- Bill Barnwell
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It would be redundant to pile further compliments on the throne of Adrian Peterson and his magnificent 2007 season. You watched him play. You know how good he was.
What was lost in the shuffle, though, was the performance of Minnesota's 2006 starter, Chester Taylor. Taylor split time with Peterson when each was healthy, and when Peterson went down for what essentially amounted to three games, Taylor filled in ably. All in all, while Peterson was obviously the superior back, Taylor's numbers on a per-carry basis were certainly in his stratosphere. As a whole, the Vikings led the league in both rushing yards and yards per carry in 2007.
What we're interested in doing, though, is looking at the best one-two punches at running back in NFL history. Of course, there are countless variables which need to be accounted for in measuring performance across different eras. For example, while rushers in 1973 averaged 4.03 yards per carry, running backs in 2006 averaged 4.16 yards. There's differences in schedule quality and length, and we want to adjust for a back's ability to gain first downs and not fumble, helping his team win.
We took every stat line and adjusted to a modern 16-game schedule, and measured how much better each player was than the average running back of his time. The resulting essay went into Pro Football Prospectus 2007. While we haven't run the same numbers for Peterson and Taylor's performance, by looking at how each team's top two running backs ranked, we can find the best one-two punches in NFL history. We'll make our informed guess on where Peterson and Taylor ranked after the list.
As a note, we started after the merger, so no seasons before 1970 are included. All statistics listed are the player's raw numbers.
1. 1988 Cincinnati Bengals
Ickey Woods (203 carries, 1,066 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt, 15 TD)
James Brooks (182 carries, 931 yards, 5.1 yards per attempt, 8 TD)
Ah, the golden days of the Ickey Shuffle. Although a 22-year-old Woods only started 10 games, he was a revelation because of his dancing -- and his play. However, Woods tore up his knee two games into the 1989 season and was never the same player. Who could've predicted he'd only have 129 more professional carries? Brooks, meanwhile, threw in six more touchdowns as a receiver to come close to Woods' 15. After this year, Woods' injury thrust Brooks back into a leading role, where he picked up consecutive 1,000-yard seasons before fading out.
2. 1973 Los Angeles Rams
Lawrence McCutcheon (210 carries, 1,097 yards, 5.2 yards per attempt, 2 TD)
Jim Bertelsen (206 carries, 854 yards, 4.1 yards per attempt, 4 TD)
Since they didn't make it to the Super Bowl until 1979, people forget how good the Rams were for virtually this entire decade. This was their best team, highlighted by the best point differential in the league. The Cowboys took a 17-0 lead on them in the playoffs and prevented them from using this rushing attack. McCutcheon was virtually a rookie, and had a five-year run of excellence before breaking down; Bertelsen never had more than 127 carries in a year again, and when his five-year run of excellence ended, he was out of football at the age of 27.
3. 1987 Seattle Seahawks
Curt Warner (234 carries, 985 yards, 4.2 yards per attempt, 8 TD)
John L. Williams (113 carries, 500 yards, 4.4 yards per attempt, 1 TD)
How are the backs for a 9-6 team that was 12th in average yards per carry in 1987 ahead of the vaunted Csonka-Morris combination? Well, the first issue is schedule. Second is ball defense; the pair only fumbled six times, fewer than Morris alone. Third is an issue people forget: The players' strike. Warner and Williams only played 12 games that season. If they play 16, Warner goes from 985 yards to 1,313, and Williams from 500 to 667.
4. 1972 Miami Dolphins
Larry Csonka (213 carries, 1,117 yards, 5.2 yards per attempt, 6 TD)
Mercury Morris (190 carries, 1,000 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt, 12 TD)
Yes, we realize the Dolphins were perfect in 1972. Their running game was excellent and the largest contributing factor to that success. Two things keep them from being ranked No 1. First, that famously easy schedule helped throw a lot of creampuffs in Miami's way. Second, Morris couldn't hold on to the ball, fumbling eight times in only 205 attempts.
5. 1984 San Francisco 49ers
Wendell Tyler (246 carries, 1,262 yards, 5.1 yards per attempt, 7 TD)
Roger Craig (155 carries, 649 yards, 4.2 yards per attempt, 7 TD)
The 15-1 49ers could do little wrong in 1984, but they benefited from a dynamite rushing attack that was second in the league in yards per attempt. Tyler looked to be on top of the world after earning his first Pro Bowl berth, but Craig would take over more of his role a year later, and by 1986, Tyler was finished.
6. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers
Franco Harris (289 carries, 1,128 yards, 3.9 yards per attempt, 14 TD)
Rocky Bleier (220 carries, 1,036 yards, 4.7 yards per attempt, 5 TD)
The irony of the 1976 season was that the Steelers did not win the Super Bowl for the third consecutive time, despite having their best campaign running the ball.
Terry Bradshaw was in and out of the lineup with injuries, forcing rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek into the lineup and their running backs into a starring role. They led the league in carries, yards and touchdowns, and were fourth in yards per attempt.
7. 1979 New Orleans Saints
Chuck Muncie (238 carries, 1,198 yards, 5.0 yards per attempt, 11 TD)
Tony Galbreath (189 carries, 708 yards, 3.7 yards per attempt, 9 TD)
Muncie's performance is one woefully underrated by time; while the Saints were only 8-8, it was thanks to a defense that was 22nd in the league. New Orleans was only 15th in the NFL in carries, but they scored the most touchdowns and had the fourth-best yards per attempt. He requested and received a trade after the season.
8. 1971 Miami Dolphins
Larry Csonka (195 carries, 1,057 yards, 5.4 yards per attempt, 7 TD)
Jim Kiick (162 carries, 738 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt, 3 TD)
In '71, Kiick was the starter and Mercury Morris the backup, serving mainly as a return man. Kiick had a Ben Grieve-style career, peaking in his first two seasons with consecutive Pro Bowl berths. After the merger, Csonka became the focus of the team's running attack and the team star.
9. 1972 Oakland Raiders
Marv Hubbard (219 carries, 1,100 yards, 5.0 yards per attempt, 4 TD)
Charlie H. Smith (170 carries, 686 yards, 4.0 yards per attempt, 8 TD)
Hubbard was really a remarkable player, forgotten because he missed the 1976 championship season with a shoulder injury and lost his job in the process. Hubbard was was an 11th-round draft pick in the AFL who eventually became the Raiders' starting fullback. Despite being a fullback, Hubbard averaged five yards a carry in 1972, almost a full yard over the league average. Smith was the team's halfback, and in a reverse-vulturing, actually scored the bulk of the team's touchdowns.
10. 1990 Chicago Bears
Neal Anderson (260 carries, 1,078 yards, 4.1 yards per attempt, 10 TD)
Brad Muster (141 carries, 664 yards, 4.7 yards per attempt, 6 TD)
This was Anderson's last year as a 1,000-yard back; the difference between 1990 and the previous two seasons was primarily the emergence of Muster as a complementary threat. In his only year receiving more than 100 carries, Muster had his best yards-per-carry average. The other factor? Fumbles. In 1988 and 1989, Anderson averaged nearly 1,200 yards, but he also fumbled a total of 13 times. That went down to two in 1990.
So while this list is sure to dredge up some discussion, what about Peterson and Taylor? Where do they fit?
Looking at the numbers, it's pretty fair to say they're somewhere between Nos. 2 and 4. While they don't have the raw yardage totals some of the opposition does, two backs averaging well over five yards an attempt, even in this context, is remarkable. None of these tandems held up for much more than two or three seasons together; it'll be interesting to see how long Peterson and Taylor can complement each other's game in purple and gold.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.
2dEric D. Williams
1dMel Kiper Jr.