The idea that running backs don’t matter only holds weight in some circles because of the NFL’s relatively arbitrary decision to have a salary cap. Obviously any position that touches the ball 20-plus times per game matters; it’s just a fact that finding league-average talent at running back is easier and cheaper to do than at most other positions.
Today is not the day to chastise the position; I’m here to honor the league’s single-best backs from the last two decades of action. We’ve seen a number of bell cows and dual-threat studs grace backfields around the league since 2000; now it’s time to single out exactly who peaked the highest during each respective year.
What follows is my own subjective breakdown of the “RB king” in every season since 2000. I’ll use the following three factors as the basis of the list:
- Who had the highest combined rank in rushing yards, receiving yards, total touchdowns, forced missed tackles and yards after contact per attempt? Note that forced missed tackles and yards after contact metrics don’t exist before 2006.
- Who absolutely balled out in the playoffs when it mattered most?
- Who was the overall most-memorable RB from that season?
Tiebreakers will usually be decided by touchdowns; points win football games. Sorry not sorry.
2000-01: Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams
It would’ve been a three-peat for Faulk if we went back to 1999 to include his magical campaign that saw him clear 1,000 yards as a rusher and receiver alike. Alas, these two seasons were plenty special in their own right — and each consisted of just 14 games!
- 2000: 253-1,359-18 rushing, 81-830-8 receiving
- 2001: 260-1,382-12 rushing, 83-765-9 receiving
Nobody was a more frequent visitor to the end zone than Faulk during both 2000 and 2001. He also maintained this high-end performance when it mattered most, racking up 123, 129, 172 and 130 total yards to go along with four scores in four combined playoff performances over these two seasons.
2002-03: Priest Holmes, Kansas City Chiefs
Holmes led the league in rushing in 2001, but it wasn’t until the next two years that he’d join the 20-TD club. The Chiefs’ stud RB took the scoring champion torch from Faulk and carried it through the 2003 season, regularly dispatching would-be tacklers through both the air and on the ground along the way. Unfortunately, Holmes only got to display his talents in the postseason once during this span, but it’s worth noting the man did go off for 208 total yards and a pair of scores in a 38-31 loss. The three-time All-Pro back struggled to stay healthy following the 2003 season; just realize that any conversation surrounding the league’s single-best player with the ball in their hands had to include Holmes during the early years of the 21st century.
2004: Tiki Barber, New York Giants
This was one of the tougher years to decide, with Curtis Martin, Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson also putting up more-than-viable performances. Still, Barber’s rise from “scat back with a fumbling problem” to “full-on three-down beast” was a treat to witness. Nobody gained more yards from scrimmage than Barber in 2004 and 2005. The former season featured him score a combined 15 times and surpass 100 total yards in all but three games. It was the first of three straight Pro-Bowl campaigns, and each included at least 2,000 total yards from scrimmage.
2005: Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks
The MVP caught just 15 passes all season in 2005, but his league-high marks in carries (370), rush yards (1,880) and rushing scores (27) helped lead the Seahawks all the way to the Super Bowl. Alexander racked up at least 100 rushing yards in 11 of 16 games and found the end zone in all but two regular season contests. A concussion limited him to just six touches in the Seahawks’ first playoff game, but he rebounded with 132 yards and a pair of scores in the NFC Championship and 97 scoreless yards in the Super Bowl. The end came quickly for Alexander’s time in Seattle and the NFL; just realize for a brief time he was among the league’s best running backs and he looked fresh doing so.
2006-07: LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers
It wouldn’t be hard to find LT more appearances on this list; the man largely did nothing except ball the hell out during his nine years with the Chargers. Things got truly special in 2006 when Tomlinson managed to rack up an absurd 2,323 yards from scrimmage to go along with an NFL-record 31 scores. An entire generation of kids grew up flipping the ball like Tomlinson after scoring a backyard touchdown. And the visor. Oh the visor. No. 21 in your programs, but No. 1 in your hearts.
Kings stay kings pic.twitter.com/ATOaHjUb2u
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 16, 2021
Unfortunately we never quite saw Tomlinson function at the peak of his powers into January, but there’s little doubt who was the RB1 of the 2000-2010 era.
Williams went absolutely off in his only career season with more than 250 touches. Overall, he posted 273-1,515-18 rushing and 22-121-2 receiving lines for the Panthers in 2008. Ex-fantasy football managers certainly remember his late-season dominance: Williams racked up a single-season record 11 touchdowns between Weeks 13-16.
Still, the counting stats don’t quite serve this season justice. Williams was truly one of the tougher ball carriers to get to the ground that the game has seen in quite some time.
Most yards after contact per carry in a season 2006-2020 (minimum 200 rush attempts):
- 2018 Derrick Henry (4.2)
- 2019 Henry (4.2)
- 2020 Henry (3.9)
- 2012 Adrian Peterson (3.9)
- 2008 Williams (3.9)
2009: Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
CJ2K was stupid dominant throughout this entire year. The season started off great enough, but following the Titans’ Week 7 bye Johnson got straight up funky week in and week out. It’s tough to remember another running back with the same sort of home-run ability. Overall, Johnson (22 rushes of 20-plus yards) joins 2012 Adrian Peterson (27) and 2008 Peterson (20) as the only players with at least 20 carries of 20-plus yards over the past 30 years. The Titans’ stud RB ended the season on an 11-game streak with at least 125 total yards, leaving plenty of defenders grasping for air along the way.
CJ2K was a helluva drugpic.twitter.com/S13Gy5Pl9y
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 16, 2021
2010-11: Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Foster basically came out of nowhere to emerge as the Texans lead back. He fit coach Gary Kubiak’s scheme to perfection and racked up an asinine 4,061 yards from scrimmage during this two-year span. Thirty trips to the end zone didn’t hurt. Unfortunately, we only got to see Foster at full health for about four and a half seasons, but credit to one of the smoothest backs to play the position on his dominant (yet brief) postseason resume:
- 2011 vs. Bengals: 24-153-2 rushing, 3-29-0 receiving
- 2011 at Ravens: 27-132-1 rushing, 5-22-0 receiving
- 2012 vs. Bengals: 32-140-1 rushing, 8-34-0 receiving
- 2012 vs. Patriots: 22-90-1 rushing, 7-63-1 receiving
2012: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
AP tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee on December 24, 2011. The next season he rushed for 2,097 yards and 12 scores on 348 carries while leading the Vikings to the playoffs. Madness. All in all, the league MVP racked up 2,314 total yards from scrimmage — the only time in his career that he surpassed “even” 1,900 yards. The reality that Peterson averaged a full 6.0 yards per carry throughout the year is even more absurd. It’s to no surprise that his 92.4 PFF rushing grade is the highest single-season mark in PFF’s 15-year database.
2013: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
This year was close with Jamaal Charles also balling out in a major way. The Chip Kelly experience didn’t produce the sort of win/loss results that Eagles faithful were hoping for, but the presence of Mike Vick and a read-option heavy offense did help elevate McCoy to career-best heights. Overall, his 2,146 total yards in 2013 marked the only time that he reached 1,700 yards from scrimmage in a single season. As is usually the case, McCoy went about picking up yards in style, most memorably going for 217 yards and a pair of scores on the ground against the Lions to establish himself as the NFL’s premiere running back in the snow. Throw in the reality that he didn’t lose a single fumble despite regularly holding the ball like a loaf of bread, and this was clearly the apex version of the artist known as Shady.
2014: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
This was easily the toughest year to figure out. Lynch vs. DeMarco Murray is a true battle, as both put up big-time numbers all season long.
- Murray led the league in rush attempts (392), rush yards (1,845) and rush TDs (13). His 2,261 yards from scrimmage was the most in the NFL, and he was the engine of a great Cowboys offense. The biggest flaw was the reality that Murray lost six fumbles, but he does deserve credit for totaling 225 yards and two scores in playoff matchups against the Lions and Packers.
- Lynch scored a league-high 17 touchdowns on his way to racking up 1,306 rushing and 367 receiving yards. He tallied 381 total yards and a pair of scores in the Seahawks' ill-fated playoff run during which the team infamously declined to trust him to score from the goal line.
The differentiator for me was the way in which Lynch went about picking up his yards. The man forced an absurd 88 missed tackles, good for the highest single-season mark in PFF history. It’s not like Lynch simply benefited from high-end volume; his average of 0.31 missed forced tackles per carry is tied with 2020 Nick Chubb for the highest mark of the past 15 years among all RBs with at least 100 rush attempts in a season.
Apologies to Murray, but this was the most beastly version of Beast Mode that we ever saw, and the most lasting memory from the year was the Seahawks' decision to not give him the rock with their season on the line. There hasn’t been much that our country has been able to agree on since 1776; giving Lynch the ball to potentially win the Super Bowl was one of those rare times. That’s enough for me to give him the 2014 king award at the position.
2015: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
There’s something about Peterson facing adversity that brings out the best of him on the field. He came back in 2015 with a vengeance after being suspended for all but one game of the 2014 season. It marked the only time of his career that Peterson led the NFL in carries (327), rush yards (1,485) and rush TDs (11) alike. This would be Peterson’s last truly elite season, but it’s tough to think of a better first-team RB for the 2010-2020 era. Overall, Peterson finished with a PFF rushing grade of at least 90.0 on three separate occasions after entering the league in 2007; the rest of the NFL’s RBs combined for just five such seasons during this span..
2016: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Bruce Arians and Johnson formed arguably the greatest love affair of 2016, as the second-year back posted absurd 293-1,239-16 rushing and 80-879-4 receiving lines inside of the Cardinals’ sixth-ranked scoring offense. What made the partnership so productive was Arians’ willingness to utilize Johnson as a true receiver for prolonged stretches of the game. Overall, Johnson spent 20.4% of his snaps in the slot or out wide, regularly causing problems for whatever poor safety or linebacker was tasked with guarding him.
David Johnson percentage of snaps in the slot or out wide by season
2017: 13% (played less than one game)
2018: 7% ???? pic.twitter.com/2951yGDzS2
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 5, 2019
2017-18: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
The first two editions of the Sean McVay experience produced the league’s No. 1- and No. 2-ranked scoring offenses, and Gurley was the backfield’s undisputed workhorse in both (at least until the tail end of 2018). All in all, Gurley led the league with 2,556 rushing yards and 30 scores on the ground during these two seasons, chipping in 64-788-6 and 59-580-4 receiving lines along the way. Playoff success was limited, although Gurley does deserve credit for clearing 100 yards in the only two postseason games that he received more than even 12 combined carries and targets.
CMC’s 116 receptions in 2019 shattered his previous record from 2018. This rather atrocious Panthers team didn’t have much to write home about, but it was tough (particularly for fantasy football managers) to ignore McCaffrey’s consistent excellence throughout the year. He joined an exclusive club of players to gain at least 1,000 yards as a rusher and receiver in the same fooking season:
- 1985 Roger Craig: 214-1,050-9 rushing, 92-1,016-6 receiving
- 1999 Marshall Faulk: 253-1,381-7 rushing, 87-1,048-5 receiving
- 2019 McCaffrey: 287-1,387-15 rushing, 116-1,005-4 receiving
2020: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Henry led the NFL with 2,027 rushing yards last season. Dalvin Cook (1,557 yards) was the only player to have more total rushing yards than Henry did after contact. Overall, Henry’s 1,490 rush yards after contact are the most by any player in a single season since at least 2006. His dominance on the ground didn’t extend into January, but three (!!!) performances with over 200 yards on the ground demonstrated the reality that Henry is a walking and talking world-beater, somehow capable of both running through defensive linemen and away from cornerbacks.