The Top 10 Running Backs of All Time
A great selection of talent, and one of the most difficult to judge.
Unlike ranking quarterbacks, running backs are not defined nearly as much by winning as the signal callers. One of the main reasons for this is that running backs' stock is usually hurt by having tons of talent around them. It is perceived, whether wrongly or not, that they are undoubtedly helped when they have great talent around them.
Therefore, the more talent they have around them, the more likely they are to have won a lot. Hence, many of the backs on our list were viewed as being so incredible because they did so much with so little help.
As the argument goes, if you put Barry Sanders behind Emmitt Smith's offensive line and vice versa, their career totals would be undoubtedly different.
Statistical analysis is limited mainly to yardage, as touchdowns again tend to reward players on good teams.
The other big gauges used here focus on their standing within their time, measured by Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams since those are awarded based on how great they were in comparison to their contemporaries.
So without further ado, here are the top 10 running backs of all time.
10. Curtis Martin
Curtis Martin, in my mind, is arguably the most underrated running back in history.
Take a look at these numbers:
Ten straight 1,000-yard seasons, five Pro Bowls, and one All-Pro first team selection.
Sadly, he is overshadowed by other great runners of his generation and the fact that he was not a flashy runner. But he deserves to be on this list, somewhere.
9. Marshall Faulk
One of the best small backs in NFL history, Marshall Faulk essentially was a latter-day version of Roger Craig-only better.
Faulk started his career with the Indianapolis Colts, but after a contract dispute, was shipped to St. Louis, where he was the driving force behind "The Greatest Show On Turf".
For his career, Faulk rushed for over 1,000 yards seven times and made seven Pro Bowl teams, along with three first team All-Pro selections. He also was named NFL MVP in 2000.
Personally, the most impressive thing about his career was that in 1999, he rushed AND received for more than 1,000 yards.
8. LaDanian Tomlinson
LaDanian Tomlinson has been unquestionably the best running back of the decade.
He has gained over 1,000 yards in each of his first eight seasons, including a high water mark of 1,815 in 2006.
He has been selected to five Pro Bowls and was a first team All-Pro selection three times. Furthermore, he won the NFL MVP in 2006.
However, it appears that the magical age of 30 has hit even the mighty Tomlinson, robbing him of his speed and power, and he likely is now on the downside of his career.
Regardless, his career will no doubt be immortalized in Canton.
7. Emmitt Smith
A steady, if not spectacular, performer, Emmitt Smith was a welcomed class act on a team full of brash personalities.
Smith currently is the all-time leading rusher in NFL history, with 18,355 yards. Just as impressive were his touchdown numbers, which include a total of 175.
While neither a power runner like Riggins nor a speedster like Gale Sayers, Smith was a nice blend of both, using just enough power to move through arm tackles, and just enough speed to get past linebackers.
In addition to his yards, Smith made eight Pro Bowls, four first team All-Pro teams, and won the NFL MVP, three Super Bowls, and one Super Bowl MVP.
So why isn't Smith No. 1? Just like Roger Craig, Smith had more than just a little help from his friends. The teams he played on were a collection of superstars, and his offensive line was a fortress.
Throughout his career, Smith always played with a ton of Pro Bowlers, including three straight years (1993-1995) in which he played with nine or 10 other Cowboys in the Pro Bowl!
Smith was definitely a great running back, but what would Barry Sanders' or Walter Payton's numbers look like with those teams around them?
6. Eric Dickerson
One of the brightest stars of his era, Eric Dickerson was a different type of back from his contemporaries. Rather than being a small, compact runner, Dickerson was a rangy 6'3" gazelle.
Dickerson rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first seven seasons, including 2,105 in his second year.
Dickerson also made six Pro Bowl teams and five All-Pro first teams.
However, like many bright stars, he burned out quickly. Injuries robbed Dickerson of much of his speed, and by 1993, he was out of the league.
A tremendous back, he paved the way for other upright runners like Eddie George and Brandon Jacobs.
5. O.J. Simpson
It is very sad that one cannot think of Orenthal James Simpson without thinking about him as a criminal, especially for my generation.
But the "Juice" had a stellar career, including five straight seasons of 1,000 yards or more, including 2,003 in 1973.
Some of his highlights include: six Pro Bowl selections, five first team All-Pro teams, and the NFL MVP for 1973.
Sadly, his career, like so many other talented backs, was cut short by injuries. Even sadder is that this fast, upright runner will always be remembered for his horrid behavior off the field.
4. Franco Harris
Franco Harris is best known for being part of one of the greatest collections of talent in NFL history, winning a handful of Super Bowls with Pittsburgh during the 1970s.
However, Harris had a career that was amazing by any standards, including eight 1,000-yard seasons and nine Pro Bowl selections to go along with one All-Pro first team selection.
3. Walter Payton
One of the most beloved athletes in Chicago history, Walter Payton exemplified class and grace on the field.
As his nickname "Sweetness" implies, Payton was a smooth performer. When he retired in 1987, he was the all-time leader in rushing yards with 16,726. He also had a total of 125 touchdowns and made nine Pro Bowl teams and five first team All-Pro selections.
Additionally, Payton won a Super Bowl in 1985, supplying the quickness and elegance to a team built around a dominant defense. However, he was overlooked by coach Mike Ditka when it came to running in a touchdown in the big game; the fiery coach elected instead to allow defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry reach pay dirt.
Sadly, Payton passed away only a few years after retiring from the game, and did not see his rushing mark passed.
The most amazing stat of Payton's career is the fact that 10 seasons saw him carry the ball over 300 times, a true testament to a tough competitor.
2. Barry Sanders
I will preface this analysis by stating that I am an unapologetic Barry Sanders fan, and I did not miss a single game of his amazing career.
For me, every Sunday of my childhood during football season was devoted to watching the amazing Sanders and the Detroit Lions, and nobody took his retirement harder than myself.
However, his numbers speak for themselves. 10 seasons, 10 1,000-yard seasons, including 2,000 in his second to last.
He did all of this despite spending nearly his entire career without any additional weapons on offense or defense, and an offensive line that paled in comparison to those that his contemporaries Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk ran behind.
Sanders' running style is often imitated but never duplicated. It has been said that he was the most feared player in football. This description seems strange considering his tiny frame and low-key personality. However, many defensive players cited their inability to lay a hit on the elusive Sanders, and his tendency to make them look foolish on a regular basis for this description.
Sanders made the Pro Bowl in each of his 10 seasons, including the first team All-Pro team an amazing six times.
Adding to the elusiveness of the diminutive Sanders, he abruptly retired before an 11th season, despite still being in his prime, having rushed for over 1,400 yards in his final season.
It has been said that Sanders never took a direct hit in his career, which helps explain the fact that he only missed seven games in his career while playing a very labor-intensive position.
While others won more games or scored more touchdowns, nobody did more with less than Sanders. Additionally, nobody made a two-yard loss look more thrilling than the amazing back from Kansas.
1. Jim Brown
For his nine-year career, Jim Brown simply was football. His bruising rushing style set the tone for his career, and when he retired, he became the standard by which all running backs would be judged.
When Brown retired, he was the all-time leading rusher at 12,312 yards, gaining over 1,000 yards in all but two of his nine seasons, despite the fact that the NFL only played 12 weeks in his first four seasons and 14 in his last five. Of those games, Brown never missed one, despite taking an absolute punishment over the years.
His career included nine Pro Bowls and eight first team All-Pro selections, not to mention three NFL MVP awards.
Simply put, he was the best.
Best of the Rest: Earl Campbell
By many people's standards, Earl Campbell personified the notion of a power back.
His first four seasons in the NFL were some of the best of all time, averaging 1,614 yards per season.
He was, and continues to be, an icon in Texas, highlighting a career that included five Pro Bowl selections and three first team All-Pro teams.
As tends to be the case with big, bruising backs, Campbell's career was shortened due to the pounding his body took. Sadly, today he needs the aid of a wheelchair due to this beating.
Best of the Rest: Tony Dorsett
A striking contrast to Eric Dickerson, Dorsett was a small, yet quick back.
Over the course of his career, Dorsett made four Pro Bowl teams and one first team All-Pro selection.
Dorsett was known for his breakaway speed, which led to eight seasons of over 1,000 yards rushed, and 90 total touchdowns.
Ever the winner, Dorsett helped the Dallas Cowboys win Super Bowl XII and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
Best of the Rest: Gale Sayers
One of the most silky smooth runners in history, Gale Sayers did it all. Not only was he a great runner, but he was also an excellent receiver and one of the best kick returners of all time.
Sayers' short but remarkable career included four Pro Bowl selections and five first team All-Pro teams.
Sadly, a terrible knee injury against San Francisco in 1968 robbed Sayers of much of his speed and elusiveness, and although he led the league in rushing the next year, he retired just a couple of seasons later.
Often compared to baseball's Sandy Koufax for a brief but brilliant career, Sayers is loved in Chicago and respected by the nation for his off-field philanthropy, and immortalized in film by the movie "Brian's Song."
Best of the Rest: Jerome Bettis
One of the more likable personalities to ever lace up a pair of sneakers, Jerome Bettis was the latest in a long line of bruising backs.
Bettis' career included six Pro Bowl selections and two first team All-Pro teams.
Bettis was atypical in that his career had a striking longevity, despite his bruising style. Bettis was able to play for a total of 13 NFL seasons and rushed for over 1,000 yards eight times.
Bettis also was able to live the dream of many NFL players, retiring after winning the Super Bowl in his hometown Detroit.
Best of the Rest: Roger Craig
One of the first in what is now a long line of receiving threats to play the position, Roger Craig was the perfect weapon for quarterback Joe Montana in San Francisco.
Craig finished his career with over 13,000 yards from scrimmage, including a tremendous 1985 season in which he rushed for over and received over 1,000 yards.
Craig made four Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams and won three Super Bowls.
However, his legacy is weakened by the fact that he was surrounded by offensive and defensive weapons. In his four years as a Pro Bowler, he never had fewer than four teammates in the Pro Bowl with him, and three times had five.
Best of the Rest: Terrell Davis
Another running back known for his short career, Terrell Davis sure packed a lot into his.
One of only a handful of running backs to rush for over 2,000 yards, Davis rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons before injuries shut him down.
Davis was a first team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection three times, and is credited with finally allowing John Elway to win a Super Bowl...and then another.
Personally, I put Davis further down on the list than others with similar numbers because of the system he was in. The Broncos' zone running scheme allowed not only his backup, Mike Anderson, to rush for over 1,000 yards, but it also allowed the third string back, Orlandis Gary to break the threshold as well.
Best of the Rest: John Riggins
One of the toughest, and strangest, players to ever play the position, Riggins was a true wild card.
Known for his flamboyant hair cuts and bruising style, Riggins also was one of the most durable players to lace up cleats.
Riggins played a remarkable 14 seasons, finishing with 11,352 rushing yards.
Riggins made one All-Pro team and one Pro Bowl team, and was named MVP of Super Bowl XVII.
He also had one of the coolest nicknames, affectionately known as "The Diesel," and the Washington Redskins public address announcers signaled a Riggins carry with a loud semi-truck horn. Classic.
Best Of The Rest: Thurman Thomas
One of the most complete backs of the 1990's, Thurman Thomas was essentially a bridge between Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk.
Thomas rushed for over 1,000 yards in his eight of his first nine seasons, being named to five pro bowls and two all-pro teams.
Much like Craig and Faulk, Thomas had the benefit of playing behind a great offensive line with a hall of fame qb and receiving corps. Add to that the fact that his defense was arguably the best of the 1990's and you have a team that many could have been successful running for.
That being said, he barely misses the list, and is passed by Martin due to the fact that Martin played on worse teams and sustained a greater rushing career for a longer period of time. But it was a very close call.
Best of the Rest: The Next Tier
These are backs that are just a notch beneath those on our list, but still impressive nonetheless.
Fred Taylor amazingly has only made one Pro Bowl team, despite rushing for 1,000 yards seven times in his long career.
Eddie George, despite a very upright running style, had a very impressive career, rushing for 1,000 yards seven times as well as making four Pro Bowls and one All-Pro first team.
James Brooks is one of the most forgotten names of the 1980s, but he did manage to make the Pro Bowl four times over 13 years.
Earnest Byner is known more for his big fumble against the Broncos, but he did have two Pro Bowl selections and three 1,000-yard seasons for his career.
Larry Csonka had a great career, rushing for over 1,000 yards three times. However, he is more known for being a part of an amazing Miami Dolphins team that was loaded with talent.
Marcus Allen peaked early in his career, rushing for over 1,000 yards in three of his first four seasons, but never again reached that mark over the next decade of play.
Ricky Watters rushed for over 1,000 yards seven times, but is more known for his brash personality than for his running ability.
O.J. Anderson was a bruising back, and he rushed for over 1,000 yards six times, but injuries kept him from reaching the next level.
Ricky Williams continues to impress, likely reaching 1,000 yards this season as his comeback continues. It makes you wonder how great he could have been if he had resolved his personality disorder earlier in his career and played nonstop rather than taking time off.
Other great but not as great backs include: Freeman McNeil, Alan Ameche, Mercury Morris, Herschel Walker, Clinton Portis, George Rogers, Brian Westbrook, and Shaun Alexander.
Best of the Rest: Short but Thrilling Careers
Throughout the course of the NFL, there have been some amazing backs that had their careers cut very short due to the grind of this position.
Christian Okoye, the Nigerian Nightmare himself, had an amazing season in 1989, rushing for a league leading 1,480 yards, but only played for three seasons after that.
Ickey Woods set the world on fire as a rookie in 1988, rushing for over 1,000 yards and leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl. Sadly, he only rushed for less than 500 yards over the rest of his career.
Earnest Jackson burst onto the scene in 1984, but was done by 1988.
Perhaps the most famous was Bo Jackson, who is best known for the aggressive marketing campaign "Bo Knows," as well as the devastating run he had on Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football. A horrible hip injury ended his football career, although he still played pro baseball for a number of years after.
And for Lions fans, Billy Sims' name is a tough one to hear, but he personified greatness before Barry Sanders came to town.
Best of the Rest: The Next Generation
These players likely will find themselves on this list if the brilliant start of their careers continues.
Adrian Peterson reminds a lot of people of Payton, but for me I see a lot of Dickerson in him. He is as quick, fast, and strong as they come, but I fear that he will likely have injury issues if he continues to look for contact.
Chris Johnson is arguably the quickest back since Sanders, but he will need to keep it going for more than just two years to find himself on this list.
Steven Jackson has been a monster on some very bad teams, but like Peterson, he takes a lot of contact, and those types of backs tend to break down.
Ronnie Brown is an explosive blend of power and speed, but he has already had some injury issues that could cut short his career.
DeAngelo Williams started his career as a slight disappointment, but he has been very impressive over the last two years. Look for him to continue this trend.
Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, and a host of others are very impressive right now, but they will need to show staying power in order to reach this list. One thing that will help is the fact that most teams are employing running back by committee backfields, which should prolong some of these careers.