Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Aug 2007

The Worst Running Back Seasons of All Time

So during the BS Report podcast that he recorded with me, Bill Simmons talked about how much he enjoyed the "Best Running Back Seasons" article in the book -- although he wanted O.J. Simpson's 1973 season to be on top, not his 1975 season. He also wanted to know about the worst running back seasons. Well, ask and you shall receive.

The book has Melvin Carver of the 1983 Bucs listed as the worst running back season of all time, but he only had 114 carries that year. For this list, I wanted to look at guys who really got the ball, week in and week out, and sucked anyway, so the minimum is 150 carries.

These stats are the actual stats, not the normalized ones used to rank players in the study. I've combined both rushing and receiving touchdowns to save space. "Z" is schedule-adjusted Z-score, which was the method we used to make our final rankings.

Name Year Team Run RuYd Avg Rec RcYd TD FUM Z
Reggie Cobb 1990 TB 151 480 3.18 39 299 2 8 -2.89
Lee Bouggess 1970 PHI 159 401 2.52 50 401 4 6 -2.71
Po James 1972 PHI 182 565 3.10 20 156 1 6 -2.56
Benny Malone 1979 WAS 176 472 2.68 13 137 4 1 -2.44
Paul Robinson 1969 CIN 160 489 3.06 20 104 4 4 -2.41
Harold Green 1993 CIN 215 589 2.74 22 115 0 3 -2.31
Jonathan Wells 2002 HOU 197 529 2.69 9 48 3 3 -2.28
Timmy Smith 1988 WAS 155 470 3.03 8 53 3 4 -2.27
Ronnie Coleman 1976 HOU 171 684 4.00 40 247 5 8 -2.26
Ed Podolak 1972 KC 171 615 3.60 46 345 6 10 -2.15
Reggie Cobb 1993 TB 221 658 2.98 9 61 4 5 -2.03
Adrian Murrell 1999 ARI 193 553 2.87 49 335 0 4 -2.02

Finishing the bottom 20: Curtis Brown (1979 Bills), Matt Suhey (1981 Bears), Preston Pearson (1970 Steelers), Chuck Foreman (1978 Vikings), Bubba Bean (1978 Falcons), Marcel Shipp (2005 Cardinals), Billy Jackson (1983 Chiefs), Larry Garron (1964 Patriots).

Obviously, he can blame his offensive line for a lot of his struggles, but Reggie Cobb may have the worst career record of any running back in history. Even his one 1,000-yard season in 1992 comes out as below-average according to our system. His only barely positive season came with the 1994 Packers, once he got the hell out of Tampa Bay.

Lee Bouggess played three seasons with the Eagles and had a career average of 2.6 yards per carry. That's pretty pathetic. Po James was actually considered a pretty good player, according to resident Eagles expert Mike Tanier, but those Eagles teams had horrible offensive lines. As I say in the book, this system does not try to separate out the quality of the offensive line from the quality of the running back.

Benny Malone was a reasonably useful back for a couple years in Miami, one of the guys who had to take over for legends like Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick when they bolted for the WFL, but he lost it around 1978 and retired after his awful 1979 season in Washington.

Paul Robinson was AFL Rookie of the Year for the expansion Bengals in 1968, the only back in history to gain 1,000 yards on the ground for an expansion team. He inexplicably made the AFL All-Star team in 1969 as well, despite having a terrible sophomore season, but 1969 was actually the only year in his career where he did not gain four yards per carry.

In case you were wondering why Timmy Smith disappeared after his 200-yard, out of nowhere performance in Super Bowl XXII, well, here you go.

Ed Podolak was a star for the Chiefs for years, but honestly, he was pretty bad after his first couple of seasons. From 1971-1975, he never averaged over 3.8 yards per carry or 9.0 yards per reception. Another guy who was good at first, then tailed off badly, was Harold Green, who gained 1,170 yards on the ground in 1992, then had two straight years below three yards per carry.

Some other recent seasons that come out very, very low: Tyrone Wheatley and Rodney Hampton for the 1996 Giants, Garrison Hearst for the 1995 Cardinals (1,070 yards, but 12 fumbles), Jerome Bettis in 2003, Eddie George during that lame year in Dallas in 2004, Jamal Lewis in 2005, and Reuben Droughns in 2006. Another season near the bottom belongs to Eric Dickerson when time finally caught up with him. In 1991, he had 536 yards on 167 carries for the Colts, with twice as many fumbles (six) as he had touchdowns (three).

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 17 Aug 2007

26 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2007, 1:27am by Texdave


by James G (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 3:25pm

Woo-hoo Reggie Cobb! On my fantasy teams in both 1992 and 1993.

by senser81 (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 3:40pm

Its a mystery why Pardee and the 79 Skins kept giving the ball to Benny Malone when a prime John Riggins was also in the backfield.

Two guys I hated watching were Adrian Murrell (who made the list) and Raymont Harris. Both were 1000-yard guys who made you yawn. They both had seasons where they averaged 4 yards per...reception.

by Len (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 3:47pm

Lame is right on George in Dallas. That was the year that Julius Jones teased with those incredible individual games and George filled in while Julius was hurt. George would hit the line and fall down.

Thanks for the reminder to completely cross Droughns and Lewis off my fantasy board.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 3:47pm

The funny thing about Jonathan Wells being on this list is the Texans face the Colts twice each year--and 2002 was not Indy's one good D season.

How many of his 529 rushing yards were against Indy? (why am I doing this to myself?) He was 14 for 93 yards rushing in the first game. Almost 20% of his season total yards came in that one game! He went 3 for 0 in the second game. I wonder if Bob Sanders, age 15, was playing backup safety in the second one....

by James (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 3:55pm

I can't believe Marion Butts' season w/the Patriots didn't make the cut...'94 maybe?

by James (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 3:56pm

Actually Butts probably didn't make the minimum carry #. If I recall Parcells gave up on him and ended up having Bledsoe throw 50 times per game.

by pawnking (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:02pm

Reggie Cobb, proof positive that in his day, Ray Perkins was the most overrated coach in football.

by Nathan (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:06pm

Chuck Foreman made the list? Really? Can you expand on that? it's pretty shocking.

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:08pm

Marion Butts had 243 rushing attempts for NE in 94, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. I don't know how he managed to not make this list. He did score 9 TDs, though.

by Mike (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:21pm

As far as Suhey 1981 goes, he had exactly 150 carries, and I suspect a lot of them were goal-line plays; Walter Payton had 339 carries that year (although they had almost identical yards per carry). Boy, the Bears offense was bad back then.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:25pm

Re #4
Check out how he finished the year against the Titans: 13 carries, 1 yard. Here's the gory details:

-2, 1, 3, -3, 7, -1, 0, 2, -1, -1, 2, -6, 0

He also had a run nullified by a holding penalty. If not, he would have had twice as many yards rushing. Not many times you can say that about a 1 yard again.

by Nathan (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:26pm

Chuck Foreman's stats in 78

ATT: 237
Yards: 749
yd per: 3.2
TDS: 5
Rec: 61
yards: 396
y/r: 6.5
TDS: 2
Fumbles: 8

Not good, but within top 20 worst? It was certainly an off year, But the Vikes threw the ball a lot. Is it the fumbles killing him?

Seems like a bad year, but dreadful?

by admin :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:27pm

Regarding Butts -- Bill mentions that season specifically in the podcast. As noted in the comment in the book about Barry Sanders in 1994, NFL running backs averaged only 3.73 yards per carry in 1994, the lowest figure in history. Given that context, Butts' 2.9 yards per carry is not as bad as it would be today, especially since the rest of the Patriots' running backs averaged only 3.3 yards per carry. He had eight touchdowns and only one fumble. It was a bad season, but nowhere near the worst of all time. In fact, four different running backs with 150 carries or more in 1994 come out worse, led by Jerome Bettis, who had 1,025 yards on 319 carries for the Rams, 3.2 yards per carry with only four touchdowns and five fumbles.

by dryheat (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:28pm

RE: Butts...Parcells made a big deal of landing him in the offseason, saying he'd been trying to get him for years. By November Leroy Thompson was getting the carries.

The Patriots RB whom I would have put good money on appearing on the list would have been Marvin Allen in '90 or '91.

by Tom (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:34pm

I'm almost surprised not to see Anthony Thomas with one of the worst running back seasons ever.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:43pm

Re #4
Check out how Wells finished the year against the Titans: 13 carries, 1 yard. Here's the gory details:

-2, 1, 3, -3, 7, -1, 0, 2, -1, -1, 2, -6, 0

He also had a run nullified by a holding penalty. If not, he would have had twice as many yards rushing. Not many times you can say that about a 1 yard again.

by senser81 (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:45pm

I think the 1986 Patriots should get the Worst RB team award, if such a thing exists.

by Not The Great Babe Laufenberg (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 4:52pm

12: Is that 1025-yard Bettis season the worst 1,000 yard+ season of all time?

by The Other Vlad (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 5:26pm

Vaguely surprised that Hampton's '96 didn't make the cut as anything more than an honorable mention.

by Vincent Verhei :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 5:55pm

Chase Stuart recently took a simpler look at this at the PFR blog. His system, which was only based on rushes and rushing yards, found Bouggess' 1970 season to be the worst of all time.

The funny thing is, Bouggess actually lead the Eagles in receiving that year, even though they had Norm Snead passing to Harold Jackson, both in the middle of their careers. When a good QB can't hook up with a good WR, and a running back who clearly has some talent can't rush for anything, I'm inclined to think that the offensive line was absolutely wretched.

by mmm... sacrilicious (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 6:17pm

#16: Wow. I just looked it up (link in my name), and that's an incredible level of futility. The only RB to average more than 2.8 yards per carry was Greg Hawthorne, with one carry for five yards.

by Scott (not verified) :: Fri, 08/17/2007 - 8:01pm

Re: #10

Speaking of Payton, am I alone in thinking that his 1977 season should rank higher than it does on the "best rb seasons" list than it does?

by Tighthead (not verified) :: Sat, 08/18/2007 - 6:53pm

I would have bet money on Troy Hambrick making an appearance.

by MCS (not verified) :: Mon, 08/20/2007 - 4:49pm

I really expected to see any of the Packers Late 70's-1980's seasons on the list. Pick one. Terdell Middleton, Eddie Lee Ivory, Gerry Ellis. Sadly, I could go on and on. . .

by smalls (not verified) :: Sun, 09/16/2007 - 10:22pm

Cool site. For my money the worst season would have to be Garrison Hearst in Arizona 1995. 1070 yards rushing and one TD on the ground to go with his 12 fumbles. ugh.

by Texdave (not verified) :: Tue, 10/23/2007 - 1:27am

The readers who speculate about the early 1970s Eagles have awful offensive lines are spot on. Most of the offensive linemen in those days were bad, and the better ones were always getting hurt (or traded, like Bob Brown).