The 10 greatest RB seasons
Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 11, 2009
By Bryn Swartz
Special to Cold, Hard Football Facts.com
The running back position has changed significantly throughout history – much like the quarterback position has over the years.
In both cases, inflated offensive numbers in the modern game have made it hard to compare players of different eras. The Cold, Hard Football Facts have chronicled the change in the passing game quite intensely over the years.
And we need to consider similar historic changes for the following exercise: compiling the 10 greatest seasons by running backs in NFL history.
There was a time, for example, when a 1,000-yard season was considered impressive. But the 16-game schedule, more liberal rules for blockers, the need for defenses to protect more of the field in the modern game, and the dependence many teams have on a single lead ballcarrier have made 1,000-yard seasons all too common.
Only four players in NFL history had topped 1,000 yards before Jim Brown arrived on the scene in 1957. Last year alone, 16 guys rushed topped the millennium mark.
Individual touchdowns have exploded, too. The single season rushing touchdown record has been broken three times since 2003, with the current mark of 28 set by LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. And of the 10 players to rush for 20 or more TDs in a single season (Emmitt Smith has done it twice) eight of them have accomplished this feat since 1994, and all 10 since 1983. Given this trend, it's reasonable to expect that LT's touchdown record could be broken again in the near future.
Touchdowns can be – but are not always – indicative of a great season. Sometimes it simply indicates that a team hands the ball off to a certain guy near the end zone.
So what other indicators allow us to best compare running backs? Here are two critical factors:
Yards Per Attempt – The best thing about YPA is that it's been fairly constant over time. Unlike passer rating, where the league average practically doubled since the 1940s, the historic average for rushing has almost always hovered around 4.0 YPA. Elite NFL running backs average close to 5.0 YPA or more. Good running backs average more than 4.0 YPA, and ordinary running backs average around 4.0 YPA.
Fumbles – Fumbling is the worst thing a running back can do. It's the easiest way for a rookie to get cut, it cost teams games, and it's the quickest way for the NFL's single-season rushing record holder to fail to qualify for this list.
Eric Dickerson rushed 379 times for a record 2,105 yards in 1984. He averaged 5.55 YPA and scored 14 touchdowns. He also fumbled the football 14 times. That's unacceptable. A team needs to trust its running back to hold onto the football at all costs.
Dickerson fumbled the football one of every 27 carries in 1984. Imagine needing your running back to carry the ball seven times on a fourth-quarter drive to seal a victory. There would be more than a 25 percent chance that Dickerson would fumble the football during the drive. No coach wants to gamble with odds like that.
The following list includes the best of the best, the greatest of the greatest, the most elite of the elite – the 10 greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history, with one season earning honorable mention. Five of the players have already been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while two other players are future first-ballot Hall of Famers. Two running backs have multiple seasons on this list.
Honorable Mention: Beattie Feathers, Bears, 1934
119 carries, 1004 yards, 8 TD, 8.4 avg; 6 rec, 174 yards, 1 TD; fumbles unknown (10 games)
What, 1934? Are you kidding?
Feathers played for arguably the greatest team in NFL history – better than the 1972 Dolphins. Better than the 1985 Bears. Better than the 2007 Patriots.
And just like the 2007 New Patriots, the 1934 Bears ran the table in the regular season – 13 games, 13 wins – before losing to (who else?) the Giants in the NFL championship.
Diehard football fans know of the 1934 NFL championship as the "sneaker game." The Giants, who were losing 10-3 at halftime, switched from cleats to sneakers to account for the frozen field. It worked, as the Giants scored an incredible 27 points in the fourth quarter to win, 30-13.
Feathers, with backfield mate Bronko Nagurski, helped the Bears score an NFL-record 286 points in 1934, which was more than the five worst NFL teams combined. The Bears scored more than 20 points in each of their first nine games, a feat that, when adjusted to today's standards, is equivalent to a team scoring 45 points per game.
Feathers rushed for 1,004 yards on 119 carries. He was the NFL's first 1,000-yard rusher, and the only one until Philly's Steve Van Buren rushed for 1,008 yards in 1947. Feathers' 1,004 rushing yards topped the output of three other NFL teams that season.
He averaged an unheard-of 8.44 yards per attempt. No running back in the 75 years since has come within two yards per carry of Feathers' record.
10) Jim Taylor, Packers, 1962
272 carries, 1,474 yards, 19 TD, 5.4 YPA, 22 rec., 106 yards, 0 TD; 5 fum (14 games)
Taylor did something in 1962 that no other running back could do: He stole a rushing title from the great Jim Brown.
Taylor won the rushing Triple Crown in 1962. He led the league in carries (272), yards (1,474), and touchdowns (19). He finished second in yards per carry (5.4).
Taylor was a key figure in the legendary Green Bay Sweep, which helped the Packers win five NFL championships, including two Super Bowls, during the 1960s. Taylor's 1962 MVP season is arguably the greatest in the history of a franchise filled with Hall of Fame football players.
And, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have noted before, his 1,474 rushing yards in 1962 remains the all-time white guy record.
9) Gale Sayers, Bears, 1965
166 carries, 867 yards, 14 TD, 5.2 YPA; 29 rec., 507 yards, 6 TD; 9 fum (14 games)
Sayers' 1965 season is probably the most famous rookie campaign in NFL history. Ironically, Sayers might not have even been the best rookie on the 1965 Bears. After all, Dick Butkus might have something to say about. (Great draft class, huh?)
Sayers did it all in 1965. He carried the football, caught the football, and returned the football. He scored touchdowns four different ways – running, receiving, returning punts, and returning kicks. His return-game performance might have been more impressive than his game from scrimmage: he returned 16 punts for 238 yards (14.9 YPA) and 1 TD, while adding 21 kick returns for 660 yards (31.4 YPA) and 1 TD.
In all, Sayers touched the ball 232 times in 1965, for an average of 16 touches per game. He averaged one touchdown every 10 touches, significantly more than one touchdown per game, and his 9.8 yards per touch ranked first in the NFL by two full yards.
He finished second in the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards per punt return, and yards per kick return. He finished third in yards per carry and rushing yards per game. His 22 touchdowns broke the single-season record of 20 set by Lenny Moore in 1964.
In a December game against the 49ers, Sayers scored an electrifying six touchdowns on a muddy field to tie a single-game NFL record. His final touchdown came on an 85-yard punt return and was voted by NFL Films as the seventh greatest touchdown in NFL history. His game that day, meanwhile, was pegged as the greatest one-day performance in history by NFL Films.
No player in NFL history did more (22 touchdowns) with less (232 touches) than Sayers in 1965.
8) Terrell Davis, Broncos, 1998
392 carries, 2,008 yards, 21 TD, 5.1 YPA; 25 rec., 217 yards, 2 TD; 2 fum (16 games)
Davis is the only running back on this list to play for a Super Bowl champion (which tends to reinforce the fairly irrefutable Cold, Hard Football Facts statement that the ground game is overrated).
In 1998, Davis became just the fourth running back in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season. He became the first running back to also rush for 20 touchdowns in the same season.
Davis's 2008 rushing yards rank fourth on the single-season charts. His 21 rushing touchdowns are more than all but five players in the history of the NFL. His 392 carries are the seventh highest single-season total in NFL history. His 23 total touchdowns rank eighth on the single-season lists, and his 125.5 rushing yards per game are 10 all time.
In all, Davis in 1998 eclipsed the top 10 single-season list in five different categories.
He earned league MVP honors, won his third consecutive rushing title, and was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. And he was the hero in a second straight Super Bowl win, rushing for 102 yards (152 total yards) in a 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
7) Barry Sanders, Lions, 1997
335 carries, 2,053 yards, 11 TD, 6.1 UPA; 33 rec., 305 yards, 3 TD; 3 fum (16 games)
Sanders in 1997 averaged more yards per attempt than any running back since Jim Brown in 1963. In fact, his 6.1 YPA average was more than 50 percent better than the league-wide average (4.0 YPA).
His 2,053 yards stand as the third best single-season total in NFL history. He ended the season by rushing for more than 100 yards in 14 consecutive games, an NFL record.
Sanders scored "only" 11 touchdowns on the ground, mainly because the Lions used fullback Tommy Vardell in goal-line situations. But his 14 total touchdowns were still good for third in the NFL.
Sanders also set a new NFL record with 2,358 total yards from scrimmage, which has been surpassed three times.
His season stands as the greatest by an NFC running back from the Super Bowl Era to the turn of the millennium.
6) O.J. Simpson, Bills, 1973
332 carries, 2.003 yards, 12 TD, 6.0 YPA; 6 rec., 70 yards, 0 TD; 7 fum (14 games)
"No matter what happens to me, I was the first man to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. They can never take that away from me." – O.J. Simpson
While his 2,000-yard rushing season is no longer the first thing people think of when they hear the name, Simpson still deserves to be remembered for his accomplishments on the football field.
He won the rushing Triple Crown in 1973, leading the NFL in carries, yards and touchdowns. His 143.1 rushing YPG average is the highest total in NFL history, by a full 10 yards. O.J. also ranked second in YPA (6.0), a total that has been surpassed by just one running back, Sanders, in the last 35 seasons.
Simpson topped 200 yards rushing three times in 1973. After 12 games, OJ had rushed for 1,584 yards. He rushed for 219 yards in the 13th game of the season, and capped off a brilliant campaign with exactly 200 yards, to break the 2,000-yard barrier. The milestone is stunning when you consider that, before Simpson, Jim Brown and Jim Taylor were the only ballcarriers in history to rush for more than 1,400 yards in a season.
Simpson earned a million different awards in 1973, including NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors, the NFL MVP, the Bert Bell Player of the Year award, and the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year award. O.J. would be the last NFL player to capture AP Male Athlete of the Year honors until Joe Montana did it in consecutive seasons ('89-'90).
5) O.J. Simpson, Bills, 1975
329 carries, 1,817 yards, 16 TD, 5.5 YPA; 28 rec., 427 yards, 7 TD; 7 fum (14 games)
The 1973 season will always be O.J.'s most famous. But 1975 was just a little bit better.
Simpson set the NFL single-season record by scoring 23 touchdowns, breaking the 10-year-old record set by Sayers.
He led the NFL with 1,817 rushing yards, then the third highest single season total in NFL history. His 129.8 yards per game have been surpassed by just two running backs since, and stand as the fifth highest total in NFL history.
Simpson led the NFL in carries (329) and touches (357). He led in yards per carry (5.5) and yards from scrimmage (2244). He even had the longest run in the NFL (88 yards). Simpson led the NFL in every single statistic that a running back could lead the league in.
He accomplished all of this despite playing in just 14 games. Had Simpson had the luxury of a 16-game season, he would have easily rushed for over 2000 yards and scored over 25 touchdowns. In fact, Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2105 yards might belong to OJ Simpson.
4) LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers, 2006
348 carries, 1815 yards, 28 TD, 5.2 YPA; 56 rec., 508 yards, 3 TD; 2 fum (16 games)
Thirty-one touchdowns says it all.
LaDainian Tomlinson broke Shaun Alexander's year-old NFL-record of 28 touchdowns by more than 10 percent. That's the equivalent of a quarterback throwing 55 touchdowns in a season. That's the equivalent of a wide receiver catching 160 passes in a season. That's the equivalent of a defensive end accumulating 25 sacks in a season.
His 186 points scored set a new NFL record, breaking Paul Hornung's 46-year-old record of 176 points. This doesn't even account for Tomlinson's two passing touchdowns that season, meaning he was directly involved in 33 touchdowns.
LT also led the NFL with 1,815 rushing yards. His 5.2 yards per carry finished second among players with at least 200 carries. He also finished second in total yards from scrimmage (2323).
Tomlinson earned every award in existence after the 2006 season, including the NFL Most Valuable Player award, Offensive Player of the Year honors, the Bert Bell Player of the Year award, and the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Tomlinson's magical season helped the Chargers win 14 games and capture home-field advantage in the playoffs – which, in classic San Diego fashion – they promptly threw away without a single postseason victory.
3) Jim Brown, Browns, 1963
291 carries, 1,863 yards, 12 TD, 6.4 YPA; 24 rec., 268 yards, 3 TD; 7 fum (14 games)
Brown's 6.4 YPA in 1963 was the best mark in NFL history by a running back with 200 or more carries, and the record has not been seriously threatened since. Only Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson have averaged 6.0 YPA over the course of a season.
Brown also set NFL records for rushing yards (1,863), rushing yards per game (133.1) and yards from scrimmage (2,131) and, thanks to his effort, the 1963 Browns stand as the single best rushing team in NFL history, with a stunning 5.7 YPA.
Brown also led the NFL in touches (315) and total touchdowns (15). He earned Bert Bell Player of the Year honors and was named the UPI NFL Most Valuable Player (though AP is considered the "official" MVP list, and Giants QB Y.A. Tittle earned the honor that year thanks to a then-record 36 TD passes).
Had Brown played in a 16-game season, he would probably still hold the single-season record for rushing yards (projected total: 2,119 yards).
2) Marshall Faulk, Rams, 2000
253 carries, 1,359 yards, 18 TD, 5.4 YPA; 81 rec., 830 yards, 8 TD; 0 fum (14 games)
Take a look at Faulk's numbers in 2000. You know the first thing we see? Not 26, as in total touchdowns scored.
How bout 0? As in, zero fumbles over the entire season, despite touching the football 334 times, an average of 24 touches per game (Faulk missed two games due to injury).
His 26 touchdowns broke Emmitt Smith's five-year NFL record and would stand as the record for three seasons. Had Faulk played in all 16 games, he would have likely scored 30 touchdowns and accumulated 2,501 total yards from scrimmage, which would have broken his own single-season NFL record (2,429 yards in 1999).
Despite finishing 'only' eighth in the NFL in rushing yards, Faulk led the league in rushing touchdowns (18) and yards per carry (5.4). He scored eight more touchdowns than any other player in the league and scored 160 points, which was one fewer point than the entire Bengals team scored that season.
Faulk helped the Rams set a franchise-record with 540 points, the fourth highest total in NFL history. The Rams accumulated 7,335 yards of total offense (458 per game), shattering the previous NFL record.
Faulk earned Most Valuable Player honors, the second of three straight seasons that the MVP award would go to a member of the St. Louis Greatest Show on Turf offense (Faulk finished second to teammate Kurt Warner in the 1999 and 2001 MVP voting).
Faulk's season came in the midst of arguably the greatest three-year stretch of any running back in NFL history--better than Emmitt Smith (1993-95), better than Earl Campbell (1978-80), better than Barry Sanders (1995-97), even better than Jim Brown (pick your three seasons).
1) Jim Brown, Browns, 1958
257 carries, 1,527 yards, 17 TD, 5.9 YPA; 16 rec., 138 yards, 1 TD; 5 fum (12 games)
The greatest season by a running back came in only 12 games?
In just his second season in the NFL, the 22-year-old Brown established himself as the greatest running back in the NFL.
Brown won the rushing Triple Crown in 1958, leading the league in carries (257), yards (1,527), and touchdowns (17). He also topped the NFL in touches (273), yards from scrimmage (1,665), total touchdowns (18), and rushing yards per game (127.3).
Five of these marks set single-season NFL records: rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and rushing yards per game. Brown's 257 carries were the second most in the 35-year history of the NFL.
It was a season Ruthian in its new standards of excellence.
Brown was so dominant in 1958 that just one running back (Alan Ameche) rushed for half as many yards. Only one running back (Tommy Wilson) scored half as many touchdowns as Brown.
Brown was the first true workhorse in the NFL. No other running back carried the ball more than 15 times per game in 1958. Brown averaged 21 carries per game.
Had he played a 16-game season, Brown's numbers would have looked like this:
- 343 carries, 2,036 yards, 23 TD, 5.9 YPA; 21 rec., 184 yards, 1 TD; 7 fum
By the conclusion of the 1958 season, Brown's numbers did look like this: two NFL seasons, two rushing titles, two Associated Press Most Valuable Player awards.
Jim Brown is the greatest running back in history. It's only appropriate that he produced the greatest season by any running back in the history of the game, a season in which he literally re-wrote the NFL record books in so many ways and set standards of dominance that still stand today.
Forearm Shiver: the CHFF Blog
- Wise Guys: Broncos, Patriots, 49ers Top Expected Win Totals In 2013
- Hockey Announcer Gone Wild: You Want To Party (Maybe) With This Guy
- Best Pass Defense Ever: Ronde Barber And The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Reese Witherspoon Arrest Video: Hot, Bothered And Handcuffed
- Sam Adams In A Can, Just In Time For Summer Drinking Season
- 'Cheeseheads' Reality Show Destined To Suck
- The 5.0 Club: Best Rushing Teams in NFL History
- Sieves: The Worst Run Defenses In NFL History
- 2013 NFL Schedule: The Year Of The Denver Broncos
- Boston, Sports, Patriotism And Terror
- Monsters of the Midway: We Need The Chicago Bears More Than Ever
- The 100 Stingiest Defenses In Football History
- NFL Crown Rule: Will It Dethrone Rushing King Adrian Peterson?
- Big Tease: 2012 New England Patriots And NFL's History Of Offensive Failures
- Epic Fail: The Wide Receiver Draft Class Of 2012
Must See Videos