The Great Debate: The Greatest Running Back of All Time

Jordan LeeAnalyst IMay 20, 2008

In the annals of professional football, there have been numerous great running backs. Some were built like tanks who powered through the middle of the field, blowing up defensive linemen and middle linebackers, while others used their agility and speed to blow right past their opposition.

All of them played like men among boys, each of them were clearly the best player every time they took the field. The play of these warriors of the gridiron has not surprisingly created a debate, one that is constantly discussed among football fanatics.

These are the five I will consider for the title of greatest running back of all time. In alphabetical order they are: Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and LaDainian Tomlinson. Let the debate begin.


Jim Brown: Cleveland Browns (1957-1965)

It could be argued that no one player dominated the game the way Jim Brown did. At 6-foot-2. 230 pounds, he was as big or bigger than the defensive linemen he played against, and there was no one player who could take him down one-on-one. Brown loved contact and would wear out every defense he played. He combined size, speed, and explosiveness in a way that was unrivaled by any player at that time. Brown retired on top of his game at age 30, holding all major rushing records.


Walter Payton: Chicago Bears (1975-1987)

"Sweetness," as he was called, was just that: sweet. He could do it all on the field: run, catch, throw, even punt. Payton had great speed and hands, and a ferocious stiff arm he used to brush off defenders. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns.


Barry Sanders: Detroit Lions (1989-1998)

Barry Sanders moved liked no other running back had before or since. What he did each and every Sunday was simply jaw dropping. He made professional athletes look stupid; no one could touch him. Sanders was consistently great. In each of the 10 years of his career, he ran for 1,000 yards or more. But despite his great production, he never experienced team success, but you can't blame Sanders for that, as the Lions haven't been good for five decades.


Emmitt Smith: Dallas Cowboys (1990-2004)

Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing leader, is probably the most successful back of all time. The winner of three Super Bowls, Smith enjoyed more postseason activity than any other back on this list. Some of that may be due to the talent of the players around him, but Smith was key in getting his team to the Super Bowl and winning it. Smith had a prolific career, leading all running backs in touchdowns scored.


LaDainian Tomlinson: San Diego Chargers (2001-present)

The only active player on this list, LaDainian Tomlinson could be the single most productive player in NFL history. He is on pace to shatter every major rushing record. LT joined Eric Dickerson as the only players to start their careers with seven straight 1,200 yard seasons. During that stretch, Tomlinson has also scored 10 or more touchdowns in each season. Tomlinson may also be the best multi-purpose back of all time, rivaling Payton. He can catch, throw, and run, block better than most backs in the league and currently possesses the best stiff arm in the league.


How They Fare Against Each Other (Career)

Brown (9 years, 118 games): 2359 att 12312 yards 106 TDs, 262 rec 2499 yards 20 TDs, 2621 touches 14811 yds 126 TDs 57 Fumbles

Payton (13 years, 190 games): 3838 att 16726 yards 110 TDs, 492 rec 4538 yards 15 TDs, 4330 touches 21264 yards 125 TDs 86 Fumbles

Sanders (10 years, 153 games): 3062 att 15269 yards 99 TDs, 352 rec 2921 yards 10 TDs, 3414 touches 18190 yards 109 TDs 41 Fumbles

Smith (15 years, 226 games): 4409 att 18355 yards 164 TDs, 515 rec 3224 yards 11 TDs, 4924 touches 21579 yards 175 TDs 61 Fumbles

Tomlinson (7 years, 111 games): 2365 att 10650 yards 115 TDs, 458 rec 3375 14 TDs, 2823 touches  14025 yards 129 TDs 24 Fumbles


How They Fare Against Each Other (Season)

Brown: 262 att 1368 yards 12 TDs, 29 rec 278 yards 2 TDs, 291 touches 1646 yards 14 TDs 6 Fumbles

Payton: 295 att 1286 yards 8 TDs, 38 rec 349 yards 1 TD, 333 touches 1636 yards 10 TDs  7 Fumbles

Sanders: 306 att 1527 yards 10 TDs, 35 rec 292 yards 1 TD, 492 touches 1819 yards 11 TDs 4 Fumbles

Smith: 294 att 1224 yards 11 TDs, 34 rec 215 yards 1 TD, 328 touches  1439 yards 12 TDs 4 Fumbles

Tomlinson: 338 att 1521 yards 16 TDs, 65 rec 482 yards 2 TDs, 403 touches 2003 yards 18 TDs 3 Fumbles


How They Fare Against Each Other (Game)

Brown: 20 att 104 yards .9 TDs, 2 Rec 22 yards .16 TDs, 22 touches 125 yards 1.06 TDs

Payton: 20 att 88 yards .5 TDs, 2 Rec 24 rec .07 TDs, 23 touches 112 yards .6 TDs

Sanders: 20 att 100 yards .7 TDs, 2 rec 19 rec .06 TDs, 22 touches 119 yards .7 TDs

Smith: 20 att 81 yards .7 TDs, 2 rec 14 yards .04 TDs, 22 touches 95 yards .8 TDs

Tomlinson: 21 att 96 yards 1.03 TDs, 4 rec 30 yards .12, 25 touches 126 yards 1.2 TDs



Statistically speaking, Smith is the greatest running back per career, Tomlinson the greatest per season, while per game is a toss up between Brown and Tomlinson. Smith, however, falls short of the rest when looking at game and season averages, although there is something to be said for longevity.

Barry Sanders and Jim Brown each averaged over a 100 yards a game, while Sanders and Tomlinson averaged over 1,500 yards a season. It is also interesting to note how close every back is in terms of touches a game, besides Tomlinson, who touches the ball considerably more. Whether this is a hindrance or a credit to his durability is up to interpretation.

Tomlinson blows the competition away when it comes to scoring touchdowns. He is the only back to average more than one rushing touchdown a game. He also catches about twice as many balls per season and per game.

So who is the greatest back? Jim Brown dominates per game with a 5.2 yard a carry average, Barry Sanders is consistently great, while LaDainian Tomlinson is a workhorse who produces more and turns it over less than any other back.

For those reasons, it is my opinion that when he hangs them up, LaDainian Tomlinson will be the greatest back to ever play. But as of right now, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back of all time.

Verdict: Barry Sanders (now)/LaDainian Tomlinson (future)