Barry Sanders is, at least debatably, a better RB than Jim Brown

Nothing whatsoever to do with Redskins football, but I feel obliged to defend a statement I made, that Barry Sanders was the best RB in NFL history, summarily dismissed. DC Pain said it was Jim Brown, and Hogs Haven co-author TexSkins agreed extending the point to beyond "even a debate." If you want Redskins related news, please see below the two excellent Redskins @ Lions recaps written by the two newest members of the Hogs Haven writing family. Consider this a tip of the cap to a recently defeated foe, who put up more of a fight than I had personally anticipated given their record. Santana Moss was too much, but he's been too much for a lot of people.

Still here? Let's talk Barry Sanders vs. Jim Brown.

What this isn't is an attempt to impugn the good name of Jim Brown, who is and will remain one of the greatest RBs of all time, certainly deserving of mention in this conversation. What I hope to convince you of, though, is that Barry Sanders is at least as deserving of that conversation and, hopefully when all is said and done here, I will have convinced a few of you that he's the most deserving of that plaudit. Maybe not.

The cheap way to start this is to provide some anecdote or emotionally appealing visual images of Barry Sanders being awesome just to put you in the mood. Consider this the internet debate version of slipping roofies into your chardonnay:


Why yes, that is Barry White playing on my stereo. But enough about me, why don't you just get comfortable. Isn't Sanders like totally so super fast in that video? Doesn't it make you want to play Tecmo Bowl with the Lions even though he's like the only good player on that team? Even when they guess one of your exactly four play play-book plays you still gain yards, because Barry Sanders is maybe the fastest human being in history (also best College Football player in history, just throwing that out there).

That's not entirely fair, though. A reasoned debate should proceed from common-assumptions that flow logically from premise to conclusion in as objective a manner as possible hey one second I'll be right back

Where was I? Oh yea, intellectually serious, honest internet debate. Right. Did you see the move he had at around 1:14 where he basically is tackled but has such awesome balance he stays up and does work? Yea it was totally sweet, I agree. Here, let me refill your chardonnay. Yes, that is track-lighting. I feel it is a great mood setter. Relax.

Onward to a real "debate" as I am totally cereal about the proposition: Barry Sanders is a better running back than Jim Brown. In fact, he's the greatest running back of all time.

Stats, stat.

Jim Brown admittedly does have the edge in a few key statistics. I think YPA over a RBs career is an excellent starting place, and Brown admittedly wins that 5.2 to Barry's 5.0. Brown also edges out Sanders in total touchdowns and, considering he has both fewer carries -- 2359 to Barry's 3062 -- and receptions -- 262 to Barry's 352 -- we know he does better in that department on a per touch basis. Brown was also better per reception, going for 9.5 YPC against Barry's 8.3.

Barry obviously has the absolute numbers edge. He has more rushing yards, more receiving yards, and thus more yards from scrimmage than Jim Brown. Barry Sanders does have a substantial edge in an underrated and underreported statistic, which is fumbles per touch. On 2359 carries and 262 receptions, Brown fumbled the ball 57 times or about once every 46 touches. Barry Sanders fumbled the ball 41 times on 3062 carries and 352 receptions or about once every 83 touches.

I know "best running back ever" is more of a best at their prime question than best over the course of their careers, but I just want to point out that Sanders is one of those few magnificent beasts who was a great player throughout his career (like Brown). But he was as great as he was for longer, did some things Brown never did (like never rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards and rushed for over 2,000 yards) and that's just not that easy to do for as long as Barry did it. Longevity isn't the only thing, but it is one thing.

Stats are the starting point, here is where the e-bater (gross!) wins dinner. I want to distinguish some of the reasons why Jim Brown might have been better than Barry Sanders statistically, or had an easier time compiling his accomplishments. We'll start with YPA.

Jim Brown ran hard. He ran about as hard as anyone has ever run. But it's easier to run hard on your first carry of the season than it is on the second, than it is on the third, than it is on down the line to the 306th carry of the season, which Jim Brown never did. Barry Sanders did 7 out of his 10 seasons in the league. Which isn't to say that Brown didn't take his licks. Given the shorter season when Brown played, there were fewer games to compile yards, but on a per game basis the two ran, incredibly, an identical 20 attempts per game over the entire course of their careers (although Sanders did it despite not starting two games just sayin' gotta get my licks in!).

The difference between the two is that 20 attempts per game was good enough to land Jim Brown no lower than 2nd in the entire league in attempts per year whereas Barry Sanders never led the league in rushing attempts. What that is supposed to demonstrate is that the two played at two very different times. In the league Barry Sanders played in, individuals ran the ball more often than did Jim Brown in his heyday. Rather than measuring Brown against Sanders straight up, particularly relating to, say, YPA, maybe we should measure their greatness against the rest of the league and see how it stacks up.

Brown ranked relative to his peers in YPA something like:

4th, 4th, 8th 2nd, 10th, 9th, 1st, 1st, 2nd

Sanders ranked relative to his peers in YPA in his 9 best seasons which is an admittedly soft way of doing this but it's not fair to count 1992 since that was like, totally not fair and doesn't extend my argument I use 9 for each player purely out of fairness interests something like:

4th, 3rd, 8th, 7th, 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 7th

Put differently, Jim Brown, on average, finished the season with the 4.5th most rushing yards per attempt. Barry Sanders finished, on average, in his 9 best seasons which is not meant to confuse or distract you from anything at all please disregard the caveat, 4.1st. I really don't have any idea how far down the rung he landed himself in 1992, but it was below 10th. In 1992 Barry Sanders rushes for 4.3 YPA and it lands him outside the top 10, Jim Brown does it in 1962 and he's 9th in the league. The point is, different eras so we measure the two against their peers, and at their best (9 seasons) Barry Sanders averaged better relative to his peers than did Jim Brown. (Also keeping in mind that Barry Sanders had somewhere around twice as many "peers" against whom he was asked to compete -- there were 14 teams in Jim Brown's last year in the league, there were 28 in Barry's first year.)

That's not my slam dunk argument. I'm just trying to confuse you enough that you finally admit I'm right. What isn't in much dispute, though, is that the teams on which these respective players did their work weren't, uh, equal. Jim Brown's Cleveland Browns never suffered a losing season. Barry Sanders' Detroit Lions had as many winning seasons (5) as losing seasons. And before you suggest a causal relationship betwixt their presence on the team and the aforementioned facts regarding those team's winning percentages, the Detroit Lions didn't lose because of Sanders, they lost because of guys named Bob Gagliano and Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross and Scott Mitchell (was good one year, though) and others.

The Browns of Jim Brown's career? Included Hall of Famers: Coach Paul Brown, Lou Groza "one of pro football's finest offensive tackles",  Brown's lead offensive guard Gene Hickerson, our own Bobby Mitchell who, with Brown, formed "one of history's truly great running back combinations from 1958 through 1961", and receiver Paul Warfield, among others.

The Lions? Uhhh. Barry Sanders, 1989-1998. Maybe Rodney Peete will get in. So... no hall of fame Coach, no hall of fame offensive linemen compared to two for Jim Brown, no credible breather backup RB... I mean am I telling any tales out of school here when I suggest that the '89-'98 Lions team that Sanders had the foul luck of playing for were a good bit worse, top to bottom, than the '57-'65 Browns?

The reason I take Barry Sanders over Jim Brown is because they both had truly miraculously good careers with sick numbers that put most anyone to shame and excelled past their peers. But only one of them did it on the crappy Lions of the late 80s and 90s. Only one of them did it without really any HoF caliber teammates. He rushed for 6.1 yards per attempt in 1997 behind a busted offensive line on a barely over .500 9-7 team where everyone on the other team knows where the ball is going... his hands. Jim Brown runs for 6.4 yards per attempt in 1963 behind two offensive linemen who would end up in the Hall of Fame on a 10-4 team. Both are phenomenal accomplishments that represent two of the greatest running seasons in NFL history. But Barry did it with less help, and I feel like history shouldn't punish him just because he happened to be the greatest running back ever on a bad team.

There's also this kind of thing:

The things he did better than anyone in league history: incredible balance with his tiny center of gravity, his spin-move is really a thing of beauty to watch, unrivaled cutback ability, and he starts and stops faster than any player I've ever seen.

At 5'8 barely over 200 pounds, this was the tiniest  in stature biggest in talent player in league history, in my opinion.

There is a debate. Let's have it.

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