Best Running Back Seasons By Age
May 15, 2012 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Running backs have the shortest careers of any position in the NFL. A great quarterback can play into his 40s. Most RBs, even the best of them, are washed up by the time they turn 30. Which running backs burned brightest early in their careers? Which were still powerhouses later on? What was the greatest season ever by a running back in his 30s? To answer those questions, I broke down the best seasons any running back has had in the modern era, dividing them by age as of Week 4 in that season.
Barry Sanders, 1989
1,470 yards, 5.3 average, 14 TD
Everyone knew Barry Sanders was going to be a star, and he didn't disappoint. Early in the season, the Lions were careful with Sanders, as he only carried 44 times in the first four weeks. Afterwards, he averaged 20 attempts per game, topping 100 yards seven times and 150 yards twice. Later in his career, Sanders developed a reputation as someone who shouldn't be used in short-yardage situations, but as a rookie, he ranked second in the NFL in rushing TDs.
Jim Brown, 1957
Jerome Bettis, 1993
Marshall Faulk, 1994
Edgerrin James, 1999
Clinton Portis, 2002
Most great young RBs are contemporary players familiar to young fans. It is more common now for players to leave college early, and it is more common for them to see a lot of playing time right away. This makes Jim Brown's rookie season all the more impressive. He led the NFL in rushing by over 20 yards per game and led the league in rushing TDs. That said, I'd give the second-place nod behind Sanders to Edgerrin James, who led the NFL with 1,553 rushing yards and joined Eric Dickerson as the only rookies in history with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. His 17 TDs are also the most by a rookie RB other than Dickerson.
Jim Brown, 1958
1,527 yards, 5.9 average, 17 TD
In a 12-game season, Brown rushed for almost twice as many yards as second-place Alan Ameche (791), averaged nearly 6 yards a carry, and tied the single-season touchdown record. Brown's 12-game totals are more impressive, across the board, than Barry Sanders was in 16 games at age 21, and that's not a slight against Sanders. This is arguably the greatest season by a running back of any age.
Gale Sayers, 1965
Franco Harris, 1972
Barry Sanders, 1990
Edgerrin James, 2000
Clinton Portis, 2003
Running backs tend to peak early, so there are some great seasons that didn't even make the list of honorable mentions, including Ottis Anderson in 1979 (1,605 yds), Emmitt Smith in 1991 (1,563), Adrian Peterson as a rookie (single-game rushing record), and Ray Rice in 2009 (over 2,000 YFS, 5.3 avg). Looking at the five I chose, Sayers scored 22 TDs in 14 games. Harris led the Steelers to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and caught the Immaculate Reception. Sanders led the league in rushing and TDs. James rushed for over 1,700 yards. Portis had 1,500 and averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Walter Payton, 1977
1,852 yards, 5.5 average, 14 TD
Payton's season is marred by 11 fumbles (in 14 games!), but it's still one of the finest in history. Sweetness led the NFL in rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns (16), and rushing average, leading in rushing by almost 600 yards (Mark van Eeghen, 1273). Payton's 132.3 yards per game is the third-highest mark in history, better than Eric Dickerson's record-setting 1984 season.
Hugh McElhenny, 1952
Jim Brown, 1959
Gale Sayers, 1966
Eric Dickerson, 1983
Emmitt Smith, 1992
McElhenny averaged 7 yards a carry and was an explosive receiver out of the backfield. Brown led the NFL in both rushing and TDs by huge amounts. This was Sayers' best season, with a career-high 1,231 rushing yards. Dickerson rushed for 1,808 yards, added 404 receiving, and scored 20 TDs. Smith led the league with 1,713 yards and 19 TDs. Several other outstanding seasons missed the cut.
Chris Johnson, 2009
2,006 yards, 5.6 average, 14 TD
In the season that earned him the nickname CJ2K, Johnson rushed for over 100 yards in each of the final 11 games, over 130 in seven of them. He led the NFL in rushing by nearly 600 yards, with a superb average per carry, and scored 14 TDs despite losing goal-line carries to LenDale White. Johnson also caught 50 passes for over 500 yards and 2 more TDs. Johnson's 590-yard rushing lead (Steven Jackson, 1,416) was the most since O.J. Simpson in 1973.
Lenny Moore, 1958
Eric Dickerson, 1984
Terrell Davis, 1997
LaDainian Tomlinson, 2003
Arian Foster, 2010
If I had to choose the single best age for RBs, it's probably 24. Moore averaged 7.3 yards per carry and scored 14 TDs. His 1,536 yards from scrimmage were far more than anyone else besides Jim Brown (see Age 22). Dickerson fumbled an astonishing 14 times, but he set a single-season rushing record that has stood for 30 years. Davis rushed for 1,750 yards and went on to have perhaps the greatest postseason of any RB in history. Tomlinson, stuck on a team that went 4-12, rushed for 1,645 yards, caught 100 passes, and scored 17 TDs. You remember Foster's season, right? 1,600 rushing, 600 receiving, 18 TDs?
Honorable Mentions, Part Two: Dan Towler, 1952; Jim Brown, 1960; Leroy Kelly, 1966; Earl Campbell, 1979; Jamal Lewis, 2003.
Terrell Davis, 1998
2,008 yards, 5.1 average, 21 TD
This is still the only season in history in which a player rushed for 2,000 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. TD's 23 total touchdowns were then the third-highest total in history. He had 11 100-yard rushing games, with five over 150 and another at 149. In the playoffs, he rushed for 199 yards and 2 TDs, then 167 and another touchdown. In Super Bowl XXXII, Davis again rushed for over 100 yards, this time adding 50 yards as a receiver.
Rick Casares, 1956
Earl Campbell, 1980
Marcus Allen, 1985
Thurman Thomas, 1991
Larry Johnson, 2005
Casares led the NFL in rushing by over 200 yards — 17 yards per game in a 12-game season — and led the league in TDs. Campbell rushed for 1,934 yards, including a record seven games with over 150 yards and four with over 200. Allen and Thomas were named NFL MVPs. Johnson, a backup to Priest Holmes for the first half of the season, nonetheless rushed for 1,750 yards and 20 TDs. In the final eight games, L.J. tallied 1,244 yards and 15 TDs. That's in half a season.
O.J. Simpson, 1973
2,003 yards, 6.0 average, 12 TD
The first 2,000-yard season in history, this is still the record for rushing yards per game (143.1) — by quite a lot, 10 yards per game. This is also the NFL record for largest margin of difference between the leading rusher (Simpson) and second-leading rusher (John Brockington, 1,144) — 859 yards, or 61 per game. Simpson's 6.0 average is also among the best in history, 5th all-time for players with at least 150 attempts.
Steve Van Buren, 1947
Leroy Kelly, 1968
Barry Sanders, 1994
Emmitt Smith, 1995
Marshall Faulk, 1999
This is another age at which the list is agonizing to trim. I could easily name 15 Honorable Mentions. Van Buren in 1947 became just the second NFL player to gain 1,000 rushing yards in a season, leading the league by over 300 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs. In an era when offense was withering, Kelly was the NFL's only 1,000-yard rusher — with 1,239 — and his 20 TDs led the league by 6. Sanders rushed for 1,883 yards with a 5.7 average. Smith rushed for 1,773 and set the single-season TD record (25). Faulk had 1,381 yards rushing and 1,048 receiving.
Honorable Mentions, Part Two: Joe Perry, 1953; Frank Gifford, 1956; Jim Taylor, 1961; Thurman Thomas, 1992; Ahman Green, 2003
Jim Brown, 1963
1,863 yards, 6.4 average, 12 TD
This may be the most remarkable season by any RB in history. For starters, it's the highest single-season rushing average (6.40). Brown led the NFL in rushing yardage by 845 yards, 83% (Jim Taylor, 1018). He also led the NFL in TDs (15) and became the first player in history with six 150-yard rushing games in a season. His average of 133.1 rushing yards per game is the second-best in history, trailing only O.J. in '73. Brown's combination of speed and power, evident every season of his nine-year career, was unparalleled. No other running back has so consistently dominated the league and stood out from his peers.
Chet Mutryn, 1948
Joe Perry, 1954
Jim Taylor, 1962
Marshall Faulk, 2000
LaDainian Tomlinson, 2006
Playing for the Buffalo Bills of the AAFC, Mutryn was a standout runner (5.6 avg, 10 TD), receiver (794 yds, 5 TD), and returner (26.3 KR avg, 17.1 PR avg, TD). Perry became the first player in history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, leading the league by almost 400 yards and averaging 6.1 yds/att. During Jim Brown's career, Taylor in '62 was the only player besides Brown himself to lead the NFL in rushing, netting 1,472 yards and 19 TDs in just 14 games. Faulk set a single-season TD record (26) and won NFL MVP. Tomlinson rushed for 1,815 yards, added 508 receiving, and set a TD record (31) that probably will never fall in a 16-game season.
O.J. Simpson, 1975
1,817 yards, 5.5 average, 16 TD
I might argue that this was an even better season than his 2,000-yard campaign two years earlier. In 1973, Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards, but he only gained 70 receiving yards and scored 12 total TDs. In '75, the Juice had almost 200 fewer rushing yards, but he added 426 receiving yards and scored 23 TDs, the most ever in a 14-game season. Are 356 receiving yards and 11 TDs worth 186 rushing yards and a few points of average? It's at least close.
Spec Sanders, 1947
Steve Van Buren, 1949
Marshall Faulk, 2001
Priest Holmes, 2002
Shaun Alexander, 2005
If you insist on an Honorable Mention between 1950-2000, consider Jim Brown in '64 and Roger Craig or Eric Dickerson in 1988. Sanders, a single-wing tailback for the AAFC's New York Yankees football team, rushed for 1,432 yards, by far the highest single-season total in a major pro league until Jim Brown. Sanders scored 18 rushing TDs and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, the third-best average in history. Van Buren became the first NFL player to rush for 1,100 yards in a season, led the NFL in touchdowns, and set a postseason record with 196 yards in the NFL Championship Game.
Faulk gained 2,147 yards from scrimmage and led the NFL in touchdowns and rushing average. Despite missing the last two games of the season with an injury, Holmes led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,287) and TDs (24), while fumbling only once in 383 touches. Alexander led the league in rushing, broke the single-season TD record (28), and earned MVP honors.
Barry Sanders, 1997
2,053 yards, 6.1 average, 11 TD
In his first two games, Sanders rushed for a combined 53 yards. He was over 100 in every game for the rest of the season, setting a record for most 100-yard rushing games (14) that has never been seriously challenged. His 14-game total of exactly 2,000 yards would be the second-best in history, just three behind O.J. Simpson's historic 1973 effort. Sanders' 6.1 rushing average is the highest ever by a player with at least 300 carries.
Jim Taylor, 1964
Jim Brown, 1965
O.J. Simpson, 1976
Priest Holmes, 2003
Tiki Barber, 2004
For ages 23-28, it's heart-breaking to trim the list of Honorable Mentions, cutting really great years because they're just a little bit weaker than the others. There are still some sensational seasons among the five above. Brown in '65 scored 21 TDs, rushed for 80% more yards (1,544) than second-best Gale Sayers (867), and won NFL MVP. Holmes in '03 gained over 2,100 yards from scrimmage and set the single-season TD record (27). The other three seasons were great, but they don't stand out the same way.
Tiki Barber, 2005
1,860 yards, 5.2 average, 9 TD
This is almost certainly the greatest season ever by a running back in his 30s. Barber's 1,860 yards rank as the best by almost 200 yards (Curtis Martin, 1,697), his 5.2 average is the best of anyone with at least 250 attempts, and that doesn't even include 54 catches for 530 yards and 2 TDs. Despite Barber's reputation for fumbling, he put the ball on the ground only once in 2005. Barber rushed for 200 yards three times, the only player to do so since Earl Campbell in 1980. In the final game of the regular season, with a playoff spot on the line, Barber gained 203 yards rushing and another 60 receiving in a 30-21 victory.
Tony Canadeo, 1949
Marion Motley, 1950
Tom Matte, 1969
Walter Payton, 1984
Charlie Garner, 2002
Canadeo rushed for 1,052 yards in a 12-game season, only the third player to top 1,000 in the NFL. Motley led the NFL in rushing by over 100 yards, with a 5.8 average, and was the best blocking back in the league. Matte led the NFL in YFS and TDs. Payton rushed for 1,684 yards and added 368 as a receiver. Garner gained over 900 yards as both a rusher (962) and receiver (941), averaging 5.3 yds/att, catching 91 passes, scoring 11 TDs, and not fumbling all season. Lenny Moore (20 TDs) also had a very productive age 30 season.
Tiki Barber, 2006
1,662 yards, 5.1 average, 5 TD
Man, is this a close call. Tiki had another great season — 2,127 yards from scrimmage, over five yards a carry, eight 100-yard games, plus 137 in a playoff loss to the Eagles. But was Barber in '06 really better than Walter Payton in 1985 and Curtis Martin in 2004? Um, maybe? Payton gained 2,034 YFS, averaged 4.8 yds/att, scored 11 TDs, and played on what is widely regarded as the greatest team of all time. Martin led the NFL in rushing (1,697) and scored 14 TDs. I give Barber a slight edge, but it's very, very close.
Joe Perry, 1958
Walter Payton, 1985
Ricky Watters, 2000
Curtis Martin, 2004
Thomas Jones, 2009
Perry was third in the NFL in rushing yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on 125 attempts. Watters rushed for 1,242 yards (4.5 avg), caught 63 passes for 613 yards, and scored 9 TDs. Jones rushed for 1,402 yards and 14 TDs. Since I already discussed Payton and Martin above, let's also throw a little credit toward Tony Dorsett, who just missed the cut in several years and isn't listed at any age yet. As a 31-year-old in 1985, Dorsett rushed for over 1,300 yards and had perhaps his best season as a receiver, catching 46 passes for 449 yards and 3 TDs.
Walter Payton, 1986
1,333 yards, 4.2 average, 8 TD
Payton just missed at 31, so this year he gets the benefit of the doubt over John Henry Johnson. In '86, his final season before giving way to Neal Anderson, Payton remained a workhorse and effective all-around player for the 14-2 Bears. Third in the NFL in rushing attempts, Payton also continued to contribute as a receiver (382 yds, 3 TD). I see Sweetness as the greatest RB at ages 23 and 32, almost a decade apart. His longevity and consistency separate Payton from other RBs who were just as good or almost as good in their primes.
John Henry Johnson, 1962
Ottis Anderson, 1989
Herschel Walker, 1994
Mike Anderson, 2005
Ricky Williams, 2009
Johnson, as I mentioned above, is the strongest in this group. He gained the 2nd-most rushing yards in 1962, behind Jim Taylor but ahead of Jim Brown and Cookie Gilchrist. O.J. Anderson enjoyed a career renaissance, topping 1,000 yards for the first time since 1985 and scoring 14 TDs. No longer a featured ball-carrier, Walker re-invented himself as the premier third-down back in the NFL and one of the best kickoff returners (27.7 avg, TD). He had 500 yards rushing, receiving, and returning, with a 4.7 rushing average and 8 TDs. Mike Anderson rushed for 1,014 yards and scored 13 TDs. Ricky Williams, half a decade removed from his retirement during the 2004 season, rushed for 1,121 yards, with a 4.7 average, and scored 13 TDs.
Marcus Allen, 1993
764 yards, 3.7 average, 12 TD
Okay, we're dropping quickly at this point. Most running backs, even the best of them, are retired at this point. In a strange quirk, though, 33 is actually a weaker age for top RB seasons than 34 is. In 1993, Allen finally escaped from Al Davis and was reborn as a short-yardage specialist in Kansas City. Paul Zimmerman wrote of Allen that "down around the goal line, a sixth sense kicked in and his instincts for the end zone became phenomenal. It was a unique talent." The early '90s were a dry period for running backs, and Allen this season ranked 15th in rushing yards, t-9th in rushing first downs, and led the league in rushing TDs. Not bad for an old man.
John Henry Johnson, 1963
John Riggins, 1982
Franco Harris, 1983
Ottis Anderson, 1990
Warrick Dunn, 2008
Johnson ranked 4th in the NFL in rushing (773 yds). Riggins atoned for a disappointing regular season (3.1 avg, 3 TD) with a phenomenal postseason performance, maybe the best ever. Harris is the only 33-year-old ever to rush for 1,000 yards, and his 1,285 yards from scrimmage are the most ever by a 33-year-old RB. Anderson totaled 923 yards from scrimmage and scored 11 TDs, then went on to win the MVP Award of Super Bowl XXV. Dunn gained a combined 1,116 yards from scrimmage, and never fumbled in 233 touches.
John Riggins, 1983
1,347 yards, 3.6 average, 24 TD
Riggins had an awful rushing average (3.6 yds/att) and contributed nothing as a receiver (5 rec, 29 yds), but he ranked 5th in rushing yardage and broke the single-season TD record, setting a mark that stood for over a decade. The Diesel also made another stellar postseason run, combining for 242 yards and 5 TDs in two playoff games, and scoring Washington's only touchdown in Super Bowl XVIII.
Joe Perry, 1961
John Henry Johnson, 1964
Tony Dorsett, 1988
Marcus Allen, 1994
Earnest Byner, 1996
Perry, a lifelong 49er, moved to the Colts in 1961. Despite splitting time with Lenny Moore, he rushed for 675 yards and caught 34 passes for another 322. Johnson rushed for 1,048 yards, only the second season of his career in which he topped 1,000, with a 4.5 average and 8 TDs. Dorsett, starring for the Broncos in his final season, rushed for 703 yards with a 3.9 average. Yeah, I know that doesn't sound great. The guy was 34, give him a break. Allen caught 42 passes and gained a combined 1,058 yards. Byner, in the Ravens' inaugural season, rushed for 634 yards — his highest total since 1992 in Washington — and caught 30 passes for 270 yards.
John Riggins, 1984
1,239 yards, 3.8 average, 14 TD
How was John Riggins so productive at an age when most RBs are not only washed up, but so washed up that they admit they can't play any more, and finally retire? It presumably wasn't the clean lifestyle of a man known for his eccentric personality and no-holds barred partying. So we attribute Riggins' success to a historic offensive line (The Hogs), a brilliant offensive coach (Joe Gibbs), the obvious (skill, perseverance, and luck — not necessarily in that order) ... and maybe a year off. Riggins sat out the 1980 season in a contract dispute, so he had less wear and tear — at least of a football nature — than most players that age, and he'd even had a year to recover.
Marcus Allen, 1995
Emmitt Smith, 2004
I could name more than two Honorable Mentions. There are other running backs who played and contributed at this age. But to illustrate how minor those contributions were, consider that the 5th-leading 35-year-old rusher of all time was a quarterback, Joe Theismann. Actually, 36-year-old QBs Doug Flutie and Steve Young rate even higher. Aside from Riggins, the only RBs who really distinguished themselves at this age were Allen (1,040 YFS) and Smith (1,042 YFS, 9 TD). Allen and Riggins also had respectable age 36 seasons.
Below is a list of the best RB at each age included in the study.
Ages 23-28 are the clear heart of a running back's career.