Today we continue our rankings of teams, coaches, players, and really all things sports related, as we publish another piece of “Rank ‘Em”. This time we take a look at the greatest running backs in NFL history, and we pick the top 10.
(This list only shows retired players and active rushers are not eligible for our votes)
Jim Brown is one of the ultimate tales of “what if” in football. Although the three-time MVP is without a doubt the greatest running back to ever take the field, one can only imagine what he would have been able to accomplish had he not cut his career short to become an actor.
Brown finished eight of nine seasons as an All-Pro and in a third of his seasons he ended as the league MVP. Imagine if that great career of his had continued. Imagine if he had been able to play another three seasons, and earn another MVP, and become the league’s all-time rushing yards leader. Instead he has to settle for holding the record for the most rushing yards per game (104.3), and he ranks fifth in career rushing touchdowns (106) and yards per carry (5.2).
Even if you don’t look at the numbers and just see the film, you see a running back with power and speed that ran over defenders and around them. Brown is the best running back of all-time, and if the numbers don’t show it, the film does.
Barry Sanders, the greatest “scat-back” of all-time was another that retired early instead of destroying every record in the books. The elusive Sanders was less than 1,500 yards shy of Walter Payton’s rushing record when he hung up his cleats in 1999. If he hadn’t, there’s no way Emmitt Smith tops the record books in rushing yards. Four times Sanders won the rushing title, and he was the first running back to notch five 1,500-yard seasons (four of them in a row). And despite his smallish stature, Sanders was reliable when it came to protecting the ball against bigger tacklers as he went two entire seasons (’91, ’94) without a fumble. Now some say that Sanders style of swinging for the fences often caused him to lose yardage (Sanders lost 1,114 yards in his career) but there is little doubt that he hit the home run often enough to be not only a great running back, but one of the greatest of all-time.
Payton was the more than just a running back to his team in the 70’s & 80’s. “Sweetness” was what the city of Chicago and his Ditka-led Bears represented. He was a blue-collar running back whose toughness was proven by the fact that he missed only one game over his thirteen-year career.
And in those thirteen years he spent lining up for DA BEARS Payton rushed for 16.726 yards, 110 touchdowns, and won an MVP to go along with his Super Bowl ring from the Super Bowl shufflin’ ‘85 Bears.
The former NFL rushing champion led that Super Bowl winning team and offense not with speed, but with toughness and grit, as he would rather run through his would-be-tacklers than around them. And that stoutness and the numbers it led to are the reasons Walter Payton ranks so high in our list of greatest backs.
Wait, wasn’t that the man who murdered his wife?! Well yeah, but before that he was murdering opposing defenses with his speed and incredible elusiveness. Ok, so maybe not the best intro to one of the best backs of all-time, but without a doubt OJ belongs on this list as during the 1970’s the juice was definitely loose in Buffalo.
Although OJ was a late starter in terms of greatness (didn’t break the 1,000 yard mark until his 4th season), he was the best back of his era after that.
In 1972 OJ claimed his first NFL rushing title with 1,251 yards. And then in ’73 Simpson put together the greatest individual season of any running back. In 14 games, O.J. racked up 2,003 rushing yards for more than six yards a carry and nearly 143 yards a game. What would that look like in today’s 16 game season? That would be 2,288 yards, easily the most ever.
O.J. did all of this with an explosiveness that helped him shoot through the line of scrimmage and into the open field, where his USC track skills took over. Of course the true shame of Simpson’s career was the fact that he was on awful teams, only making the playoffs once. But what we will remember most about him isn’t on the field at all, and that’s a shame for one of the game’s truly greatest players.
Emmitt Smith was a 5-foot-9 221 pound running back who prior to entering the league was dismissed by scouts for being too small. But if you check the record books you will see that the eight-time Pro Bowler’s size didn’t stop him from becoming the league’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 career yards.
And more than that, Smith was the heart and soul of a Cowboys team that won three Super Bowls, including in 1993 when #22 became the only player ever to win a rushing crown, MVP, Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP in the same season.
It wasn’t long ago that LaDanian Tomlinson was the premiere running back in the game, scanning the field in his trademark visor and dissecting his opponents for nine straight double-digit touchdown seasons to open his career. He’s also the owner of one of the most dominant seasons in history, when he crushed the single-season record with 31 TDs and 186 total points in 2006.
LT was the most complete back of his era. Standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing in at 221 pounds, he had the power to run between the tackles and the speed to take the ball to the edge. But it wasn’t just his rushing skills that made him dangerous. Tomlinson was also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield and even split out wide as a receiver. As a matter of fact, Tomlinson ranks 5th all-time in yards from scrimmage with 18,456. But of course, you’re not a do-it-all kind of player unless you can throw the ball too. And LT threw for 7 touchdowns and a 154.4 passer rating during his career, making him a well-rounded offensive player in nearly every aspect.
Unfortunately for Tomlinson, he will be put aside like Thurman Thomas for being a well-rounded back surrounded by immense talent but never quite winning a Super Bowl.
Eric Dickerson is arguably the greatest pure runner in NFL history. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Dickerson was noticeably taller than most running backs, and his tall running style made it even more obvious. And it was using this size and long stride that allowed the former SMU Pony Express back to eat up yardage in the pros, something he did almost immediately.
In 1983, Dickerson put together the greatest rookie season up to that point, behind 1,808 yards rushing. Dickerson’s 2,105-yard effort from 1984 still stands as the single-season rushing record. And after only seven seasons in the league, Dickerson emerged as the fastest player ever to cross over the 10,000-yard benchmark, and the man with the coolest jheri curl in football still lays claim to three of the top 20 single-season rushing yardage performances in NFL history, which is why when he retired, Dickerson left the game of football as the second leading rusher of all time.
The “Greatest Show on Turf” was an offense that was based not so much on the arm of quarterback Kurt Warner, but more on the legs and hands of the true do-it-all back, Marshall Faulk.
Marshall Faulk averaged 4.8 yards per carry during his time in St. Louis, but it was his receiving skills that really put the former SDSU Aztec over the top as a running back. He averaged over 63 catches per season, and his rushing and receiving skills together rank Faulk 4th all-time in yards from scrimmage. That is why the seven-time Pro Bowler and former MVP belongs on the list of greatest running backs in history.
The 1978 Rookie of the Year and MVP, Oilers star Earl Campbell was the most punishing runner defenses had ever seen. His tenacious running earned him Offensive Player of the Year honors in three consecutive seasons, and Campbell topped 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns in five of his first six seasons thanks to a vicious running style that saw him run directly into the teeth of defenses.
Unfortunately for the hard-nosed Campbell who set a record with 373 carries in one season his body paid the price for that bruising mentality, putting up just five healthy seasons in the NFL. And that is why despite his destruction of opposing defenses, it was the destruction of his body that lands him at this spot on our list.
Tony Dorsett entered the NFL as a Dallas Cowboy in 1977 as the second overall draft pick, after starring for the Pitt Panthers where he shattered the NCAA Football rushing record (later broken by Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne). From there, he was named the starting running back for America’s Team halfway through his first season, and spent the next decade as a stalwart in Dallas.
As for his on-the-field play, Dorsett helped lead the offense to their second Super Bowl championship in his rookie season. And topping the all-important 1,000-yard mark in eight of his first nine seasons, it was Dorsett’s impressive postseason production that puts him on this list, as he gained 1,383 yards rushing, in his 17 NFL Playoff games.
Thurman Thomas (honorable mention)
Thurman Thomas barely misses this list despite his greatness on the field for the Buffalo Bills during the 90’s. As a matter of fact, his greatness started even before that, as he managed to put Barry Sanders on the bench in college as he started ahead of him for Oklahoma State.
And while Sanders became our #2 back of all-time, Thomas became quite the well-rounded back himself, making the NFL Hall of Fame as a one of the greatest all-purpose backs in history.
Of course, his career is slightly marred by his inability to capture that ever elusive ring that haunted the city of Buffalo during their four-year annual trip to the Super Bowl. Who knows, he wins a ring or four and maybe the story is different for Thomas.
Gale Sayers (honorable mention)
The Kansas Comet was known for his electric running style that showcased remarkable balance, jukes, and unparalleled acceleration. And after 1965 when the Bears drafted Sayers, he put up giant numbers in an injury-shortened, 68-game career. Sayers started off with a bang, scoring 22 touchdowns in his rookie season and crossing the goal line six times in one December game, a record that still stands.
That of course was just the beginning as the 6-foot, 200 pound back led the NFL in rushing twice, and became not only a great running back, but arguably the greatest return man in history.
Of course, there is something to be said for durability, and playing in so few games didn’t really allow Sayers to truly make a case for being one of the ten best running backs in NFL history.