Top RBs in NFL History – Their Best 4 Years

Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk

Jim Brown

About a year and a half ago, I was inspired to perform an analysis on the top running backs in NFL history. I did 2 posts on the topic at Behind the Steel Curtain, first on the top 10 backs in overall rushing yards, then a followup including the RBs that were top 10 in yards/game and yards/attempt. In these analyses, I had included the entire careers of each player considered, which may have unfairly favored players who retired at or near their primes. So, I had been considering for a while whether it might be of interest to complete the same type of analysis for all of the players, but in this case, I would only consider the best 4 year period in that player’s career. So, essentially, I am reviewing the career peaks of the best running backs in NFL history.

LT (AP Photo/Matt York)

LT (AP Photo/Matt York)

Why 4 years? In some ways, it’s an arbitrary

Terrell Davis

Terrell Davis

 choice. But, it is about the average length of most running backs’ careers. I believe the average is below 3.5 years now, but that’s still more than 3, on average. It’s also the number of years that Terrell Davis was productive. Because of that, I was just curious to see how he stacked up against other RBs peak 4 year period.

Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith

In this post, I am reviewing the same 20 players as in the last RB analysis. They are listed in the table below, in addition to the following information:

  • the years analyzed
  • number of games played and started for those years
  • total yards from scrimmage during those years
  • total touchdowns and fumbles from those years

The way that I determined which four year period to analyze for each player was by determining for which period that player had the most total yards from scrimmage.

Players Years G GS YScm TotTD Fmb
Emmitt Smith 1992-1995 61 60 7921 76 16
Walter Payton 1 1977-1980 62 62 7746 50 28
Walter Payton 2 1983-1986 64 64 7829 41 22
Barry Sanders 1994-1997 64 64 8122 45 10
Curtis Martin 1998-2001 63 63 6920 35 11
Jerome Bettis 1996-1999 62 58 5804 30 17
Eric Dickerson 1983-1986 62 62 7842 57 49
Tony Dorsett 1978-1981 61 60 6604 33 39
Jim Brown 1962-1965 56 56 7302 63 28
Marshall Faulk 1998-2001 60 59 8992 69 8
Marcus Allen 1983-1986 61 57 7056 50 32
Franco Harris 1976-1979 59 59 5206 45 33
Marion Motley 1947-1950 51 36 3840 28 5
Bo Jackson 1987-1990 38 23 3134 18 11
Spec Sanders 1946-1948 40 30 3172 36 1
Terrell Davis 1995-1998 61 61 7594 61 16
LaDainian Tomlinson 2003-2006 63 63 8301 86 13
Clinton Portis 2002-2005 60 56 7059 49 16
Edgerrin James 2003-2006 60 60 6801 40 16
Jamal Lewis 2000-2004 60 57 6822 34 24
Ricky Williams 2000-2003 58 58 7104 43 28

There are a couple of Items of Note to address before moving forward. First, I included two 4 year periods for Walter Payton because he was the only player to have two distinct peak periods, for which the total yards from scrimmage were within about 80 yards of each other. By distinct periods I mean that there was no overlap in the years for those two periods. Secondly, Spec Sanders’s and Jamal Lewis’s periods are adjusted for special circumstances. Sanders’s analysis is only for 3 years, because he played halfback from 1946 to 1948, did not play in 1949, and returned in 1950 as a safety. So, I thought it made more sense to only include his numbers from the first three years. Lewis’s analysis covers the period from 2000 to 2004, which is 5 years. But, since he was out the entirety of the 2001 season with a knee injury, I decided that this period would be accurate for this analysis.

As with the previous analyses, I ranked each player according yards per game and per touch in both rushing and receiving as well as TDs and fumbles per game. After ranking them in each category, I calculated the average of each player’s rankings in all categories and sorted the running backs from highest average among all categories to lowest. In the following tables, I have included the raw statistics (gathered from Pro-Football-Reference.com) for the players.

Here are the players’ rushing statistics:


Rushing
Players Att Yds TD Lng Y/A Y/G A/G
Emmitt Smith 1401 6456 73 68 4.6 105.8 23.0
Walter Payton 1 1358 6317 45 76 4.7 101.9 21.9
Walter Payton 2 1340 5989 34 72 4.5 93.6 20.9
Barry Sanders 1287 6989 40 85 5.4 109.2 20.1
Curtis Martin 1385 5468 32 60 3.9 86.8 22.0
Jerome Bettis 1310 5372 28 50 4.1 86.6 21.1
Eric Dickerson 1465 6968 55 85 4.8 112.4 23.6
Tony Dorsett 1160 5263 28 75 4.5 86.3 19.0
Jim Brown 1090 5849 49 80 5.4 104.4 19.5
Marshall Faulk 1090 5441 43 71 5.0 90.7 18.2
Marcus Allen 1129 4700 38 61 4.2 77.0 18.5
Franco Harris 1166 4558 44 71 3.9 77.3 19.8
Marion Motley 556 3233 24 69 5.8 63.4 10.9
Bo Jackson 515 2782 16 92 5.4 73.2 13.6
Spec Sanders 540 2900 33 0 5.4 72.5 13.5
Terrell Davis 1343 6413 56 71 4.8 105.1 22.0
LaDainian Tomlinson 1339 6257 76 85 4.7 99.3 21.3
Clinton Portis 1258 5930 45 65 4.7 98.8 21.0
Edgerrin James 1341 5472 39 43 4.1 91.2 22.4
Jamal Lewis 1239 5763 33 82 4.7 96.1 20.7
Ricky Williams 1336 5470 39 63 4.1 94.3 23.0

And, their receiving statistics:


Receiving
Players Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng R/G Y/G
Emmitt Smith 228 1465 6.4 3 86 3.7 24.0
Walter Payton 1 154 1429 9.3 5 75 2.5 23.0
Walter Payton 2 184 1840 10.0 7 74 2.9 28.8
Barry Sanders 149 1133 7.6 5 66 2.3 17.7
Curtis Martin 211 1452 6.9 3 34 3.3 23.0
Jerome Bettis 74 432 5.8 2 26 1.2 7.0
Eric Dickerson 118 874 7.4 2 37 1.9 14.1
Tony Dorsett 148 1341 9.1 5 91 2.4 22.0
Jim Brown 141 1453 10.3 14 83 2.5 25.9
Marshall Faulk 337 3551 10.5 26 78 5.6 59.2
Marcus Allen 245 2356 9.6 12 92 4.0 38.6
Franco Harris 92 648 7.0 1 39 1.6 11.0
Marion Motley 46 607 13.2 4 78 0.9 11.9
Bo Jackson 40 352 8.8 2 27 1.1 9.3
Spec Sanders 18 272 15.1 3 13 0.3 6.8
Terrell Davis 152 1181 7.8 5 35 2.5 19.4
LaDainian Tomlinson 260 2044 7.9 10 74 4.1 32.4
Clinton Portis 141 1129 8.0 4 72 2.4 18.8
Edgerrin James 184 1329 7.2 1 56 3.1 22.2
Jamal Lewis 110 1059 9.6 1 77 1.8 17.7
Ricky Williams 201 1634 8.1 4 59 3.5 28.2

Their rushing, receiving and total statistics based on a per game or per touch basis:

  Rushing Receiving Total
Players Y/A Y/G TD/G Y/R R/G Y/G TD/G Y/G TD/G Fmb/G
Emmitt Smith 4.6 105.8 1.2 6.4 3.7 24.0 0.05 129.85 1.25 0.26
Walter Payton 1 4.7 101.9 0.73 9.3 2.5 23.0 0.08 124.94 0.81 0.45
Walter Payton 2 4.5 93.6 0.53 10.0 2.9 28.8 0.11 122.33 0.64 0.34
Barry Sanders 5.4 109.2 0.63 7.6 2.3 17.7 0.08 126.91 0.7 0.16
Curtis Martin 3.9 86.8 0.51 6.9 3.3 23.0 0.05 109.84 0.56 0.17
Jerome Bettis 4.1 86.6 0.45 5.8 1.2 7.0 0.03 93.61 0.48 0.27
Eric Dickerson 4.8 112.4 0.89 7.4 1.9 14.1 0.03 126.48 0.92 0.79
Tony Dorsett 4.5 86.3 0.46 9.1 2.4 22.0 0.08 108.26 0.54 0.64
Jim Brown 5.4 104.4 0.88 10.3 2.5 25.9 0.25 130.39 1.13 0.5
Marshall Faulk 5.0 90.7 0.72 10.5 5.6 59.2 0.43 149.87 1.15 0.13
Marcus Allen 4.2 77.0 0.62 9.6 4.0 38.6 0.2 115.67 0.82 0.52
Franco Harris 3.9 77.3 0.75 7.0 1.6 11.0 0.02 88.24 0.76 0.56
Marion Motley 5.8 63.4 0.47 13.2 0.9 11.9 0.08 75.29 0.55 0.1
Bo Jackson 5.4 73.2 0.42 8.8 1.1 9.3 0.05 82.47 0.47 0.29
Spec Sanders 5.4 72.5 0.83 15.1 0.3 6.8 0.08 79.3 0.9 0.03
Terrell Davis 4.8 105.1 0.92 7.8 2.5 19.4 0.08 124.49 1 0.26
LaDainian Tomlinson 4.7 99.3 1.21 7.9 4.1 32.4 0.16 131.76 1.37 0.21
Clinton Portis 4.7 98.8 0.75 8.0 2.4 18.8 0.07 117.65 0.82 0.27
Edgerrin James 4.1 91.2 0.65 7.2 3.1 22.2 0.02 113.35 0.67 0.27
Jamal Lewis 4.7 96.1 0.55 9.6 1.8 17.7 0.02 113.7 0.57 0.4
Ricky Williams 4.1 94.3 0.67 8.1 3.5 28.2 0.07 122.48 0.74 0.48

Their rankings based the per game and per touch basis:

  Rushing Receiving Total
Players Y/A Y/G TD/G Y/R R/G Y/G TD/G Y/G TD/G Fmb/G
Emmitt Smith 13 3 2 20 4 7 15 4 2 8
Walter Payton 1 11 6 9 8 11 8 8 7 10 15
Walter Payton 2 15 11 16 5 8 4 5 10 15 13
Barry Sanders 2 2 13 15 14 14 10 5 13 4
Curtis Martin 20 14 17 19 6 9 16 15 17 5
Jerome Bettis 17 15 20 21 18 20 17 17 20 11
Eric Dickerson 8 1 4 16 15 16 18 6 6 21
Tony Dorsett 14 16 19 9 12 11 7 16 19 20
Jim Brown 5 5 5 4 9 6 2 3 4 17
Marshall Faulk 6 13 10 3 1 1 1 1 3 3
Marcus Allen 16 18 14 7 3 2 3 12 8 18
Franco Harris 21 17 8 18 17 18 19 18 11 19
Marion Motley 1 21 18 2 20 17 9 21 18 2
Bo Jackson 3 19 21 10 19 19 14 19 21 12
Spec Sanders 4 20 6 1 21 21 11 20 7 1
Terrell Davis 7 4 3 14 10 12 6 8 5 7
LaDainian Tomlinson 10 7 1 13 2 3 4 2 1 6
Clinton Portis 9 8 7 12 13 13 13 11 9 10
Edgerrin James 19 12 12 17 7 10 20 14 14 9
Jamal Lewis 12 9 15 6 16 15 21 13 16 14
Ricky Williams 18 10 11 11 5 5 12 9 12 16

And finally, their average rankings for all of these categories:

Players Avg Rks
Marshall Faulk 4.2
LaDainian Tomlinson 4.9
Jim Brown 6
Terrell Davis 7.6
Emmitt Smith 7.8
Barry Sanders 9.2
Walter Payton 1 9.3
Marcus Allen 10.1
Walter Payton 2 10.2
Clinton Portis 10.5
Ricky Williams 10.9
Eric Dickerson 11.1
Spec Sanders 11.2
Marion Motley 12.9
Edgerrin James 13.4
Jamal Lewis 13.7
Curtis Martin 13.8
Tony Dorsett 14.3
Bo Jackson 15.7
Franco Harris 16.6
Jerome Bettis 17.6

Having put all of this data together, let’s take a look back at it and analyze it a little further. The first thing that jumps out at me is that the top 3 are two of the most versatile players in recent NFL history, and Jim Brown. In the previous two analyses, Jim Brown rose to the top in each case. In this analysis, even looking at a peak 4 year span, only Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson are ranked above him overall. I think he’s the only player in this analysis ranked in the top 10 in every category. And, his peak 4 year period was the last four years of his career. He may have actually gotten better had he played a couple more years.

Faulk and Tomlinson were just amazing dual threats in both the passing and running game. Faulk, especially, was clearly the most productive receiving RB in NFL history. Both ranked in the top 6 in every total category, and each was first in one of the total categories. Faulk, of course was very involved in the passing game when he was part of the “Greatest Show on Turf.” Tomlinson has just been an amazing all around back for most of his career. They are ranked 1 and 2, respectively, in total yards from scrimmage in this analysis.

Other things that stuck out to me:

  • As I expected, Terrell Davis had a high ranking in this analysis. Perhaps not high enough to merit HOF consideration due to his short career, but still pretty impressive. As I stated in a previous post, he did have one of top 4 year periods for any running back in NFL history.
  • Ricky Williams was, at one point, on pace for a HOF career. He is right in the middle of this analysis, and the only one that high that will not go down as one of the all time greats.
  • I know I mentioned Marcus Allen in the previous post as well, but man! If Al Davis hadn’t been such an egomaniac, Marcus Allen may be the league’s all time leading rusher.
  • The most productive pure runner was Barry Sanders, ranked 2nd in both yards/attempt and yards/game, but not so great a scoring TDs in this time period.
  • The most effective TD scorer was LT, although Emmitt Smith was a close second in rush TDs/game.
  • Steelers greats don’t seem to fair too well in this analysis. If I had to give a reason why, I’d say it was that their roles in their offenses had more to do with ball control, smash mouth football than explosive plays. And, neither one was especially used in the passing game. Still, both were in this analysis based on being in the top 11 in overall rushing yards, so they were productive enough for long enough to be considered among the greats.

Looking  at this data overall, each player was certainly among the great runners in NFL history. The ones that were at the top of this analysis were more involved in the passing game, or played on an offense that was more pass oriented. Or, perhaps, in the case of someone like Walter Payton, he was the only offense the Bears had in the late 70s. The players, like Bettis and Franco, who were on more run-oriented offenses, didn’t fair as well. But each of these running backs were among the top 2 or 3 of their era, in only for a short period of time.

While this analysis puts Marshall Faulk and LT pretty clearly at the top, all of these players had great peak periods of production. I thought it was very interesting that Walter Payton, still arguably the greatest RB ever, had two distinct periods of elevated production. And in those two periods, he ranked in the top eleven 15 out of 20 combined categories. Pretty impressive there, too.

In the end, of course, it’s impossible to definitively tell who performed the best, because you would have to account for level of competition. Or somehow have the players all magically play the same schedule on the same teams. But, I enjoyed this analysis, and I hope you did as well.

So, what are your thoughts?

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23 Responses to “Top RBs in NFL History – Their Best 4 Years”

  1. Geoffrey B Says:

    LT and Marshal Faulk deserve praise, and their versatility was a great asset to their team.

    As for the greatest Runners, they clearly get knocked down the list if their receiving stats were removed.

    It’s amazing how Good Jim Brown was. I’m a huge Bettis fan and frequently put him with the top all time talent-wise, but Jim Brown was a beast. Give Peyton Credit, Bettis was almost the Steelers only offense for most of his top years, and he never reached Walter Peyton numbers.

    It’s amazing to me to see how well LT compared to Faulk. Faulk still comes out on top as the best receiving RB, but LT is a clear second.

    Overall, really good job on this post. Very good stuff.

  2. MarkC Says:

    OJ?

    • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

      He is currently 11th in yards/game, but not really close to top 10 in any other categories.

      I only looked at players in the top 10 in overall rushings, yards/attempt and yards/game. I did include Franco, because this is a followup to a post mainly for Steelers fans, so I wanted to include a Steeler great.

  3. Bill Ridgway Says:

    Where is Gayle Sayers?

  4. Bill Ridgway Says:

    Nevermind about Gayle Sayers. My family acted like he was god. When I checked his numbers, he was not that good, actually.

    • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

      Some of his runs were absolutely beautiful to watch, but his numbers weren’t what you’d expect from someone who made the HOF after just 6 years.

  5. Joe Soper Says:

    There is one name that i feel should have been mentioned with the others here. Thurman Thomas…. he was one of the best all purpose back and was an integral part of the Bills Offence for their run of super bowl appearances. He is probably the most underrated RB of the last 20 years.

    • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

      Yeah, I’m probably going to do another run at this with several players added and make some adjustments based on some average of rushing yards (either league average or average of top 5 or 10 rushers).

  6. johnm9787 Says:

    what an interesting compilation. of all the remarkable accomplishments i guess what stands as most amazing is that w.payton was the only person to have two peak performances. that to me is the most amazing accomplishment,doesn’t make him the best ever as that is a matter of opinion but if you don’t take notice of that you just aren’t payin’ attention..

    • wolfpacksteelersfan Says:

      Yeah, I thought so too. One of the guys over at BTSC mentioned that Jim Brown also had another peak period, in terms of yards/game. From 1958 to 1961, he played in 6 fewer games, so I missed that in my first go through. However, you may be interested in the new post, just put up.

  7. BigAL Says:

    Not only does Terrell Davis stand out near the top, he also won 2 championships, reached the historic 2000 yard barrier and won a Super Bowl MVP during his 2.5 year period, something none of the 2 modern players ahead of him can say, except old school Jim Brown. Great post, you should do a follow-up and see if any new players need to be added.

  8. BigAL Says:

    3.5 year period, not 2.5, whoops

  9. STEVE Says:

    WERE IS TIKI BARBER 8,280 YARDS YSCM FOR 4 YEARS FROM 2003-2006.

    3RD BEST OF ALL TIME BEHIND LT AND MARSHALL FAULK ON YSCM.

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