Two running backs will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month — Terrell Davis and LaDainian Tomlinson — so we thought we’d honor them … and their position … by ranking the best running backs of all time.
Hall-of-Fame voters Rick Gosselin, Clark Judge and Ron Borges joined with league historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal to compose the list, and what they discovered was that all had something in common: An affection for former Cleveland star Jim Brown. Each voted him as the greatest running back in NFL history.
But Brown has company, and let the roll call begin. Here, then, are the top 10 running backs of all time — in descending order:
10. LaDAINIAN TOMLINSON
Ranked fifth in career rushing yardage, Tomlinson holds the NFL’s single-season record for touchdowns (31) and rushing touchdowns (28). During an 11-year career, he won two rushing titles, was a league MVP, a six-time Pro Bowl choice, a five-time All-Pro and three times led the league in touchdowns. He’s also a member of the 2000s’ all-decade team and ranks ninth in career all-purpose yards. But that’s not all. Tomlinson starred as a part-time quarterback, too, completing 8 of 12 passes for seven touchdowns and a passer rating of 146.9. Only Walter Payton has more TD passes among running backs since the 1970 merger. Bottom line: Tomlinson was a complete player, one reason he was a first-time choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
9. EARL CAMPBELL
One of the greatest power running backs in NFL history, Campbell was an NFL Rookie of the Year and a three-time choice for Offensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons. In 1979 he was named league MVP after leading everyone in rushing yards and touchdowns and serving as the centerpiece in Bum Phillips’ “Luv Ya Blue” Houston Oilers of the late 1970s and early ’80s. “Earl Campbell,” said Borges, “was a combination of power and speed the NFL had never seen. His candle burned bright, but burned out early because of the load he carried.” When Phillips was asked if Campbell was the greatest running back of all time, he said, “I don’t know. But if he ain’t, it don’t take long to call the roll.” Campbell’s number 34 jersey was retired by the Oilers, and he was one of six charter members inducted into the Tennessee Titans’ Hall of Fame in 1999 … though he declined the invitation to attend. “I was a Houston Oiler,” he said, “not a Tennessee Titan.”
8. MARSHALL FAULK
When the conversation turns to the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf,” it usually begins with one of two individuals — Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner, who will be inducted next month, or this man. The NFL’s 11th all-time career rushing leader, Faulk is the only running back to have 12,000 yards rushing and 6,000 yards receiving. He holds the league record for most consecutive seasons (four) with 2,000 yards from scrimmage, most games (15) with both a receiving and rushing touchdown and was a seven-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro, NFL MVP and three-time league Offensive Player of the Year. What’s more, his five games of 250 yards or more from scrimmage and his 14 games of 200 or more are each league records. Faulk is the only NFL player with 70 or more rushing touchdowns and 30 or more receiving scores. “I have Faulk and Tomlinson higher than most people have them,” said Turney, who voted Faulk as his third best back ever and Tomlinson as the fifth, “because, in my opinion, they added top-notch receiving pass protection and goal-line running.”
7. ERIC DICKERSON
The seventh-leading rusher of all-time, Dickerson still holds the NFL record for most rookie rushing yards and most rushing yards (2,105) in one season. The Rams’ first-round choice in 1983, he made an immediate impact, setting rookie records for most rushing attempts (390), yards (1,808) and rushing touchdowns (18). He not only was named NFL Rookie of the Year; he was named NFL Player of the Year, too. One year later, he set the NFL single-season rushing record and eclipsed 100 yards rushing 12 times, breaking O.J. Simpson’s single-season record of 11. He also averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Borges called him “the most underrated runner in NFL history, a workhorse who could run outside or inside and got better as the game wore on.” Dickerson led the league in rushing four times (including once as a Colt, the first time that happened to the franchise since Alan Ameche did it in 1959), was a six-time All-Pro and was named to the 1980s’ all-decade team. When he retired, he ranked second among the league’s all-time rushers and was chosen to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
6. O.J. SIMPSON
Though Simpson ranks 21st among the NFL’s all-time rushers, he was second when he retired following the 1979 season. Moreover, his single-season rushing record of 2,003 yards, later broken by Dickerson, was set in a 14-game season … with Simpson averaging 6 yards a carry and a league-record 143.1 yards per game. Simpson, who was named that season’s NFL’s Player of the Year, is the only player in league history to rush for 2,000 yards in a 14-game campaign. He led the league in rushing four times, including 1976 when he had the best game of his career — running for a then league-record 273 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries in a Thanksgiving Day loss to Detroit. He also set a league record (since broken) in touchdowns with 23 in 1975. A five-time All-Pro, he is a member of the NFL’s 1970s’ all-decade team and 75th anniversary squad.
5. EMMITT SMITH
The NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Smith is also one of its most decorated. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, he was an eight-time Pro Bowler, a five-time All-Pro, a three-time Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl MVP, a league MVP, an Offensive Rookie of the Year, a four-time rushing leader and a four-time leader in rushing touchdowns. He’s also fourth in all-purpose yards, with only Jerry Rice, Brian Mitchell and Walter Payton ahead of him, and near the head of the class in durability. In all but one of Smith’s 15 seasons he had at least 241 carries. In 1995, Smith not only became the first player in league history to rush for 1,400 or more yards in five consecutive years but set an NFL record (since broken) with 25 touchdowns. He was the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 or more yards in 11 straight seasons and is the NFL’s all-time leader in playoff rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The only player in NFL history to post three seasons of 19 or more TDs, Smith leads all backs with 164 career rushing scores, while his 175 total touchdowns are second only to Jerry Rice (208). He and Rice are the only two non-kicker to have more than 1,000 points in their careers.
4. GALE SAYERS
Don’t look for Sayers among the league’s career rushing leaders. He’s not there, and for good reason: His career was short. While Sayers played seven years with Chicago, injuries effectively limited him to five … and what years they were. He was a five-time first-team All-Pro and NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He was also an NFL Rookie of the Year, scoring 22 times in his first season with the Bears, a rookie record that still exists. He twice led the league in rushing and once scored six times in a game, tying a league high. The NFL’s best return man with a career average of 30.56 yards, he was named to its 75th anniversary team as both a halfback and returner, as well as to the 1960s’ all-decade squad. “I don’t ever remember seeing a running back who was as good,” said former Bears’ coach George Halas. Hall-of-Famer Mike Ditka agreed. He played only two years with Sayers but that was enough for him to call the star running back “the greatest player I’ve ever seen.”
3. WALTER PAYTON
He once held NFL records for career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, carries, yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards — a complete back who was named to nine Pro Bowls, eight All-Pro teams, two all-decade squads and the NFL’s 75th anniversary unit. He was also a two-time league MVP and, when he retired, was the career leader in receptions by a running back with 492 for over 4,500 yards. What’s more, he holds the NFL record for most touchdown passes (8) by a running back. “Payton is the most complete back the game has ever seen,” said Gosselin, ” in terms of running, receiving and blocking.” Payton’s motto was “Never Die Easy,” which he interpreted as refusing to run out of bounds and delivering punishment to would-be tacklers — including his signature stiff-arm. He was tough. He was elusive. He was productive. He was versatile. And he was durable. The only game he missed in a 13-year career was during his rookie season. His number 34 has been retired by the Bears, while the NFL honors him with the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, given annually to the player or players who excel on and off the field.
2. BARRY SANDERS
One of only two backs to average over five yards per carry, Sanders unexpectedly walked away from the game at the age of 31, saying, “My desire to exit the game is stronger than my desire to remain in it.” He was only 1,457 yards short of Payton’s career rushing record. The knock on Sanders has been that A) He didn’t play on a champion, with the Lions winning only one playoff game during his tenure; B) he had an NFL-record 1,114 yards in minus yardage and C) he was removed from the lineup in goal-line situations. But get real, people. He is one of only two backs to average over five yards a carry for his career. Furthermore, in 1997 he set an NFL record with 14 consecutive 100-yard games (including two 200-yarders) en route to a 2,053-yard year and league MVP season (he shared it with Brett Favre). “If Red Grange didn’t already own the nickname, Sanders would have been the Galloping Ghost,” said Borges. He might be right. Sanders was named to 10 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro units, including six first-teams, and is the only back to rush for 1,500 or more yards in four consecutive seasons. Sanders’ record of 15 career TDs of 50 or more yards rushing is an NFL best, with Jim Brown second at 12. He also has a league-record 46 games with 150 or more yards from scrimmage. Walter Payton is second with 45. NFL Top 10 ranked Sanders as the most elusive back in NFL history and the greatest player never to reach a Super Bowl, while Gosselin called him “the most dynamic runner the game has ever seen.”
1. JIM BROWN
Brown gained first-place votes from all members of our panel, mostly because he’s universally recognized as the greatest back of all time … and maybe, just maybe, the greatest player of all time. Brown led the NFL in rushing eight of the nine years he played, was a three-time league MVP, an NFL Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl choice every season he was in the league. Gosselin called Brown the game’s “greatest pure runner,” and the evidence is everywhere. He scored 100 touchdowns in only 93 games, a record that stood until LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 reached 100 in 89 games. He holds the NFL record for most years (five) as its all-purpose yardage leader and is the only back in league history to average over 100 yards per game (104.3 to be exact) for his career. His 1,863 yards rushing in 1963 remain a Cleveland record, the oldest rushing record among the NFL’s 32 franchises, and his career rushing average of 5.2 yards per carry is the best in league history. Brown holds a litany of other career league marks, including most games (14) with three or more TDs, most with four or more (6) and most seasons (5) leading the league in combined net yards. He once was quoted as saying, “When running backs get together they don’t argue about who is best,” and we understand. We don’t argue, either. Ironically, he wasn’t named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team as a running back … but as a fullback.