The Greatest NFL Running Backs of the Last 50 Years: 1959 to 2009

Leo PizziniAnalyst IJune 2, 2009

Walter Payton #34 of the Chicago Bears celebrates on the field as the Bears win the NFC Championship.

Who are the greatest running backs of all time and why? 

No simple answers here, just a lot of opinion. 

Several running backs have the right to make the claim and many more deserve consideration.  The greatest running backs have shown the ability to be physical and elusive with consistency throughout their career however long.

Click the player names for youtube highlight videos.

1. Jim Brown 6'2" and 232 lbs. | Cleveland Browns (1957 - 1965)

Jim Brown made the pro bowl every year of his career.  In nine 14 game or less seasons, Brown totaled 12,312 yards with a 5.2 yard average per carry and 80 rushing touchdowns. 

Brown also received for 2,499 yards and 20 more touchdowns.

Keep in mind that he played 12 and 14 game seasons.  Brown led the league in rushing every year of his career with the exception of 1962.  He averaged over 100 yards per game during his career.

He never went down easy and fought for the extra yard after contact every single time.  Most of the time, that extra yard turned into an extra bunch of yards.

There just wasn’t anybody else who ever ran through everything the way Jim Brown did.  He could run through a player or drag them, whichever way it went.

Jim Brown ran like a train.  

Players didn't tackle Jim Brown, they got hooked on him and sooner or later they fell off or were run between the train and the tracks. 

One man rarely brought Jim Brown down. 

If you pro-rated Jim Brown's production to 16 game seasons, he would have had over 15,000 yards in only nine years.

2. Barry Sanders 5'8" and 203 lbs. | Detroit Lions (1989 - 1998)

Barry Sanders made the pro bowl every year of his career.  He led the league in rushing four times.  He almost certainly would have broken the NFL rushing record had he not retired, still in his prime, after 10 years.

Sanders ranks third on the all time rushing list behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton with 15,269, a 5.0 yard average per carry and 99 touchdowns.   

Barry Sanders was the most elusive running back in NFL history. 

Nobody ever crossed up defenders like Sanders.  Once Sanders was in the defensive backfield, it was lights out. 

Sanders had the most exciting runs for losses in NFL history.  Playing for the Lions, he had plenty of opportunities to elude defenders in the backfield.

Nobody did the spin move like Barry Sanders. 

When Sanders spun, he moved what seemed like 15 feet laterally in half of a second.  Sanders could show a tackler his back and do a half spin away from danger, or just spin right out of a wrapped up tackle.

Watching Barry Sanders run through a defense was like watching someone try to hit one of those little bouncing balls with a dart.

In 1997, Sanders rushed for 2053 yards with a 6.1 yard average per carry.  

3. Walter Payton 5' 10" and 200 lbs. | Chicago Bears (1975 to 1987)

Walter Payton made nine pro bowls in his 13 year NFL Career.  During his reign, Payton accumulated 16,726 rushing yards with a 4.4 yard average per carry and 110 touchdowns.  Payton also had 4,538 receiving yards with another 15 touchdowns.

Payton is second on the all time leading rusher list behind Emmitt Smith.

Tackling Walter Peyton looked like trying to tackle a wave.  If he didn't knock the would-be-tackler over, he went around them or both.  Affectionately dubbed "Sweetness" for his silky smooth running style, Payton could finish a run through a tackler as well as work the open space in a field.   

Payton was a skilled ball handler. 

He palmed the ball like all high school and college coaches tell their players not to and used his free hand as a weapon. 

When contact was inevitable he sensed it.  Payton would tuck the ball and initiate the contact himself.

4. Emmitt Smith 5'9" and 210 lbs. | Dallas Cowboys (1990 to 2002) | Arizona Cardinals (2003 to 2004)

Emmitt Smith rushed for 18,355 yards with a 4.2 yard average per carry and 164 rushing touchdowns.  Smith enjoyed a long 15 year career in which he made eight pro bowls. 

Smith was one of the toughest running backs ever. 

Through sheer determination alone, Smith would regain his composure and balance to extend a run.

Smith had a great balance of agility, quickness, and power.  Emmitt did not run away from or over many players.  He was fantastic at sliding out of a square position with a defender to create a bit of separation and bounce off of the contact. 

Emmitt is famous for having rushed for 168 yards and catching 10 passes in a game which he played through the pain of a separated shoulder. 

Madden kept saying, "This guy can't throw a pebble five feet, he was trying before the game." 

I'll Miss Madden.

Anyway, Smith had will power.  He willed his feet and legs back underneath of him throughout his career.

Emmitt Smith is the leading rusher in NFL history.

5. Bo Jackson 6'1" and 227 lbs. | Oakland Raiders (1987 to 1990)

One of my greatest disappointments with professional football was not having Bo Jackson for a full NFL season.  Jackson was indeed the second coming of Jim Brown with more speed.

He was a Major League Baseball player for the Kansas City Royals and once baseball was over, he showed up for the Raiders.  He played four seasons and averaged just fewer than 10 games per season.

Jackson made the pro bowl in 1990 without ever playing a full season.  His statistics do no credit to his game except for his 5.4 yard average per carry.

Bo Jackson would have been a statistical leader in every category had he continued his football career full time.  He was a punishing runner who could stay in stride as he bowled over a would-be-tackler.

6. O.J. Simpson 6'2" and 212 lbs. | Buffalo Bills (1969 to 1977) | San Fransisco 49ers (1978 to 1979)

O.J. Simpson rushed for 11,236 yards in 11 mostly 14 game seasons.  He averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored 61 rushing touchdowns.  O.J. made the pro bowl five times and was the first back to rush for 2,000 yards. 

He did it in a 14 game season. 

Simpson was a long, lanky back that had a gazelle-like stride, tremendous balance, and the uncanny ability to just rip through arm tackles.  He didn't really bowl players over; O.J. just ran outside of their wrapping range and ran through their grips with cheetah like acceleration.

O.J. is a bad man. 

7. Franco Harris 6'2" and 230 lbs. | Pittsburgh Steelers (1972 to 1983) | Seattle Seahawks (1984)

Franco Harris played half of his 13 years in 14 game seasons and compiled 12,120 yards with a 4.1 yard average per carry and scored 91 rushing touchdowns. 

Harris made the pro bowl nine times.

Harris was an extremely imposing football player that carried great agility and speed.  He didn't go down without dishing out some punishment of his own.

Franco Harris ran very hard and with great skill.  He had a wonderful sense of timing in redirecting his speed on the opponent’s side of the line of scrimmage.

His exaggerated running style only added to the Goliath-like impression that Harris left on the field.    

Franco Harris is best known for the immaculate reception. 

8. Eric Dickerson 6'3" and 220 lbs. | Los Angeles Rams (1983 to 1987) | Indianapolis Colts (1987 to 1993)

Eric Dickerson rushed for 13,259 yards in 11 seasons, averaging 4.4 yards per carry and scoring 90 touchdowns. 

He was a six time pro bowler. 

Dickerson was a track star with football gear. 

He was a really tall running back and it almost made him look awkward at times, but the man could run.  Eric Dickerson really just ran hard angles around tacklers and blew threw a reaching arm or two.

If you were wondering, Dickerson was very tough when he needed to be.  He ran over Ronnie Lott. 

Enough said there.

In 1984 with the Rams, Dickerson rushed for 2105 yards averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

9. Earl Campbell 5'11" and 232 lbs. | Houston Oilers (1978 to 1984) | New Orleans Saints (1984 to 1985)

Campbell made the pro bowl in five out of his eight seasons.  He rushed for 9,407 yards averaging 4.2 yards per carry with 74 touchdowns.  In his first three seasons Campbell averaged between 4.6 and 5.2 yards per carry.

Earl Campbell may be the hardest runner of all time.  

If presented with the option of running around or over a tackler, Campbell would choose over.  He had the ability to make people miss, but Campbell had a great style of loosening up a defender with a change up step and then plowing them over. 

When a defender had Campbell wrapped up high, he was likely to push his way ten yards down the field before finally breaking out. 

If you watch Campbell closely, he seems to change ball carrying hands better than anyone to set up a stiff arm or make an arm free to fight off a handsy would be tackler.

Campbell was really like a bull in his running style.  He had the speed and power, but when tacklers put their arms around him he would surge his body violently and gore the defenders off of their feet. 

10. Marshall Faulk 5'10" and 211 lbs. | Indianapolis Colts (1994 to 1998) | St. Louis Rams (1999 to 2005)

In 12 NFL Seasons, Marshall Faulk earned seven pro bowl berths.  He rushed for 12,279 yards with a 4.3 yard average per carry and scored 71 touchdowns on the ground. 

Faulk also received for 6,875 yards and another 36 touchdowns.

Marshall Faulk was one of the most elusive running backs in the history of the NFL. 

As part of "The Greatest Show on Turf," Faulk became the master of the all-purpose back duty.

Whether he was running out of the backfield or receiving in the flats, Faulk was not a player that defenders wanted to be facing in a one-on-one situation. 

He could break down and accelerate like a rabbit. 

Honorable Mention: Tony Dorsett, Gale Sayers, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis, Marcus Allen, Terrell Davis, John Riggins, Wilbert Montgomery, Larry Csonka, and Curt Warner

Active Players: Ladanian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor, Edgerrin James, Brian Westbrook, and Warrick Dunn...

All of these incredible running backs shared a common vision of the field.  Each had their own way of finding open space. 

One sure thing is that these players dominated the field with the ball in their hands.

*Special Note and Comments Below:

One final comment on the Sayers omission:

First, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

At the end, I juggled some players around in ranking as I reviewed some last minute highlights as I struggled with the last three guys on the list and failed to acknowledge that Sayers is exactly the kind of back that should be well ranked on this list.

Maybe it was the slow motion highlights that momentarily made me lose track of how Sayers really moved like wind through defenses.

I do not retract anything regarding Bo Jackson and I knew that would stir some comments and Franco Harris is ranked too high in retrospect. Marshall shouldn't be above Sayers Either.

I tossed around Terrell Davis, Gale Sayers, Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas, Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, John Riggins and a few others to fit into seven through ten.

I am really only qualified to write on guys from Marcus Allen and forward. I never saw Sayers, Harris, Brown or OJ play live. The other guys I have.

I do not want to change main body of the article. If there is an opportunity to find insight with my writing, there must also be the balance to find fault.

Sayers was a big miss on my part, so I offer the following revision:

1. Jim Brown
2. Barry Sanders
3. Walter Payton
4. Emmitt Smith
5. Bo Jackson
6. OJ Simpson
7. Gale Sayers
8. Eric Dickerson
9. Earl Campbell
10. Franco Harris

I will be writing a revised top 20 or 25 with better and more media links. Thanks for the feedback and I apologize for any disappointment.



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