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Making the Case For Walter Payton Over Jim Brown as Best Running Back of All Time

 

Jim Brown is almost universally considered not only the best running back of all-time, but in many quarters, the greatest player of all-time. Period. In fact, I don’t even see any debate on the topic, like you see when people talk about the best quarterbacks. Jim Brown’s name is etched in stone, and the debate starts after that, with people stumping for their own candidate. I guess here’s mine, but I’m not conceding the top spot without some debate.

Jim Brown was an amazing, transcendent player. His size and speed combo was a pre-cursor to the running backs today. When he was running through lines at 6’2″ and over 230 pounds, he was almost as big as the defensive linemen he was playing against, and bigger than every other defender he faced. He is among the greatest players in the history of the game, and so what I say from here on out is not meant to diminish that. I just feel the debate needs to be had, and the case is not as clear cut as it is made out to be.

If you looked at the raw numbers, then Brown is way in front. When Jim Brown walked away at age 29 in 1965, he had over 12,000 yards rushing, averaged 5.22 yards per carry, had scored 106 rushing touchdowns, and had led the league in rushing yards in 8 of the 9 seasons that he played. In an era when carries were usually more evenly split between numerous backs, Jim Brown took the ball game in and game out and ran to daylight.

Putting them side by side through the same age (since Walter Payton played longer), Brown had almost a full yard per carry on Walter Payton (4.36 yards per carry) and had more total yards and yards from scrimmage per game (125.5 for Brown; 113.2 for Payton) despite playing in 12 fewer games (the seasons were 12 games when Brown started, and went to 14 in 1961). That seems like a pretty sizeable difference.

So how am I going to close the gap? Teammates, schedule, and league dilution of talent.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Emmitt Smith often gets dinged for playing with what has apparently become the greatest offensive line of all-time. In truth, Jim Brown had it better than any other elite running back when it came to offensive line teammates during his prime. Brown ran behind three Hall of Famers during his career (Lou Groza, Mike McCormack, and Gene Hickerson) and a fourth, Dick Schafrath, should be on the short list for potential senior candidates. He also played with five others during his 9-year career who were at least as good as anyone Walter Payton had in front of him before age 29.

The Approximate Career Value ratings at pro-football-reference show that Jim Brown’s offensive line was significantly better than Walter Payton’s for each of their first nine seasons. Over those nine seasons, Jim Brown’s line averaged a career value of 70.2; Walter Payton’s line was at 31.6 through age 29. For comparison, most Hall of Famers are over 90, a good linemen that starts for a long time will have a value of at least 50, a guy that starts for about 4-5 years with no pro bowls is about at 30.

But you probably aren’t convinced by those derived numbers attaching a value to player careers that Brown had a monster advantage. And anyway, what does a difference of 70 versus 30 in average career value mean anyway?  So let’s look at how the other running backs on the two teams did. I looked at every running back who recorded a carry for Cleveland during Jim Brown’s career, and other backs for Chicago during Payton’s first 9 years.

  • Other Cleveland backs from 1957 to 1965 had 1373 rushes for 6202 yards, a 4.52 yards per carry average;
  • Other Chicago backs from 1975 to 1983 had 1710 rushes for 6411 yards, a 3.75 yards per carry average.

That’s right. Backs not named Jim Brown on Cleveland had a higher yards per carry than Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, and LaDainian Tomlinson. Payton’s other teammates (through age 29) had the second lowest yards per carry of any of the backs that would normally be part of the Top 10 Running Back of All-Time discussion, behind only (gasp) Emmitt Smith. When we subtract the difference between each back’s YPC and their teammates, Jim Brown is now at +0.70, and Walter Payton is at +0.61.

QUARTERBACKS AND COACHES

Jim Brown had Paul Brown, one of the best coaches of all-time, and moved into a team that was already the premiere team in the league, having won 3 titles and appeared in 3 other championship games in the 7 years before Brown was drafted. Walter Payton had Jack Pardee and Neil Armstrong, who unfortunately took no small steps for Bear-kind.

Walter Payton also may have been the best quarterback on his team for most of his career. That’s only a slight exaggeration, with Gary Huff, Bob Avellini, Mike Phipps, Vince Evans, and a rookie year from Jim McMahon. Payton completed 11 of 34 passes, putting him right on par with Bears passers, but 8 of the completions went for touchdowns, most by a running back for their career since 1960 (Tomlinson is at 7). These weren’t little tosses over the line at the goal line either. If you want a game that sums it up, I talked about a 1983 game between the Saints and Bears in an old podcast. Payton ran for 161 yards, including a highlight reel run (included below) and also threw 2 touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, sandwiched around a Vince Evans pick-six, but the Bears still lost in overtime.

SCHEDULE AND LEAGUE DILUTION

The NFL used to feature the Eastern and Western Divisions, and the schedules were imbalanced. Teams played all their division opponents twice, and then played only two teams each year from the opposite division. Cleveland was in the East, and for the entirety of Jim Brown’s career, the Eastern Division was the weakest of the two divisions, sometimes by small margins, and sometimes by really large ones. The Browns and Giants won all but one of the East titles (the Eagles in 1960 were the other), and the Western Champion won 7 of 9 times during Brown’s career. The regular season matchups were just as skewed.

Using the point differentials adjusted for schedule strength, the Browns’ opponents from 1957-1965 were -2.7 points below average. The Bears from 1975-1983 played a slightly below average schedule (-0.7 points below average), mainly due to the division being weak in the early 80’s after Minnesota declined, but with the more balanced out of division schedules, it was significantly harder than what the Browns played.

Did it matter? Well, Jim Brown’s numbers were down in the games against Western Division opponents. 74.2 rushing yards per game against the West;  109.6 rushing yards per game against the East from 1960-1965. The yards per carry? 4.04 yards per carry against the West, and 5.47 against the East.

Not only was the Eastern Division much weaker than the West, but the league overall was experiencing talent dilution during Brown’s prime. The AFL formed in 1960, and some top college players began signing with the rival league, while the depth was also affected as unproven players looked for a chance. In the span of two seasons, we went from 12 professional teams to 22. Offense took off. 20% of the passers in league history who averaged 8.5 or more yards per attempt came in the 4 year stretch from 1960-1963. It was a good time to be an offensive star, because defenses, where weak links can be exploited, had a lot more of them to exploit.

CONCLUSION

Even with everything I mentioned, Jim Brown still merits consideration among the game’s best. I’m not taking that away. Yes, he had advantages beyond other backs–great offensive line, excellent team, weak schedules and diluted league talent due to expansion. He still put up otherworldly numbers that stand the test of time.

I just think that the debate is closer than people think. Brown would be #2 in my subjective book after weighing the objective factors, just ahead of Barry and Emmitt and Marshall. Brown was power and speed and force and machismo. Walter was the sweetest footwork you’ve ever seen, extreme balance and the ability to spin off a hit, and grace, but most of all, determination and character. He played through bad teams, and when you take teammates and schedule and all that stuff, is close to Brown’s equal. Then he went on and played at a really high level for years after Brown had walked away to pursue other things. Payton will always be the sweetest to me.

[photo via Getty]

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