Countdown to Canton: Our top 10 running backs of all time


Jim Brown photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

Photo courtesy of L.A. Chargers

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

Photo courtesy of L.A. Rams

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

Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys

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

Courtesy of Detroit Lions

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

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES: Steve Van Buren, Marcus Allen.

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35 Comments

  1. Tom K
    July 10, 2017
    Reply

    Love the idea! Wish we could see the voting breakdown between you guys.

    Anyways, these are my thoughts on the list:

    Marshall Faulk’s inclusion in here surprised me. He’s certainly one of the best running backs ever and one of the best pass-catching backs ever but I wouldn’t go as far to call him a Top 10 RB ever.

    Emmitt Smith: A shoe in for the Top 10 but I feel 5 is a bit too high. You know it was coming but that offensive line did wonders for him as did Troy Aikman and Irvin. Teams couldn’t consistently stack the box vs them because they had to worry about those 2 as well. While Smith was the more dangerous threat to teams, the fact that he was able to follow behind a fantastic line that is one of the best (among other like the 70s Raiders and 60s Packers and early 30s Packers Olines) he was able to often avoid some instant contact which certainly helped add years to his career.

    Gale Sayers: At peak, I agree Sayers is arguably a Top 5 RB ever. However, his career just didn’t last long enough. He does get a bit of a pass due to the fact that medicine wasn’t what it was now when he played but nonetheless it can’t all be excused. I think Sayers should be bumped down a few spots.

    There are a few players I feel should of been included in the Top 10:

    Bronko Nagurski: If I were to rank all time NFL players I would put Bronko above all but 3 or 4 of these guys. While part of that has to do with the fact that he also excelled at other positions. He was still the most feared and intimidating FB of his day. Whether it was running over guys himself or paving the way for guys like Beattie Feathers or Red Grange or Gene Rozani. Bronko was the last guy you wanted to see running at you those days.

    Joe Perry: One of the most underrated RBs of all time in my opinion. Joe was one of the fastest backs ever. As the first to have back to back 1000 yard seasons, to which he did despite other guys in the backfield like Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson or Joe Arenas. Joe was also the NFL’s all time leading rusher at one point before Jim Brown broke it.

    Steve Van Buren: Like Perry, Van Buren was also the NFL’s all time leading rusher at one point. Van Buren was a 6x first team all-pro which is the same as Barry Sanders and more than Emmitt Smith. Van Buren led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns 4 times each which is the same as Emmitt and the same as Sanders for yards and more than him for touchdowns. All while playing in less seasons than both of them. He also had 2 amazing performances to help the Eagles win it all in 48 and 49. He helped make Tommy Thompson one of 2 (3 if you count the AFL) QBs to win multiple titles after 1940 to not be in the Hall of Fame. While he may have not meant as much to Philly or been as iconic as Chuck Bednarik. Van Buren is, in my opinion, the greatest player in Philadelphia Eagles history.

    Those are just 3 of the possible additions to the list.

    Overall, I was so-so on the list. I was hoping for more pre-Super Bowl era players on the list knowing your guys’ NFL knowledge. Either way, other than maybe Faulk, I didn’t see any major problem that I had with the list.

    As always, great article!

    • July 10, 2017
      Reply

      Thanks, Tom. Valid points. Were votes for Van Buren and surprised he didn’t make cut. Just missed. His production was insane and he was part of championship teams. Thanks for writing … and reading.

      • Tom K
        July 10, 2017
        Reply

        Will we being seeing something like this with other positions as well?

  2. Rasputin
    July 10, 2017
    Reply

    Agree with most of the names, apart from Faulk (Kurt Warner’s actually who most people rightly think of first when “Greatest Show on Turf” is mentioned), but not the order. Payton, Smith, and Dickerson were all better than Barry Sanders. Smith and Payton in particular were more physical and consistent. They were better at keeping the chains moving and their punter off the field. It’s misleading to only focus on yards/carry, which can be skewed with a few big gains.

    I’d put Sayers on the list but not top 5 because durability should matter too. Otherwise, where’s Terrell Davis?

    Emmitt Smith is the most underrated great back of all time. Sure he had a great line. So did Jim Brown and some of these other guys. Having greatness in multiple aspects is how the Cowboys pulled off the unprecedented feat of winning 3 SBs in 4 years. It would have been more if not for the new salary cap/FA rules and Jimmy Johnson leaving. That doesn’t change the reality that in his prime Emmitt Smith had an unsurpassed combination of strength, balance, vision, efficiency of movement, and deceptive quickness. He was also a good receiver and the best pass blocking feature RB I’ve ever seen.

    His durability was insane. He accomplished things well into his 30s that no other great backs have, and by then his offensive line sucked. Even early on remember that he was drafted by the worst team in the league, and that by his second season, when he won his first rushing title, his O-line had a combined zero career Pro Bowls despite mostly consisting of guys who had been around a while. They didn’t become great until after Emmitt showed up, and no other back had real success with that line.

    Smith was also the best RB in the nation in HS (national career yardage record) and college (unanimous first team All American), with different offensive lines at each level, so it’d be an amateurish mistake to dismiss him as a creature of his O-line. I’d put him top 3.

    • July 10, 2017
      Reply

      First, you’re right about the Rams and Warner. And, after reading your comment, I made a change. Added Warner. But when we ask why the Rams lost Super Bowl XXXVI, it’s Faulk we talk about. They forgot to give him the ball. Anyway, good points about Smith and Sayers, but agree with the durability comment on Sayers. I had him just behind Smith, but will say that he was other-worldly when he touched the ball. Plus, the guy was the game’s greatest return man … until Devin Hester showed up. But disagree with Sanders comment. The guy made holes where there were none. Played on mediocre teams and made them watchable. And sometimes successful. Rarely seen a guy who could make people miss like Sanders … and that’s usually what he had to do behind that OL. Thanks for checking in. Always know we’ll hear from you first thing in AM.

      • Rasputin
        July 10, 2017
        Reply

        Thanks for reading fan comments instead of just blowing them off like many journalists do. I will say that those “mediocre” Lions made the playoffs 4 times in the early 90s, when Sanders had both tackle Lomas Brown (7 Pro Bowls, 1 first team All Pro) and center Kevin Glover (3 Pro Bowls) blocking for him. His Lions weren’t as bad as people make out.

        PS – Actually Emmitt finished ranked #2 nationally in high school career yardage. I almost forgot 1950s Texas great Ken Hall.

        • Tim
          July 12, 2017
          Reply

          Those Pro Bowl appearances you list were not with the Lions. Lomas Brown was a shell of himself by the time he joined the Lions. And yes they were as bad as people make out. Emmitt Smith was an average running back with an All-Time great offensive line. Hell even his Fullback was one of the best to ever do it at his position.

          • Rasputin
            July 12, 2017

            Lomas Brown was drafted by the Lions and all but one of his Pro Bowls came at Detroit while Barry Sanders was there, LOL. You don’t even know your basic facts.

            For an allegedly “average” back Emmitt Smith did quite well for himself. Declared Florida high school “Player of the Century”…unanimous first team All American in college while setting numerous school records…3 Super Bowl rings, NFL and SB MVPs, NFL career rushing leader, and numerous other records.

          • Anonymous
            July 12, 2017

            If he was so good, then why was his yards-per-carry so low? He had the best offense of line in the history of the game. If Emmitt Smith played in Detroit he would have been out of the league in 5 years. You probably think that Prescott is actually good? You Cowboy fans are hilarious. Let me know when you get as many championships as the Steelers.

          • Rasputin
            July 13, 2017

            Wrong question. First, Smith led the league with 5.3 y/c in 1993 and had a great y/c average through most of his career. The career number skewed down because he played so long, but is still decent. Second, yards/carry only tells part of the story. The guys with high y/c are usually speedy scatback types who skew their averages with occasional big gains. Smith didn’t have blazing speed but his gains were more consistent than other backs, including Sanders (who holds the NFL record for being stuffed). That’s more important than the exciting highlight runs that wow kids on youtube because it keeps the chains moving and your team’s punter off the field.

            A hypothetical RB who gained exactly 4.5 yards on every single carry, no more and no less, would be way better than one who averaged 6 yards/carry by having two long runs and getting stuffed every other attempt. That hypothetical is an exaggeration but it illustrates the point. It’s no fluke that Smith won 3 Super Bowls while Sanders and Dickerson never even made it to a Super Bowl.

            The real question is if Smith was supposedly just an “average” back, then why was he the best RB in the country at EVERY LEVEL of football? The other question is which Cowboys O-Linemen are you campaigning to have inducted into the Hall of Fame, since currently none of the guys he won his first three rushing titles with have even been considered?

          • Anonymous
            July 14, 2017

            YPC is very important, that’s why it’s used by everyone as a measuring stick of competency. Smith had one season over 5. Sanders did over 5 for his career on one of the worst franchises in the history of sports. Smith was never better than Sanders at any level, except maybe high school!?!? Sander still has the best college season of and RB in history.

          • Rasputin
            July 14, 2017

            YPC is one of many important measures, which is why serious analysts don’t look at it alone. You failed to address anything I said above about consistency being more important to team success than YPC. The Lions made the playoffs 4 times in the early 90s alone and weren’t even close to the worst franchise in the league, let alone “in the history of sports”, lol. The Lions team that drafted Sanders was better than the 1-15 Dallas team that drafted Smith.

            Smith gained more career yards than Sanders at every level of football, and led his team to championship success in both high school and the NFL. Sanders had one spectacular college season after not doing much the previous years and left a year before Smith (who was a year younger). I didn’t say Smith had the best college career of all time, just that he was the best RB in the country at the time. He was unanimous first team All American.

            Clearly not merely an “average” back.

          • Anonymous
            July 14, 2017

            You’re right, Smith was better than average. That was a little to over the top. But he was never better than Sanders. As for the Lions, they were terrible and will always be terrible. The league should pull the team out of that place.

          • David O'Brien
            July 14, 2017

            If Smith was so great in college, why didn’t he set any national records or win a Heisman Trophy? His last year (1989) at Florida, Smith finished seventh in the votes for the Heisman. His college career, or season, obviously did not impress too many people. Anthony Thompson, another running back, finished second (to QB Andre Ware) in the overall voting that year. Let the Cowboys and not the Cardinals draft him instead of Smith and the Cowboys would not have missed a step, a beat, or a dollar. Smith was an above-average back brought into a great situation. Guys like Thompson, Chris Warren, Rodney Hampton, and Harold Green were better than Smith but drafted by bad or declining (in Hampton’s case) teams.

          • David O'Brien
            July 13, 2017

            Good to see someone (other than a ridiculous Cowboys homer) gets it.

          • Rasputin
            July 13, 2017

            LOL! You replied to Tim, whose entire point about Lomas Brown supposedly not joining the Lions until his Pro Bowl days were over and he was a shell of himself was totally factually wrong, the opposite of the truth. You posted that slobbering reply even after I had already pointed out that Brown STARTED with the Lions and played most of his Pro Bowl seasons while Sanders was there.

            I’ve always been open and honest about being a Cowboys fan, but I support my positions with (true) facts and cogent arguments. As a Cowboys hater you don’t, as the irrational garbage you’ve posted here shows.

          • David O'Brien
            July 14, 2017

            I replied to Tim because I meant to.

          • Rasputin
            July 14, 2017

            I know. That’s what made it so funny.

    • David O'Brien
      July 10, 2017
      Reply

      Emmitt Smith is rated right about where he should be in the overall scope of public opinion (9-20), although Dickerson, Simpson, Campbell, and Faulk were superior backs to him. He’s not underrated at all and he was nowhere near Barry Sanders. Who were Dickerson, Simpson, Campbell, and Sanders’ teams quarterbacks? These four guys cracked 1,800 yards in a season. Smith never did. Only Brown, Dickerson or Payton can be considered better than Sanders. Several runners were better than Emmitt Smith, who was an above-average back in a great situation (Coach–Jimmy Johnson; Quarterback–Troy Aikman; and Offensive Line–Great Wall of Dallas). He padded his stats and benefited from the personnel building of Jimmy Johnson and the presence of Troy Aikman.

      • Rasputin
        July 11, 2017
        Reply

        Well then, “David O’Brien”, since Smith was also the nation’s best RB in both high school and college he must have been one really lucky “above average-back” to keep landing in just the right situation, lol.

        He may not have quite cracked the strangely arbitrary “1,800” yard number, but, despite playing in a balanced offense, he did post 1,773 and 1,713 yard seasons (Faulk, whom you list as allegedly better, never even cracked 1,400), and was the first player in NFL history to rush for over 1,400 yards in 4 consecutive seasons, a streak he would extend to 5 years. In his first 6 years Emmitt gained 8,956 yards rushing and 10,907 from scrimmage, more than anyone in history to that point had in their first 6 years except Eric Dickerson. Smith scored 76 TDs(!) in a 4 year period (1992-1995), more than any other player at any position did in a 4 year span in the 20th Century, including a then record 25 in 1995. He also won 4 NFL rushing titles (Payton won 1), joining Earl Campbell as the only two men to win 3 in a row in the Super Bowl era (Smith had 0 HoF offensive linemen during that span; Jim Brown had 3 HoF blockers). Three of those were the same years he won Super Bowls. In 1993 Smith won the rushing title despite only playing in 14 games.

        Pop Quiz: How many RBs have won the rushing title and SB the same year? If their performance is all about team quality then surely there must be a huge correlation. Or is there?

        • Rasputin
          July 11, 2017
          Reply

          Though Emmitt Smith had loads of historically great stats, “David”, set statistics aside for a moment. Not all yards are equal. Smith stepped up and carried his team to championship success in the most important moments.

          Smith had the separated shoulder game against the Giants that secured home field advantage. He earned SB MVP by powering an awesome comeback against the Bills when Aikman was still suffering from the effects of a concussion.

          What are Barry Sanders’ or Eric Dickerson’s defining moments?

          • David O'Brien
            July 11, 2017

            Dickerson and Sanders’ defining moments would be their 2,000+ yard seasons and their playoff wins and performances vs. the Dallas Cowboys. Dickerson ran for a playoff-record 248 yards and two TDs (55 yards on one and 40 yards on another) while Sanders lone playoff win was highlighted by his 47-yard TD run. Dallas keyed on Sanders so much in that playoff game that Detroit’s journeyman QB Erik Kramer exploited them for 341 yards and three TD passes.

            It is interesting to note that Jim Brown rushed for a then NFL-record 237 yards vs. Dallas, Dickerson set the playoff record vs. Dallas, Sanders ran for 194 vs. Dallas, and Earl Campbell had 195 vs. Dallas on Thanksgiving 1979.

          • Rasputin
            July 12, 2017

            So? Setting aside your personal fetish for bad performances by Dallas (which says a lot about you), what round of the playoffs were these games in? How historically important were they?

            Oh, and you didn’t answer my pop quiz question. The answer is 2. Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis are the only two men to win both the rushing title and the Super Bowl the same year.

          • David O'Brien
            July 12, 2017

            You asked me for Dickerson and Sanders’ defining moments and I provided them–regular season and playoffs. In their playoff moments, Dickerson (record books) and Sanders (trivia) put the Cowboys on the wrong side of history. Doesn’t really matter what round of the playoffs the performances were in. Although, as a result, Dickerson and Sanders got to a greater round than Dallas did in those respective years. So Dallas got to watch them on TV.

            My Pittsburgh background takes pleasure in any Cowboys failure. Regardless of the answer to that obscure trivia question that means little or nothing, Franco Harris still has more Super Bowl rings than Smith or Davis. And he ran over the Dallas defense badly in regular season matchups in 1977 and 1979. He never got 248 (Dickerson, ’85) or 194 (Sanders, ’94), though.

          • Rasputin
            July 13, 2017

            I’ll help you out. Dickerson’s first playoff win you mention was a Wild Card game. In the Divisional round that followed he lost to the Redskins 51-7. Dickerson had 16 yards on 10 carries (1.6 y/c average). End of season. His other playoff win was in the divisional round, but in the game that followed he lost 24-0 to the Bears. He managed 46 yards on 17 carries (2.7 y/c). End of season.

            Barry Sanders followed his lone playoff win by losing 41-10 to the Redskins, posting 44 yards on 11 carries (4.0 y/c). But that wasn’t his worst playoff performance. Not even close. In the 1994 Wild Card game against Green Bay, which the Lions narrowly lost by only 4 points, Sanders totaled -1 yards on 13 carries. If he had been able to give his team ANYTHING they probably would have won. You’d think a great back could have gained at least some positive yardage with 13 attempts on the big stage when the chips were down. But he didn’t. The following week that same Packers team got pasted by the Cowboys 35-9. Emmitt torched them for 6.3 y/c and sat most of the game after gaining 44 yards on 7 attempts. His backup, Blair Thomas, gained 70 yards on 23 carries. This was against the same defense that had just held Barry Sanders to -1 yards.

            In fact Sanders only averaged a pathetic 2.8 y/c in road playoff games over his career. You can’t solely blame his team for that, because he had the same team around him in the regular season when he posted good stats. Sanders just didn’t do well on the big stage when the yards, TDs, and games mattered most. He was an elusive speed back who could sometimes exploit mediocre teams with varying commitment levels in the regular season for big numbers, skewing his statistics, but he wasn’t able to do much in the postseason when the intensity was up and the opposition was for real.

            By contrast Emmitt Smith’s stats were often even BETTER in the playoffs than in the regular season. Smith was a more rugged and versatile runner than Sanders, which was conducive to consistent success.

            Career Yards/Carry, Postseason Road Games

            Emmitt Smith – 4.5 y/c
            Barry Sanders – 2.8 y/c

            I’m not saying y/c is the end all be all stat (it’s not), but this does help illustrate Emmitt’s superior consistency. Apples to apples Sanders had a huge performance drop off in the playoffs, especially on the road. Smith didn’t. Sanders would swing for the fences on every at bat, often striking out. Smith was a great hitter with an outstanding on base percentage who also hit his share of home runs. He’s a big reason why the Cowboys won 3 Super Bowls.

            PS – Sounds like someone’s still bitter over his Super Bowl XXX loss, lol. Your hatred of the Cowboys is warping your perception of reality. I explained why the trivia question was pertinent. It shows that there’s not much correlation between being on an elite team and winning the rushing title, so you can’t just chalk Emmitt’s 4 rushing titles up to him being on a great team. Funny how Franco Harris won those 4 Super Bowls but never won a rushing title.

          • David O'Brien
            July 13, 2017

            All of Dickerson and Sanders’ playoff wins were against Dallas. As for Dickerson’s losses in the following rounds…
            His Rams were routed by the Redskins who were a few weeks removed from routing the Cowboys in Dallas, 31-10. So the Cowboys closed the year with two home losses. Two years later, after setting the NFL single-game playoff rushing record (which still stands) against the Cowboys defense, Dickerson and the Rams were shut out in Chicago by the ’85 Bears, 24-0. Not nearly as embarrassing as the Cowboys 44-0 shellacking, in Dallas, they took from the ’85 Bears.

            As for Sanders…
            The fact that the Packers held him to -1 yard and then were manhandled in Dallas, to the point that even Blair Thomas can check in with 70 yards, gives a great indication of the quality of offensive lines that Cowboys runners were operating behind and what a mess of an O-Line Barry Sanders had to deal with. Only an incompetent runner like Derrick Lassick could struggle behind the Great Wall of Dallas.

            Super Bowl XXX? The game Neil O’Donnell gave to Dallas and Larry Brown? Deal with Super Bowls X and XIII where the best team won and the losers (and their deluded fans) still have multiple excuses 40 years later. And the Steelers weren’t force-feeding Franco in season finales to get him rushing titles (1991) or single-season TD records (1995). Harris was content with winning Super Bowls and putting it to the Cowboys and the rest of the league.

          • Rasputin
            July 14, 2017

            I’m not interested in your lame attempt at anti-Cowboys trolling, or how upset you are about your loss in SB XXX or last year at home to Dak Prescott for that matter. We’re discussing these RBs.

            No, the Cowboys’ dominant performance against Green Bay one week later shows that the Packers defense that shut down Barry Sanders for -1 yards in the playoffs wasn’t some world beating unit. Whether because he choked or was exposed, the truth is Sanders just didn’t get it done.

            The bottom line is that none of the few games you cited led to anything or were that historically important. Those are sad excuses for signature moments. Both Dickerson and Sanders followed them up with weak postseason performances. Neither of them had the ability to put a team on his back and carry it all the way like Emmitt Smith did, especially in 1993 when he won the rushing title in 14 games (no “padding” there!), secured home field advantage while taking brutal shots on a separated shoulder from LT and the Giants, and led the comeback in SB 28 when Aikman wasn’t himself.

            A great Cowboys team didn’t result in Emmitt Smith winning 4 rushing titles. Smith winning 4 rushing titles and dominating in the playoffs was a big part of why the Cowboys were a great team.

          • David O'Brien
            July 14, 2017

            Dickerson and Sanders carried the likes of Dieter Brock and Erik Kramer farther than Emmitt Smith carried Steve Beuerlein. This “comeback” vs. the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII? The Cowboys were trailing by an enormous deficit of one touchdown. The deficit was eliminated not by Smith’s rushing but James Washington’s fumble recovery TD. Sure, Emmitt led a “great comeback” over the Bills in a Super Bowl. Just like (take your pick) Ottis Anderson or Jeff Hostetler. Above-average running back in a great situation (Coach–Jimmy Johnson; Quarterback–Troy Aikman; Monster Offensive Line–Great Wall of Dallas; Inferior Super Bowl Defense–Buffalo Bills).

          • Rasputin
            July 14, 2017

            Wrong again. Smith won a playoff game with Steve Beuerlein in the only season he really played with him. Even in the loss to Detroit that followed he rushed for 80 yards while Barry Sanders finished with 69 yards. That game was more about Erik Kramer torching the Dallas defense for over 340 passing yards and 3 TDs.

            In 1991 the Cowboys were 6-5 when Aikman went down against Washington and Beuerlein became QB. Dallas hadn’t had a winning season since 1985. They were only two years removed from 1-15. Things looked bleak. Emmitt Smith took over. Dallas ripped off a 5 game winning streak that secured the winning season and their first playoff spot in 6 years. They extended the streak with a 6th win in the playoffs.

            Emmitt averaged 115.5 rushing yards/game over that 6 game span, posting over 100 in every game but one, including games of 160 and 132 yards. He accomplished this and won his first rushing title with Steve Beuerlein playing QB. That was Smith’s 2nd season while Sanders was already in his 3rd. Barry Sanders would lose every playoff game for the rest of his career. His only postseason victory was when his QB had a great game. So did great Lions WR Herman Moore, who was just starting his career (4 Pro Bowls, 3 first team All Pro selections), with 6 catches for 87 yards and a TD.

            You never explained Barry Sanders’ drastic decline in performance from the regular to the postseason. In 1994 he rushed for 188 yards against the Packers in the regular season, and just 4 weeks later the same team shuts him down for -1 yard. What happened?

            In SB 28 Aikman was still suffering from the effects of a concussion sustained against the 49ers and was largely ineffective the first half. The Cowboys took the lead with their first second half drive, and it was all Emmitt. He carried the ball 6 times a row, gaining between 3-14 yards on each play. They threw one 3 yard pass to Moose Johnston, then Emmitt scored on a 15 yard run, breaking a hard tackle in the backfield to do so. The defense knew what was coming but couldn’t stop him. It demoralized the Bills and essentially decided the game.

            THAT’S a “defining moment”.

          • David O'Brien
            July 15, 2017

            No, you’re the one who is wrong. I said, once again, Dickerson and Sanders carried Dieter Brock and Erik Kramer farther than Smith was able to carry Steve Beuerlein. After trouncing the Cowboys in 1985 and 1991, respectively, their teams were in the Conference Championship game. Emmitt never got to the Conference Championship game without Aikman.

            Sure, the ’85 Bears shut out Dickerson and the Rams in Chicago, 24-0. The ’85 Bears also destroyed the Cowboys in Dallas that same season, 44-0. So what’s your point?

            Meanwhile, with Dallas so focused on Sanders in that 38-6 shellacking that they allowed Erik Kramer to slice them up for 300+ yards and 3 TD passes. And Sanders still had a 47-yard TD run juking several Cowboys. They advanced to the Conference Championship game. Dallas went home to watch the game on TV.

            The fact of the matter is, Dickerson never had the luxury of a great QB like Troy Aikman, And poor Sanders never had an even good O-line nor a great QB. No running back is going to lead a Super Bowl run or do major damage in the playoffs without an effective offensive line. And no matter how gifted a runner is (and Smith was far from gifted), he likely won’t get to the Super Bowl when combined with a weak QB (Brock, Rodney Peete, Andre Ware, Kramer, Scott Mitchell). Smith had everything on his team that Dickerson and Sanders didn’t have on their teams.

          • David O'Brien
            July 20, 2017

            No Rasputin comeback? I thought so. And six receptions for 87 yards and one TD is hardly a “great game.”

            Munch on this again:

            No, you’re the one who is wrong. I said, once again, Dickerson and Sanders carried Dieter Brock and Erik Kramer farther than Smith was able to carry Steve Beuerlein. After trouncing the Cowboys in 1985 and 1991, respectively, their teams were in the Conference Championship game. Emmitt never got to the Conference Championship game without Aikman.

            Sure, the ’85 Bears shut out Dickerson and the Rams in Chicago, 24-0. The ’85 Bears also destroyed the Cowboys in Dallas that same season, 44-0. So what’s your point?

            Meanwhile, with Dallas so focused on Sanders in that 38-6 shellacking that they allowed Erik Kramer to slice them up for 300+ yards and 3 TD passes. And Sanders still had a 47-yard TD run juking several Cowboys. They advanced to the Conference Championship game. Dallas went home to watch the game on TV.

            The fact of the matter is, Dickerson never had the luxury of a great QB like Troy Aikman, And poor Sanders never had an even good O-line nor a great QB. No running back is going to lead a Super Bowl run or do major damage in the playoffs without an effective offensive line. And no matter how gifted a runner is (and Smith was far from gifted), he likely won’t get to the Super Bowl when combined with a weak QB (Brock, Rodney Peete, Andre Ware, Kramer, Scott Mitchell). Smith had everything on his team that Dickerson and Sanders didn’t have on their teams.

  3. July 10, 2017
    Reply

    For the most part I tend to agree with your selections, perhaps the order I would challenge on a couple or so. Yes Jim Brown would be the standard of this position in pro football. But Emmitt Smith over guys like Eric Dickerson and O.J. Simpson I beg to differ. Ofter times Smith wasn’t touched until the third tier of defenders due to his effective O-Line most of his career. Conversely, the aforementioned were the offense with stacked boxes and questionable signal callers to offset that…By and large I’m with you; great topic.
    LM

    • Rasputin
      July 10, 2017
      Reply

      With respect, how many Cowboys games did you actually watch back then? In his prime Smith gained an enormous amount of yards after contact. The national media’s cultivated image of him is distorted. Do you hold Jim Brown’s great offensive line against him? You rightly call him the “standard”, but did you know he had guys like these blocking for him?

      Jim Brown’s O-linemen

      Lou Groza (T)– HALL OF FAME, 9 Pro Bowls, 4 AP first team All Pros
      Gene Hickerson (G) – HALL OF FAME, 1960s All Decade, 6 Pro Bowls, 3 first team All Pros
      Mike McCormack (T) – HALL OF FAME, 6 Pro Bowls
      Dick Schafrath (T) – 6 Pro Bowls, 4 first team All Pros
      Jim Ray Smith (G) – 5 Pro Bowls, 3 first team All Pros
      John Morrow (C) – 2 Pro Bowls
      John Wooten (G) – 2 Pro Bowls
      Art Hunter (C ) – 1 Pro Bowl

      By contrast Larry Allen is the only HoF lineman Emmitt had, and he didn’t even show up until after Smith had already won 3 rushing titles. Whereas Cleveland had already been dominant throughout most of the 1950s before Jim Brown arrived, Dallas had just gone 1-15 when they drafted Smith. He managed to win the rushing title in his second season when his offensive linemen had a combined 0 career Pro Bowls, despite most of them having been around the NFL for years. Sure, they eventually became great, but he made them look even better than they were. In 1993 Dallas started 0-2 without Smith because they couldn’t run the ball. Then he returned and they ripped off a long winning streak, ultimately winning the Super Bowl. If that experiment didn’t prove Smith’s worth (he was literally NFL and Super Bowl MVP that year) I don’t know what else could.

    • July 10, 2017
      Reply

      Thanks, Lenny. Good to hear from you. This isn’t a definitive list. Everyone has their likes and dislikes. This is simply a way of articulating how the four of us feel. Know there will be plenty of people who disagree. No right or wrong.

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