Top 10 Greatest Running Backs in NFL History

Cody Swartz@cbswartz5Senior Writer IDecember 30, 2008

Next to quarterback, running back is the most well-known position in football. I've seen a lot of recent lists that ranked the top 10 quarterbacks of all-time, and I felt compelled to make one of the best running backs ever.


10. Gale Sayers


Few players in history have been more impacted by injury than Sayers, who was forced to retire prematurely at the age of 28. Sayers played in only 68 games in six seasons in the NFL but made enough of an impact as a runner, receiver, and return specialist to crack the top 10.


Sayers had a rookie season like few who have ever played before. As a runner, he rushed for 867 yards and 14 touchdowns on 5.2 yards per carry. He caught 29 passes for 507 yards and six touchdowns, a spectacular 17.5 yards per catch.


And as a returner, he averaged 31.1 yards per kick return and 14.9 yards per punt return. His 22 total touchdowns set a new NFL record, and he put his name into the record books with six touchdowns in a legendary game against the 49ers.


The next year, Sayers led the NFL in rushing yards (1,231), total yards (1,678), and all-purpose yards (2,440). He led the NFL in all-purpose yards in '67 for the third straight year.


Sayers rebounded from a serious knee injury in 1968 to lead the NFL in rushing yards the following year, but following the death of teammate Brian Piccolo and another serious knee injury, Sayers retired for good in 1971.


With four Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections, and two rushing titles, Sayers earned a spot on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. Perhaps no one in history has been more dangerous at returning a kick—Sayers retired with the highest career kick return average (30.6) and kick return touchdowns (6).


Only a handful of runners have a higher yards per carry average (5.0) than Sayers. And there might be no one who was more affected by injuries than Sayers. Based on potential, Sayers very easily could have cracked the top three on this list.



9. Eric Dickerson


He holds one of the most prized records for a running back. Dickerson rushed for 2,105 rushing yards in 1984, the still-standing single-season record, bettering O.J.'s mark (although to be fair, Dickerson had the 16-game schedule and O.J. just had the 14-game schedule).


And his 11 games with 100 or more rushing yards also beat the great O.J. Simpson. Dickerson retired with 13,259 rushing yards, which was also second-best all-time at the time. And Dickerson's mark still stands as sixth best ever.



8. O.J. Simpson


No. 8 and 9 were pretty much a toss-up between Simpson and Dickerson. Like Dickerson, O.J. made six Pro Bowls, five All-Pro teams, and won four rushing titles. He won the MVP award and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1973 when he set a new NFL record with 2,003 rushing yards and also scored 12 touchdowns, but his 1975 season may actually have been better.


In just the 14-game schedule, O.J. rushed for a league-best 1,817 yards and 16 touchdowns and finished with 2,243 total yards from scrimmage and 23 total scores.


When he retired after the 1979 season, O.J.'s 11,236 rushing yards place him second on the all-time rushing list, a mark that now stands as 18th best in history. He won four rushing titles during his legendary career and led the league in rushing touchdowns twice, despite never playing behind a fabulous offensive line.


O.J. gets the nod though for several reasons. He played behind a much weaker offensive line. Simpson had five Pro Bowl seasons from his offensive linemen during his career, while Dickerson had a whopping 23! And Dickerson never won an MVP award or Offensive Player of the Year award like O.J. did.



7. Earl Campbell: Pound for pound, there are few–no, make that none at all-running backs who were tougher to bring down than Earl Campbell. He was an incredible workhorse, who combined supreme power and speed to inflict physical pain on his defenders.


Campbell made this list based essentially on just five seasons, but they were five amazing seasons.


Few players dominated the NFL as a rookie like Campbell, who led the league in rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Campbell is one of just four players to lead the NFL in rushing yards three straight seasons—and he's the only one to do it to start off a career.


He won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award three times and one MVP award. His first four years in the NFL may very well be the greatest four-year stretch of any running back of all-time, as he averaged 1,614 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns per season.


Campbell was not a receiver, as he never caught a touchdown pass in his nine seasons in the NFL. He wore down after his sixth season due to the pounding he took, but his list of accomplishments during his short career is enough to justify his selection as the seventh greatest running back in pro football history.



6. Marshall Faulk


Faulk is very similar to L.T. They are the same type of player—tremendous runners who can catch passes out of the backfield and score 20 times per season. Faulk had one of the greatest three-year stretches of any running back who ever lived from 1999-2001. "The Greatest Show on Turf" wouldn't have existed without Faulk, just as Faulk wouldn't have been quite as dominant without "The Greatest Show on Turf."


Faulk gets handicapped for his supporting cast—two-time league MVP Kurt Warner at quarterback, along with Pro Bowl wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt certainly took some of the pressure off of Faulk.


L.T. and Faulk were close, but I put L.T. a little higher because he's slightly more dominant, slightly more durable, and has a weaker supporting cast.


Faulk does have a four-year stretch that rivals any running back of all-time, the final three of those seasons coming as a member of the St. Louis Rams after starting as a member of the Indianapolis Colts. Faulk won one league MVP award and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year from '99-'01.


He rushed for 1,300 yards all four seasons and led the league in yards per carry the final three years. He set the new league touchdown record in 2000 (26). Faulk's claim to fame is his NFL-record four consecutive seasons of 2,000 scrimmage yards, and he is one of just two running backs with 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season.


Perhaps the most impressive part of Faulk's soon-to-be Hall of Fame career is his early success with the Colts. Faulk made the Pro Bowl his first two seasons in the NFL, despite playing with a much weaker supporting cast than his glory days with the Rams. He is the highest ranked running back to make three Pro Bowls with two separate teams.



5. LaDainian Tomlinson


L.T. seems to me what Walter Payton must have been like. L.T. is a workhorse back who has missed just one game to injury in his eight-year career. He's a tremendous runner, an outstanding pass catcher, and a solid blocker.


Better yet, he's a scoring machine. In eight seasons, L.T. has led the league in rushing yards twice and rushing touchdowns three times. He's a four-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro, and former league MVP (2006).


His 2006 season is one of the greatest of any running back who ever lived, as L.T. established NFL records for touchdowns (31), rushing touchdowns (28), points scored (186), and consecutive multi-touchdown games (8).


LT is the fastest on NFL history to 100 total touchdowns. He's extremely versatile. LT is the only guy to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in a season.


To be fair, LT has been blessed with a pretty good supporting cast during his career. Although he's only played behind six Pro Bowl offensive line seasons, he's had two great quarterbacks (Drew Brees and Philip Rivers), an All-Pro tight end (Antonio Gates), and a talented backup runner (Michael Turner).


And let's not forget, his fullback, Lorenzo Neal, could likely earn a trip to Canton, OH with his stellar blocking over L.T.'s career.


At the rate at which he played this season, L.T. doesn't look to have too many years left in him. He lost his lead blocker and he's almost 30 and not getting any younger. But there's no doubting L.T. has secured himself a place in the Pro Hall of Fame after he retires.



4. Emmitt Smith


He holds the one record in which all running backs aspire: career rushing yards (18,355). Smith is also first all-time in carries and rushing touchdowns (164). He won three Super Bowl championships with the Cowboys, one more than the combined total for the top three runners on this list.


And he was phenomenal in the postseason. He holds almost all the major playoff records, including rushing yards (1,586) and total touchdowns (21).


His list of NFL records is quite impressive: 11 seasons with 1,000 rushing yards (all consecutive), 78 100-yard rushing games, and five straight seasons with 1,400 rushing yards. He's one of just three players with seven straight seasons of 10 touchdowns to start his career.


In 1993, he became the only player to lead the league in rushing yards, win the NFL MVP award, win the Super Bowl, and earn the Super Bowl MVP award all in the same season.


Smith was a versatile and talented all-around player, and one of the best second-effort runners ever. He was a great pass catcher and an effective blocker. He was extremely durable, playing 15 seasons at a position where the average career is just four years. He was tough.


Remember that game in the regular-season finale that was not just for the division, but for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs? Even though he dislocated his shoulder, Emmitt refused to be taken out of the game, touching the ball nearly ever play down the stretch.


He finished the game with 168 rushing yards and 61 receiving yards on 42 touches, helping the Cowboys win.


The one penalty against him was the talent in which he was surrounded during his career. It's safe to say that no running back ever had as much talented offensive teammates as Smith. He was helped by a Hall of Fame quarterback (Aikman) and wide receiver (Irvin), and Pro Bowl blockers at tight end, fullback, and virtually the whole offensive line.


During his tenure with the Cowboys, Smith played behind a combined 31 Pro Bowl seasons from his offensive linemen, tight ends, and fullbacks, plus an additional 11 from other offensive players.


Basically, when Emmitt Smith was having a bad day, the Cowboys could still win. Not so with Brown, Sanders, and Payton—three players who were their team's only offense for their careers. With Smith, defenses couldn't simply put nine men in the box and wait for Smith to get the ball, because the Cowboys had a Hall of Fame quarterback who could beat teams with his arm.



3. Barry Sanders


I was tempted to rank Sanders No. 1. Very tempted. These top three guys are so closely ranked, I could really see any of the three ranked as No. 1.


Unlike Payton, both Sanders and Brown retired while still in their prime, denying themselves a chance at several more elite seasons, but also sparing fans from seeing them past their prime.


As a pure runner, Sanders was the most elusive, dangerous, and unstoppable player who ever lived. He couldn't be tackled in the open field. His style of running could be costly—Sanders had more negative rushing yards than anyone in history—but Sanders more than made up for it with his pure athleticism as a ball carrier.


His numbers during his 10 seasons reflect his greatness. Sanders averaged over 1,500 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns per season. He made the Pro Bowl every year of his career. Four times he led the NFL in rushing yards, and he finished in the top five in the league every year of his illustrious career.


Sanders was one of the most unselfish players ever. He could have easily broken the career rushing record, but instead chose to walk away from the game while still healthy.


Sanders never won a Super Bowl or even played in one for that matter; in fact, his Lions only won one playoff game during Sanders' whole career.


Sanders is the only player to rush for 1,500 yards five times (and he just missed at 1,491 in his final season). In 1997, during which he won the league MVP award, Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards on an unheard-of 6.1 yards per carry. He topped 100 rushing yards an NFL-record 14 consecutive games during the season.


Unlike many of the other great runners, Sanders is often remembered for having never had a good offensive line during his career. However, the line isn't as bad as people often remember.


Sanders played behind a Pro Bowl offensive lineman in every season but his first and last. Compare that to Walter Payton, who played behind only five Pro Bowl seasons in his career, and none until his 11th season!



2. Jim Brown


It's just accepted as fact that on every running back list, Jim Brown has to be No. 1. I remember growing up, every list I saw had him as No. 1 all-time. Sporting News ranked him as the greatest player in NFL history in their book on The 100 Greatest Football Players.


People refer to him as almost a god. So I wanted to do a little research to see if he truly is the best ever.


Jim Brown's list of credentials is amazing. He was a nine-time Pro nine seasons. He was selected first-team All-Pro eight times. He led the entire NFL in rushing every year of his career except one, and that year he still had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 18 total touchdowns.


He won three MVP awards. Brown retired with all the major rushing records, most of which have been since been surpassed, but let's not forget that Brown played during 12 and 14-game seasons, and he retired at age 29.


And while Jim Brown may not hold the career record for rushing yards, he is still the only player to average more than 100 rushing yards per game for his career.


I only wish I could have seen him play, just like I wish he had kept playing into his 30s. Who knows how many yards he would have amassed? How many records would he still hold? He was one of the few runners who could combine power and speed as well as he did.


Actually, no.


He was hands down the greatest power-and-speed runner of all-time. He was so tough to bring down in the open field. Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his Hall of Fame career. He was durable, never missing a game in nine seasons. He led the NFL in touches seven times.


He was the greatest of his era at catching passes out of the backfield, in a time when running backs didn't catch the ball 80 times a season like the Reggie Bush and L.T. guys of nowadays. Brown didn't wear down during games, scoring more touchdowns in the fourth quarter (34) than any other quarter of his career.


He was a workhorse at running back and by far the most valuable player on his team during his career. The Browns were 46-7-1 during his career when he rushed for 100 or more yards in a game and just 33-28-4 when he didn't.


Not many knocks you can say about Brown, except he wasn't a team player. According to other players around the league, NFL analysts, and other coaches, Jim Brown refused to block. Or gave a half-hearted effort. If the ball wasn't going to him, he wasn't interested in helping the team.


He only won one championship in his career, and I can't help but wonder how many more titles Cleveland might have won had Jim Brown put a little more work into his blocking skills.


I also have to penalize him for his offensive line. Brown had a wall of blockers to run behind that combined for 20 Pro Bowl seasons in his nine-year career, and he has at one point had a Pro Bowler blocking for him at every single position on the offensive line.


I just couldn't justify putting Brown ahead of a guy like Payton. In a sport in which team success is extremely dependent on each player pulling their weight, I had to deduct points from Jim Brown. Brown didn't block, and Payton was said to block as well as a lineman. And Payton beats Brown in longevity.


So while Brown may not be the greatest running back in NFL history, I don't think No. 2 is too shabby, either.



1. Walter Payton


Calm down. I know. Why isn't Jim Brown No. 1? I'll get to that...


In my opinion, Payton was most likely the greatest all-around running back in history. He retired with the NFL's most glorified record—career rushing yards (16,726), a mark that was later broken by Emmitt Smith.


Sweetness made nine Pro Bowl teams, and won a Super Bowl with the '85 Bears. He never missed a game due to injury in his 13 seasons. He was one of the most durable players ever, finishing in the top five in the league in touches in nine separate seasons. Four consecutive seasons, Payton led the NFL in carries.


What made Payton so spectacular was that he was the focal point of the Bears' offense. He retired with 125 touchdowns, mostly playing with less-than-spectacular quarterbacks. Defenses knew he was going to get the ball 25 times per game, and they would frequently stack nine men in the box, but Payton still managed to average over 110 total yards per game for his career.


Payton was one of those running backs who was good that defenses had to diagram their entire defense around him... and most of the time they still couldn't stop him. Everyone knows he was an amazing runner, but he was also the greatest receivers out of the backfield ever.


He was a fabulous blocker, and according to some of his teammates, he was even better than some of the guards for the Bears at the time. Payton was the emergency quarterback for the Bears, and he threw eight touchdowns in his career. He could kick if you need him to.


He would do whatever it took to help his team win, and that's precisely why he edges out Jim Brown for No. 1 on this list.



Guys who just missed the list


Old power backs such as Marion Motley, Jim Taylor, and Bronko Nagurski. More recent power guys like Franco Harris, Larry Csonka, and John Riggins. Modern players like Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin, and Jerome Bettis. Other greats like Tony Dorsett and Roger Craig. Adrian Peterson, who seems like a certainty to join the top 10 one day.


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