The running backs in today’s game have changed the view of their position with their overall play, but this does not discredit the stars of the backfield in NFL history who were wreaking havoc once upon a time.
There are only a few exceptions of superstar running backs in today’s game, but back in the day, guys like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders wreaked havoc from the backfield. While most of the best running backs on this list have been out of the NFL for decades, this conversation brings together the best performers at the running back position. As far as how the list is determined, obviously, the individual stats and accolades are most important.
After that, anything as far as how their team or teams did during their tenure, served purely as a deciding factor for a spot on the list.
Gale Sayers: Unfortunately for Sayers, injuries stripped him of more time in the league, but when healthy, Sayers was the real deal. In only 68 appearances, Sayers managed an impressive 5.0 yards per carry piecing together 800-plus yard seasons five times along with 56 career touchdowns.
Marcus Allen: Allen proved to be one of the best, if not the best Raider running back, despite mid-career bumps in the road. Allen amassed an impressive 17,654 yards from scrimmage, as well as 144 touchdowns, both running and receiving, despite sharing the field with Bo Jackson.
Thurman Thomas: Thomas was the prime example of a power running back and was a key piece in four straight AFC title wins for the Buffalo Bills. During his career, Thomas racked up eight straight 1,000 yard seasons and finished with 16,352 yards from scrimmage and 88 touchdowns.
10.) LaDainian Tomlinson
Tomlinson comes in at number ten and him starting this list should show how deeply talented this list is. Tomlinson is one of only three running backs in NFL history to snatch 100 receptions in a season. Alongside his 100 receptions in 2003, he also cruised to a 1,645 rushing yard and 13 touchdowns season. LT led the NFL in rushing twice in his career and still holds the record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 28 set back in 2006. In his illustrious career, LT ran for 13,684 yards and 145 touchdowns and added an incredible 4,772 receiving yards on 624 receptions and 17 touchdowns.
LT won only one MVP award but was named a first-team All-Pro three times as well as five Pro Bowl selections before closing it out with a gold jacket and a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio in 2017. LT comes in at ten because he lacked the Super Bowl stat despite such a stat-filled career.
9.) Franco Harris
Harris was no speedster nor was he overly powerful when running, but he definitely made sure you knew he was on the field. Harris was a key player on the powerhouse Steelers of the ’70s, helping them to their first four Super Bowl titles. Harris led the Steelers in rushing for over a decade to amass 1,000 yards eight times in his career and ending with 12,120 rush yards and 91 touchdowns.
Harris was not a notable receiving running back, but even in 2021, Harris has one of the most memorable catches in NFL history with his “Immaculate Reception” in the 1972 playoffs. Harris is number nine purely because he was the center of a powerful Steeler offense that had Terry Bradshaw at quarterback and Harris still ran the show. That folks is a true star running back.
8.) Tony Dorsett
Tony Dorsett is easily one of the best Dallas Cowboy running backs of all time and definitely impacted the NFL overall. Dorsett was on his way to nine consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to open his career until the 1982 strike shortened the season. However, that should not discredit the fact that he produced eight straight seasons of 1,000 yards with a single-season high of 1,646 yards.
Dorsett earned the 1977 Offensive Rookie of the Year as well as All-Pro honors in 1981. By the end of his career in 1988, Dorsett ranked second all-time only behind Walter Payton in career rushing yards with 12,739 landing him in Canton with his gold jacket in 1994.
7.) Eric Dickerson
Eric Dickerson is one of the most perennial running backs in NFL history and he proved he was elite in just two seasons. Dickerson ran for 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns in his NFL debut season and then topped that by breaking OJ Simpson’s single-season rushing yards record with 2,105 yards in his second season. Dickerson took home Rookie of the Year, as well as Offensive Player of the Year honors, alongside six Pro Bowl appearances and five first-team All-Pro nods. Dickerson would go on to finish with 13,259 rushing yards, ending with a spot in Canton.
Dickerson gets the number seven spot only because he did not have any Super Bowl wins and in this list, that can be the nod a player needs to jump a spot or two.
6.) Marshall Faulk
Marshall Faulk was Christian McCaffrey before Christian McCaffrey, an elite runner but also a serious receiving game threat. Faulk finished with 12,279 rushing yards in his career, but he also finished with the most receiving yards by a running back (6,785) as well as the second-most receptions (767) by a running back. Faulk managed an incredible 1,000 rush yards-1,000 receiving yards season in 1999.
Faulk won an impressive three consecutive AP Offensive Player of the Year awards alongside seven Pro Bowl nods and three first-team All-Pro appearances. What puts Faulk above Eric Dickerson on this list is that he won a Super Bowl in 1999 and that gives Faulk the nod.
5.) Adrian Peterson
This pick might be a little questionable considering who is on the honorable mentions list, but as the only active player on this list, AP has earned the five spot. Peterson has amassed an incredible 14,820 yards in his career, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark seven times and the 2,000-yard mark once, where he nearly beat Eric Dickerson’s single-season record. In his time as a Viking, Peterson put together 11,747 rush yards with 97 touchdowns, which could be career numbers for most running backs.
Peterson also has the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, MVP, seven Pro Bowls, and four first-team All-Pro nods to his name. AP has put together a Hall of Fame career faster than most running backs, and to put that together so quickly, is worthy of a top-five spot. Not to mention, AP is still actively playing in the NFL folks, he is an all-time great.
4.) Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders is arguably one of the best running backs to touch the football field in NFL history. Despite not winning a Super Bowl in his 10-year career, Sanders performed at an unparalleled level for that entire decade. Sanders rushed for 1,300-plus yards an incredible nine times with a career-high of 2,053 in his 1997 MVP season. At 15,269 yards rushing, 2,921 receiving, and 109 combined touchdowns, Barry Sanders was essentially untouchable for a decade.
If Barry Sanders and the Lions managed to win a few Super Bowls, Sanders more than likely would have played longer and could be argued as the greatest running back of all time.
3.) Jim Brown
Jim Brown makes number three based on pure talent despite a short nine-year career with the NFL. During his run, Brown held the record for career yards with 12,312 and 106 touchdowns, all rushing. Brown managed to lead the NFL in rushing eight times and was first-team All-Pro every single season. What puts Brown above Sanders is his one NFL title and three MVPs. Brown managed to turn a short career into a Hall of Fame and then some career. He earns the three spot.
2.) Walter Payton
Here is where the list becomes the most difficult to decide. Honestly, the number one and two spots are interchangeable; it all just depends on the conversation. Payton comes in at two with one of the best careers from a running back in the history of the NFL. Payton rushed for an MVP winning 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1977 and would go on to surpass the 1,200-yard mark ten times. That stat has never been touched still to this day, and Payton stands at second all-time in career yards with 16,726.
Payton made a fool out of opposing defenses with a career mark of 21,264 yards from scrimmage (third all-time) alongside nine Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro nods. Payton was unmatched at his position for a long time until the guy at the number one spot began his illustrious career.
1.) Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith should have been given the name “Record Breaker” because he managed to rewrite the books in multiple categories. Smith had a long 15-year career where at one point he held the NFL record for touchdowns in a season (25, later broken by LT), career rushing yards (18,355, current record), and career rushing touchdowns (164, current record).
Emmitt also added to his incredible resume with the 1993 MVP, three Super Bowl titles, four All-Pro nods, and eight Pro Bowl selections. Emmitt gets the nod over Walter here because of the three Super Bowl titles and how dominant he managed to be on a heavily talented Cowboys team who was running the NFL in the mid-90s.
Stats from nfl.com
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