The Best NFL Running Backs From 1980-2020

By David Arkow, Mike Binkowski, Julia Blank, Shiv Chandra, Elliot Chin, Matt Given, Cyril Leahy, Pierre Lesperance, Aryan Naveen, Sterling Rosado, David Seo, Carter Stewart, Evelyn Tjoa

One of the endless questions in sport is always the GOAT debate. Fans are always looking to crown the best athlete of all-time and rarely is there ever a unanimous answer. Many different criteria shape this debate from individual statistics, team performance, championship history, and other narratives. Often is the case, there is never one single GOAT but rather a list of top players. We set out to create a list of the best players at each of the “primary” positions in football to further the debate over the greatest NFL players of all-time and provide quantifiable metrics to back up our picks.

Methodology

With the availability of many statistics, we tried to create a “catch-all” metric showing how good each running back was. Using z-scores, we compared where each player ranks in different widely available and “important” statistics separating by decade. Z-scores show how far a player’s individual stat is from the average of the group and adjusts for the variation in the data. For example, consider two running backs, one with 10,000 rushing yards in the 1980s and the other with 8,000 rushing yards in the 2010s. But in the 1980’s five other running backs also rushed for 10,000+ yards while in the 2010s, the second best running back rushed for 6,000. This is a hypothetical situation, but the z-score allows us to compare across decades since it adjusts for certain eras being skewed towards certain statistics. As tactics have changed over time (the 1980’s were much more run-happy than teams today), using z-scores allows us to compare within decades who were the best players. 

For running backs, we computed a z-score in 1) yards, 2) touchdowns, 3) yards per attempt, 4) fumbles, and 5) approximate value (an advanced metric that measures the seasonal value of a player) and then an overall average z-score of the five individual z-scores to create a “catch-all” metric. These five statistics have been the most widely used for the past four decades and are widely reported. In addition, we also adjusted these statistics by year to compute a per year average z-score to account for players who didn’t play for an entire decade. For example, Derrick Henry has played for five years this decade so he ranks sixth in overall z-score (1.22) but dominates in the adjusted per year z-score leading the pack (1.60). Looking at both the average and per year z-scores we were able to settle ties and bump players up or down based on whether they padded stats over a decade or truly had elite peak performance. 

From our ranked z-scores, we compiled a list of the best running backs in each decade from 1980 to 2020. These are by no means definitive lists but are still backed up by the stats so enjoy making your own Top 10 lists and debating with friends.

Caveats

While we took a holistic approach to arriving at our Top 10, there are other methods that would result in a different list. The five statistics we chose are both widely understood, recognized, and available metrics. Today, there are more advanced ones such as yards after contact that involve player tracking: however, these were not around before the 2000s. Additionally, one might put more weight on certain statistics such as valuing yards per attempt more than touchdowns or fumbles. Our z-scores don’t focus on running backs receiving abilities as much (they are still accounted for in yards and touchdowns) since the role of pass-catching backs has evolved much more recently. Our analysis also only looks at the three “primary” positions (QB, RB, WR) of football with the most stats available and fan attention. It could easily be argued that an offensive lineman or defensive cornerback might be more valuable than a running back but data for their performance is more sparse but could be an area of exploration in the future as metrics become more available. Nevertheless, our framework provides an objective starting point for comparing running backs across decades based on standardized, understood, and available metrics.

1980s

The 1980s were a time of dominant NFL dynasties which drew their power from owners’ wealthy pockets. The decade was the last without a salary cap, and it showed in the Super Bowl year after year. Teams rushed powerful backs behind star-studded offensive lines, bruising their way to victory. These backs, such as Roger Craig of the 49ers, and John Riggins of the then-Redskins, helped their teams to multiple rings during their long careers. However, when we focus on individual statistics rather than team performance, a different picture emerges.

Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson was far and away the best running back of the 1980s, dominating the decade for eight years during which he rushed for 11,903 yards. A Super Bowl ring—or even an appearance—is one of the few achievements his career does not boast. His full career, in which he racked up over 15,000 yards and nearly 100 touchdowns, was marked by numerous rookie records, a 2,000 yard season (1984), six Pro Bowls, and five All-Pro first team selections. He boasts both the highest total z-score (1.9) and highest per year z-score (1.38) indicating he had both longevity and the stellar peak performance. Dickerson was most ahead of his peers in total yards (z-score = 4.1). Dickerson’s z-score for yards per attempt is not quite as high at 1.2, indicating that his team fed him many rushes. He didn’t play for any superteam (he spent the 1980s on the Rams and Colts), like Craig’s Joe Montana-led 49ers. Instead, his teams channeled their offense through him, and he performed, even when the defense knew what was coming.

Marcus Allen’s 16-season career stretched two decades, a length now unheard of for running backs who take more hits than any other position. As with most backs, his accolades and accomplishments are concentrated in the first half of his career from 1982-1989. Allen rushed for 1,000 yards three consecutive times, while catching another 500 in each of those seasons. A Hall of Famer who undoubtedly lived up to his draft capital of 10th overall, Allen continued his superstardom from USC into the NFL. He followed up a Heisman Trophy with a Super Bowl MVP, joining an exclusive group of just seven players to have achieved both. While Allen averaged just 4 yards per attempt (middle of the pack for the era), he made up for it with 93 total touchdowns, more than any running back and 3.5 standard deviations above the mean.

Walter Payton, a member of both the College Football and Pro Hall of Fame, is widely regarded as one of the best running backs of all time. As such, his placement at #5 for the decade might come as a surprise. Payton’s career, however, suffers in classification by decade because it spans both the 70s and the 80s. His most successful season, yards-wise, was in 1977, and after 1979 he never scored more than 11 touchdowns in a year. That’s not to say Payton was not an incredible player: his 1985-86 Super Bowl was the highlight of an eight-thousand yard decade. Payton also excelled at staying on the field and catching passes, which don’t factor as heavily into our analysis. But when we consider the statistics of Payton’s play during the 80s, we find that Payton was a stellar back, but not necessarily the best. Payton is 2 standard deviations above the mean in only yards and Approximate Value. He is in great company with some of the best running backs of the decade, but—in the statistical categories we looked at—he did not surpass them.

1990s

The all-time NFL leading rusher in yards (18,355), Emmitt Smith claims the top spot of the ‘90s. Smith leads the pack with a total z-score of 3.2. Smith had arguably the best season by a running back in history in 1993, capturing the MVP, Rushing Crown, and Super Bowl MVP (the only RB to ever clinch all these titles in the same season). Smith’s touchdown z-score of 3.2 tower over those of his fellow top tier competitors. “Big Bad Barry” Sanders rushed for over 1,000 yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl all 10 years of his career with the Detroit Lions, but could never win the Lombardi Trophy. At 5’ 8”, he was known for his shifty, elusive style and breakout plays. Many would pick Sanders as the better back over Smith based on the “eye test”, and there is certainly evidence to back this claim. Despite Smith leading the league in all-time rushing yards, Sanders had a shorter career but was arguably better during his peak. Sanders beats out Smith in some statistics when adjusted for the length of their careers.

Faulk won two super bowls with the LA “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, and was a three-time Offensive Player of the Year (1999–2001). Faulk’s versatility as a running back may have stemmed from his overall football IQ. In his senior season of high school, Faulk also played defensive back, intercepting 11 passes with six pick-6s. Faulk’s legendary career ended after reconstructive knee surgery, and the Rams retired his legendary number 28. Ricky Watters played for three different teams in this decade: San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Seattle Seahawks. He didn’t even play his career position before arriving in the NFL, as he was the wide receiver on Notre Dame's 1988 National Champion team. The five-time Pro Bowler is one of a handful of running backs to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season for three teams. Watters is now a motivational speaker for kids who, like himself, are adopted. The Denver Broncos all-time leading rusher (7,607 rushing yards) still holds the record for most touchdowns (8) in a single postseason (1997). Davis won a pair of Super Bowls with the Broncos and was both Super Bowl and NFL MVP. The injury prone Davis was the lowest drafted player (Pick 196) to ever gain over 1,000 yards in his rookie season. Similar to Watters and other talented running backs, Davis was an all-around athlete, playing football and baseball in college and setting his high school’s discus throw record.

2000s

It’s no surprise that LT takes the number one spot for the running backs in the 2000’s. It’s hard to pick just one area that sets this legendary Charger ahead of the pack as he excelled on many levels. For one, Tomlinson started his dominance early with an immediate 10 touchdown and 1,000-plus yard rushing season in his rookie year. Moreover, his touchdowns z-score adjusted per year (3.29) is head and shoulders above his contemporaries’ (second place Priest Holmes is  2.63). He also rushed for double-digit touchdowns in all but two of his seasons and set the record for most single-season touchdowns (28) by a running back in 2006. Although he never won a Super Bowl, his speed, scoring prowess, and catching ability make Tomlinson a legendary back. Despite entering the league as an undrafted fourth-string player, Holmes makes this list because he excelled from 2001-2003. During that period he accumulated at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage each season and led the league in rushing touchdowns in 2002 (21) and 2003 (27). Before his breakout seasons with the Chiefs, he was the second-string back on the Ravens team that won the 2000 Super Bowl. Unfortunately, his career was cut short in 2007 due to a nagging neck injury.

One of the more underrated dual-threat backs of all time, Brian Westbrook makes the top three despite our methodology not taking into account receiving yards from scrimmage. He also helped lead the Eagles to three consecutive NFC Championship appearances from 2002 to 2004. Clinton Portis of The Washington Redskins (now Football Team) was another consistent performer averaging almost nine touchdowns and over 1,000 rushing yards a season for his nine-year career. A lot of his success can be attributed to his blazing fast 4.26 40-yard dash time. Like other  running backs on this list, injuries prevented Portis from reaching even higher heights, as he missed considerable time in the latter half of his career. After Shaun Alexander’s rookie season, he put up five consecutive 1,000 plus yard rushing seasons. He also led the league in rushing touchdowns twice with 14 in 2001 and 27, in 2005. Remarkably, three players (Tomlinson, Holmes, Alexander) in this decade hold the top three spots for rushing touchdowns in a season. The former Alabama back wasn’t the fastest runner, but his strength and decisive running style allowed him to reel off plenty of long rushes. He also won league MVP in 2005 and led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl appearance that same year. Alexander is the leading rusher in Seahawks franchise history with over 9,000 yards.

2010s

LeSean “Shady” McCoy had a long and impressive career, known for his shiftiness. The all-time leading Eagles’ rusher has the highest average total z-score (1.66) for backs in the 2010s. And although his performance declined towards the end of his career, he was able to end it off with two Super Bowl wins with the Chiefs and Buccaneers when he was not even the primary rusher. Marshawn Lynch, a member of the All-Decade team, played in the league for twelve seasons, was selected to the Pro Bowl for four, and won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks. Skittles led the league in 2013 and 2014 in rushing touchdowns and his touchdown z-score of 2.52 ranks second in the decade.

Alvin Kamara has been largely regarded as one of the most dominant running backs in the league. Not only has he been selected for the NFL Pro-Bowl all 4 seasons he’s played, in 2017, he was named Rookie of the Year and led the league in Yards per Attempt with a whopping 6.1 (z-score of 1.57 in career yards per attempt). His most famous game came last year on Christmas Day when he tied Ernie Never’s record for six touchdowns (56 fantasy points) in a game. Kamara has a knack for getting in the end zone (z-score of 3.36 for touchdowns adjusted per year) scoring for his team and fantasy owners Kamara’s versatility as a check-down receiver made him a go-to option for Drew Brees as he has 3,065 career receiving yards nearly the same amount as his 3,759 rushing yards. Thus, his approximate value per year has a z-score of 3.44.  And while he is yet to win a Super Bowl ring with the Saints, they have made the playoffs in all four of his seasons yet that will likely end this year according FiveThirtyEight with the retirement of Brees. Likely not even halfway through his career, it is probable Kamara could crack the all-time Top 10 list.

Derrick Henry is truly an explosive player, and it’s difficult to stop him when he’s on the ground. The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama is only one of eight players to record more than 2,000 rushing yards in a season, and held the league record in 2019 and 2020 with 1,540 and 2,027 yards respectively. With these stats, he has an impressive z-score of 2.13 in yards per year. Moreover, in those same years as well 2021 before his potentially season-ending injury he led the league in touchdowns (Z-score of 2.64 in touchdowns per year). Not only is he the fastest running back at the line of scrimmage with a speed of 10.87 mph, he boasts an impressive 1,037 yards after contact with his ability to break tackles thanks to his 6’3’’ 238 pound frame. Henry, the two-time Pro Bowler and 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, however, has yet to win a Super Bowl. With his potential return in the 2021 playoffs, Henry could provide a much-needed boost to the Titans who are currently the No. 2 seed in the AFC but have a mere 4% chance to win it all according to FiveThirtyEight.

Todd Gurley rounds out our top five due to his impressive scoring stats during his peak years. The 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year and 2017 Offensive Player of the Year led the league in both rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns in 2017 and 2018. His corresponding z-scores for total rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns are 2.84 and 2.97 respectively, the highest of any running back in the decade despite the fact that he has only played just over half the decade. Despite Gurley’s stellar seasons, injuries have taken a toll on his career as he is currently a free agent.

Veteran Adrian Peterson is known as one of the greats to record over 14,000 career rushing yards (fifth all-time). His standout seasons of the decade were 2012, where he was named the NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year and rushed for 2,097 yards, and 2015 where he again led the league with 1,485 rushing yards (z-score of 2.95 for total rushing yards). However, injury and legal charges kept him off the field in later years dropping his per-year average z-score to 0.40. This average was not helped by his z-score of -3.30 for total fumbles indicating that he had a loose grip. Nevertheless, Peterson remains one of the greatest running backs in the decade, selected unanimously to the NFL All-Decade Team. This year, Peterson has played for both the Titans and Seahawks in the wake of injuries to their star running backs. Third-round draft pick Frank Gore proved to be an extremely valuable player, known for his longevity and consistency. He ranks third all-time in rushing yards with 16,000, giving him a z-score of 3.23 for total rushing yards in the decade. Additionally, Gore was selected to the Pro-Bowl five times as well as the NFL All-Decade Team. Gore bounced around five different teams for the decline of his career but will always be remembered as one of the all-time great 49ers backs.

Top 10 lists are one of the most widely discussed topics in sports. Fans always enjoy making their own “Top 10s” and passionately debating them with others. There is no one “right” list but rather a spectrum and after all sport is an art. HSAC has come up with our own lists for running backs spanning each decade from 1980 to the present. Our analysis is rooted in z-scores, seeing how well each player has performed in different important stats relative to their peers. Thus, we create a catch all metric to quantify how good a player was and for what reasons. We hope our lists sparks further debate among football fans as they appreciate the legacies of these legends.

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