Era-Adjusted Rushing Leaders

Scott Spratt looks at which all-time running backs would have had the best fantasy seasons had they played in the 2013 scoring environment.

| 3 years ago
LaDainian Tomlinson

Era-Adjusted Rushing Leaders


LaDainian TomlinsonIt’s always dangerous to infer a trend from a pattern of a couple of seasons, but, for the second consecutive season, no running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Whatever that means about the chances for an all-time great back in this year’s draft class, I think it is pretty clear that teams believe backs are less valuable relative to other positions than they perceived them to be in the years and decades before.

As teams have migrated from primary backs to collections of more specialized players, the combined production of all rushers has changed very little over the last four decades. In fact, between 1970 and 2013, rushing attempts declined by only four per team per game. Rushing yards declined by only seven yards per team per game. Excluding the strike season in 1982, rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns all remained within about 25 percent of the 2013 totals each season, adjusting for the presence of fewer teams in past seasons:

Rushing Multipliers to Conform to 2013
Season Att Yards TD
1970 0.99 1.07 1.14
1971 0.96 0.99 1.00
1972 0.92 0.93 0.92
1973 0.87 0.89 1.01
1974 0.90 0.97 0.91
1975 0.85 0.89 0.81
1976 0.84 0.86 0.87
1977 0.83 0.90 1.02
1978 0.76 0.80 0.79
1979 0.80 0.83 0.74
1980 0.84 0.89 0.83
1981 0.84 0.87 0.81
1982 1.56 1.70 1.55
1983 0.85 0.87 0.82
1984 0.88 0.91 0.88
1985 0.89 0.90 0.81
1986 0.90 0.95 0.89
1987 0.92 0.97 1.05
1988 0.89 0.93 0.85
1989 0.93 0.98 0.92
1990 0.98 0.99 0.95
1991 0.99 1.05 1.00
1992 0.99 1.02 1.08
1993 1.02 1.09 1.25
1994 0.97 1.08 1.06
1995 0.98 1.04 1.00
1996 0.96 1.03 1.06
1997 0.95 1.00 1.00
1998 0.96 1.00 1.01
1999 0.99 1.06 1.09
2000 0.98 1.00 0.96
2001 0.98 1.01 1.09
2002 0.98 0.97 0.89
2003 0.96 0.96 0.96
2004 0.96 0.97 0.99
2005 0.96 1.00 0.95
2006 0.96 0.96 0.97
2007 0.99 1.02 1.06
2008 0.98 0.97 0.86
2009 0.99 0.97 0.96
2010 1.00 0.99 1.03
2011 0.99 0.96 1.03
2012 1.00 0.97 1.02
2013 1.00 1.00 1.00

 

Had the total rushing production actually declined in recent seasons, I would have expected the best seasons by the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, and Marshall Faulk in the modern era to really stand out. It turns out, that is the case, but it is not for the reason I expected.

When I did a similar exercise for quarterbacks, I was surprised to find just how many of the great quarterback seasons were from before 2000. The key to many of those exceptional quarterback seasons was rushing production. Well, the reason so many great running back seasons have taken place over the last 15 years despite the steadiness in overall production spread out over more specialized backs is receiving production:

Best Era-Adjusted Fantasy Seasons, Running Backs, 1970-2013
Player Season RushYards RushTd FanPts PPRPts aRushYards aRushTD aFanPts aPPRPts
L. Tomlinson 2006 1815 28 427 483 1746 27 429 492
Marshall Faulk 2000 1359 18 375 456 1363 17 394 485
Emmitt Smith 1995 1773 25 365 427 1849 25 375 441
Priest Holmes 2003 1420 27 373 447 1360 26 373 458
A. Peterson 2007 1851 15 354 424 1884 16 372 446
Marshall Faulk 2001 1382 12 341 424 1396 13 371 465
O.J. Simpson 1975 1817 16 362 390 1611 13 369 417
Terrell Davis 1998 2008 21 361 386 2011 21 367 397
Priest Holmes 2002 1615 21 373 443 1570 19 365 440
S. Alexander 2005 1880 27 364 379 1887 26 359 376
L. Tomlinson 2003 1645 13 344 444 1576 12 353 468
E. James 2000 1709 13 338 401 1713 13 351 422
C. Foreman 1975 1070 13 308 381 949 10 348 474
Ahman Green 2003 1883 15 345 395 1804 14 347 404
Marcus Allen 1982 697 11 196 234 1188 17 346 429
Marshall Faulk 1999 1381 7 315 402 1464 8 343 441
E. James 1999 1553 13 316 378 1646 14 343 412
Chris Johnson 2009 2006 14 347 397 1941 13 343 396
Emmitt Smith 1992 1713 18 319 378 1750 19 341 415
Emmitt Smith 1994 1484 21 315 365 1607 22 339 394
S. Jackson 2006 1528 13 329 419 1470 13 338 440
Larry Johnson 2005 1750 20 335 368 1757 19 337 374
Arian Foster 2010 1616 16 330 396 1594 16 335 405
Larry Johnson 2006 1789 17 334 375 1721 16 333 379
Barry Sanders 1997 2053 11 320 353 2047 11 328 367

 

I have only listed each player’s rushing numbers and fantasy production, but the discrepancy between each player’s standard fantasy points and PPR fantasy points should clue you in. On average, the running back leaders have caught 58 passes in their top 25 seasons. And only O.J. Simpson in 1975, Terrell Davis in 1998, and Shaun Alexander in 2005 had fewer than 30 receptions in those seasons.

As passing numbers have exploded in recent years, running backs have benefited from those extra receptions and receiving yards. Only six of the top 25 era-adjusted running back seasons are from before 1997. Half of those are courtesy of Emmitt Smith. One was the 1982 season from Marcus Allen, and since that was a strike year, it was more likely to produce an exceptional per game line since there were fewer games for that line to regress to true talent numbers. Backs rarely see 300 attempts in a season any more, but when they do, they are much likelier to also pull down 50 catches. And that pushes the recent great seasons to the top of the era-adjusted fantasy leaderboard.

Backs with multiple seasons in the top 25 include Marshall Faulk with three, Emmitt Smith with three, LaDainian Tomlinson with two, Edgerrin James, Priest Holmes with two, and Holmes’ successor, Larry Johnson, with two.

Next up: receivers.

 

Update 5/18/14 – A bug in my original query omitted some rather notable rushing seasons, including ones from Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Shaun Alexander, and Edgerrin James. Thanks to commenter Shaun for pointing that out to me.

 

Scott Spratt was named Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He also writes for RotoGraphs and contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt

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  • shaun

    Shaun Alexander

    • Scott Spratt

      Hey, Shaun. Thanks for the heads up. The reason he was missing was because of a bug in my query that also knocked off several other important seasons. The article has been updated with the change now.