Zeno’s Running Backs

People love ranking things. Books, movies, chefs, musicians, anything that might reasonably be evaluated and ordered. But no one loves ranking more than sports fans, and the ultimate ranking is the one labeled all-time.

But all-time rankings are tricky, because every once in a while you'll meet that person who says that today's athletes are bigger, stronger, and better trained. Therefore, this person tells you, the best athlete right now is the best of all-time. Thus, you get LeBron James over Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan. Albert Pujols over Babe Ruth. Calvin Johnson over Jerry Rice. And so on.

Those people are either stupid or trolling, because that isn't an all-time argument at all — it tacitly eliminates all but the most recent competitors. A few years ago, when ESPN was busy crowning the 2005 USC Trojans as the greatest team in the history of college football, Mark May explained that USC was better than the 1955 Oklahoma Sooners (who went 11-0 with a combined points margin of 385-60) and it wasn't even close: "look at the size of the players ... their starting center was 5-8 and 158 pounds."

That's a sucker's argument, because then your all-time argument is really limited to the last 10 or 15 years. Between the size of the players and the sophistication of today's offensive and defensive strategies, even an awful team like the 2012 Boston College Eagles would probably beat the '55 Sooners. That's not what we mean when we discuss the best of all time; we compare players and teams in the context of their own eras.

Without that context, today's players are better. They're bigger, stronger, and faster. They begin playing seriously while they're still young. They train full-time and study game film. Today's players are better, yes. But even without the context of era, has any NFL running back surpassed Jim Brown?

Jim Brown in 1958 was at least as good as Gale Sayers in 1966. You don't need to make any adjustments for era; the men were contemporaries, and even in 1965, the year before his retirement, Brown outplayed Sayers.

Sayers in '66 was about as good as O.J. Simpson in 1973. Again, these are players whose careers overlapped. In Simpson's rookie year, Sayers led the NFL in rushing. Knee injuries ended his career shortly afterwards, but if Sayers had the same doctor as Adrian Peterson, perhaps he would have matched O.J. into the '70s.

Simpson in 1973 was probably just as good as Walter Payton in 1977. It was the best season of Payton's long and storied career, but you could give O.J. a time machine leap of four years and I don't know that Sweetness would be the best running back in football.

I don't believe Payton in '77 was any worse than Eric Dickerson in '84. Payton averaged more yards and more touchdowns per game, and he did it an era that was dominated by defense. Dickerson in '84 was comparable to Barry Sanders in 1990. Again, if you popped Dickerson into a short-range time machine and put him on the field six years later, there's every reason to believe he'd still be the best RB in the game.

It's hard to believe Sanders in '90 was any worse than in '97. In 1990, Sanders was 22 and in the middle of a three-year reign as the premier RB in the NFL. In '97, he rushed for 2,053 yards, but he was 29 and only a year from retirement. At the same time, would anyone argue that there was an obvious difference between Sanders in 1997 and Marshall Faulk in 2001? If Sanders had unretired, a lot of people would have expected 33-year-old Sanders to play near Faulk's level. If you transported the 29-year-old Barry to 2001, he might have given Faulk a run for his money as the best RB in the league.

But with his unique receiving ability, wasn't Faulk in '01 every bit as valuable as LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006? And as remarkable as Adrian Peterson was in 2012, did he play any better than Tomlinson in '06? L.T. had more total yardage and 18 more touchdowns.

So Brown in '58 was as good as Sayers in '66, who was as good as Simpson in '73, who was equal with Payton in '77, who matched up with Dickerson in '84, who was as good as Sanders in '90, who probably wasn't a lot different in '97, and could then be compared with Faulk in '01, when he probably wasn't any better than Tomlinson in '06, and Tomlinson wasn't any worse than Peterson in 2012.

Thus, working on the transitive property, we've just shown that Jim Brown in 1958 was every bit the player Adrian Peterson was last season, without making any adjustments for era.

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