO24.31102147774.6%
92DeMarco Murray2013DAL25.61121150474.5%
93Erric Pegram1993ATL24.61185159074.5%
94Gerald Riggs1984ATL23.81486199474.5%
95Clinton Portis2004WAS231315176574.5%
96Edgerrin James2003IND25.11259169574.3%
97Jim Nance1966BOS23.71458196374.3%
98Chris Warren1994SEA26.61545208474.1%
99Eric Dickerson1986RAM261821245774.1%
100Ricky Williams2002MIA25.31853250274.1%

Obviously the odd duck on that list is Henry. In 2002, the Bills ranked 11th in points and yards, and sent Henry, Drew Bledsoe, and Eric Moulds to the Pro Bowl. Peerless Price had his breakout year with a 94-1252-9 stat line, and Josh Reed had a solid rookie year with 509 yards. Bledsoe was second on the team in rushing yards, and Shawn Bryson and Larry Centers combined for 91 yards as the other backs. Kevin Gilbride was the offensive coordinator, and he obviously didn’t see much of a need in spelling Henry.

Here’s another surprise: DeMarco Murray is the only player from 2013 to crack the top 100. The Cowboys were the second most pass-happy team in the NFL last year, a fact we covered pretty frequently during the season. And while Murray missed two full games with injuries, Joseph Randle was second on the team with just 164 rushing yards.

I thought it would be fun to create a career “grade” for each running back. For all running backs with at least five seasons with 100+ rushing yards, I calculated their average “percentage of team rushing yards” in their five best seasons in that metric. Unsurprisingly, James tops the list, courtesy of his ’99, ’00, ’05, ’06, and ’07 seasons. The table below shows the top 100 players using this formula:

RkRunning back5Yr AvgYears
1Edgerrin James89.1%1999-2000-2005-2006-2007
2Barry Sanders85.5%1992-1994-1995-1996-1997
3Emmitt Smith80.4%1991-1992-1994-1995-1996
4Curtis Martin79.8%1995-1996-1997-2000-2003
5Tiki Barber78.6%2002-2003-2004-2005-2006
6Steven Jackson75.9%2005-2006-2009-2010-2011
7Eric Dickerson74.5%1983-1984-1986-1988-1989
8LaDainian Tomlinson74.2%2001-2002-2003-2005-2007
9Ricky Watters73.9%1995-1996-1998-1999-2000
10Marshall Faulk73.1%1998-1999-2000-2001-2002
11Shaun Alexander72.9%2001-2002-2003-2004-2005
12Corey Dillon72%1998-2000-2001-2002-2004
13Chris Johnson71.9%2009-2010-2011-2012-2013
14Ahman Green71%2000-2001-2002-2003-2006
15Adrian Peterson71%2008-2009-2010-2012-2013
16Jamal Lewis70.3%2002-2003-2006-2007-2008
17Earl Campbell70.2%1979-1980-1981-1982-1983
18Clinton Portis69.8%2002-2004-2005-2007-2008
19Frank Gore69.3%2006-2007-2008-2009-2011
20Eddie George68.8%1996-1998-1999-2000-2003
21Jim Brown66.8%1960-1961-1963-1964-1965
22Jerome Bettis66.8%1993-1994-1996-1997-2000
23Fred Taylor66.4%1998-2000-2002-2003-2004
24Matt Forte66.2%2008-2009-2010-2012-2013
25Stephen Davis66.1%1999-2000-2001-2002-2003
26Terry Allen65.5%1992-1994-1995-1996-1999
27Ricky Williams65%1999-2001-2002-2003-2009
28Tony Dorsett64.9%1981-1982-1983-1984-1985
29Adrian Murrell64.8%1995-1996-1997-1998-1999
30Priest Holmes64%1998-2001-2002-2003-2004
31Michael Turner63.8%2008-2009-2010-2011-2012
32Jamal Anderson63.4%1995-1996-1997-1998-2000
33Thomas Jones63.3%2004-2005-2006-2007-2008
34Rudi Johnson63.2%2003-2004-2005-2006-2007
35Maurice Jones-Drew63.1%2008-2009-2010-2011-2013
36Willis McGahee62.9%2004-2005-2006-2007-2011
37Deuce McAllister62.8%2002-2003-2004-2006-2008
38Terrell Davis62.7%1995-1996-1997-1998-2001
39Thurman Thomas62%1990-1991-1992-1993-1994
40Walter Payton61.9%1976-1977-1979-1980-1982
41Gerald Riggs61.6%1984-1985-1986-1987-1989
42Marshawn Lynch61.2%2007-2008-2011-2012-2013
43Ray Rice61.1%2009-2010-2011-2012-2013
44Travis Henry61%2001-2002-2003-2006-2007
45Chris Warren60%1992-1993-1994-1995-1997
46O.J. Simpson59.7%1971-1972-1973-1975-1976
47Ottis Anderson59.7%1979-1980-1981-1983-1984
48Curt Warner59.4%1983-1985-1986-1987-1988
49Mike Pruitt59.3%1979-1980-1981-1982-1983
50Robert Smith59.2%1996-1997-1998-1999-2000
51Marcus Allen59.1%1982-1983-1984-1985-1993
52Jim Nance58.8%1966-1967-1968-1969-1970
53Cedric Benson58.7%2007-2008-2009-2010-2011
54Garrison Hearst58.6%1995-1996-1997-1998-2001
55Clem Daniels58.5%1962-1963-1964-1965-1966
56Wilbert Montgomery57.8%1978-1979-1981-1982-1984
57James Wilder57.4%1983-1984-1985-1986-1987
58William Andrews57.2%1979-1980-1981-1982-1983
59Larry Brown Jr.57.2%1969-1970-1971-1972-1973
60Rodney Hampton56.7%1991-1992-1994-1995-1996
61Brian Westbrook55.3%2004-2005-2006-2007-2008
62Larry Johnson55.1%2004-2005-2006-2007-2008
63George Rogers55%1981-1982-1983-1985-1986
64James Stewart54.8%1996-1999-2000-2001-2002
65Leroy Kelly54.2%1966-1967-1968-1969-1971
66Antowain Smith53.7%1997-1998-2001-2002-2003
67Michael Pittman53.7%2000-2001-2002-2003-2004
68Jim Taylor53.5%1960-1961-1962-1964-1965
69Greg Bell52.9%1984-1985-1986-1988-1989
70Joseph Addai52.9%2006-2007-2008-2009-2010
71Joe Morris52.4%1984-1985-1986-1987-1988
72Chuck Foreman52.1%1974-1975-1976-1977-1978
73Freeman McNeil52%1982-1984-1985-1986-1988
74Jamaal Charles51.8%2008-2009-2010-2012-2013
75Willie Parker51.7%2005-2006-2007-2008-2009
76Charlie Garner51.5%1999-2000-2001-2002-2003
77Warrick Dunn51.2%1997-1998-2000-2005-2007
78Chuck Muncie50.8%1977-1979-1981-1982-1983
79John Riggins50.5%1978-1979-1982-1983-1984
80Johnny Johnson50.4%1990-1991-1992-1993-1994
81Herschel Walker50.4%1987-1988-1990-1992-1993
82LeSean McCoy50.1%2009-2010-2011-2012-2013
83Errict Rhett50%1994-1995-1996-1999-2000
84Lydell Mitchell49.9%1973-1974-1975-1976-1977
85Natrone Means49.8%1993-1994-1995-1997-1998
86Leonard Russell49.6%1991-1992-1993-1994-1996
87Earnest Byner49.6%1985-1988-1990-1991-1992
88Duce Staley49.4%1998-1999-2001-2002-2004
89Matt Snell49.4%1964-1965-1966-1968-1969
90Joe Cribbs49.2%1980-1981-1982-1983-1986
91Billy Sims49.2%1980-1981-1982-1983-1984
92Floyd Little49.1%1969-1970-1971-1972-1973
93Arian Foster48.9%2009-2010-2011-2012-2013
94Franco Harris48.5%1975-1977-1978-1979-1982
95Kevin Mack48.3%1985-1986-1987-1990-1991
96Paul Lowe48.2%1960-1961-1963-1965-1966
97John Brockington48%1971-1972-1973-1974-1975
98Ted Brown48%1979-1980-1981-1982-1983
99Ronnie Brown47.9%2005-2006-2007-2008-2010
100Reggie Cobb47.9%1990-1991-1992-1993-1994

For the first half of his career, Tiki Barber was considered too small to be an every-down back. But based on the degree to which the Giants leaned on him in the second half of his career, he ranks in the top five in this statistic.

There are lots of interesting conclusions to be drawn from these results, so I’ll leave the commentary to you guys today. But one thing you might notice is that most of the running backs at the top of the list came from around the same era. Meanwhile, Earl Campbell, who (deservedly) has a workhorse reputation comes in at number seventeen. There’s a reason for that. For every season (excluding 1987) since 1950, I calculated the percentage of team rushing yards by the top rusher for each team. The graph below shows the average percentage of the top back for each team in each season.

perc rush yd

Running back by committee was a way of life in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s but teams began to rely on one back starting in the ’70s. Consider that in 1973, when O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,000 yards, Jim Braxton and Larry Watkins combined for over 900 rushing yards for Buffalo. Remember, the fullback was an integral part of the offense for most of football history; as a result, no running back would come close to recording 75% of all team rushing yards. After years of gravitating to the stud running back model, the peak occurred in the middle of the last decade. Now? Relying on one running back still occurs to a stronger degree than for most of football history, but the running back by committee model is here to stay… until it isn’t.

  • Tom Gower

    How to be higher on this list? Play with a quarterback who can’t, or at least doesn’t, run.

    I was surprised by how low Chris Johnson ranked (relatively speaking), given how much I’d seen the Titans feed him the ball the past five season. I therefore decided to go and calculate what percentage of non-QB rushing yards he had. Over those five seasons, his average percentage jumps from 71.9% to 82.8% thanks to 1239 total rushing yards by Titans QBs. That actually puts him ahead of Emmitt Smith, third on your list; Cowboys QBs over those five years managed only 235 rushing yards, and Emmitt had “only” 82.3% of non-QB rush yards.

    Taking out QB rushing yards also narrows the gap between Sanders and Edge. Both players see their percentages go up, but Detroit’s quarterbacks were less mobile than Peyton (que shocking). James ends up at 93.1%, while Barry is at 91.7%. Other backs will be left as an exercise for other readers.

    • James

      That’s a very good point.

    • Chase Stuart

      Good stuff, Tom. I was originally going to do it as you suggest, but that would have taken a lot more work. As a proud good enougher, I decided this would have to do. That said, I may try your idea in the future, time-permitting.

      • sn0mm1s

        Actually, I think Barry takes a slight lead using the non-QB methodology because you would replace his 1997 season with his 1990 season. I think that puts him at 93.5%

        I did something like this years ago (around 2005 or 2006 when PFR made their stats available). Not taking into account injuries – just seasons played and having a 2000 carry minimum.

        Sanders had the highest % of non-QB rushing yards for his career.
        Sanders had the highest % of non-QB carries for his career (an insane number of ~86% IIRC)
        He was also in the top 1-3 (the numbers might have changed a bit since the mid 2000’s when I ran them) in:
        % of RB receptions (at the time I think he was behind Faulk and Edge – but they hadn’t gone through their declines)
        % of RB receiving yardage (same as above)
        % of non-QB rushing TDs (I think he was behind Curtis Martin and maybe LT at the time)

        When I did this I ran across some other interesting trivia that made Sanders even more incredible in my eyes. Excluding his carries, he ran against the toughest NFL when judged by YPC over his career. IIRC, non-QB YPC was around 3.8 or 3.9 while he played from 1989-1998, which makes his 5.0 YPC for his career even more amazing. Compare that to today’s game where YPC is more around 4.2-4.3. He averaged about 2 YPC above league average in 1994.

        Other interesting notes unrelated to this topic
        Tony Dorsett had more career fumbles than TDs.
        Earl Campbell never caught a TD pass (found by a divide by zero error IIRC – I never expected someone with 2000+ carries to never catch a TD pass).
        Tiki Barber had some horrible RB teammates.

        • Chase Stuart

          Great comment, thanks.

          • sn0mm1s

            I generally use those stats as ammunition when someone claims Barry wasn’t a complete RB and was subbed out regularly for goal line carries and passing plays. If that were truly the case – where are all the touches for the RB that was subbed in for him? They don’t exist. One other random stat I remembered – Sanders is the only RB in NFL history to score all of his team’s non-QB rushing TDs in 5 different seasons.

        • Richie

          Tony Dorsett had more career fumbles than TDs.

          I thought maybe you made a mistake.

          Of the top-100 running backs (by career rushing TD), there are 14 who had more fumbles than TD:
          Ollie Matson* -26
          Hugh McElhenny* -19
          Wendell Tyler -14
          Tony Dorsett* -13
          Freeman McNeil -7
          James Wilder -7
          Abner Haynes -6
          Sam Cunningham -6
          John David Crow -6
          Donny Anderson -5
          Bill Brown -4
          James Brooks -2
          O.J. Simpson* -1
          Calvin Hill -1

          It’s so weird how certain stats in the NFL have more “fame” than others. Fumbles are rarely discussed. (both in terms of recoveries and lost). Yet, interceptions are much more widely known (again, on both sides of the ball).

          And didn’t we determine that fumbles are generally more costly than interceptions, since they likely result in better field position for the defense?

          Why don’t we mock guys for having a negative TD-Fum ratio like we do TD-Int ratio for QB’s?

          The last guy to have double-digit rushing TD’s and have MORE fumbles than TD’s that season was Eric Dickerson in 1986. He was also negative in 1989. In his great 1984 season he was break-even at 14 of each. Yet, he managed to finish +14 for his career.

          Here are the biggest offending seasons since the merger (minimum 10 fumbles):
          Terry Metcalf 1974 -8
          Carl Garrett 1973 -8
          Wendell Tyler 1984 -6
          Tony Dorsett* 1984 -6
          Sam Cunningham 1975 -6
          Marcus Allen* 1983 -5
          Ottis Anderson 1983 -5
          Franco Harris* 1983 -5
          Joe Cribbs 1980 -5
          Chuck Muncie 1980 -5
          Wilbert Montgomery 1979 -5
          Tony Dorsett* 1978 -5
          Mack Herron 1974 -5
          Ottis Anderson 1981 -4

  • curt

    Very nice.

  • Is your second table an average of percentages or a percentage of total volume over the five peak years?

    • Chase Stuart

      Average of percentages.

  • James

    Emmitt would almost certainly have made the Top 100 again if not for holding out the first two games of 1993 season, which dropped his percentage down to 68.5%. However, looking at just the 14 games he played he had 75.2% of his team’s rushing yards, which includes being eased back into his first couple game with limited carries.

    • Chase Stuart

      Good comment.

  • Kibbles

    Interesting to see that none of the 2,000 yard rushers checked in higher than 20th (Barry Sanders, 1997). You’d expect one of the recipes for massive rushing totals to be dominating the workload.

    Also, sorting that list by age gives pretty good ammo to my contention that Tiki Barber is the best “old RB” in history. As if more ammo was needed- Tiki already owns the record for yards from scrimmage at age 31, age 30, and ranks 3rd in yards from scrimmage at age 29. Nine times has a player topped 2,000 yards after his 29th birthday. Three were Barber, three were Payton, two were Priest Holmes, and one was Barry Sanders. Pretty sweet company.

  • Kibbles

    Re-reading some old posts today, and I have to say, in terms of sentences I never expected to read, “Bledsoe was second on the team in rushing yards” ranks up there with “Donald Sterling is set to receive a second lifetime achievement award from the NAACP”.

    • Chase Stuart