The 10 Best Running Backs Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio is where NFL greats take the next step and become immortal legends.
Since opening its doors in 1963, 253 former players, coaches, and administrators have received football’s greatest honor, but there is a growing list of seemingly deserving players who for one reason or another have been unable to earn a bust in Canton.
Over the next several weeks, I am going to review every football position through a series of “Top 10” lists that looks at the best eligible players in NFL history at each position who are not in the Hall of Fame.
I will also look at the 10 most deserving players not in the Hall of Fame (regardless of position) and 10 players who are in the Hall of Fame but maybe should not be.
I am starting my position-by-position rundown by looking at the best eligible running backs not in the Hall of Fame.
As is the case with all offensive skill positions, the statistical numbers accumulated by running backs have ballooned over the last three decades.
Of the top 50 players in career rushing yards in NFL history, only seven played a majority of their careers prior to 1980.
In 1980, Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson were the only members of the 10,000 career rushing yards club.
Today, that club includes 24 players.
Among running backs in the Hall of Fame, 16 totaled fewer than 6,000 career yards rushing, but all of those players completed their careers prior to 1972.
It will probably start to sound like a broken record as I move through this series, but one of the biggest problems with the Hall of Fame selection process is that as the game changes and statistics increase, the Hall of Fame voters have forgotten an entire generation of great players who played most of their careers before the stats explosion of the last three decades.
That is particularly the case for running backs, as the Hall of Fame voters seem to have decided to ignore the position despite its obvious value in helping teams win championships.
Rather than genuinely comparing stats from skill position players of all generations to determine who legitimately belongs in the Hall of Fame, voters have tossed the issue aside by gravitating toward selecting players at positions where statistics have little impact.
Since 1995, only four running backs (Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders, and Thurman Thomas) and nine wide receivers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Conversely, during the same period, 18 offensive linemen and 10 defensive linemen have received the call from the hall.
So, as I look at who the best eligible players are at each position not in the Hall of Fame, career statistics will be just one of a number of factors used to create each list.
First and foremost, I am looking at the career of each player in the context of when he played.
I will look particularly at how he compares against other players (Hall of Famers and non-Hall of Famers) from that era and whether, at the time of his retirement, he was considered a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.
I look forward to comments, discussion, and disagreements.
10. Freeman McNeil, New York Jets: 1981-1992
Despite starting all 16 games only once in his career, Freeman McNeil was among the top runners in the NFL for a decade.
Selected by the Jets as the third pick in the 1981 draft, he helped lift New York to the playoffs during his rookie season and AFC title game during his second.
McNeil led the NFL with 786 yards rushing during the strike-shortened 1982 season. In the opening round of the playoffs, he rushed for 202 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.
A three-time Pro Bowler, he rushed for 1,070 yards in 12 games during the 1984 season.
In 1985, he finished fifth in the league with 1,331 yards rushing despite missing two games.
McNeil averaged 4.5 yards per attempt during his 12 year career and ranks 38th all-time with 8,074 career rushing yards.
Also a solid receiver, McNeil caught 295 passes for 2,961 yards during his career.
9. Curt Warner, Seattle Seahawks/Los Angeles Rams: 1983-1990
Few players have had as immediate an impact on their team as Curt Warner did for the Seattle Seahawks as a rookie during the 1983 season.
Warner ranked third in the NFL with 1,449 yards rushing while leading the Seahawks to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Warner had 99 yards in a first round playoff win over Denver and 113 yards in an upset victory over Miami that put the Seahawks in the AFC Championship Game for the first time ever.
A knee injury in the first game of the 1984 season cost Warner that year, but he rebounded to play five more seasons for Seattle without missing another game.
He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 1985, 1986, and 1988, and nearly eclipsed that mark with 985 yards in 12 games during the strike-shortened 1987 season.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Warner finished third in the NFL with a career-high 1,481 yards rushing in 1986.
He also finished in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing in 1987 and 1988.
Warner played a total of 100 career games and rushed for 6,844 yards and 56 touchdowns during his career.
8. James Brooks, San Diego Chargers/Cincinnati Bengals/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Cleveland Browns: 1981-1992
During his 12-year NFL career, the 5'10", 180-pound Brooks proved that his small stature would not prevent him from serving as a feature back in the NFL.
After being selected by San Diego with the 24th pick in the 1981 draft, Brooks immediately established himself as one of the most versatile players in the game.
During his rookie season, he led the NFL with 2,093 all-purpose yards as the Chargers reached the AFC Championship Game.
Following three seasons as a multi-purpose player in San Diego, Brooks was traded to Cincinnati and given the chance to become a featured running back.
He excelled in the role, posting three 1,000-yard seasons and earning four Pro Bowl appearances in eight years with the Bengals.
He led the NFL with an average of 5.3 yards per attempt in 1986, and in 1989 he rushed for a career-high 1,239 yards and a career-high 5.6 yards per attempt.
In his career, Brooks rushed for 7,962 yards and ranks 26th in NFL history with 14,910 all-purpose yards.
7. Floyd Little, Denver Broncos: 1967-1975
Known for his distinct bow-legged running style, the 5'10" and 195-pound Floyd Little was one of the great “little backs” in football history.
Despite playing primarily for losing teams with the Denver Broncos, Little emerged as one of the most popular players in football and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection.
A versatile player, Little led the AFL in all-purpose yards in 1967 and 1968.
His 16.9 punt return average led the AFL in 1967, and he returned a punt for a touchdown in both 1967 and 1968.
In 1971, Little led the NFL with 1,133 yards rushing and 1,388 total yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 979 yards and a league leading 12 touchdowns in 1973.
At the time of his retirement in 1975, Little ranked seventh all-time with 6,323 career rushing yards.
His total of 12,157 career all-purpose yards still ranks 67th in NFL history.
6. Chuck Foreman, Minnesota Vikings/New England Patriots: 1973-1980
Capable of changing a game with both his running and pass-catching skills, Chuck Foreman was the missing ingredient that helped propel the Minnesota Vikings into three Super Bowls during a four-year period in the mid-1970s.
Foreman was the 1973 Offensive Rookie of the Year while rushing for 801 yards and helping the Vikings to the Super Bowl.
A Pro Bowl selection in each of his first five seasons in the league, Foreman led the NFL in receptions with 73 in 1975.
That season he had the first of his three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and finished second in the NFL with 132 points.
Foreman rushed for a career-high 1,155 yards in 1976 and added 1,112 in 1977.
After seven seasons with Minnesota, Foreman completed his career with a brief stint in New England.
He finished with 5,950 rushing yards, 350 career receptions, and 76 touchdowns.
5. Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos: 1995-2001
Injuries have robbed many great running backs of a chance at Hall of Fame immortality, but Terrell Davis is the poster child for how an injury can change a player’s destiny.
During his first four seasons after being drafted by Denver in the sixth round in 1995, Davis rushed for 6,413 yards and 56 touchdowns.
He was named the 1998 NFL Offensive MVP after becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
Arguably the best postseason runner in NFL history, Davis played in eight playoff games during his career and eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in seven of them.
He was MVP of Super Bowl XXXII after rushing for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
He suffered a knee injury when trying to make a tackle following an interception in the fourth game of the 1999 season, which proved to be the beginning of the end for Davis.
He played in only four games in 2000 and then rushed for 701 yards in eight games during the 2001 season.
Despite playing in only 78 NFL games, Davis rushed for 7,607 yards in his career, which still ranks 45th in NFL history.
He was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1990s.
4. Herschel Walker, Dallas Cowboys/Minnesota Vikings/Philadelphia Eagles/New York Giants: 1986-1997
If the Hall of Fame in Canton were really a “Pro Football” Hall of Fame, Herschel Walker would already be inducted.
When you combine the numbers Walker posted in three seasons in the United States Football League (USFL) with his 12 NFL seasons, Walker ranks as one of the most productive players in pro football history.
After leaving the University of Georgia following his junior season, Walker rushed for 5,562 yards and won two rushing titles in three seasons in the USFL.
In 1985, he rushed for a record total of 2,411 yards in 18 games.
Walker’s problem during his 12 years in the NFL was that he could never live up to the numbers he posted in the USFL.
After splitting time with Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett during his first two seasons in Dallas, Walker finished second in the NFL with 1,514 rushing yards in 1988.
The next season, he was traded to Minnesota in a blockbuster deal that ultimately helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in the 1990s.
Walker was never a dominant runner while in Minnesota, but did lead the NFL in all-purpose yards in 1990. After signing with Philadelphia in 1992, he registered the second 1,000-yard rushing season of his career.
Even when his USFL numbers are discarded, Walker still finished his career with very good numbers.
His 8,225 rushing yards rank 33rd in NFL history.
Though most recognized for his talent taking handoffs, Walker was one of the most versatile players in the NFL. He finished his career with 512 career receptions for 4,859 yards and also returned kicks for more than 5,000 yards.
At the time of his retirement, Walker ranked second in NFL history with 18,168 all-purpose yards.
3. Ricky Watters, San Francisco 49ers/Philadelphia Eagles/Seattle Seahawks: 1992-2001
One problem with the current selection process for the Hall of Fame is that personalities and personal bias toward a player, team, or era have a prominent role in deciding which players are inducted and which are left waiting.
Throughout his 10-year career, Ricky Watters was one of the most consistent and productive running backs in the NFL.
He posted seven seasons of more than 1,000 yards rushing and five seasons with more than 50 receptions.
However, he was also one of the most outspoken and flamboyant players of his era. That shouldn’t have any bearing on his Hall of Fame status, but given that he has yet to be a finalist in three years of eligibility, you have to wonder if Watters’ years of arrogance are being held against him by voters.
A five-time Pro Bowler, Watters was a key performer for the 49ers as they won Super Bowl XXIX. He then helped both Philadelphia and Seattle earn playoff spots.
Watters’ 10,643 career rushing yards rank 20th in NFL history. He also is 18th in career yards from scrimmage with 14,891.
2. Ottis Anderson, St. Louis Cardinals/New York Giants: 1979-1992
Ottis Anderson enjoyed two distinct acts during his 14-year NFL career.
In act one, he was a young superstar piling up huge rushing numbers for a below-average NFL team.
In act two, he used his experience and grit to help a veteran team earn an improbable Super Bowl Championship.
Anderson made an immediate mark on the NFL, rushing for a then-rookie record of 1,605 yards during the 1979 season.
He followed that campaign up by rushing for more than 1,000 yards in five of his first six seasons in the league.
After being limited by injuries to nine games in 1985, Anderson was traded from St. Louis to the Giants during the 1986 season. Anderson saw limited duty for the Giants during their Super Bowl-winning season and over the next two years.
Finally, in 1989, he emerged as a starter for the Giants and posted the sixth 1,000-yard season of his career.
The following season, Anderson rushed for 784 yards and helped lead the Giants to Super Bowl XXV. Anderson gained 102 yards rushing and was named the game MVP as the Giants defeated Buffalo.
Perhaps because he gained most of his yards playing for a subpar Cardinals team and then used a “three yards and a cloud of dust” style for the Giants, Anderson has received little support for the Hall of Fame.
Anderson’s career total of 10,273 was the eighth-highest in NFL history at the time of his retirement, and he is still the 23rd leading rusher in NFL history.
He also ranks 31st in total yards from scrimmage with 13,335.
1. Roger Craig, San Francisco 49ers/Los Angeles Raiders/Minnesota Vikings:1983-1993
One inconsistency in the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting is that having been a key member of championship teams seems to be helpful to your chances for induction.
This matters if you were a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers, or Chicago Bears, but not for former stars of the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, or Oakland Raiders.
That Roger Craig is not in the Hall of Fame and has never even been a finalist makes absolutely no sense.
Not only was Craig a key member of three Super Bowl Championship teams, he was also a member of the NFL All-Decade team for the 1980s.
A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Craig was one of the greatest combo backs in NFL history. Initially serving as a fullback, Craig later moved to halfback and proved that he could be a feature runner.
In 1985, he became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards and catch passes for more than 1,000 yards in the same season.
He finished third in the NFL with 1,502 yards rushing in 1988 and was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year.
Craig played in 18 playoff games in his career and had two 100-yard rushing performances and one 100-yard receiving game during his postseason career.
Craig completed his career with 8,189 rushing yards to rank 34th in NFL history.
He also caught 566 passes for 4,911 yards. He ranks 34th in NFL history with 13,100 career yards from scrimmage.