Sunday, January 13, 2019

Published January 13, 2019 by with 2 comments

Who Was the Best Running Back in Modern NFL History?

Here is my attempt at answering this question...

Best Career Rankings

The best way to interpret these rankings are that they answer the following question: 'Which running back's prime was strongest when compared with his direct peers?'

PlayerStat ScoreAward ScoreTotal Score
Barry Sanders1.740.251.99
Emmitt Smith1.490.221.71
Marshall Faulk1.160.211.37
Walter Payton1.110.241.34
Eric Dickerson1.070.241.31
Adrian Peterson1.080.221.31
LaDainian Tomlinson1.120.181.30
OJ Simpson0.960.241.20

**Important note...this is only in the modern era, so Jim Brown is excluded. This is because I cannot find a reliable way to compare players in those seasons since schedules, parity, etc. were not what they are today**

The methodology used here requires at least 6 prime years for a player (see below). Some new players that might make the list are not included. Among current players, Todd Gurley is the best and has a stat score of 1.40.  Ezekiel Elliott is second and he is not on track to make the top as his stat score is 0.81, so he would need really strong performances going forward.

Other active players that are close but didn't make it and likely won't given their ages are LeSean McCoy with a 0.73 stat score and Marshawn Lynch with a 0.36. Interestingly...if the prime period is shortened to 4 years, Jamaal Charles makes the list with a 1.17.

Best Season Rankings

According to the stat score here, the best single seasons by a running back in the modern era were:

PlayerYearStat Score
OJ Simpson19752.59
Walter Payton19772.55
Terrell Davis19982.34
Marshall Faulk20002.31
Emmitt Smith19952.29

The best season for a still-active running back was Adrian Peterson's 2012 season (12th all-time).


What does it mean to be the best? I settled on two criteria for running backs:
  • statistical performance: how much of a statistical outlier was this player?
  • awards: how did the media and fans rank this player against his peers?
For statistical performance, I used the methodology described here. I used the top 24 running backs in each season, used 6 years for a running back's prime, and used the following weighting:
  • total yards per game (0.125)
  • rushing yards per game (0.125)
  • total touchdowns per game (0.30)
  • rushing yards per attempt (0.40)
  • fumbles per game (-0.05)
The resulting score is roughly 'number of standard deviations above his peers during his prime.' Singling out the top 2, here are their careers as an example:

Barry Sanders was incredible while he played, but he retired early. He would be hurt if this score was based on total stats. Emmitt Smith had a great prime, then tapered off late in his career. He would be hurt if this score was based on average performance over time. Since this score is a measure of how good your prime was, it captures the best 6 seasons for each of these players and only compares those.

For awards, I considered only pro bowl and first-team all-pro voting. I considered including MVP also, but there is strong bias in that one. Since there is not a positional one each season, the MVP voting can be biased by era. In the past decade, it is much more quarterback-heavy than it was in previous decades. Are running backs significantly worse now, are quarterbacks significantly better, or did the rules and perception in the league change? That's all very unclear, so it's a bad metric for this in my opinion.

The award scores are simple. If a player was sent to the pro bowl, he gets 0.083 added to his score for that season. If he was named a first team all-pro, he gets 0.167 added to his score for that season. A running back who was sent to 6 pro bowls and named a first-team all-pro in 6 seasons during his prime will get a perfect award score of 0.25.


I really like this rough methodology for comparing players across eras. If you have any feedback, suggestions, etc., let me know in the comments.



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