Top Ten NFL Running Backs of All Time
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Inspired by the recent retirement of LaDanian Tomlinson — one of the greatest football players of this generation — I decided to move forward with Bet Big DC’s top NFL running backs of all time.
Although statistics are taken into account, I’m not one to make hasty picks based solely off numbers. In addition to that, I may be a bit bias towards running backs of my childhood/lifetime that tend to have a larger impact on my view of the game. That said, I’m familiar with historic tape and I can assure you that I’ve watched more than enough.
HM. Curtis Martin ( 1995 – 2006 ) — A longstanding good guy in the NFL, Curtis Martin arrived on the scene as a rookie and was nothing shy of awesome for the next ten years of his career. In the first ten years of his career, Martin never finished with less than 1,094 rushing yards in a single season. Martin was in the league for 12 years, but realistically played 11 seasons. For his career, Martin finished with 14,101 rushing yards and 90 touchdowns. He also caught 484 passes for 3,329 yards and an additional ten scores.
10. Gale Sayers ( 1965 – 1971 ) — Forced to leave the game entirely too soon, Sayers can be argued a top-five running back. For me — although not his fault — the shortened seven-year career puts him towards the bottom of my list. When healthy, Sayers was as smooth as they come. Defenses gameplanned around Sayers and his untapped performance helps to keep him such a huge factor in my own argument of the best running backs to ever play the game. For his career, Sayers finished with 4,956 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns on 5.0 YPC.
9. Earl Campbell ( 1978 – 1985 ) — My secret obsession with the University of Texas helps me make this pick, however Earl Campbell is an easy top-ten running back for most. Campbell’s style was a near-perfect blend of power and speed and he racked up the carries to prove him a true workhorse. In just his eight years in the NFL, Campbell carried the ball 2,187 times for 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns. He was a true ground & pound runner.
8. Orenthal James Simpson ( 1969 – 1979 ) — The unfortunate post-career happenings of OJ Simpson make it hard for people to consider him great at anything, but the argument is easy when it surrounds the game of football. Simpson played 11 NFL seasons, but his first three years were almost a waste. It wasn’t until 1972 that he was given more than 185 carries and it marked the first year “The Juice” was loose. Simpson finished his career with 11,236 rushing yards and 61 touchdowns. He also chipped in another 14 touchdowns with 203 receptions for 2,142 yards.
7. Eric Dickerson ( 1983 – 1993 ) — Perhaps best known for his goofy looking rec-spec glasses, Eric Dickerson was a hard guy to miss on the field — even without the glasses peeking through his facemask. Standing 6’3 and weighing more than 220 pounds, Dickerson wasn’t the typical size of a running back. Yet, even with his immense size, Dickerson was abnormally agile and his strides made him appear so natural as a runner. Dickerson could also lay the lumber when he needed to, making him a very difficult feat in the open field. During his 11-year career, Dickerson rushed for 13,259 yards and scored 90 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 281 balls for 2,137 yards and six more scores.
6. LaDainian Tomlinson ( 2001 – 2011 ) — An early prediction is that LT and his Hall of Fame career will find themselves amongst plenty of debate as to where they rank on the all-time list. For me, complete backs that can do just about anything on a football field are ones that I tend to lean heavily towards. As for LaDainian Tomlinson, he’s one of the best. Whether it was using his speed to get outside, his power up the middle or his leaping ability to avoid the pile, Tomlinson could do everything so effectively. On third down, Tomlinson was arguably the most dangerous offensive weapon — threatening with run, catch or block. Tomlinson had an insane combination of vision and anticipation that intesified his explosiveness. By far one of the greatest football players of the past twenty years. In his 11-year career, Tomlinson rushed for 13,684 yards and scored 145 touchdowns. Through the air, LT caught 624 passes for 4,772 yards and another 17 scores.
5. Emmitt Smith ( 1990 – 2004 ) — Even as a diehard Redskins fan, I don’t hate Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith. And when it comes to the greatest, the all-time rushing yards leader has to be mentioned. Understandably so, Smith ranks higher on most people’s list. For myself, I always saw Emmitt in a different light (perhaps my hometown bias shining through). Despite a nasty juke move and the ridiculous ability to stay on his feet, Smith wowed me less than, say, Barry Sanders or Walter Payton. Smith also has the benefit of an extremely long 15-year career, which is almost unheard of in the entire game of football, let alone the running back position. For his career, Smith rushed for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns. He also hauled in 515 passes for 3,224 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns.
4. Marshall Faulk ( 1994 – 2006 ) — Once again siding with my love for a back that can be labeled “Mr. Everything”, Marshall Faulk was the engine behind The Greatest Show on Turf. Marshall Faulk was just as dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield as he was carrying the football as a running back. The bottom line was, Faulk was lethal with the ball in his hands. Faulk had a juke move that could leave defenders diving at air — displaying a shiftiness in his hips that was nearly unstoppable. Causing even more fits for opposing defenses was the fact that Faulk could start and stop without compromising his speed, essentially making him a homerun threat on every touch. Faulk finished his 13-year career with 12,279 yards and 100 touchdowns. He also caught 767 passes for 6,875 yards and 36 touchdowns.
At this point of the list — with the following guys being mentioned — the explanations for each of them will/should be shorter than those before them. How does one describe the feeling they get when they watch Barry, Sweetness or Jim Brown run with a football? Quite frankly, there aren’t words. For a football fan, it’s more like magic. And the words that would normally go there for argument of position on this list aren’t quite necessary either. At the end of the day, these three guys are hands-down, undoubtedly, the greatest running backs to ever play the game of football.
3. Walter Payton ( 1975 – 1987 ) — On the field, Walter Payton was a bruising running back with crazy elusiveness and the passion necessary to inspire an entire team (sometimes even the opposition). Off the field, Payton was described as one of the kindest and most gentle guys around, hence earning him the nickname Sweetness. For many, Payton is the greatest. And I wouldn’t argue. During his 13 seasons, Payton rushed for 16,726 yards and 110 touchdowns. He also caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 scores.
2. Barry Sanders ( 1989 – 1998 ) — I always describe Barry Sanders as one of those race motorcycles — the ones that bend around corners and the rider’s knee are just centimeters from the track. Why? Because Sanders’ moves and jukes literally defied gravity. Sanders would pull a juke so hard that his body would contort, his legs would take on a new shape and his hips would open in the blink of an eye. By the time Sanders reaccelerated, the defender was left standing in a puddle of his own… Well, you get the idea. Absolutely amazing. Sanders wrapped up his ten-year career with 15,269 rushing yards and 99 touchdowns, toting an impressive 5.0 YPC average. He also caught 352 balls for 2,921 yards and ten touchdowns.
1. Jim Brown ( 1957 – 1965 ) — One of my favorite football players of all-time, Jim Brown changed the game forever. Beyond his statistics, which were impressive enough, Brown was an absolute icon off the field. He also played with such attitude and toughness that it made you understand why he really was the baddest dude on the planet. Brown retired before he turned 30 years old, but somehow managed to finish his nine-year career with 12,312 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns, averaging an incredible 5.2 YPC. He was also a killer out of the backfield, catching 262 passes for 2,499 yards and another 20 scores. Tough as nails, Brown lived/played by a very simple philosophy: ‘Make sure when anyone tackles you, he remembers how much it hurts.’