Detroit Lions

The National Football League's Top 5 Running Backs of All Time

Kyle GibbonsAnalyst IIIJune 5, 2011

The National Football League's Top 5 Running Backs of All Time

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    14 Aug 1998:  Running back Barry Sanders #20 of the Detroit Lions looks on during the pre-season game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. The Falcons defeated the Lions 7-3.
    Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

    To begin, I based my selections for this list on players who spent a majority of their careers with one organization. As far as I’m concerned dedication and longevity in an organization are factors just as significant as statistical contributions.

    The contributions of an organization define a players worth. Teams win football games, no one member is greater than the whole.

    Back then it was about the fans, it was about representing a city.

    There is a certain level of respect an athlete should garner for the commitment and perseverance that player has demonstrated throughout the majority of his career in one organization.

    This is my ode to those players.

Honorable Mention: Emmitt Smith

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    IRVING, TX - OCTOBER 27:   Running Back Emmitt Smith #22 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates beating the NFL rushing record during the NFL game against the Seattle Seahawks at Texas Stadium on October 27, 2002 in Irving, Texas. The Seahawks defeated the Cowb
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Dallas Cowboys (1990-2002)

    Arizona Cardinals (2003-2004)


    Player Identification: Super

    Hall of Fame: Yes (2010)

    NFL MVP: 1

    Pro Bowls: 8

    Super Bowl Rings: 3

     

    Some would argue that Emmitt should be higher on this list, and I spent a significant amount of time trying to decide between him and Earl Campbell for the No. 5 position. Ultimately, I decided to go with Emmitt as an honorable mention. There was no way I could totally leave a guy off the greatest running backs list that is the leagues all-time greatest rusher in terms of yardage gained.

    Emmitt Smith is an incredible athlete, excelling at all levels of competition throughout his dominant playing career. He is the Florida High School Athletic Association Player of the Century, a member of the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 2010 he was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame.

    Smith won three Super Bowls, was selected to eight Pro Bowls and possesses multiple NFL records. Emmitt rushed for 1,000 yards in 11 straight NFL seasons.

    Historically dominant defensive tackle Warren Sapp was quoted in saying that “Emmitt Smith is the greatest runner the world has ever known.”

    Emmitt is largely overlooked because of the dominant team he played for throughout a majority of his career. The Dallas Cowboys dominated the early '90s and no other running back in league history reaped the benefits of his teams play as Emmitt Smith did throughout his career.

5. Earl Campbell: Houston Oilers (1978-1983), New Orleans Saints (1984-1985)

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    AP PHOTO
    AP PHOTO

    Player Identification: The Tyler Rose

    Hall of Fame: Yes (1991)

    NFL MVP: 1

    Pro Bowls: 5

    Championship Rings: 0

     

    No other running back in the history of the National Football League punished defenders with a certain reckless abandon as Earl Campbell did in his injury shortened NFL career.

    Campbell was an animal, he ran for over 1,300 yards and double digits scores in five of his first six seasons.

    Campbell enjoyed one of the greatest 3-year runs a football player has ever experienced between the years of 1977 and 1979. In ’77 he won the Heisman Trophy at Texas; in ’78 he was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of The Year; and in ’79 he was selected as the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player.

    Some will argue Campbell’s placement in my top five, but in only five healthy seasons Campbell rushed for nearly 9,500 yards. Earl Campbell is downright vicious.

    He may be the most under-appreciated running back in the history of the NFL.

4. O.J. Simpson: Buffalo Bills (1969-1977), San Francisco 49ers (1978-1979)

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    AP PHOTO
    AP PHOTO

    Player Identification: The Juice

    Hall of Fame: Yes (1985)

    NFL MVP: 1

    Pro Bowls: 6

    Championship Rings: 0

     

    There is no greater running back in the history of the NFL that is or was more explosive than O.J. Simpson. His explosiveness combined with world class sprinter speed allowed Simpson to win the NFL rushing title four times.

    In 1973 Simpson gained an NFL Record 2,003 yards in only 14 games, highlighted by a 200-yard effort against the Jets in the snow. Against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving day in 1976, Simpson rushed for 273 yards and two touchdowns.

    By the time he retired Simpson ranked No. 2 on the all time rushing list behind Browns legend Jim Brown. To this day Simpson’s six 200-yard rushing games are an NFL all time best.

    Amazing statistics considering that much like Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson was the greatest talent on mostly poor teams. 

3. Walter Payton: Chicago Bears (1975-1987)

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    11 Nov 1984:  Running back Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears (right) runs the ball during a game against the Los Angeles Rams at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California.  The Rams won the game, 29-13. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart  /Allsport
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Player Identification: Sweetness

    Hall of Fame: Yes (1993)

    NFL MVP: 1

    Pro Bowls: 9

    Championship Rings: 1

     

    This is where the line in most all-time best running back conversations is drawn. Who is the best running back of all time?

    I think it largely depends on where your loyalties lie. If you ask a Bears fan who the greatest running back of all time is he will undoubtedly say Walter Payton, and if you ask him who No. 2 is he will undeniably say Gale Sayers.

    Payton’s playing career was highlighted by an NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in 1977, nine Pro Bowl selections, and a Super Bowl Championship in 1985.

    One thing is for certain: Payton’s place among the top 1-3 all time running backs is most assuredly well deserved, and his skills well documented.

    Payton’s running style was the perfect combination of power and grace.  “What people didn’t know was how rough he was,” said Matt Millen, a former Raiders linebacker. “He didn’t give straight arms, he’d punch you. Or he would lower his shoulder and kind of jump into you. He was one of the few who got personal fouls running the ball.”

    Payton went on to retire as the leagues all time leading rusher, only to be surpassed later by Emmitt Smith, who considered Payton his idol.

    Legendary NFL Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton passed on November 1st, 1999.

2. Jim Brown: Cleveland Browns (1957-1965)

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    AP PHOTO
    AP PHOTO

    Player Identification: Iron Man

    Hall of Fame: Yes (1971)

    NFL MVP: 3

    Pro Bowls: 9

    Championship Rings: 0

     

    Statistically speaking, Jim Brown is one of only two running backs in NFL history to score more than one touchdown per game on average.

    Brown rushed for at least 1,000 yards in seven of his nine NFL seasons. He led the league in rushing in all but one season of his career.

    Brown was dominate, and he was selected to the Pro Bowl in every year of his career. He was also honored as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player three times, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, both list highs.

    He accomplished all of this in only 12-14 game seasons.

    The time period in which Brown achieved such great statistics held significant weight in his No. 2 ranking. I believe that Jim Brown was a product of a time period. Though I appreciate and understand his contributions to the league, I believe he faced inferior defensive talent than the rest of this list had competed against throughout their respective careers. 

1. Barry Sanders: Detroit Lions (1989-1998)

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    22 OCT 1995:  RUNNING BACK BARRY SANDERS OF THE DETROIT LIONS CARRIES THE FOOTBALL DURING THE LIONS 36-30 LOSS TO THE WASHINGTON REDSKINS AT RFK STADIUM IN WASHINGTON, D.C.  Mandatory Credit:  Doug Pensinger/Allsport
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Player Identification: Now You See Him, Now You Don’t

    Hall of Fame: Yes (2004)

    NFL MVP: 1

    Pro Bowls: 10

    Championship Rings: 0

     

    Let me begin by saying had Barry Sanders not walked away from football after the ’98 season, he would have undoubtedly surpassed Walter Payton as the league’s all-time rushing leader. In doing so he would have most likely achieved a number far greater than even Emmitt Smith would have been able to exceed.

    If you were to ask Barry Sanders now deceased father William Sanders who he believed was the greatest running back of all time, he would without missing a moment say that Jim Brown was.

    Let me take a moment to tell you why Jim Brown wasn’t.

    Throughout Barry’s career, he averaged 1,500 yards per year, and averaged five yards per carry. From a per carry standpoint, Barry fumbled less times per carry than any other running back on this list.

    Barry’s electrifying pro career bolstered four league rushing titles, 10 Pro Bowl selections, an NFL Most Valuable Player in ’97, and NFL Rookie of The Year honors in ’89.

    Sanders was the epitome of reliability during his career with the Detroit lions in only missing six games in 10 years. In addition, Sanders never fumbled once in the ’89, ’90, and ’94 seasons.

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