Quantitative Analysis of Top 10 RBs in NFL history

WolfPackSteelersFan emailed me last week to let me know he had been working on a piece on the greatest RBs of all time. I was excited to see it, but a touch apprehensive, since anytime you try to do a 'best-of' argument across generations in sports, things get tricky and generally don't provide many concrete answers. Furthermore, knowing he was busy with work, kids, etc., I wasn't expecting an entry as comprehensive and well researched as the one he provided. But I was blown away. No new fancy metrics or debatable opinion monguring from him. WolfPack has simply done the exhaustive research and allowed the numbers to speak for themselves as best they can. Contributions like these are exactly why BTSC continues to be the best Steelers fan site on the internet. As always, feel free to email me with any quesitons, suggestions, or thoughts on a post you would like me to do, or that you would like to do yourself and share with the group. Many, many thanks to WolfPackSteelersFan, a great guy and great member of our community.


A couple of weeks ago in one of the diaries, we had some discussion on the greatest RBs of all time. I thought it would be cool to discuss the top 10 or 20, and we did have some discussion. There were some shared opinions about who was the greatest, but there were also plenty of questions left unanswered. It got me interested in doing a quantitative analysis of the greatest RBs in NFL history. I wanted to include more than ten, but there is so much data that I decided to restrict it to the top 10 in career rushing yards.  

Perhaps in another installment, I will look at adding some RBs in the top 10 in yards per game but not in the top 10 in career yards, like Terrell Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis and Jamal Lewis. I also thought of looking at the top 10 leaders in yards per attempt, but every player is a QB except Bo Jackson. That may be enough to merit his inclusion in the analysis, but again, perhaps next time.

Anyway, on to the current analysis. I decided to look at this from the standpoint of the players' impact on a per game and per touch basis. In the table below, I have included each player's rushing and receiving statistics to get an idea of their total impact on the game. So, I looked at yards rushing and receiving per game and per attempt/reception, rushing and receiving touchdowns per game, fumbles per game, and total (rushing and receiving combined) yards and touchdowns per game. The reason that I looked at it this way was that I thought this would give the best idea of each player's impact on a single game.

One thing we all agree on is that it is very difficult to compare players, regardless of their position, across generations. Defenses have changed, offensive strategies have changed. Conditioning programs, RB workloads, etc have changed. Everything's evolved, and some have been in ways that are beneficial to a RBs production, and others the opposite. The best we can do is take as broad a look as possible at some numbers and see who excelled in the most possible relevant categories. Did they fumble a lot? Were they multi-dimensional and provide a pass-catching threat? Could their teams rely on them to punch it in for a score? Let's take a look.

I also wanted to rank each of these players according to each statistic.  The results are shown in the following table. Every category is sorted by highest value, except for fumbles per game.  It is sorted so that the player with the fewest fumbles/game is the highest ranking.

Finally, I wanted to find a way to aggregate the rankings of these players to give a simpler way of grading their overall impact throughout their careers. So, I summed the rankings that they had for each category and then divided by the number of categories (9) in this analysis. The resulting overall average ranks are given below.

Based on this analysis...

Jim Brown is the winner as greatest RB of all time. Of the nine categories that I looked at, he ranked first in six of them, and was in the top four in eight of the nine. The next three players, Sanders, Faulk and Payton, were the only others to make the top 4 in six of the nine categories. Not surprisingly, Faulk shined in the receiving stats, ranking number 1 in receiving yards per game and TDs per game. But, Brown also shined in receiving stats, ranking in the top 4 of each of the receiving stats. That is surprising, considering the era in which he played.

Before I wrap up, I did want to point out a few other areas that I found interesting:

  • The one category in which Jim Brown ranked low, fumbles/game, is dominated by the oldest players. This leads me to believe that there may have been some rule changes that reduced the circumstances likely to cause a fumble. For example, I'm not sure when the rule that the ground can't cause a fumble was instituted. Or, the rule that a play is blown dead when forward progress is stopped may not have been in place yet. Or, maybe there has just been much more emphasis on protecting the ball than there used to be.
  • Marcus Allen's numbers are probably skewed down due to the apparent vendetta that Al Davis had against him.  His last several years with the Raiders, he could have been a starter somewhere. They could have traded him after drafting Bo Jackson. But, for much of his physical prime, he was sitting on the bench.
  • Curtis Martin almost never fumbled.
  • Emmitt Smith ranks surprisingly low on most of these categories, but he was a TD machine.
  • Jerome Bettis also ranks low in most categories, but we also all know that his last 3 seasons, he was primarily a goal line back. If I recall correctly, he once had a line something like 4 or 5 carries for 2 yrds and 3 TDs. That also skewed his rushing yards/game and yards/attempt. But, I also felt that having him on the team was a valuable asset. He could no longer be the feature back, but when Duce or Willie, or both, went down, he could step in a give us a 100 yard game when we needed it.

Of course, no analysis of football players can be truly scientific, because each player had different supporting casts, but I would have to say that I have newfound respect for Jim Brown. True, he didn't block, and he didn't apologize for it. But, his numbers are sufficiently above the others that it is very hard to argue that any running back was better. And, he did it on a team that won multiple championships, which tells me that played to win and make his team better, not just for the personal accolades.

So, what do you guys think? Did I leave out any significant stat?

The opinions shared here are not those of the editorial staff of Behind the Steel Curtain or SB Nation. These posts are not approved in any way by the editorial staff of this web site.