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For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

Most Dominant RBs: Career List

Posted by Chase Stuart on April 8, 2009

On Monday, I explained the methodology used to rank every RB in every season in NFL history. Yesterday, we looked at the most dominant RB seasons of all time. Today we get to the career list.

I used 100% of each player's best season, 95% of his second best season, 90% of his third best season, and so on, to come up with a career rating. Only seasons where the player ranked above the baseline were included. In the table below, you see each player's career value and his corresponding rank. This shows how many adjusted yards above average he was for his career. I think this metric is most useful to determine the most dominant statistical RBs of all time and also as a HOF litmus test.

However, it's not the best list for simply determining career value. For your favorite team, having a guy rush for 1300 yards for ten seasons would be more valuable than a RB who would rush for 1600 yards for six seasons. However, in terms of being a HOFer, I think the latter would be more "worthy." He was more dominant, if not necessarily more valuable. That said, we shouldn't ignore this sort of value; so while the "VALUE" column shows each player's yards over average, the "REPLV" is the replacement value column, which shows each player's value over replacement. I've defined replacement as 75% of league average.

For figuring out whether or not Ricky Watters or Stephen Davis was the better NFL player, I think we want to look at replacement value. For deciding whether Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith was the better RB, I think we want to look at value. One other note: older players are hurt when you use "replacement value" instead of value. An older RB who had a score of 500 when the average RB scored a 400 would be equal to a RB who scores 700 when the average was 600 when you compare the two to league average. Both would be +100. When you go to replacement, however, the older RB would be +200 and the modern RB would be +250. Enough talk; here's the list:

           	        VALUE	 RK	REPLV	 Rk
Jim Brown	        6114	 1	7971	 1
Barry Sanders        	5063	 2	7312	 3
Walter Payton	        4544	 3	7126	 4
Marshall Faulk	        4482	 4	7445	 2
Emmitt Smith	        4459	 5	7057	 6
LaDainian Tomlinson	4222	 6	7105	 5
Eric Dickerson	        3693	 7	5457	 7
O.J. Simpson	        3486	 8	4998	11
Priest Holmes	        2937	 9	4491	13
Earl Campbell	        2867	10	4198	15
Thurman Thomas	        2859	11	5083	 9
Jim Taylor	        2780	12	4155	16
Terrell Davis	        2651	13	3964	19
Curtis Martin	        2591	14	5203	 8
Steve Van Buren        	2582	15	3586	26
Edgerrin James	        2571	16	5029	10
Shaun Alexander	        2422	17	4221	14
Tiki Barber	        2399	18	4906	12
Marcus Allen	        1990	19	4120	18
Leroy Kelly	        1961	20	3421	29
Clinton Portis	        1923	21	3768	20
Lydell Mitchell	        1912	22	3666	21
Jerome Bettis	        1816	23	3650	22
Chuck Foreman	        1803	24	3443	28
Ottis Anderson	        1702	25	3542	27
William Andrews	        1690	26	3293	32
Brian Westbrook	        1678	27	3406	30
Ahman Green	        1622	28	3611	25
Stephen Davis	        1552	29	2668	45
Larry Johnson	        1544	30	2723	43
Gerald Riggs	        1539	31	2608	48
Tony Dorsett	        1523	32	3644	23
Gale Sayers	        1480	33	2669	44
Eddie George	        1450	34	3391	31
Fred Taylor	        1440	35	3632	24
Larry Brown	        1383	36	2781	41
Abner Haynes	        1379	37	2624	46
Joe Perry	        1352	38	2498	49
Clem Daniels	        1351	39	2787	40
Ricky Watters	        1343	40	4127	17
Jamal Lewis	        1333	41	2983	39
Wilbert Montgomery	1332	42	2985	38
Herschel Walker	        1313	43	3235	34
John Riggins	        1307	44	3143	35
Curt Warner	        1302	45	2451	52
Roger Craig	        1291	46	3261	33
Franco Harris	        1251	47	3064	36
Corey Dillon	        1247	48	3051	37
Ron A. Johnson	        1211	49	2191	63
Ricky Williams	        1208	50	2731	42
Lawrence McCutcheon	1192	51	2399	53
Chris Warren	        1182	52	2328	55
Steven Jackson	        1179	53	2466	50
Billy Sims	        1147	54	2609	47
Rodney Hampton	        1128	55	2275	60
Joe Morris	        1123	56	1972	68
Paul Lowe	        1096	57	1845	73
Cliff Battles	        1094	58	1802	78
George Rogers        	1069	59	2235	61
Robert Smith	        1045	60	2295	58
Terry Allen	         985	61	2315	57
Jim Nance	         981	62	1632	89
Adrian Peterson	         975	63	1541	97
Floyd Little	         967	64	2289	59
Dan Towler	         962	65	1604	91
Cookie Gilchrist	 952	66	1705	82
Deuce McAllister	 944	67	2118	64
Lenny Moore         	 905	68	2465	51
James Wilder	         893	69	1986	67
Eddie Price	         887	70	1410   111
Timmy Brown	         861	71	1888	71
Larry Csonka	         858	72	2074	65
Barry Foster	         858	73	1469   102
Charlie Garner	         851	74	2345	54
Otis Armstrong	         849	75	1555	94
Frank Gifford	         846	76	1949	69
Jamal Anderson	         844	77	1805	77
Neal Anderson	         843	78	2318	56
Garrison Hearst	         805	79	1933	70
Delvin Williams	         791	80	1667	86
Rick Casares	         741	81	1504   100
J.D. Smith	         727	82	1608	90
John Brockington	 724	83	1572	93
Billy Cannon	         717	84	1171   118
Bill Paschal	         711	85	1158   119
Michael Turner           699	86	1015   136
Bill Brown	         697	87	1836	74
Mark van Eeghen          691	88	1678	85
James Brooks	         690	89	2025	66
Hoyle Granger	         684	90	1459   104
Christian Okoye          675	91	1240   117
Alan Ameche	         658	92	1434   108
Greg Bell	         655	93	1660	87
DeAngelo Williams	 651	94	 968   142
Frank Gore	         637	95	1700	83
Dorsey Levens	         613	96	1390   113
John Henry Johnson	 612	97	1463   103
Gene Roberts	         604	98	 984   139
Rudi Johnson	         599	99	1811	76
Beattie Feathers	 591   100	 872   155
  • I did not use an AFL modifier like I did in the Greatest WR Ever series. Part of the reason was because there were not many standout RB performances like there were at WR, and part of the reason was I'm waiting for JKL to finish up his great work on his AFL vs. NFL series.
  • Csonka, Harris and Riggins: These three power backs rank quite a bit behind the modern HOF RBs. Part of that is because they split time with other RBs on their rosters and were really in the pre-stud RB era. But it's also arguable that none of them would have made the HOF without their post-season resumes. As we'll see tomorrow, these guys had some of the best post-seasons of all times. And while many Terrell Davis supporters say he should be in the HOF because Gale Sayers is, that may not be their best argument. All three RBs won a SB MVP, as did Davis, and their playoff success (both individually and team) is what brought them to Canton. For Davis, I think the case is even easier. They have him beat in longevity but not in level of dominance (at least statistically).
  • Priest Holmes ranks very highly on the list. I was surprised to see that, but thoughts about his offensive line aside, his numbers are just astounding. He's like Earl Campbell or Terrell Davis without the respect or the rings. If he never got hurt in '02 (his best season, which could have been the greatest season of all time) or '04 (had huge per game numbers but missed 8 games), no one would be able to ignore his numbers. If you pro-rate his 54 games (from '01 to '04) to 64, you get 1370 carries, 6497 rushing yards, 83 rushing TDs, 267 receptions, 2564 receiving yards and 7 receiving TDs with only 12 fumbles. That's a seasonal average of 343/1624/21 and 67/641/2 with three fumbles. Four straight years of that would be HOF worthy, I think. If you pro-rate his numbers in his two missed seasons (instead of prorating his weighted average), you'd get 349/1651/22 and 64/612/2 with 3.5 fumbles per year. I'm not sure which way is more appropriate, but either way we're talking over 100 yards rushing a game, huge receiving numbers and 1.5 TDs a game. His offensive line was terrific, but he was an absolute monster for four straight years.
  • There's not much to say about Jim Brown. He ranked as the most dominant RB in the league in seven of his nine seasons and finished just a hair behind Jim Taylor in 1961.
  • I was curious to see where Curtis Martin would end up on this list. Not surprisingly, he ranks a bit higher when comparing him to replacement rather than to league average. Martin had a bunch of very good seasons but few great ones. His place in history is tough to rank. He wasn't as good as Campbell or Davis were in their primes, but he stuck around for a very long time. I think putting him at #14 is appropriate and respectable. Ricky Watters is sort of a poor man's version of Martin; he ranks 40th on the "Value" list and 17th on the "Replacement" list. Watters isn't a HOF player, IMO, but I do think he was a very valuable running back for a long time. And that's what those two numbers says.

Are older RBs well represented on this list? Among the top 30 RBs, only three (Brown, Taylor, Van Buren) debuted before 1960 and only two more (Simpson and Kelly) entered the league before the merger. There are many possible reasons for that, but here's one quick fix. Give each RB 10 points for every season they ranked #1, 9 points for every season they ranked #2, 8 points for ranking as the third best RB, etc. How would that list look?

The table below shows you. To take an example, Joe Perry (relative to league average) was the top RB in the league twice (10, 10), the third best RB once (8), fourth best, once (7), and also ranked 6th, 7th and 10th (5, 4, 1). That totals 45, which is what you see in the "Avg." column. Relative to replacement, he ranked 1st twice (10, 10), fourth twice (7, 7), seventh once (4) and tenth (1). That totals 39, shown in the "Rep." column. His ranks (shown in the earlier table) relative to league average (Val Rk) and replacement (Rep Rk) are reprinted below.

Player			Debut   Avg.    Rep.	Val Rk	Rep Rk
Jim Brown		1957 	 86	87	  1	  1
Barry Sanders		1989	 84	81	  2	  3
Walter Payton		1975	 69	73	  3	  4
Steve Van Buren		1944	 63	59	 15	 26
Emmitt Smith		1990	 61	59	  5	  6
Eric Dickerson		1983	 56	54	  7	  7
LaDainian Tomlinson	2001	 49	55	  6	  5
Thurman Thomas		1988	 48	50	 11	  9
Jim Taylor		1958	 47	44	 12	 16
Marshall Faulk		1994	 46	47	  4	  2
Joe Perry		1948	 45	39	 38	 49
O.J. Simpson		1969	 43	42	  8	 11
Curtis Martin		1995	 42	41	 14	  8
Earl Campbell		1978	 37	36	 10	 15
Leroy Kelly		1964	 37	38	 20	 29
Cliff Battles		1932	 37	41	 58	 78
Tony Dorsett		1977	 36	26	 32	 23
Gale Sayers		1965	 35	29	 33	 44
Tuffy Leemans		1936	 34	36	131	128
Tony Canadeo		1941	 34	28	134	144
Dutch Clark		1931	 33	36	164	132
Shaun Alexander		2000	 32	31	 17	 14
Terrell Davis		1995	 31	30	 13	 19
Priest Holmes		1997	 31	29	  9	 13
Edgerrin James		1999	 31	30	 16	 10
Dan Towler		1950	 31	31	 65	 91
Eddie Price		1950	 31	31	 70	111
Chuck Foreman		1973	 30	32	 24	 28
William Andrews		1979	 30	32	 26	 32
Lawrence McCutcheon	1972	 30	26	 51	 53
Bill Dudley		1942	 30	28	114	148
Larry Brown		1969	 29	28	 36	 41
Tiki Barber		1997	 28	32	 18	 12
Lydell Mitchell		1972	 28	30	 22	 21
Ottis Anderson		1979	 28	25	 25	 27
Jerome Bettis		1993	 28	23	 23	 22
Frank Gifford		1952	 28	30	 76	 69
Rick Casares		1955	 28	23	 81	100
Marcus Allen		1982	 27	30	 19	 18
John Riggins		1971	 27	24	 44	 35
Floyd Little		1967	 27	24	 64	 59
Alan Ameche		1955	 27	28	 92	108
Swede Hanson		1931	 27	22	117	149
Franco Harris		1972	 26	20	 47	 36
Wilbert Montgomery	1977	 26	32	 42	 38
Lenny Moore		1956	 26	28	 68	 51
Clinton Portis		2002	 25	27	 21	 20
Rodney Hampton		1990	 25	20	 55	 60
Hugh McElhenny		1952	 25	31	109	112
Gerald Riggs		1982	 24	17	 31	 48
Abner Haynes		1960	 24	27	 37	 46
Clem Daniels		1960	 24	27	 39	 40
Ron A. Johnson		1969	 24	25	 49	 63
Cookie Gilchrist	1962	 24	20	 66	 82
Bill Paschal		1943	 24	23	 85	119
Paul Lowe		1960	 23	19	 57	 73
Eddie George		1996	 22	25	 34	 31
John Henry Johnson	1954	 22	15	 97	103
Andy Farkas		1938	 22	24	120	140
Curt Warner		1983	 21	21	 45	 52
Herschel Walker		1986	 21	23	 43	 34
Larry Csonka		1968	 21	16	 72	 65
Ace Gutowsky		1932	 20	20	172	206
Charlie Trippi		1947	 20	20	222	209
Bronko Nagurski		1930	 20	23	346	287

This list has a lot of things going for it. The top 21 RBs are all HOFers or locks to end up there one day (Smith, Tomlinson, Faulk, Martin). Of the 65 players with 20 or more 'points', seven of the players debuted in the '30s, six in the '40s, ten in the '50s, eleven in the '60s, eleven in the '70s, seven in the '80s, ten in the '90s and three in the '00s. This list probably gives the best cross section of NFL history. Just about every older player moves up on this list and every modern player moves down.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 at 7:44 am and is filed under History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.