Peyton Hillis and the 15 Greatest White Running Backs of the Super Bowl Era

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst INovember 30, 2010

Peyton Hillis and the 15 Greatest White Running Backs of the Super Bowl Era

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    CLEVELAND - NOVEMBER 07:  Running back Peyton Hillis #40 of the Cleveland Browns runs the ball against the New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 7, 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Peyton Hillis has been one of the biggest stars of the 2010 NFL season.

    His hard running, come-from-nowhere appeal and tremendous production have helped contribute to his notoriety.

    But so has one other factor: his skin color.

    For whatever reason, white running backs have been few and far between in recent years. And for whatever reason, there have been three relatively big-name white running backs in the NFL this season: Hillis, Minnesota Viking Toby Gerhart and New England Patriot Danny Woodhead.

    Yahoo!Sports addressed the issue of Gerhart and the absence of white running backs before April's draft. 

    "One longtime NFL scout insisted that Gerhart’s skin color will likely prevent the Pac-10’s offensive player of the year from being drafted in Thursday’s first round.

    "'He’ll be a great second-round pickup for somebody, but I guarantee you if he was the exact same guy–but he was black–he’d go in the first round for sure,' the scout said. 'You could make a case that he’s a Steven Jackson type–doesn’t have blazing speed, but he’s strong and powerful and versatile.'"

    Two years earlier,'s Jemele Hill wrote about the same issue in her piece: "Whatever happened to the white tailback?"

    The more complex issues of this debate are for another time.

    But the topic of the white running back got us thinking about other great white running backs in recent NFL history.

    A few qualifications:

    1) They have to played at some point in the Super Bowl era: 1966 and beyond.

    2) Fullbacks are allowed.


No. 15: Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor

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    (Hornung) Green Bay Packers, 1957-66

    (Taylor) Green Bay Packers, 1958-66; New Orleans Saints, 1967

    Career Stats: (Hornung) 893 carries, 3,711 yards, 62 total touchdowns; (Taylor) 1,941 carries, 8,597 yards, 93 total touchdowns

    We can't leave this incredible duo off the list: Each a Hall of Famer, they helped the Packers win four NFL titles.

    But they barely played in the Super Bowl era (Hornung retired after 1966 and did not participate in Super Bowl I, while Taylor retired a year later).

    So they get a spot on this list, but we hedged our bet a little.

No. 14: Daryl Johnston

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    2 Oct 1994:  Running back Daryl Johnston of the Dallas Cowboys moves the ball during a game against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium in Washington, D. C.  The Cowboys won the game, 34-7. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Dallas Cowboys, 1989-99

    Career Stats: 232 carries, 753 yards, 22 total touchdowns

    "Moose" Johnston was far more famous for winning three Super Bowls and helping Emmitt Smith become the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

    But he had his moments as a ball carrier. He caught 294 passes for 2,227 yards and earned Pro Bowl selections in 1993 and 1994.

No. 13: John Cappelletti

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    Los Angeles Rams, 1974-78; San Diego Chargers, 1980-83

    Career Stats: 824 carries, 2,951 yards, 28 total touchdowns

    Cappelletti was one of the great 1970s Penn State fullbacks, and the only Nittany Lion ever to win the Heisman Trophy. He did so in 1973.

    He was a first-round draft pick by the Rams in 1974, but didn't become a full-time starter until 1976. That year, he became a great blocker for Lawrence McCutcheon, who earned his fourth straight trip to the Pro Bowl.

    And when McCutcheon was hurt in 1978, Cappelletti did a fine job filling in.

No. 12: Craig James

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    New England Patriots, 1984-88

    Career Stats: 585 carries, 2,469 yards, 13 total touchdowns

    Although we know him today for his great work on ESPN and ABC, James' legend was as the 1980s version of Peyton Hillis. 

    While Hillis played behind Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas, James was also slightly overshadowed by a college teammate: fellow SMU Mustang Erik Dickerson, as part of that famous "Pony Express" backfield.

    After SMU, James spent two seasons in the USFL, then joined the NFL in 1984. And in 1986, it was his running (263 carries, 1,227 yards, and five touchdowns) that helped the Patriots reach their first Super Bowl.

    He also had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games during that postseason as the Pats became the first team to win three road playoff games.

    Had he not retired at age 28, he might be higher on this list.

No. 11: Matt Suhey

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    Chicago Bears, 1980-89

    Career Stats: 828 carries, 2,946 yards, 25 total touchdowns

    Suhey, one of Joe Paterno's fullbacks during their heyday of the 1970s, once noted that "the best ground-gaining combination of all time is Walter Payton and any other running back."

    If that's true, then Suhey was part of the greatest ground-gaining combination of all time: He played with Payton for eight seasons.

    Suhey's self-deprecation notwithstanding, he gained plenty of yards on his own. 

    And in Chicago's only Super Bowl win, he accumulated more total yards (76) than Payton (61) and scored the first Bears touchdown on an 11-yard run.

No. 10: Tom Matte

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    Baltimore Colts 1961-72

    Career Stats: 1,200 carries, 4,646 yards, 57 total touchdowns

    Matte took over for another fantastic white running back, former Heisman Trophy winner and 1958 NFL Championship Game hero Alan Ameche.

    After a slow start (for a seventh overall draft pick from Ohio State), Matte blossomed late in the 1960s. He earned a Pro Bowl spot in 1968, then another the next year, when he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns and total yards from scrimmage. 

    He was hurt through virtually all of the Super Bowl championship season, but in the Colts' stunning Super Bowl III loss two years earlier, Matte was the game's leading rusher with 116 yards.

No. 9: Peyton Hillis

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    CLEVELAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Running back Peyton Hillis #40 of the Cleveland Browns scores a touchdown in front of safety Sherrod Martin #23 of the Carolina Panthers at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 28, 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sulliva
    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Denver Broncos, 2008-09; Cleveland Browns, 2010

    Career Stats: 280 carries, 1,302 yards, 20 total touchdowns

    If we were doing this list five years from now, there's a good chance Hillis would be top-three. But since Hillis has yet to finish his first season as a starter, we can't put him that high yet.

    Still, he's been remarkable in 2010. Not only does he have four 100-yard games this season, rank ninth in the NFL in rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns, he has been a great contributor in the passing game.

    Hillis made an incredible one-handed catch for a touchdown in a game earlier this season against Atlanta and has 46 catches for 414 yards this year.

    Trading Brady Quinn to the Broncos for Hillis and draft picks is looking pretty good right now.

No. 8: Mike Alstott

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott rushes for a gain  against the Atlanta Falcons  December 24, 2005 in Tampa.  The Bucs defeated the Falcons 27 - 24.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
    A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1996-2006

    Career Stats: 1,359 carries, 5,088 yards, 60 total touchdowns

    As Chris Berman dubbed him, Mike "You're in good hands with" Alstott was the league's premier fullback for several seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    A six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Alstott nearly reached the 1,000-yard mark in 1999 and led the team in rushing touchdowns each year from 1997 to 1999 and again from 2001 to 2002.

    He was also a tremendous aid in the Bucs' mediocre passing game. As a rookie he led the team with 65 receptions and caught 305 in his 11-year career.

No. 7: Ed Podolak

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    Kansas City Chiefs, 1969-77

    Career Stats: 1,157 carries, 4,451 yards, 40 total touchdowns

    Podolak was a pretty big star at Iowa in the mid-1960s and was a second-round pick by the Chiefs in 1969.

    But he missed most of his rookie year and the team's Super Bowl IV victory.

    He returned a year later to lead the club in rushing yardage, and did so again in 1971, scoring nine touchdowns.

    And on Christmas Day of that year, Podolak had one of the greatest individual performances in playoff history.

    Against the Dolphins, he scored two touchdowns, rushed for 85 yards, hauled in eight passes for 110 yards, and gained another 154 yards on kickoff returns.

    He set a playoff record for those 350 total yards during the Chiefs double overtime loss to the eventual AFC champion Dolphins.

No. 6: Tom Rathman

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    6 Nov 1988: Fullback Tom Rathman of the San Francisco 49ers runs down the field during a game against the Phoenix Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The Cardinals won the game 24-23.
    Mike Powell/Getty Images

    San Francisco 49ers, 1986-93; Los Angeles Raiders, 1994

    Career Stats:  544 carries, 2,020 yards, 38 total touchdowns

    Certainly those 49ers teams of the '80s had more stars on offense than Rathman: Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, John Taylor, Brent Jones, Steve Young, etc.

    But Rathman was a great contributor to that team that won Super Bowl XXIII.

    When the 49ers went on to repeat as champions a year later, he caught 73 passes out of the backfield, second only to Jerry Rice. In that season's Super Bowl, the 55-10 blowout of Denver, he scored two rushing touchdowns on 11 carries.

    And a year later, when Roger Craig was banged up throughout the 1990 season, Rathman led the club with seven rushing touchdowns.

No. 5: Merrill Hoge

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    7 Jan 1990:  Fullback Merrill Hoge of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball during a game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.  The Broncos won the game 24-23. Mandatory Credit: Tim de Frisco  /Allsport
    Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

    Pittsburgh Steelers 1987-93; Chicago Bears 1994

    Career Stats: 824 carries, 3,139 yards, 34 total touchdowns

    Long before he made his name as one of ESPN's top analysts, Hoge was a great runner for Chuck Noll's last few Steelers teams.

    Despite starting just half the team's games, Hoge led the Steelers in rushing yards, attempts and touchdowns in 1988.

    A year later, Tim Worley was the Steelers "factor back," but Pittsburgh made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, and Hoge was fantastic in the team's stretch run.

    In a must-win season finale against the Bucs, he led the team with 90 yards rushing on 18 carries, and as a Wild Card team playing the Oilers in the AstroDome, Hoge's 100-yard rushing day propelled the Steelers to an upset win.

    A week later, in a 24-23 loss to eventual conference champion Denver, Hoge collected 120 yards, a  touchdown on 16 carries and added 60 more yards on eight catches.

    Concussions cut his career short, but Hoge remains an iconic player in team history.

No. 4: Mark Van Eeghen

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    Oakland Raiders, 1974-81; New England Patriots, 1982-83

    Career Stats: 1,652 carries, 6,651 yards, 41 total touchdowns

    Often forgotten on that Raiders team loaded with icons and Hall of Famers, Van Eeghen topped 1,000 yards each season from 1976 to 1978. He also led the AFC in rushing yards in 1977, with 1,273.

    And in Super Bowl XV, he was the leading rusher as the Raiders and Van Eeghen won their second title in five years.

    Until Marcus Allen came along, he was the leading rusher in team history.

    All that from a man who played his college ball at Colgate.

No. 3: Rocky Bleier

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    Pittsburgh Steelers, 1968, 1971-1980

    Career Stats: 928 carries, 3,865 yards, 25 total touchdowns

    There are a few reasons why Rocky Bleier is a special figure in NFL history.

    Obviously, his four Super Bowl rings are reasons. So is his presence in an offense that included five Hall of Famers.

    So, too, was his service in the Vietnam War, during which time a grenade went off near him, leaving shrapnel in his leg.

    After that, he returned to the NFL to resume his career.

    The bulk of the team's carries obviously went to Franco Harris, but in 1976, when Harris was injured, Bleier rushed for 1,036 yards and five touchdowns.

    In the Steelers' four Super Bowl wins, Bleier carried the ball 44 times for 144 yards.

    And in the second quarter of Super Bowl XIII, he made an extremely acrobatic touchdown catch that helped the Steelers defeat Dallas 35-31.

No. 2: Larry Csonka

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    Miami Dolphins, 1968-74, 1979; New York Giants, 1976-78

    Career Stats: 1,891 carries, 8,081 yards, 68 total touchdowns

    Csonka had been a first-round draft pick from Syracuse in 1968, but as soon as Don Shula came to Miami the Dolphins started to win...and Csonka became a great player.

    He rushed for 1,000 yards or more each season from 1971-73: Coincidentally, the Dolphins went 36-5-1 during that stretch and won three AFC championships and two Super Bowls.

    In the second Miami Super Bowl triumph, Super Bowl VIII, Csonka set new records with 33 carries, 145 yards, and two touchdowns. Naturally, he won the game's MVP. 

    Spending 1975 in the WFL didn't help his career totals, but he still reached the Hall of Fame in 1987, not long before a new generation of "sports" fans saw him and his sweet mustache on American Gladiators.

No. 1: John Riggins

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    New York Jets, 1971-75; Washington Redskins, 1976-79, 1981-85

    Career Stats: 2,916 carries, 11,352 yards, 116 total touchdowns

    Riggins was a pretty good running back for the Jets in the early 1970s, rushing for 944 in his second year and 1,005 in his fifth year.

    In search of a larger contract, Riggins left the Jets for the Redskins, where he eventually flourished under Jack Pardee, rushing for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, 1978-79.

    After sitting out 1980 to protest his contract, he returned to help lead the Redskins to the top of the NFC.

    His four straight 100-yard rushing contests in the 1982 playoffs led the Redskins to a 27-17 win in Super Bowl XVII. He won the MVP of that win over Miami, thanks to his 38 carries, 166 yards, and famous go-ahead 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

    A year later, he set a new NFL record with 24 rushing touchdowns and earned his first and only spot on the All-Pro team.

    When he retired in 1985, only Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Franco Harris had more career rushing yards.