We will present, evaluate, and analyze the ten greatest running backs of all time. Of course, narrowing the list down from the thousands of players that have ever carried a football towards a top ten and ranking these spectacular individuals is a daunting task. In order to do so, we must define the role of the running back, while expressing the obvious conclusion that the ultimate objective of football and any sport is to win games. Certainly, our findings will be controversial.
The feature back must rush the football, receive passes out of the backfield, block, and consequently help his team to win ball games. These end goals require vision, toughness, durability, fiery leadership, and above all else pure running ability that is a fusion of shiftiness, acceleration, power, and top-line speed. That being said, we also must adjust per particular variables such as team make up and the evolution of offensive football at-large.
Essentially, if we were to hold a fictional draft for a running back – which players and in what order would we select?
These are the greatest running backs of all time. These are the top-10 running backs in National Football League (NFL) History:
#10 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers was Barry Sanders before there was a Barry Sanders. The Kansas Comet is noted for an electric running style featuring remarkable balance, shifts, feints, and unparalleled acceleration. Gale Sayers was drafted as the fourth pick of the 1965 Draft by the Chicago Bears out of Kansas University.
Sayers immediately took the League by storm, scoring a then record 22 NFL touchdowns upon 2,272 all-purpose yards, which also set a record as a rookie. Perhaps the greatest individual performance ever played in a football game was his 6-touchdown effort leading the Bears to a 61-20 victory over the San Francisco 49’ers.
The 6’0 200 pound back was to lead the NFL in rushing in both 1966 and 1969 with 1,231 and 1032 yards over fourteen game seasons. Sayers also averaged a staggering 5.2, 5.4, 4.7, and 6.2 yards per carry during his first four seasons.
This pure runner was a threat from anywhere on the field and Sayers was the most vital cog of the Bears offensive attack in the kicking game and by catching passes on flares out of the backfield.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Gale Sayers’ career was derailed by two knee injuries in 1968 and 1970. The first tearing of right knee ligaments slowed his lightning quick explosiveness and the 1970 surgery forced his ultimate 1971 retirement. This running back’s career was cut all too short.
Gale Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
#9 Greatest Running Back of All Time: O.J. Simpson
Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson was actually a top shelf running back prior to the Nicole Simpson – Ronald Goldman slayings, various felony convictions, and circus – like lifestyle.
The Juice may be described as a late NFL bloomer. O.J. was drafted first by the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1969 after dominated the college game at USC to claim the Heisman Trophy. The inept Buffalo Bills had gone 1-12-1 the year prior and took three years before the offensive line Power Company was actually able to turn The Juice Loose.
O.J. Simpson did not break the 1,000-yard mark until his fourth season – recording 1,251 yards and 6 touchdowns over fourteen games and the NFL’s rushing title that year.
Simpson put together the greatest individual season of any running back ever the following year in 1973. The Juice rushed for 2003 yards on 332 carries over 14 games. These are gaudy averages of 6 yards per carry and 143 yards rushing each contest. The projections calculate out at 2,288 yards per a 16-game season.
In spite of playing only 14 games, O.J. Simpson has recorded two of the top-20 rushing seasons per yardage, which compare favorably to Eric Dickerson’s three. Ironically, both of these running backs are characterized with an upright, long stride running style that is also identified with one decisive cut and outrageous top-line speed. Contrary to such obvious talents, both stars were prone to fumble and were almost total non-factors in the passing game.
Still, O.J. led the NFL in rushing four times before his 1977 season at Buffalo was cut short by injury. The star was then traded to San Francisco where he played out his career over two more seasons that were largely unremarkable.
O.J. Simpson retired with limited postseason success – having played in only one 1974 NFL Playoff game with Buffalo.
O.J. Simpson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
#8 Greatest Running Back of All Time: LaDainian Tomlinson
LaDainian Tomlinson is the most complete back of his era.
Tomlinson, at 5-10 and 221 pounds, has all the tools to run for speed, power, and move the football inside and outside of the tackles. The ultimate game breaker is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield and is even versatile enough to split out wide of the formation as a receiver. Tomlinson has also thrown for 7 touchdowns and a ridiculous 154.4 passer rating over his eight-year career.
This running back rarely fumbles. In spite ranking first in the NFL in terms of touches – Tomlinson did not put the ball on the ground once in 2007.
LaDainian Tomlinson is that NFL’s active leader with 15,551 yards from scrimmage and 141 career rushing and receiving touchdowns. LaDainian Tomlinson has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his 8 seasons – earning two rushing titles and a startling 2003 campaign featuring 2,370 yards from scrimmage.
Tomlinson’s electric, yet workmanlike style represents all that is right in sports. In fact, the superstar also won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2006.
There is nothing that this man cannot do.
Except win the big one.
LaDainian Tomlinson’s career legacy is marred by the fact that he has been surrounded by uber talented San Diego ball clubs – yet has been unable to lead these Chargers into the Super Bowl. Although Tomlinson has received handoffs from fellow Pro Bowlers Drew Brees and Philip Rivers – he has completely disappeared in the NFL Playoffs.
The images of Tomlinson riding a bike, while wearing his full NFL gear and Darth Vader helmet shield will presently haunt his surefire bust at Canton.
Of course, LaDainian Tomlinson, 29, and a 5-time Pro Bowler still has a small window of time to make amends.
#7 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Eric Dickerson
Eric Dickerson is the best pure, straight-line rusher in NFL history.
Quite frankly, Dickerson is one cut and go before he simply outruns the competition. Measuring 6’3 and 220 lbs., Dickerson is noticeably taller than the conventional running back and his vertical style is remarkably distinct. #29 is always just a few gallops from top end speed before the long strider is in the clear, effectively eating up yardage.
Although he was best in space, Dickerson was also capable of lowering the boom by dropping his shoulder into would be defensive stoppers on off tackle plays.
Eric Dickerson put together the greatest rookie season at the time with 1,808 yards in 1983 and a record 2,105-yard effort during his sophomore campaign. The feature back was to become the fastest player ever to the 10,000-yard benchmark with seven straight 1,000 – yard seasons. The athlete owns three of the top twenty single-season rushing yardage performances in NFL history.
Dickerson often languished on weak teams and only made the postseason four times over a twelve-year career. Still, his Los Angeles Rams 34 carry – 248-yard outburst versus Dallas in 1986 smashed NFL Playoff rushing records. The mercurial talent visibly seethed beneath the losing and was suspended often during his tour with the hapless Indianapolis Colts.
Although Dickerson is historically noted
as a fumbler, the workhorse back toted the football 390, 404, and 388 times in 1983, 1986, and 1988 to lead the NFL in carries. Dickerson’s relatively high number of fumbles and ball control issues early in his career were more so a function of his high volume of carries and upright running style than the mark of carelessness.
Dickerson’s scintillating production fell off a cliff at age thirty. The goggled one played for the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Raiders before failing a physical per his trade to the Green Bay Packers and leaving football as the second leading rusher of all time.
Eric Dickerson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999.
#6 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Tony Dorsett
Tony Dorsett, running back for America’s Team represents the first installment upon our listing to carry a Super Bowl ring. Dorsett and his 15-2 Dallas Cowboys defeated the Orange Crush Denver Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII.
Dorsett entered the NFL as the second overall pick after shattering the career all time NCAA Football rushing record at Pittsburgh University (later broken by Ricky Williams). Dorsett was named the starter after the tenth game of his rookie year in 1977 and was a Cowboy stalwart over the next decade.
Tony Dorsett topped the all-important 1,000 – yard mark in eight of his first nine seasons. The lone shortfall arrived courtesy of the nine-game strike shortened 1982 NFL season, in which he still tallied 745 yards rushing. Dorsett also upped the ante in the postseason with 1,383 yards rushing, which translates into his 4.6 yards per carry average over 17 NFL Playoff games.
Dorsett’s career is noteworthy more so for his consistency and versatility. The feature back averaged 4.3 yards per carry over his career and was always a viable threat out of the backfield as a Cowboy.
Tony Dorsett is a speedster, still capable of effectively following his blocks and sidestepping his way through felled bodies and traffic. The Legend of Tony Dorsett actually launched the Legend of another Hall of Famer identified with speed.
Washington Redskin Darrell Green grew ten feet tall before our very eyes after he emerged as the one man that was ever able to run down Tony Dorsett in the open field.
Tony Dorsett was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
#5 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders is the most uniquely electric football player to ever step foot onto the gridiron. The diminutive Barry Sanders stood at 5’8 and concerns regarding his short stature followed his career through all levels of football. Still, at 5’8 Sanders weighed over two hundred pounds and was able to dunk a basketball while standing flat-footed. This compact package of explosiveness and power absolutely befuddled defenses and electrified fans over ten years in Detroit.
Barry Sanders contorted his body in unthinkable positions, shimmied past linebackers, and broke the ankles of countless defensive backs to the tune of 15,269 yards over ten seasons – finishing second to Walter Payton per all-time yardage. Sanders rushed for over 1,000 yards every year during this span with a breath taking 5.0 yards per carry average.
The Detroit Lion earned Pro Bowl honors each season and won four rushing titles. His superior abilities crystallized with an incredible 1997 campaign, in which the running back broke the 2,000-yard barrier upon his gaudy 6.1 rushing average.
Barry Sanders is a home run hitter.
This boom and bust style identifies Sanders as both the third leading NFL All-Time rushing leader and the greatest running back per yards lost from scrimmage with 1,114 yards going backwards. Barry Sanders would often dance outside with the intent of breaking the big play, rather than hitting the hole for solid gains. Sanders could be corralled by swarming defenses and tackled for losses on critical short yardage plays.
The frenetic style was often exposed in the NFL Playoffs. In particular, Sanders carried 13 times for -1 yard versus the Packers at Lambeau Field. The Detroit Lions were able to win just one playoff game with Barry Sanders – before getting spanked 41-10 by the Washington Redskins in the 1992 NFC Championship Game.
Barry Sanders was to shock the world and walk away from football in his prime – long disheartened by Detroit’s wretched culture of losing.
#4 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Thurman Thomas
Thurman Thomas kept Barry Sanders on the bench as a back up at Oklahoma State University. Thurman Thomas is the greatest all purpose running back of all time. However, his legacy is marred by the inability of the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl over four consecutive seasons.
For example, Thomas was the clear cut MVP of “wide right” Super Bowl XXV versus the New York Giants with 135 yards rushing on 15 carries to go along with 55 yards receiving. This clutch performer has set records for NFL postseason career points (126), touchdowns (21), and receptions by a running back in a playoff game with 13.
Thurman Thomas led the NFL in yards from scrimmage each season from 1989 – 1992 to finish eighth all time in this overall production statistic. Thurman was a complete back that could run between the hash marks, outside the tackles, block in pass protection, and catch passes split out as a wide receiver. Thomas averaged over 4.5 yards per carry his first five seasons in the NFL.
Historically, Thurman Thomas is indeed, underrated.
He has performed behind the shadows of Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and the heartbreak of four Super Bowl losses. Still, Thurman Thomas is synonymous with the phrase “all around back.”
Thurman Thomas is that good.
#3 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith is the leading rusher of all time with 18,355 yards.
Smith has powered his way to more hardware than any running back in NFL History. Emmitt is a three time Super Bowl Champion, Super Bowl XVIII MVP, 1993 NFL MVP, and claims four rushing titles.
Emmitt Smith is 5’9 and weighs 210 pounds. Scouts often mocked his smallish size and lack of speed. Although Emmitt largely lacks NFL Combine type measureables and jaw dropping flair, he simply could not be stopped over his 15-year career. This north-south rusher is noted for his vision and ability to finish off runs and decisive games. Smith seems to get stronger as the game wears on.
Emmitt Smith is a testament to endurance, strength, football intelligence, and leadership. This warrior started 219 out of the 226 games in which he appeared, rarely missed games due to injury, and never took any plays on the field off. This mentality led to eleven consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons and 175 career touchdowns – second only to Jerry Rice.
Emmitt Smith is the most durable running back in the history of football.
Commentators have degraded Smith’s remarkable output – citing the fact that the Dallas Cowboys were a star studded Hall of Fall laden bunch. Barry Sanders fanatics especially point to the man eating Dallas offensive line featuring such behemoths as Nate Newton and Erik Williams as the true key to Emmitt’s success.
Regardless of this surrounding talent – Emmitt Smith was clearly the Heart and Soul of the Dallas Cowboys. Earning respect of all parties at Big D is no small feat considering the volatile mix of oversized egos on America’s Team.
Emmitt Smith is a winner.
#2 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Walter Payton
Walter Payton may have moved over to make room for Emmitt atop the all time rushing yardage list – but he is not ready to bow down to Smith per the Greatest Running Back of All Time title.
Sweetness ran between the tackles, outside on pitches and sweeps, blocked effectively, and was even a threat to pass. Payton finished his playing career with 16,726 rushing yards, 110 touchdowns, one MVP Award, and one ’85 Bears Super Bowl Shuffle ring. This Chicago Bears running back
missed one game over his thirteen-year career.
Walter Payton was never a speed demon.
The ball carrier racked up yardage on the strength of an assortment of moves. The running back’s “Never Die Easy” mentality punished tacklers with stiff arms, explosive spin moves, and a refusal to escape to the sidelines prior to dropping his pads, bringing the pain, and fighting for every last inch.
Vintage Walter Payton begins with one sharp cut at the line of scrimmage before getting low and powering through a hapless arm tackler, rope-a-dope ball control to the outside, high stepping hesitation to confuse faster defenders, and finishes with high flying acrobatics into the End Zone.
#1 Greatest Running Back of All Time: Jim Brown
Jim Brown was simply bigger, faster, stronger, and better than everybody else.
Jim Brown would approve this message.
The Greatest Running Backs of All Time, Sources:
The Official Web Site of the NFL, www.nfl.com
NFL All-Time Rushing Leaders, http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/alltime/leaders?cat=rushlead
NFL Stats, http://www.pro-football-reference.com/
Pro Football Hall of Fame Official Web Site, http://www.profootballhof.com/