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Another Analytical Study Of The Top RBs in NFL History

WolfpackSteelersFan graciously provides us with an even more comprehensive look at some of the better RBs in NFL history. Great stuff from him, not surprisingly. Enjoy. -Blitz-


This is a followup to my previous post: Quantitative Analysis of Top 10 RBs in NFL history . In that post I had said I may follow up with a look at the top 10 RBs in yards/game that did not make the top 10 in overall yards. I had also (erroneously) stated that Bo Jackson was the only non-QB in the top 10 in yards/attempt. Further research showed me that Spec Sanders and Marion Motley were in this list. If, like me, you’re wondering who they are, don’t worry. I’m working on another entry to give some biographical info on these two players. But, based on their yards/attempt rankings, I have included these two RBs in this analysis.

There is also one other item of note. I decided to break out Terrell Davis into two categories, first four years and entire career. The reason I did that is because I was curious how his numbers were in the first 4 years, when he was arguably the best RB over any 4 year span in NFL history. After his knee injury at the beginning of year 5, he was never the same. Anyway, on to the analysis.

As before, I have looked at the same categories: 
  • Rushing Yards/Game, Yards/Attempt, TDs/Game and Fumbles/Game
  • Receiving Yards/Game, Yards/Reception, and TDs/Game
  • Total Yards/Game and TDs/Game

Below is a table like the one in the previous entry, but this one includes the addition of ten other RBs (Terrell Davis broken out as described above). The players with a number next to their names are active players, and the number is their current age. All of these are either top ten in career yards/game or yards/attempt, except Franco Harris. I included him because he is ranked 11th in all time rushing yards, putting him just outside the top ten, and he’s a Steeler legend. You may click on the picture to enlarge if you have trouble reading it.


Click to enlarge picture

I wanted to see if adding these other players into the analysis would make a significant change in the rankings of the top players from the last analysis, mainly Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. So, I went through the same analysis process, just with additional players. So, once again, I ranked them all according to each category. The results are shown in the table below. You will need to click on the picture to enlarge it and make it more legible.


Click to enlarge picture 

And, finally, as before, I ranked the players by taking their summing their ranks in each category and dividing by 9, the number of categories analyzed. The results are:


So, what does this all tell us? Well, it still looks like Jim Brown takes the prize. It is less clear in this analysis, because he no longer dominates the number one position is most categories. But, he’s still the leader when comparing Overall Average Ranks. He’s still in the top four in 7 of 9 categories. LT and Spec Sanders were second to Brown with both in the top four in 5 of the 9 categories. Even being number 1 in 3 categories is not enough to put LT above Brown in the average rank, due to his relatively lower rankings in a couple of other categories. Terrell Davis didn’t catch the ball enough in his short career to be considered in Brown’s league, and Marshall Faulk didn’t run the ball enough.


Speaking of short careers, that brings me to a final thought in this analysis. I have included some players that had shorter careers, or are still currently in the prime of their careers. I think most NFL fans would have a hard time making serious arguments for Terrell Davis, Spec Sanders and Clinton Portis to be ranked as greater RBs than Walter Payton, Marcus Allen, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, Eric Dickerson, Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis. This would be largely due to the shortness of their careers. None of those players who only played 4 to 7 years would have had those declining years to begin pulling down their per game or per attempt numbers. But, even with those players factored in, Jim Brown is still at the top of the list. Admittedly, he also retired before his talents began to decline, but that was after playing 9 years, which is a full career for many RBs. He was still clearly the best player in the league when he retired, and likely would have remained so for a good 3 to 5 years. Again, there were a few points of interest that I wanted to bring up:


  • In the last analysis, I surmised that rules changes in the 80s had been a reason that Jim Brown ranked so low in fumbles/game when compared to other players who played most of their careers after 1990. However, the two oldest players in this analysis (Motley and Spec Sanders) are the top two in terms of least fumbles per game. They had very high yards/attempt and yards/reception, which must have meant that they were very elusive runners, rather than being power backs that were likely to fight for extra yards. The lower rush yards/game would seem to fit with this hypothesis as well, if they were not the RBs touching the ball 25-35 times a game.

  • I was surprised that Bo Jackson’s yards/game numbers were so low. For a player with such a high yards/attempt, and known as strong runner (as well as fast), I would have expected him to carry the ball more, even considering that he played two sports.

  • I was also a little surprised that LaDainian Tomlinson didn’t have a bit higher rank in rush yards/game and yards/reception.

As I said last time, we can’t compare players in an exact science, because of the different time periods and the increasing athleticism of more recent players. But, having gone through these two analyses, I think we can conclusively say that no running back was more dominant in his time than Jim Brown. Whether you compare him against the others in the top ten overall rushing yards or against those with shorter careers who had higher per game or per touch statistics, he beats them when considering all aspects together. LT has the potential to surpass him, as it appears today, but it will be interesting to see if he does.