Terrible Towler: the greatest RB you don't know

By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Terrible Towler
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What do you know about former L.A. Rams star Dan Towler? Not much, right?

Hell, neither did we. We certainly heard of him. Former CHFF contributor Mike Carlson wrote a great piece about those old Rams teams a few years back. But we didn't realize that Towler was such a fascinating statistical case study – a bright, shining star who lit up the NFL for an oh-so-brief but spectacular three-year period unlike any before or since.

While you were getting ready over a red-hot weekend for the big holiday ahead, the sad, sorry souls of Cold, Hard Football Facts were doing what we do best: churning data in a dark lonely room, with our sole source of physical comfort warm bottles of 33 Lager and a World War II era ceiling fan rattling overhead.

Think the opening scene of "Apocalypse Now."

Hey, it’s not a great life. But it is our life. And just for off-season kicks and giggles, we wanted to take a look at one of our pet issues from another point of view: the unbearable lightness of the running game, which we've discussed most recently here and here.

We ran a list this weekend of the most effective individual rushing seasons in history, those ball carriers who posted the highest average per rush attempt over the course of an entire campaign (min. 100 attempts).

We imagined the numbers would show us that precious few of the most effective rushing seasons in history translated to team-wide success. After all, the NFL is a passing league. And, more importantly, it’s always been a passing league.

Here are the high-level findings:
  • Just 15 players topped 6.0 YPA over the course of an entire season
  • 31 players topped 5.67 YPA over the course of a season (the number 31 significant for purposes of comparison to the passing game; more on that later).
  • 18 of those 31 teams, powered by the most effective individual rushing seasons in history, failed to even reach the postseason.
So those findings support what we expected. A great running back rarely equates to great team success.

But it was the name Towler that really leaped off the list at us.

Only two players appeared in the list of top 30 most effective rushing seasons three different times: the amazing Jim Brown, who you already know as probably the greatest football player of all time; and Dan Towler, a name that few football fans today recognize.  "Deacon Dan" became a preacher in later life and studied for the ministry at USC during his playing days with the Rams. He played just six seasons in the NFL (1950-55).

And, for a three-year period in the early 1950s, Towler was the closest thing the NFL has ever produced to an unstoppable ball carrier.  Here is his production over the three seasons from 1951 to 1953:
  • 434 attempts for 2,627 yards, 6.05 YPA, and 23 touchdowns.
That is incredible production, especially back in the 12-game-season era. Keep in mind, as stated above, that only 15 running backs in history averaged 6.0+ YPA over the course of an entire season.

Towler averaged more than 6.0 YPA over the course of three straight seasons, though actually topped that mark in the first of the three seasons.

But here’s the compelling part: in a sport where teams are carried to success by their quarterbacks, you could argue Towler is the closest thing the NFL has ever seen to a running back who carried his team to a championship.

Of the 31 players on our list, only two were so prolific for NFL champions: Marion Motley of the 1950 Browns and Towler of the 1951 Rams. In fact, they faced each other in consecutive NFL title games, splitting the two encounters.

Towler was something close to unstoppable in 1951, averaging an incredible 6.78 yards per rush attempt that season. Only Beattie Feathers of the 1934 Bears produced a higher average. (By the way, Feathers' 8.44 YPA for the 13-0 Bears was so anomalous it's really too bad they don't have the game film. It's almost unfathomable that a guy could produce so high an average.)

Granted, Towler played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks that year: Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. Those two QBs combined to lead the NFL in passer rating three straight years from 1950 to 1952. And all CHFF readers know that passing efficiency is the singular key to championship success in the NFL.

But no running back in NFL history ran so dominantly – and ran so dominantly for an NFL champion. Even Jim Brown, in his lone championship season of 1964, averaged a relatively meager 5.16 YPA

There’s a lot more to glean from this list in the days ahead. Most notably, it's virtually impossible to produce a killer average as the featured guy over the long haul of an NFL season. Only Brown and Barry Sanders topped 250 carries and 5.67 YPA in a season, each of them doing it twice. But more on that finding and other facts and figures in the days ahead. 

In the meantime, here’s a look at the most effective individual rushing seasons in NFL history.

Best Rushing Seasons in NFL History by YPA (min. 100 attempts)
Player  Year/Team Att  Yds  YPA  Record Team result
Beattie Feathers  1934 Bears 119 1004 8.44 13-0 Lost NFL title
Dan Towler  1951 Rams 126 854 6.78 8-4 Won NFL title
Keith Lincoln  1963 Chargers 128 826 6.45 11-3 Won AFL title
Jim Brown*  1963 Browns 291 1863 6.40 10-4  
Mercury Morris  1973 Dolphins 149 954 6.40 12-2 Won SB
Jamaal Charles  2010 Chiefs 230 1467 6.38 10-6 Lost WC
Paul Lowe  1960 Chargers 136 855 6.29 10-4 Lost AFL title
Dutch Clark*  1934 Lions 123 763 6.20 10-3  
Gale Sayers*  1968 Bears 138 856 6.20 7-7  
Barry Sanders*  1997 Lions 335 2053 6.13 9-7 Lost WC
Joe Perry*  1954 49ers 173 1049 6.06 7-4-1  
Joe Perry*  1958 49ers 125 758 6.06 6-6  
O.J. Simpson 1973 Bills 332 2003 6.03 9-5  
Hokie Gajan  1984 Saints 102 615 6.03 7-9  
Ted McKnight 1978 Chiefs 104 627 6.03 4-12  
Jerious Norwood 2007 Falcons 103 613 5.95 4-12  
Jim Brown 1958 Browns 257 1527 5.94 9-3 Lost div. 
Felix Jones 2009 Cowboys 116 685 5.91 11-5 Lost div.
Jamaal Charles  2009 Chiefs 190 1120 5.89 4-12  
Jim Brown 1960 Browns 215 1257 5.85 8-3-1   
John David Crow 1960 Cardinals 183 1071 5.85 6-5-1  
Napoleon Kaufman 1996 Raiders 150 874 5.83 7-9  
Steve Van Buren 1945 Eagles 143 832 5.82 7-3  
Marion Motley 1950 Browns 140 810 5.79 10-2 Won NFL title
Bill Osmanski 1939 Bears 121 699 5.78 8-3  
Dan Towler  1953 Rams 152 879 5.78 8-3-1  
Dan Towler  1952 Rams 156 894 5.73 9-3 Lost div. 
Paul Lowe  1963 Chargers 177 1010 5.71 11-3 Won AFL title
Barry Sanders*  1994 Lions 331 1883 5.69 9-7 Lost WC
Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 Jaguars 166 941 5.67 8-8  
Bobby Mitchell 1959 Browns 131 743 5.67 7-5