Ranking the 10 Best NFL Running Backs of All Time
Who were the best running backs of all time? What criteria would you use if asked to select the 10 best? I gave this some thought while doing research on a great running back who has been all but forgotten, Jon Arnett (1957-1966).
While attempting to figure where he ranked among the all-time greats, I considered a number of measures—rushing yards, touchdowns all-purpose yards, single-season records and single-game records. I came to the conclusion that all-purpose yards is probably the single-best measure for this ranking.
Why all-purpose yards? Some running backs are just rushers. Others also catch passes. A few are punt and kick returners. All-purpose yards best captures all of their production. Touchdowns and total points scored are also good measures, but are limited by the reality that some running backs were short-yardage specialists who scored a lot, but didn't necessarily accumulate many yards.
So for what it's worth, here's my top-10 list.
10. O. J. Simpson
Before ruining his legacy, he was one one of the greats. A Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 draft pick, Simpson was simply dazzling. He was the first running back to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season.
He led the league in rushing four times. His total all-purpose yards came in at 14,368 with 76 touchdowns and 456 points scored. Now, the only yard he sees has a razor-wire fence around it.
9. Franco Harris
Franco Harris was not only a great running back, he was also very lucky to be on one of the best teams in history. With four trips to the Super Bowl, Harris was a key part of one of pro football's few true dynasties.
A first-round draft pick, Harris accumulated 14,640 yards, 100 touchdowns and 600 points in his career, earning him the ninth-best running back in history. Best remembered for his "Immaculate Reception," Harris truly had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
8. Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders was an amazing rusher. Though he was not the biggest of backs, he took advantage of his size by being unbelievably agile. He took being "shifty" to a whole new level as he could stop on a dime and reverse direction like no one else. He made defenders miss so badly, they looked positively foolish.
The 1988 Heisman Trophy winner bolted for the NFL after his junior year at Oklahoma State, and just three days after signing, was on the field for the Detroit Lions. The first time he touched the ball, he ran for 18 yards.
Ten years and 15,269 yards later, Sanders accumulated 99 touchdowns, making him the eighth-best running back of all time.
7. Jim Brown
I feel badly for many of you because you are too young to remember Jim Brown. He was the No. 1 draft pick in an incredible year—1957—the same year that produced Paul Hornung and Jon Arnett.
Brown was as durable as they come. He never missed a game. A receiver and kick returner, Brown also threw three touchdown passes. He produced 15,459 all-purpose yards and 756 points.
Had Brown not retired at the peak of his nine-year career, there's no telling how many more records he could have racked up.
6. Tony Dorsett
Tony Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy in 1976 and immediately made an impact in the NFL. The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in his first season.
He spent 11 years with the Dallas Cowboys before being traded to Denver. That trade did not pan out for the Broncos. Despite a very productive 12th year, it would be his last due to injuries.
Dorsett racked up 16,326 all-purpose yards, 91 touchdowns and 546 points. He is one of two running backs from Dallas among the 10 all-time best.
5. Thurman Thomas
Although he was not a first-round draft pick, Thurman Thomas certainly played like one. The 40th overall pick in 1988 NFL draft, Thomas went on to an impressive 13-year career, spending most of it with the Buffalo Bills.
Thomas racked up 16,532 all-purpose yards. He was an excellent receiver as well as rusher and was selected for five consecutive Pro Bowls.
4. Curtis Martin
Although he was only a third-round draft pick, Martin comes in at No. 4 in the all-time best running back ranking.
Drafted by New England, he ran for 30 yards on his first carry and never looked back. He was the AFC's leading rusher in his rookie season.
Martin saved his best for last—almost. His best season was his next to last when he rushed for 1,697 yards and won the NFL rushing crown.
His total all-purpose yardage, an astonishing 17,421 with 100 touchdowns earns him the fourth-best ranking.
3. Marcus Allen
Marcus Allen was a star at the University of Southern California and is still frequently spotted on the sidelines at the Coliseum. He was the 10th overall pick in the 1982 draft and had a relatively long career, spanning 16 years.
Allen played for the Oakland Raiders when they were good (sorry Raider fans) and was astonishingly talented. His best year was 1985 when he led the league with 1,759 rushing yards.
Personally, I think he was aided in his production somewhat by another Raider back who had a shorter career and won't make the Hall of Fame. But together, they were a devastating combination. That back, Frank Hawkins, came out of Nevada when it was still a Division ll-A program.
Allen comes in in third place all time with 17,654 all-purpose yards and a whopping 145 touchdowns. USC could use him now.
2. Emmitt Smith
Many of you will argue that Emmitt Smith was the greatest running back of all time, and you have a very valid point. Smith is the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards and a jaw-dropping 164 touchdowns.
But remember, this analysis considered all-purpose yards as the best measure. Still, Smith's status as one of the game's top two running backs is secure. With 21,579 all-purpose yards, Smith's productivity is mind-boggling.
He was a first-round draft pick and has more records and accolades than I can fit in this report. I can only imagine what his memorabilia room must look like in his house. How many bookcases does it take to display 164 footballs?
Oh, and he can dance pretty well, too.
1. Walter Payton
Now, I'm sure many of you will disagree with ranking Walter Payton as the greatest running back of all time. After all, he gave up some of his records to No. 2 Emmitt Smith.
But with 21,803 all-purpose yards, Payton edges out Smith on this measure. He was the fourth player selected in the 1975 NFL draft and went on to play 13 seasons in the NFL.
Like Smith, his records, awards and accolades are too numerous to mention. But for those of you too young to remember Walter Payton, he had a indescribably beautiful way of running. He wasn't the biggest back at only 5'10' and 200 pounds, but he was tough and fearless, often flying over defenders as if he had wings.
But for me, his running style was simply graceful and had almost a ballet-like quality to it. He earned the nickname "Sweetness" because his running was just sweet to watch. He sliced through defenders with a grace that, at least to my eye, was unique.
Payton died not long after he retired of a rare liver disease. If you are not very familiar with his running style, buy a DVD about him and watch. I think you will agree. He was "sweetness".
So there you have it, my 10-best running backs of all time.