Don’t let the numbers fool you – former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown IS the greatest running back of all time.
When the NFL expanded its regular season from 12 to 14, and then from 14 to 16 games, it was inevitable that records which once stood would ultimately fall.
Through those changes to the game, running backs have had greater opportunities to amass higher career totals. So when Jim Brown’s career total of 12,312 rushing yards was surpassed by the likes of Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, etc., it was not an indictment against Jim Brown’s legacy. Instead, it was a side-effect from the fact that today’s running backs simply have greater opportunity to gain yards. And just as Emmitt Smith currently sits atop the all-time list for yards and touchdowns today, if the NFL decides to expand its season to 18 games, his records won’t last long either.
There is one standard that has not changed, and it serves as a valid comparison for ALL running backs regardless of the number of games they played. It is by this measure alone that the greatest running back of all time can be determined, and it is the one measure in which Jim Brown remains unsurpassed.
Jim Brown is the only running back in NFL history to AVERAGE more than 100 rushing yards per game over the course of his ENTIRE CAREER.
Think about that for a moment. The standard by which a running back is deemed to have had a successful game is if they rush for more than 100 yards. That was the AVERAGE for Jim Brown. Walter Payton was good for only 88.0 yards per game, and Emmitt Smith averaged only 81.2. Jim Brown was good for an extra 20 yards every single day he played the game.
Jim Brown also never MISSED a game during his nine professional years. Despite all of the physical punishment, and all the strain he underwent, he was the definition of reliability. If there was a game to be played, Jim Brown was good for at least 100 yards.
The Jim Brown Standard
Jim Brown still serves as the standard for all other running backs. Now a full 45 years removed from his last professional football game he is still the barometer for greatness.
It is important to put Brown’s numbers into perspective. He only played football for nine seasons. Having also played during seasons that were considerably shorter than those which are played out today, Brown only played 118 games in his career.
Still, in that condensed timeframe, he was able to rush for more yards than Hall of Famers like O.J. Simpson (who played in 135 total games) and Marcus Allen (145 games). He is also one of only eight players in NFL history to score more than 100 times from the ground, and he is the ONLY one of those other LEGENDS to have never played more than 14 games during a single season.
And although he never had a 2,000 yard season to his credit, that is once again due only to the shortened seasons. During the 1963 season, Brown gained 1,863 yards on the ground for a superhuman 133 yards-per-game average (which stands today as the second best single season average of all time).
At that rate, Brown would have been on pace for to rush for 2,129 yards during a 16-game season. In case you are wondering, the greatest single season rushing total on record is held by Eric Dickerson, who gained 2,105 yards on the ground over 16 games during the 1984 season (that’s 24 yards less than what Brown was on target to achieve). For an apples to apples comparison look at Dickerson’s 14 game total from his “record setting” season and compare that to Brown’s 14 game total from 1963. After an EQUAL amount of games played, Dickerson amassed only 1,792 yards on the ground, which is 71 yards fewer than Brown’s total.
The Most Dangerous Man on the Field
During his criminally short nine-season career (thanks to the worst person in all of sports – Art Modell), Brown led the league in rushing for eight of those seasons. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler (every season he played), an eight-time All Pro, and a three-time MVP.
Not even the great Walter Payton or Emmitt Smith can make those claims.
What made Jim Brown so dominant as a running back was the fact that each opposing defense simply had no way to stop him. He was agile enough to run around you, fast enough to out run you, and big enough to run you over.
For every method of stopping Jim Brown, he had two ways to get past you.
It is ultimately in this manner that Jim Brown established himself as the greatest of all time – on the field.