Top 10 Greatest Running Backs

1. Jim Brown – Cleveland Brows (HOF) – Played in the bygone era of the 50’s and 60’s, but Big Jim is still an icon in NFL circles.  He could run over or a around a defender with ease.  Though he is a little outspoken off the field these days (see recent Tiger Woods comments).  There is no doubt if Brown played longer than 9 years, retired at age 29, that he still would have every rushing record in the books. This 9-time Pro Bowler and 8-time first-team All-Pro selection finished with 12,312 rushing yards, 106 rushing TDs, an amazing 5.2 ypc average, and a still NFL record 104.3 yards per game average.  Led the Browns to a championships in 1964.

2. Walter Payton – Chicago Bears (HOF) – A tough back, who ran harder than his size (5’10, 200).  Payton, emerged from small HBCU school Jackson State in 1975, always would finish runs strong and delivered a blow if needed.  Also was a great passer on halfback passes, blocker, kickoff returner and leadership teammate.  Finally won a ring late in his career with the legendary 1985 Bears, but I still can’t fathom why Mike Ditka let DT William “Refrigerator” Perry score instead of Sweetness.  A 9-time Pro Bowler and 5-time first-team All-Pro, Payton finished with a then NFL Record 16,726 rushing yards upon his retirement.  Scored 110 rushing TDs and had a respectable 4.4 ypc average.

3. Marshall Faulk – Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams – Probably the most complete back in this group.  Faulk had the hands and speed of a receiver, but he also could take a pounding between the tackles.  The engine that made the Rams’ 1999 “Greatest Show on Turf” team go.  I still believe Gino Torretta should mail his Heisman to the former San Diego State star, who became the 2000 NFL MVP.  A 7-time Pro Bowler and 3-time first-team All-Pro, Faulk finished his twelve year dual threat career with 19,15412 combined yards including 12,279 rushing yards (100 TDs and average 4.3 ypc) and 6,875 receiving yards (767 receptions and 36 TDs).

4. Emmitt Smith – Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals – Some may call him a “compiler” who benefited from playing on the best team of the ‘90s with huge offensive lines.  But Smith (5’9, 210) was a tough competitor, who carried the entire Cowboys team on his shoulders.  This 5’9 back played through injuries to become the NFL’s All-time leading rusher — 18,355 yards with 164 TDs and 4.2 ypc average. I can still see Smith attacking the Giants D-line in a must-win game even though he had a separated shoulder.  My only request is please stay away from the microphone now that you are attempting to join the media. Smith was a 7-time Pro Bowler, 3-time first-team All-Pro, 1993 NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP. 

5. Barry Sanders – Detroit Lions (HOF) – This Lions great, who most likely would the NFL’s leading rusher if he had not left the game early, was a slashing cut-back runner that was hard to catch than a waterbug.  Sanders (5’8, 203) made a thrilling run out a 5-yarder, -5 yarder, or a 65-yard touchdown.  Unfortunately was on some bad Lions teams where he had little help, but he always made Thanksgivings in Detroit fun to watch.  Sanders was another running back, who was a pure runner and not much of a receiver.  The “Silver Streak” operated out of the Lions one-back offense and never had the advantage of a lead blocker.  Finished his Hall of Fame career in 1998 at the age of 30 and he easily could have broken Walter Payton’s former total, but he wasn’t concerned with records.  The 10-time Pro Bowler and 6-time first-team All-Pro finished his career with 15,269 rushing yards, 99 rushing TDs, 5.0 ypc average, and an amazing average of  99.8  rushing yards per game.

6.  Eric Dickerson – LA Rams, Indianapolis Colts, LA Raiders, and Atlanta Falcons (HOF) – A tall (6’3, 220) upright runner that had the size and speed to dominate in the NFL.  Sure some will point to the fact that he was not much of a receiver or blocker, but this guy was a pure workhorse running back.  Still holds the NFL record for the most rushing yards in a season (2105 yards with 14 TDs and a 5.6 ypc average) from his magical sophomore NFL season in 1984.  Dickerson was amazing in his first seven seasons in the NFL averaging over 1600 rushing yards in those years.  The former SMU running pony was 6-time Pro Bowler and 5-time first-team All-Pro, but he never played in a Super Bowl or won an NFL MVP in his 11-year career.  Left the game at the age of 33 finishing with 13259 rushing yards, 90 TDs, and a 4.4 ypc average.

7. Earl Campbell – Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints (HOF) – A battering ram of a back that had the hugest legs around.  Big Earl (5’11, 232) left the University of Texas as a Heisman winner and first overall selection in the 1978 NFL Draft then brought his unique runaway train style to the NFL.  Campbell led Bum Phillips’ Oilers to two AFC title games in his first four seasons.  I can still see the tear-away jersey 81-yard touchdown run against the Dolphins and him barreling over that poor Rams linebacker on Monday Night Football. Unfortunately his running style caused a much too premature ending to his career at 30 – finished with 9,407 rushing yards, 74 TDs, and a respectable 4.3 ypc average.  Campbell was 5-time Pro Bowler, 3-time first-team All-Pro, Rookie of the Year in 1978, NFL Offensive Player of the Year – 1978, 1979, &1980, plus the 1979 NFL MVP award.

8. Marion Motley – Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers (HOF)  — I was recently asked, “Was Motley that good?”  Are you kidding me.. this huge (6’1, 232) back along with fellow Hall of Famers quarterback Otto Graham and Guard Bill Willis helped the Browns dominate the AAFC and then the NFL in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.  Motley ran with a determination that dare tacklers to take him on and he also played on defense too a linebacker.  Browns Head Coach Paul Brown knew he could always count on #76 in any situation on the field during a time where teams only played 12 games.  Imagine how much great his numbers would have been if he didn’t have to wait for professional football to lower their racial barrier and for the end of WWII (age 26 in his first season).  Helped the Browns to championships in 1946 (AAFC), 1947 (AAFC),  1948 (AAFC), 1949 (AAFC), and 1950 (NFL). The 1-time Pro Bowler and 2-time first-team All-Pro finished with rushing totals of 4720 yards, 31 TDs, and an amazing 5.7 ypc average in 9 seasons.

9. Gale Sayers – Chicago Bears (HOF) – A player, who did not last long in the NFL due to injuries.  In a time where a knee injury was surely a career killer, Sayers came back even stronger in 1969 to post a 1032-yard season in only 14 games.  Clearly the original do-everything running back that could contribute in the running, passing, and return game.  The “Kansas Comet” was not only fast, but also had sick cut back moves in the days before artificial turf field.  No player wanted to face Sayers in the open field, because an embarrassing air tackling moment was sure to come.  Despite playing in only in four NFL seasons (68 games total), Sayers greatness is unquestioned and goes beyond numbers (Rushing: 4956 yards, 39 TDs, and 5.0 ypc; Receiving: 112  receptions for 1307 yards,  9 TDs, and a 19.2 average; 14.5 yard average on punt returns and 30.6 average on kickoffs).  A 4-time Pro Bowler and 5-time first-team All-Pro.

10. OJ Simpson – Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers (HOF) – Alright put everything off the field aside and trust me I know it is hard to do. But there is no doubt that Simpson, nicknamed the “Juice”, deserves a spot in the Top 10 RB’s of all-time.  After his NFL career started slow with three non-thousand yard seasons this former USC Heisman Trophy legend showed the NFL he was the real deal.  Running behind his “Electric Company” offensive line, Simpson displayed speed, agility, and strength especially in his magical 1973 season where he gained 2003 rushing yards in only 14 games.  The Bills never really came close to winning a championship with Simpson (made the playoffs once and lost 32-14 in divisional round to the Steelers in 1974), but they had a true workhorse in their backfield.  His career was derailed at age 32 as the former world-class sprinter chugged along on very bad knees for the San Francisco 49ers.  The 6-time Pro Bowler and 5-time first-team All-Pro selection finished his career with 11,236 rushing yards, 61 rushing TDs, and a 4.7 ypc average.

Honorable Mention: Marcus Allen (HOF), Tony Dorsett (HOF), John Riggins (HOF), Thurman Thomas (HOF), LaDainan Tomlinson*, Red Grange (HOF), Franco Harris (HOF), Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, Steve Van Buren (HOF), Paul Hornung (HOF), Terrell Davis, Curtis Martin, Shaun Alexander, Hugh McElhenny (HOF), Ottis “OJ” Anderson, Bronco Nagurski (HOF), Jim Thorpe (HOF), Edgerrin James, Roger Craig, Lenny Moore (HOF), Clem Daniels, Chuck Muncie, Chuck Foreman, Ricky Watters



Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)


2 Responses

  1. I agree 100%. Jim Brown was the best.

  2. Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, and Gale Sayers will all be at this Sports Legends Challenge poker tournament together. I read about it on this random sports blog a few days ago. It sounds pretty sweet.

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