NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Running Backs in NFL History
Earl Campbell, meet Walter Payton. Payton: Campbell.
You better believe both Sweetness and the Tyler Rose are on this final NFL Nostalgia countdown. We're casting a wide net for all-time greats at running back: players with endless careers (like Payton) and those claimed too soon by injuries (Campbell), current players and stars of bygone eras, speedsters, slashers, bruisers, battering rams and guys who did a little of everything.
There's no secret sauce in these rankings. Running backs were evaluated based on their rushing stats, all-purpose totals, playoff performances, Pro Bowl and awards selections, and impact on the game.
In an effort to balance peak versus career value, players were chosen for this list based on their career performances and then ranked based on the five-year window of their best seasons. Don't be surprised to see perennial 1,000-yarders near the bottom of the countdown and guys who burned brightly and briefly a little later.
None of the backs on the list would tap dance in the backfield before hitting the hole—well, except maybe Barry Sanders—so enough with the rules and regulations. Let's get running.
25. Frank Gore
Quietly, Frank Gore rises up the all-time rushing list.
Gore has rushed for 13,065 career yards, over 1,000 more yards than Adrian Peterson entering the 2017 season. With 195 yards, he will pass Eric Dickerson. If he matches last year's total of 1,025, he will also pass Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson and come within a few yards of Curtis Martin.
Gore, a dependable receiver throughout his career, also ranks 10th all-time in scrimmage yards and should pass Thurman Thomas for ninth place sometime in the season opener (he's 40 yards behind Thomas).
If Gore's assault on the all-time leaderboards has snuck up on you, it's because he played his early career on the directionless pre-Jim Harbaugh 49ers. Gore hammered out 1,000-yard seasons on teams with Trent Dilfer at quarterback and Arnaz Battle as the top receiver. After the Harbaugh heyday, Gore has returned to football purgatory with the befuddled Colts. He has labored most of his career just to keep his teams competitive.
Gore has always possessed everything a team could ask for in a running back: vision, cutback ability, breakaway speed (early in his career), ball security (especially later in his career), receiving chops and reliability. In another set of circumstances, he might be thought of as Franco Harris. Instead, Gore has been that dependable stat producer on our fantasy rosters for over a decade.
If Gore keeps on working and working, he'll work his way into the Hall of Fame without a debate. And he will have earned every inch of the journey.
24. Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis was impossible to leave off this list but surprisingly hard to include.
Bettis is well-known and well-loved. His accomplishments speak for themselves: 13,662 rushing yards (sixth on the all-time list), 94 regular-season touchdowns and a triumph in Super Bowl XL that felt like the coronation of the king.
Then, once we get past the happy memories and start comparing legends to legends, Bettis' shortcomings come to the fore. Bettis averaged just 3.9 yards per carry for his career. He contributed little as a receiver. He spent several seasons as a short-yardage role player and folk hero, which is the role he played when he finally won that Super Bowl (in his hometown of Detroit, it's impossible not to recall) with the Steelers.
Bettis carries the mantle on this countdown for fellow Hall of Fame bludgeon backs like John Riggins and Larry Csonka. He was the best of this kind of rusher, and he was one of the last. Between-the-tackles grinders are now role players, their more versatile counterparts the stars. Bettis was even a little bit of a dinosaur in the final seasons of his career. But thriving despite the tactical trends of an era is one measure of true greatness.
Some might prefer to see Fred Taylor, Warrick Dunn or Tiki Barber here (or Riggins or Csonka or someone else). Ultimately, Bettis passes the Close Your Eyes test. Can you picture Bettis in your mind, barrelling through the line for a touchdown, icing a game with a barrage of fourth-quarter runs, grinning wildly on the sideline after a win?
Of course you can.
That's why leaving him off this countdown was impossible.
23. Curtis Martin
No running back in history has had a career like Curtis Martin.
Only Martin, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders have ever produced 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. Few running backs have started 166 games or gone over six seasons without missing a start.
Great running backs rarely change teams in their fourth seasons, especially after rushing for over 1,000 yards in their first three seasons. They aren't supposed to have their best seasons when they are 31 years old. Some get better as receivers as they age, many get worse, but few stay more or less the same, supplementing their endless succession of 1,000-yard seasons with 40-plus annual receptions.
Martin's greatness rested with his reliability and durability. Sure, he produced his share of highlight-reel runs. But his compact, economical style was always more effective than flashy. He made every defender earn his tackle and dug up every yard as he churned out week after month after year of 20- to 25-carry, 90- to 120-yard rushing performances.
Ranking all-time great running backs often comes down to specifications. Do you want a back to win one game? Get you through a season? Build your franchise around? Put your team over the top in the playoffs? Will this running back play in a Patriots-style offense, for a 1970s defensive powerhouse, in a dome or in the mud? Different specifications result in different lists and countdowns.
Maybe Martin isn't the best answer for most of the questions above. But say you want to sign a running back to a five-year contract to set you up at the position for any system, era or eventuality. Few running backs would be a better choice for that set of circumstances than Curtis Martin.
22. LeSean McCoy
Choosing and ranking current players on NFL Nostalgia countdowns is always tricky. It's even trickier for running backs, who have shorter careers than superstars at other position. One extra All-Pro season can be all it takes to vault a running back who would otherwise not make the cut into the top 25.
Here's an inside look at the thought process for choosing active running backs for this countdown:
- Adrian Peterson: Duh.
- See No. 25.
- Marshawn Lynch: Stuck at 26th through 30th. If he leads the Raiders to a Super Bowl this season, I will happily issue an update and apology.
- Le'Veon Bell: Two more years like last year and we'll talk.
- LeSean McCoy: The more you examine his career, the better he looks.
Shady has produced signature seasons in three different offenses: Andy Reid's late-era West Coast Offense, Chip Kelly's grand experiment and that 1970s Texas high school offense the Bills ran last year. He has a rushing title, a touchdown title and two All-Pro selections on his resume. He is one good season from cracking the 10,000-yard barrier.
In terms of pure ability and impact, Shady is more valuable on a per-carry or per-game basis than Gore, Curtis Martin and several other backs who made this list for their dependability. But Shady has also proved reliable and relatively durable over eight full seasons, putting him a notch above some of the short-career greats.
McCoy is like Barry Sanders in many ways. He's an outstanding shake 'n' bake runner always stuck in some hinky offense. Like Sanders, he's an offbeat dude (though in a different way), and despite the highlights, he's easy to overlook when his teams are not winning.
McCoy will never be quite as incandescent as Sanders was as a pure talent, but if he has two or three more seasons like last year's, he will push towards the 12,000-yard plateau where the unquestioned greats reside.
Maybe this selection will look silly in a year or two. Right now, it looks safe.
21. Tie: Marion Motley and Leroy Kelly
Marion Motley was the great Browns fullback who preceded Jim Brown. Leroy Kelly was the back who replaced Brown as the team's featured rusher. Between Motley, Brown and Kelly, the Browns enjoyed a nearly unbroken streak of greatness at running back from the end of World War II through the early 1970s.
Motley joined the AAFC's Browns as an undrafted 26-year-old rookie Paul Brown remembered from coaching armed forces teams. Motley helped integrate pro football the year before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers. Then he helped revolutionize football with his mix of pure power and surprising quickness.
Motley was the innovator of the draw play: Defenders who were still getting used to Paul Brown's tactic of creating a "pocket" of blockers for quarterback Otto Graham suddenly had to deal with the 230-pound Motley hurtling through the line at them after a quick inside handoff. Motley led the NFL in rushing twice and averaged a remarkable 5.7 yards per rush despite taking so many of his runs between the tackles.
Kelly (shown above), an eighth-round pick from tiny Morgan State, was everything you could want in a running back wrapped in a compact 203-pound package. He started his career as a tackle-breaking return man trapped behind Brown and Ernie Green in the backfield. When Brown retired, immediately proved to be a worthy successor, leading the league in rushing twice and rushing touchdowns three times. His careening rushing style, with lots of start-stop cuts, made him the Le'Veon Bell of his day.
Motley and Kelly played in very different eras and had contrasting rushing styles. They are tied together by the Browns organization and by their roles as Brown's predecessor and successor, which is why they are tied here. That guy who played for the Browns in between them? Spoiler alert: He's coming. But not for a while yet.
20. Terrell Davis
Terrell Davis had an immediate impact as a Broncos rookie in 1995, rushing for 1,117 yards and helping Mike Shanahan establish a new identity for a team whose offense had been a one-man John Elway show for a decade.
Davis rushed for 1,538 yards the next season as the Broncos became the NFL's best (regular-season) team. He brought Elway and the organization their first Super Bowl championships with 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1997 and then rushed for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns as the Broncos repeated in 1998.
Davis then suffered a series of injuries that essentially ended his career. When he retired, the conventional wisdom that his career was too short for Hall of Fame consideration.
What a preposterous thought: a running back changes the course of his franchise's history, wins MVP and Super Bowl MVP awards, and has one of the greatest seasons ever for a player at his position...yet some thought he wasn't a Hall of Famer because he didn't play out the string with a handful of stat-padding 900-yard seasons.
Hall of Fame logic can be fuzzy, but fortunately it was not that fuzzy for Davis, who will be enshrined this weekend. "I think that's the one thing that shouldn't really be evaluated when you talk about players being evaluated for the Hall of Fame: the length of their careers," Davis said in his Hall of Fame interview earlier in the month. "I think seven or eight years is a pretty long time to play in the National Football League."
This countdown is full of players whose careers were similar to Davis' in length. Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, Steve Van Buren and even O.J. Simpson only enjoyed a few truly great seasons before injuries took their toll. The measure of a truly great rusher should be his impact. Davis didn't just have a few great years. He changed our perception of Elway, Shanahan and the Broncos organization, popularizing zone-blocking as a rushing strategy when he wasn't rewriting the NFL narrative.
"Even though it was short, it was a blessed career," Davis said.
It was also a Hall of Fame career, even though it ended far too soon.
19. Steve Van Buren
You need a secret decoder ring to understand the statistics of great running backs before Steve Van Buren.
Take Hall of Famer Cliff Battles. He led the NFL in rushing twice with 576 yards as a rookie in 1932 and 874 yards (and a league-leading five touchdowns!) in 1937. Or Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans of the Giants, who led the NFL with 830 rushing yards as a rookie and never again gained more than 500. Beattie Feathers became the NFL's first 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie and then essentially vanished from sports history.
It was the era of two-way players and A-formations. Players like Battles, Leemans and Feathers threw passes and played defense. Conditions, schedules and play styles were brutal, and the careers of "workhorse runners" often went downhill fast after their rookie seasons. Most of these guys gained stardom, after all, by sacrificing their bodies to Good Ol' State U for four years.
Then came Van Buren, a 215-pound Honduras-born bruiser from LSU, at the dawn of two-platoon football. Van Buren led the NFL in rushing four times, rushed for 1,000 yards twice in 12-game seasons and led the Eagles to a pair of championships in 1948 and 1949.
Van Buren was the greatest tackle-breaking battering ram of his era. But he was also swivel-hipped and nifty in the open field. He was at his best in the worst conditions. The Eagles lost the 1947 championship on a glorified skating rink at Comiskey Park, won the 1948 game after a blizzard closed Philadelphia down and then won in 1949 when the L.A. Coliseum looked like the world's largest mud wrestling ring.
Van Buren rushed for 98 yards and one touchdown in the 1948 championship despite needing three trolley transfers and a seven-block walk through the snow to even reach the game. He rushed for 196 yards through the slop to defeat the Rams in 1949. (The 1947 game belonged to Charley Trippi.)
After Van Buren, running back careers grew longer and 1,000-yard seasons became more common. Two-platoon football and the T-formation had a lot to do with that. But the NFL would not see a running back as dominant as Van Buren until Jim Brown came along. Van Buren was ahead of his time, and his accomplishments still leap off the encyclopedia page nearly 70 years later.
18. Edgerrin James
When the Colts selected Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams in the 1999 draft, conventional wisdom dictated they did so because he fit their system better. The 1999 Colts were already destined to be Peyton Manning's team, so they needed an all-purpose rusher and receiver. Williams was more of a traditional between-the-tackles workhorse, perfect for traditional workhorse coaches like Mike Ditka.
Looking back, it's hard to imagine needing to justify the versatile James over the relatively one-dimensional (and overused in college) Williams. The game was changing so rapidly in those days that it was hard to see how the I-formation bruiser would go extinct in favor of the one-cut, three-down slasher.
When James met Manning, they hastened that march to extinction.
James led the NFL in rushing in each of his first two seasons. He rushed for over 1,500 yards four times and gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage three times. James and Manning established a new template for backfield tandems. Manning made his decision at the line. James took handoffs against six-man boxes and caught swing passes when isolated against linebackers. Defenses always seemed to be a man short and a step behind.
James went on to three productive (if not spectacular) seasons for the Cardinals after his Colts heyday, reaching the Super Bowl as a committee back in 2008. He is now stuck on the Hall of Fame semifinalist treadmill. The enshrinement committee is still processing peers like LaDainian Tomlinson and teammates like Kurt Warner, so James' wait may not be all that long. Then again, he may need to overcome a "product of the system" perception from his time with Manning.
Great players sometimes define and popularize the system, not the other way around. Especially when those great players, like James, date back to the days when teams had to justify preferring "all-purpose" running backs in the draft.
17. Marcus Allen
Marcus Allen won the Heisman Trophy after a triumphant 2,400-yard season at USC, was selected 10th overall by the Raiders in the 1982 draft, scored 11 touchdowns as a rookie, helped the Raiders win a Super Bowl with 1,000 yards and one of the greatest runs in pro football history in his second season and led the league in rushing and scrimmage yards in his fourth season.
Then things got weird.
Bo Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, turning Allen into a committee back and sometime fullback. Fair enough: Jim Brown shared carries, too. Then, after multiple contract holdouts, Al Davis developed an obsessive grudge against Allen. Conspiracy theories abound about what soured Davis so vindictively against Allen, but whatever the case, he spent two seasons buried on the Raiders bench, with his coaches afraid to give him meaningful carries.
Free agency arrived in 1993, and Allen signed with the Chiefs. Not much was expected of the 33-year-old he spent the previous half-decade as a role player or reserve. But Allen led the NFL in touchdowns in 1993 and settled into a second career as an all-purpose short-yardage back, third-down weapon and end-of-game battering ram. Allen rushed for 11 touchdowns for the 13-3 Chiefs in 1997; the Raiders finished 4-12 that year and rushed for just nine touchdowns.
Allen's three-stage career is tricky to compare to the careers of other all-time greats. He was Emmitt Smith early in his career and an ageless Curtis Martin late, but the scooped-out middle forces us to imagine what might have been.
If not for the Davis feud, Jackson, a pair of work stoppages and those holdouts, Allen might have been the best running back in NFL history. Instead, he must settle for being one of the best, as well as a reminder that the NFL has always been a strange, sometimes cruel business.
16. Joe Perry
In the old days, fullbacks were the star rushers in a typical backfield. In the T-formation, fullbacks lined up behind the quarterback and ran dives, traps, sweeps, counters and draws; halfbacks also got plenty of carries but were forced to double as motion "flankers."
Even in the 1970s, fullbacks like Franco Harris were the workhorses, while halfbacks like Rocky Bleier served as the utility men. It wasn't until the I-formation spread through the league that fullbacks started to look like extra guards, and then one-back formations forced them to either become motion tight ends or seek employment elsewhere.
Joe Perry was a fullback, but he weighed just 200 pounds and was regarded as one of the fastest players of his era. He twice led the NFL in rushing in the 1950s with a pair of 1,000-yard efforts in 12-game seasons. He also led the AAFC in rushing once and rushing touchdowns twice before the 49ers were merged into the NFL.
Perry's second rushing title arrived soon after the 49ers assembled the famed Million Dollar Backfield of Perry, quarterback Y.A. Tittle and halfbacks Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson. Again, T-formation tactics take some getting used to: left halfback Johnson was the crunching blocker and power runner of the group, while McElhenny was a mid-1950s Reggie Bush. Perry was the focal point of the running game, which in the 1950s made him the focal point of the offense.
Perry played until he was 36 years old, making him the first NFL running back with a truly long career. Membership in the Million Dollar Backfield changed, and Perry left the 49ers for a few seasons with the Colts. But he was always productive, averaging 5.0 yards per carry for his career and retiring as pro football's all-time leading rusher, a mark Jim Brown would quickly shatter.
Perry was the Marcus Allen of his era. His career is a reminder of how different pro football was in the 1950s, and yet how instantly recognizable a great running back of any era can be, even if he's listed as a "fullback."
15. Jim Taylor
Jim Taylor never liked to hear that he was the second-best running back in pro football.
Taylor helped the Packers win four NFL championships and Super Bowl I. He was an undersized fullback with a jackhammer style and surprising quickness and vision. He was the go-to ball carrier on the Packer Sweep, Vince Lombardi's signature play. He was also an ornery cuss who wanted to punish every would-be tackler. Yet despite careening into linebackers and almost daring them to hit him harder with his early-'60s smack talk, Taylor rarely missed a game.
But Taylor was a contemporary of Jim Brown. Taylor won just one rushing title, finishing second to Brown four times. Taylor played for the better team, but few doubted who was the better back then, and there is no serious debate now. The rivalry with Brown was as much a motivator for Taylor as his rivalries with Giants linebacker Sam Huff and other defenders. Second-fiddle status made him run with even more determination.
Taylor is not well-remembered outside of Packers circles today. Like Franco Harris and Emmitt Smith, he gets lumped among his historic teammates. Brown robbed him of the bold type that marks greatness for pre-Super Bowl superstars on encyclopedia pages.
Taylor was one of the greatest short-yardage rushers of all time and earned a big-game reputation in Packers championship games (particularly in 1962, when he rushed 31 times for 85 yards and a touchdown in a 16-7 win over the Giants at icy Yankee Stadium). Before the great runners of the 1980s and 1990s racked up big numbers playing 16 games in high-powered offenses, Taylor was always listed among the all-time greats with Brown, O.J. Simpson and others. He was below Brown, but in the same conversation and on the same lists.
Sixty years later, that's still where he belongs.
14. LaDainian Tomlinson
LaDainian Tomlinson carried the ball in the red zone 73 times in 2006. He scored 24 of his all-time record 28 rushing touchdowns on red-zone carries that season.
Seventy-three red-zone carries is a lot, but it is not an exceptional amount. 2016 touchdown leader LeGarrette Blount carried 68 times in the red zone last year, scoring 16 of his 18 touchdowns from close range. Tomlinson was just being the best at what he did: using a combination of initial quickness, vision and power to hit holes and gain tough yards near the goal line.
Short-yardage running has become a lost art. In the old days, bruising fullbacks pushed the pile for that final yard, while halfbacks usually opted to hurdle over the top and into the end zone. As defenders grew larger and goal-line strategies became as sophisticated as possible, short-yardage running became more a matter of timing, blocking and reviewing replays to see if the ball slipped past the plane of the end zone.
Blount is the closest thing the NFL has to a true short-yardage specialist. Tomlinson, who led the league in rushing touchdowns three times and scored 162 career touchdowns (145 of them rushing) was the last great red-zone workhorse.
Tomlinson was also among the most durable backs of any era. He never missed a game due to injury in the first eight seasons of his career, though he did sit out one rest-the-starters game at the end of the 2004 season.
"One of the things I remember [Chargers offensive coordinator] Clarence Shelmon saying in my second year was, 'The most important thing for a running back is being available for his team," Tomlinson said during his Hall of Fame press conference in July. "The fact that I was able to do that for such a long time obviously contributed to making Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams, but ultimately making the Hall of Fame."
There was much more to Tomlinson's game than durability and the ability to punch in touchdowns. But those were two special, hard-to-find skills for a modern running back. And they are indeed what propelled Tomlinson past his peers and into the Hall of Fame.
13. Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers rushed for just 4,956 yards in his career, the exact same total entering the 2017 season as Alfred Morris, a fine player who will never make any all-time top 25 countdowns.
Sayers rushed for over 1,000 yards only twice. He never won an MVP award or played in a single postseason game. His Bears teams barely cracked .500 in their best seasons and went 1-13 (despite over 1,000 yards from Sayers) in their worst.
Sayers' best seasons came at the dawn of the Super Bowl era over 50 years ago, long before anyone played fantasy football, scoured draft guides or even saw a highlight montage on cable television. His achievements should now be forgotten, obscure, overlooked or misunderstood—an old grandpa tale and a mediocre encyclopedia entry, someone whose name conjures the kind of cloudy recognition reserved for silent film stars.
Sayers placed second on the NFL Nostalgia Playmakers countdown two weeks ago if you need to get reacquainted with him. But you don't have to. You know he was one of the most elusive runners in NFL history, a talent on par with Barry Sanders whose career was cut short by the rugged football of his era. No one who knows anything about football needs to be convinced or reminded that Sayers was an all-time great.
That's because his highlights will always do the talking for him. No other player in history left behind so much on-field beauty in so short a career.
Some players rushed for more than twice as many yards as Sayers and weren't even considered for this countdown. It was hard to leave them off. But leaving Sayers off would be impossible. He was pure magic. When magic happens, you don't expect it to last long. You just cherish it while it's there.
12. Thurman Thomas
In the early 1990s, it was well-known that no one was better than Barry Sanders at making a 20-yard run out of nothing (though he sometimes made a loss of five out of something) and no one was better than Emmitt Smith at churning out consistent five-yard runs (with the line and the system providing between three and 4.5 of those yards).
For everything else—from contributing to the receiving game and fitting the hurry-up offense to providing the best power-speed balance—the best running back was Thurman Thomas, who led the NFL in scrimmage yards for four consecutive years.
The best all-around running back is really the best running back, right? Thomas has a legitimate claim to be considered the best running back of his era. But his reputation suffered from his playing for a great offense (also the knock on Smith) but ultimately failing in the playoffs and Super Bowl (at least Sanders' playoff shortfalls were rightfully blamed on his quarterbacks and organization). Instead of being remembered as the best of both worlds, Thomas became a bronze medalist with no rushing titles and no rings.
Maybe Sanders did more for his teams than Thomas. Maybe Smith's steadiness was more vital to the Cowboys' annual Super Bowl victories than Thomas' versatility was to the Bills annual Super Bowl losses. Finishing in third place among such an illustrious field is nothing to be ashamed of.
But if all three backs played in 2017, there is no question who you would want. Emmitt and Sanders would be great. But Thomas would be the perfect every-down, every-tempo rusher-receiver for the modern offense. He may not have been the best, but there is no denying his influence.
11. Franco Harris
Franco Harris holds the all-time record with 400 postseason carries. Emmitt Smith is second with 349. Marshawn Lynch is the active leader with 193. As a playoff workhorse, Harris will never be bested.
Harris was the best grinder in pro football's most grinding era. Football strategy in the 1970s was about plunging between the tackles and surviving. Harris was the drivetrain for the Steel Curtain offense, with a healthy assist from halfback Rocky Bleier. It wasn't quite three yards and a cloud of dust. More like four yards and a puddle of mud, sweat and blood.
Harris' regular-season stats are great but unspectacular thanks to the era and Bleier. But once the Steelers reached the playoffs, Harris was like a tectonic plate inexorably dragging them to a championship. He rushed 87 times for 343 yards and six touchdowns in the 1974 playoffs and Super Bowl. The next year, he had three straight games with 27 carries in the playoffs and Super Bowl. The Steelers won several playoff games in which Terry Bradshaw completed just eight passes; the more important the game, the bigger Harris' role.
Harris wasn't much of a big-play threat and was a pretty ordinary receiver. If you could pick any running back from this list to carry the ball for your team, you would likely select someone with more explosiveness and/or all-purpose capability. That's fine.
But if you are picking a running back for a playoff game on an icy field after a long season, do yourself a favor and select Franco Harris.
10. Earl Campbell
At the top of his peak, Earl Campbell was better than Adrian Peterson, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton or just about any other running back this side of Jim Brown. Unfortunately, that peak lasted just three years.
Campbell led the league in rushing from his rookie season in 1978 through 1980, with 5,081 yards and 45 rushing touchdowns in those three years. It was the dawn of the passing era in the NFL, but the Oilers under Bum Phillips weren't playing along. The team traded up for the Heisman-winning bruiser from Texas, made him the focal point of their offense and immediately became archrivals for the Steel Curtain Steelers.
Campbell was nearly impossible to tackle, a runaway bulldozer on a steep decline every time he touched the ball. Even the best running backs shared the load in two-back formations before Campbell, but Bum turned fullbacks Tim Wilson and Rob Carpenter into glorified guards in the backfield—the precursors of modern fullbacks—in order to maximize touches for The Tyler Rose. Quarterback Dan Pastorini (and later the old and slightly soggy Ken Stabler) threw a few bombs over battered opponents, and the Oilers, despite annual playoff losses, became a national sensation, with Campbell as their breakout star.
Alas, overuse quickly took its toll. Campbell became more of a plodder in 1981 after back-to-back years of at least 400 regular-season and postseason carries. Ed Biles replaced Bum, Stabler aged rapidly and the Luv Ya Blue Oilers lost their sheen as the NFL's lovable goofball underdogs. Fans even soured on Campbell, a dinosaur of a grinder in an era of all-purpose backs. Campbell was out of the NFL after his age-30 campaign.
Campbell later suffered greatly for all of those brutal, breathtaking runs: arthritis and nerve damage began crippling him in his mid-40s, which led to him abusing painkillers. He never took his team to the Super Bowl. But Campbell inspired a generation. He was the jumbo power back many of us pretended to be on the sandlot, the guy we rooted for in the postseason to topple the unbeatable Steelers.
Campbell's all-time rushing totals have slid down the leaderboards for decades, weighed down by his ordinary seasons and his short career. However, he sacrificed too much to be overlooked as just another 1970s workhorse.
For all too short a time, he was simply the best.
9. Marshall Faulk
Marshall Faulk has repeatedly come up over the course of the NFL Nostalgia series, both as an all-time great playmaker and one of the most important players in one of history's greatest offenses. He's great, you remember why he is great and there is not much left to be said about his greatness.
Except for this: You can learn a lot about an all-time great player by looking at his "bad" years.
The 1996 season was a bad year for Faulk. Turf toe and a horse-and-buggy offense limited him to just 587 yards and 3.0 yards per carry. But even under miserable circumstances, Faulk caught 56 passes and scored seven touchdowns in 13 games. Even at his worst, he led the Colts in rushing yards and scrimmage yards, helping the team squeak into the postseason.
Faulk began fading in 2002 after a five-year reign as one of the NFL's two or three best players. His "fade" seasons included an 80-reception, 10-touchdown season in 2002, 818 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns for a team that finished 12-4 in 2003 and 1,084 scrimmage yards at age 31 in 2004 for a team that bore only passing resemblance to the Greatest Show on Turf. Even in his final season, Faulk downshifted into a productive role as Steven Jackson's change-up back instead of signing elsewhere for one of those forgettable last seasons so many great rushers have.
If you take away Faulk's five best seasons, you still have a great NFL player, if not an all-time great. Not many of the backs on this list can say they contributed as much to their teams before and after their peaks.
That peak is what puts Faulk on this countdown and left such an indelible mark on both NFL history and our memories.
8. O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards in a 14-game season in 1975. The Bills finished 9-5, their first winning season since the mid-1960s. And their quarterbacks averaged 6.9 completions per game.
That's 6.9 completed passes per game, as in less than seven, for a successful modern-era NFL team. Tom Brady or Drew Brees might complete seven passes in a first-quarter drive. It was an afternoon's work for Joe Ferguson, who threw just four touchdown passes the entire year.
Two years later, the Bills had the top-scoring offense in the NFL. Simpson scored 23 touchdowns and gained 2,243 yards from scrimmage. Everyone else combined for 31 touchdowns and 3,392. Simpson provided almost half the output for the NFL's best offense.
Separating Simpson's NFL career from O.J.: Made in America is almost impossible. The on-field accomplishments that made him famous dwarf in comparison to everything else that happened over the last three decades. Simpson's parole hearings in July eclipsed all other national news, and national news isn't easy to eclipse these days.
Simpson is the prism through which we see society. Who cares about some 1970s running back who never won a playoff game?
This countdown does.
Simpson was a household name because of his collegiate exploits long before he landed in Buffalo. He dragged the Bills back to relevance. He changed expectations for "franchise" running backs at the college and pro level, paving the way for the great I-formation runners of the 1980s and beyond. He was as beautiful to watch as any running back ever to play: graceful, agile, determined and effortlessly swift.
Simpson carried his team and helped define an era. Both the NFL and the world are far different now than they were in 1973. Maybe it wasn't a simpler time (Vietnam, Watergate), but it certainly was a simpler league. And for a few years, Simpson utterly dominated it.
7. Tony Dorsett
Imagine if the Patriots traded up in the 2016 draft to select Ezekiel Elliott. Unless you keep a Tom Brady shrine in the corner of your man cave, you would likely react by thinking, "Sheesh, enough's enough already!"
That's how the NFC felt when the Cowboys traded up in the 1977 draft to select Tony Dorsett.
The Cowboys, like the modern Patriots, were content to surround Roger Staubach with quality committee backs like Preston Pearson and Robert Newhouse back then. But they kept falling just short of a championship in the mid-1970s. And while the Steelers were the NFL's best team, the Cowboys were the wizards of the draft market. They traded a stockpile of picks to the Seahawks (then a second-year expansion team), and suddenly a team that finished 11-3 held the second pick in the draft.
The Cowboys' newfangled secret weapon (a computer) told them Dorsett was the proper selection. Dorsett happened to be a Heisman winner coming off a 2,100-yard season, so it didn't take much number-crunching to discover him. But the 5'11", 190-pound Dorsett was a little small for a workhorse rusher of the era. The Cowboys eased him into the Pearson-Newhouse committee as a rookie, but his role increased as the season progressed. He finished with 1,007 yards in a 14-game, defense-dominated season. Then he rushed for 222 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs, providing the spark that put the Cowboys over the top as Super Bowl champions.
Perhaps the computer knew the NFL would liberalize its rules and open up the field for burners like Dorsett the next season. No back in the league could turn the corner on a sweep like him. Dorsett beat the pursuit linebackers to the edge, made one quick cut and was up the sidelines at full speed. That speed and explosiveness also made him a weapon on screens and swing passes. Dorsett never led the league in rushing, but the Cowboys never needed him to be their lone workhorse. He rushed for over 1,000 yards eight times (the 1982 strike prevented a likely ninth 1,000-yard season) and added 1,383 yards in 17 playoff appearances.
Dorsett's legacy has faded a bit. Emmitt Smith overshadowed him in Dallas and passed him on the leaderboards. His encyclopedia entry lacks the black type that signals an all-time superstar. But in his prime, Dorsett and the Cowboys were so good that it almost felt unfair.
6. Eric Dickerson
The 1983 NFL draft changed everything.
The NFL extended its season to 16 games and liberated passing rules in 1978, ushering in the modern era of pro football. But for five years, 1970s stars played the game under 1980s rules. The 1983 draft brought a whole new breed of player whose talents—and personalities—were tailored to the new game.
John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were different than the quarterbacks who came before them. Darrell Green was a whole new kind of athlete on defense. And Eric Dickerson was unlike any running back before him.
Dickerson was 6'3" and 220 pounds but ran with the darting elusiveness of a shifty scat back. His upright rushing style should have negated his power and maneuverability, yet he blasted through tackles and swerved through traffic with ease. His long strides made him deceptively fast in the open field, but his backfield footwork was unparalleled.
And despite needing sport goggles, Dickerson had the best vision of any back in any era. His ability to see a cutback lane, plant, square his shoulders and explode through a backside hole made him nearly impossible to defend, even though opponents always knew what was coming. Dickerson was every flavor of running back—bruiser, corner-turning speedster, halfback, fullback, third-down back and so on—rolled into one.
Dickerson became a superstar the moment he took the field. He expected to be paid like one—another new innovation of the 1983 draft class was their outspoken desire for fair compensation. Dickerson's contract hassles began soon after his historic 2,105-yard 1984 season and continued through a trade from the Rams to the Colts, ultimately swallowing the final seasons of his career and complicating his legacy.
Free agency arrived in 1993 and changed everything. Players whose careers spanned the USFL era and the 1987 strike finally earned the negotiating leverage to get paid something close to what they were worth.
Dickerson was a worn-out 33-year old by then. He paved the way for the powerful cutback runners who came after him, and he presaged a future when running backs would have to battle for every available dime during their brief career peaks. Dickerson was the first modern great running back in many ways. Yet there is still almost no one quite like him.
5. Adrian Peterson
Workhorse running backs aren't supposed to be the focal points of NFL offenses anymore. But then there is Adrian Peterson, who defined the Vikings' identity for a decade.
Running backs are supposed to be members of committee backfields. Peterson has never been anything less than chairman of the board. They are supposed to line up next to shotgun quarterbacks and be happy with quick-hitting inside runs. Peterson is at his best in a more traditional formation, and the Vikings were only at their best when Peterson was at his best.
Running backs are supposed to be role players, and they are supposed to be washed up by age 27 or after their first major injury. At age 27, Peterson came back from a torn ACL and MCL to rush for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, winning MVP that year. At age 30, he returned from a suspension to lead the NFL in rushing.
The best players in NFL history transcend the trends and fashions of their era. The sport must adjust to them as much as they adapt to the sport. Peterson is the kind of player you build your system around, even if it means doing things the way no other team does them.
Peterson now plays for the Saints. He's not supposed to fit the system. He's not supposed to have anything left in the tank after an injury-marred season. But throughout his entire career, banking on Peterson to do all the things running backs are "supposed" to do has been a great way to be proven wrong.
4. Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders looms large in our memories because he was great and his teams were not.
Sanders has a highlight reel almost custom-designed for NFL Top 10 segments. After about 30 seconds of highlights, even fans who never saw him play are convinced of his excellence. Yet the highlights keep coming, jump-cut after spin move after Houdini escape. The next montage includes a whole new set of highlights with no repeats.
Unlike many of the all-time great running backs, Sanders never had to share the stage. There was no Troy Aikman, no Greatest Show on Turf, no Steel Curtain, Punky QB or Fridge. Just some of history's most forgettable/regrettable/ordinary quarterbacks, a fine receiver or two, a few hinky offensive experiments and Sanders' ability to single-handedly tie a defense into a Windsor knot.
Sanders ranked first in the NFL Nostalgia All-Time Playmakers countdown two weeks ago, so we'll wrap up the hosannas here quickly: four rushing titles, 109 career touchdowns, 5.0 yards per carry in a career without a decline phase, a 2,053-yard season at age 29 that no one expected and a rushing style so distinctive that it is still easy to picture even without the montages.
No, Sanders did not do it all himself. But he didn't have to share the spotlight, either. It made what he did all the more memorable and remarkable.
3. Emmitt Smith
The enduring image of Emmitt Smith is of the all-time leading rusher gliding for five or six yards downfield behind one of history's great offensive lines before a defender even caught a glimpse of him in the mid-'90s. Or of him grinding out carry after carry in the late-'90s and early-2000s, still productive but not very exciting, a high-volume plow horse on a so-so team.
Few remember the player who made the Cowboys great before they returned the favor for him.
The Smith of 1990 and 1991 was almost as elusive as Barry Sanders, but he could also lower his head and crash through the line when he needed to. This was the pre-Wowboys era. Troy Aikman still threw as many interceptions as touchdowns. Michael Irvin was just beginning to reach his potential. Smith—sometimes jazzy, sometimes thundering—made the Cowboys offense work and gave the team a fresh new identity.
By the time the Cowboys were perennial champions, Smith could gain 1,000 yards just by taking what the system gave him. But he rushed for 1,500-1,700 yards, thanks to his economical cuts, open-field surprises and the extra yard or two he muscled out before every tackle. Smith was also a gifted receiver and so reliable near the goal line that Aikman's passing touchdown totals look like they come from the early 1970s. Other teams began throwing the ball in the red zone. The Cowboys just kept feeding Smith.
If your image of Emmitt Smith is of the guy playing out the string for the Cowboys and Cardinals or of some product of an unstoppable system, then your perception is distorted. Smith was never as nifty as Sanders, as powerful as the toughest interior runners or as great a receiver as Marshall Faulk, and he enjoyed some of the best circumstances of any rusher in NFL history. But he did everything well and made the absolute most of his opportunity by winning Super Bowls, shattering records and playing so well for so long that his greatness was almost taken for granted.
2. Walter Payton
Walter Payton's 1977 season ranks among the towering achievements in NFL history, yet it is rarely discussed.
Payton rushed for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns in a 14-game season that year, the most defense-dominated season in NFL history since World War II. Payton finished 579 yards ahead of second-place rusher Mark van Eeghen. Payton's 2,121 scrimmage yards were 342 higher than runner-up Lydell Mitchell.
Van Eeghen and Mitchell played for strong, balanced Raiders and Colts offenses. Payton's quarterback was Bob Avellini, the Cody Kessler of the mid-1970s. Avellini and the Bears threw for just 1,844 net yards, meaning Payton accounted for more than half his team's offense. Chicago's defense was below-average that year, but the Bears went 9-5 and reached the playoffs, with Payton dragging them every inch of the way.
Payton carried the Bears to the playoffs again in 1979. He led the league in carries, finished second to Earl Campbell in rushing yards and second to Wilbert Montgomery in scrimmage yards. Chicago went through three quarterbacks that season, and Payton caught more passes than any of the Bears' wide receivers and threw one of their 16 touchdown passes. The Bears went 10-6, with Payton typically contributing 100-plus yards and a touchdown or two to nearly every win.
The Payton we remember is the one from 1985: Sweetness, with the Jehri Curl, still amazing after a decade in the NFL, still stuck on offenses that relied too heavily on him to compensate for their injured/ineffective quarterbacks. That was the Payton we saw on TV every week, and he was still a thrill to watch. Football of the 1980s complemented him well: more space to run, more sophisticated passing games to make use of his varied talents, wacky stunts (William "The Refrigerator" Perry as goal-line fullback) to breathe some fun into the stern business of Bears football.
But the 1970s version of Payton was an almost mythical figure—leading the league in carries every year, thriving amid the punishing warfare of the era's tactics, toiling in relative obscurity for a team which was never on television. He was a one-man road show who became appointment viewing when his team came to town or crawled into the playoffs.
Many of the other backs featured here were the greatest rushers of their era. Payton was among the greatest rushers of two eras. And some of his greatest feats received the least recognition.
1. Jim Brown
Brown is arguably the greatest athlete in pro football history—hell, he's one of the best in American history—as we discussed in an early installment of NFL Nostalgia.
He is one of the most important and influential individuals in football history: popular, polarizing at times, iconic across generations.
Brown's status as the greatest running back of all time is rarely questioned. His 104.3-rushing-yards-per-game average, eight rushing crowns and other feats left an indelible mark on the football landscape and our expectations for the running back position.
There is one question left to ask: Was Brown the greatest player ever?
Many considered Brown the GOAT from his retirement in the mid-1960s through the 1980s, though we didn't say "GOAT" back then. Several challengers have since staked their claim, most notably Jerry Rice and quarterbacks from Joe Montana through Tom Brady, with stops at Brett Favre and Peyton Manning along the way.
Brown is no longer a popular choice as the greatest player of all time because: a) Brady holds up a new Lombardi Trophy every other year; b) Brown played long ago in a very different NFL; and c) running backs are not as valuable—or at least as valued—as they were in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Brady's championships are hard to argue against, though the whole champ-or-chump approach to sports discourse is also a recent and unfortunate phenomenon. Brown did retire before many of us were born, but he isn't Red Grange. His stats are comprehensibly awesome, and footage of him is ample and recognizable as outstanding, overpowering running back play.
As for the position he played: Running backs were just as important as quarterbacks, perhaps more important, for much of football history. Brown had as much impact on his teams as any quarterback, and his teams won a championship and a heck of a lot of games.
Who you consider the greatest of all time is a matter of your personal taste. But as NFL Nostalgia draws to a close, remember that Jim Brown was football's Babe Ruth, the individual who forced the entire league to level up and get bigger, faster, stronger and smarter. Brady and other GOAT candidates may still be in the conversation after a half-century, through changes in attitudes and strategy which we can not yet anticipate. But Brown has already stood that test of time.