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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Top 10 running backs in NFL history

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. Once I started counting down players on my "top 10 Tuesdays", I knew eventually I would have to turn my attention to the best rushers in history. I will try to be objective and let each player's stats and records stand for themselves.

Of course, Super Bowl wins and longevity should also be taken into account. But, I have to also consider the shelf life of an NFL running back and the stress that the game puts on their bodies. Which makes this list less about Super Bowl rings and more about the dominance each player displayed during their time on the field.

10) Earl Campbell (Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints)

Earl Campbell was the top overall pick in the 1978 draft and was chosen by the Houston Oilers. Also known as "the Tyler rose", Campbell's impact on the league was felt immediately. He was named both Rookie of the Year as well as league MVP for the 1978 season. The following year, Campbell did not slow down. He was named Offensive Player of the Year and also voted to the Pro Bowl.

In all, Campbell would make the Pro Bowl 5 times and lead the league in rushing for 3 straight seasons (1978-1980). His best year was in 1980 as he ran for 1,934 yards which included four 200-yard games. He averaged a whopping 5.2 yards per carry and scored 13 touchdowns that season; despite teams stacking the box in an attempt to stop him. Campbell was voted to the NFL Hall of Fame class of 1991.

9) Marcus Allen (Los Angeles Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs)

After being chosen by the Raiders in the 1982 NFL draft, Marcus Allen quickly began to leave his mark on the field. In a strike shortened season, Allen managed to rush for almost 700 yards and helped the Raiders to an 8-1 record. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. Allen was just getting started.

He would rush for 1,759 yards and score 11 touchdowns in the 1985 season and was named the league's MVP. But it was his performance in Super Bowl XVIII that made Marcus Allen legendary. He rushed for 191 yards and scored 2 touchdowns in the big game. He had the longest touchdown run in NFL history in the game as well (74 yards); a record that stood for 20 years. Needless to say, Allen was named MVP for Super Bowl XVIII. When it was all said and done, Allen would reach the Pro Bowl 6 times and rush for a career total of 12,243 yards. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2003.

8) Tony Dorsett (Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos)

Not to be out done, Tony Dorsett took the league by storm as well. He also won Rookie of the Year honors as he rushed for 1,007 yards and scored 12 touchdowns that first season. But, Tony took it a step further by being the first player in sports history to win a college championship one year (University of Pittsburgh) and follow up with a Super Bowl championship their rookie season.

Dorsett's best season was in 1981 with 1,646 yards rushing and a spot in the Pro Bowl. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 8 of his first 9 seasons. He also holds the record for the longest running play from scrimmage in NFL history with a 99-yard touchdown against the Vikings. Tony Dorsett was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1994. His son, Anthony Dorsett, played in the league as a defensive back until 2003. Anthony made the Super Bowl twice during his career.

7) Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears)

Gale Sayers was selected by both Chicago and Kansas City (before the NFL merger) in the 1965 NFL draft. In that first year, Sayers would score 22 touchdowns, a rookie record that still stands today. He also notched 2,272 all purpose yards as a rookie; 1,374 of them rushing. He is still tied for most touchdowns scored in a regular season game with 6 against the 49ers later in his rookie season. He was easily chosen as Rookie of the Year for the 1965 season.

Sayers showcased a stellar career rushing average of 5 yards per carry. He made the Pro Bowl 4 times and was Pro Bowl MVP 3 of those times. Gale Sayers' NFL career wasn't a very long one. Injuries cut his play on the field short and he finished after about 6 seasons. But what he did in that time span was nothing short of phenomenal. He was inducted into the NFL hall of fame in 1977. He is still the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall.

6) Eric Dickerson (L.A. Rams, Indianapolis Colts, L.A. Raiders, Atlanta Falcons)

The Rams selected Eric Dickerson second overall in the 1983 NFL Draft. Once on the field, Dickerson quickly set rookie records for most rushing attempts (390), most rushing touchdowns (18), and most rushing yards (1,808). Those stats resulted in him being named Rookie of the Year and earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl. In 1984, Dickerson took the role of running back to another level by rushing for the most yards ever in a single season (2,105). He averaged a stunning 5.6 yards per carry that season.

After contract disputes with the Rams, Dickerson was traded to the Colts and quickly got back to work on the NFL record books. He became the fastest player to reach 10,000 career rushing yards. He did it in only 91 games. By 1989, Dickerson would have 7 straight seasons of over 1,000 yards; setting an NFL record. He retired in 1993 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, his first year of eligibility.

5) O. J. Simpson (Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers)

Before O. J. Simpson became infamous or incarcerated, he was an incredible running back in the NFL. Nicknamed the "Juice", Simpson was drafted first overall in the 1969 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. Unlike other running backs on this list, Simpson did not have an outstanding rookie season. In fact, his first 3 seasons were pretty mediocre. But by 1972, O. J. hit his first season of more than 1,000 yards (1,251). In 1973, O. J. Simpson became the first player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season (2,003). He is the only player to do so in a 14 game season.

O. J.'s football success continued and he won 4 NFL rushing titles from 1972-1976. During that span, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry and over 1,500 yards per season. Simpson was selected to the Pro Bowl 6 times during his career and was league MVP in 1973. He retired in 1980 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985.

4) Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions)

Barry Sanders was selected 3rd overall in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. He was given the jersey number of his hero, another famous Lions running back, Billy Sims. Although he missed his first training camp due to a contract dispute, Barry seemed to handle NFL football with ease. He dazzled fans and defenses with his signature spin moves and his ability to shake every tackle. By his fourth NFL touch of the ball, Barry was in the end zone. He was voted to the Pro Bowl that very first season and named Rookie of the Year.

In the 1994 season, Sanders would notch 2,166 all purpose yards from scrimmage (1,883 rushing, 283 receiving). He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and was named Offensive Player of the Year. Barry Sanders had his best season in 1997 when he rushed for over 2,000 yards (2,053) and averaged a staggering 6.1 yards per carry. Sanders was voted to the Pro Bowl 10 times before his abrupt retirement in 1999. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2004.

3) Walter Payton (Chicago Bears)

Walter Payton was known as "Sweetness", which accurately described his pure, prolific, running on the football field. Drafted 4th overall by the Bears in 1975, Payton's career began with a rough start. He finished his rookie year with only 679 yards rushing and just 7 touchdowns. But by the following year, "Sweetness" had his first 1,000 yard season with 17 touchdowns to his credit. He improved even more in the 1977 season, where he rushed for 1,852 yards and 16 touchdowns.

By 1985, Payton was in his prime and had just broken Jim Brown's career rushing record the year before. He also had the luxury of having the best defense in history on his team. The Bears touted a 15-1 regular season record and would go on to win Super Bowl XX, Walter's only NFL championship. At the time of his retirement in 1988, Walter Payton would hold the most rushing yards of any player in NFL history with 16,726. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1993. Walter "Sweetness" Payton died on November 1, 1999 from a rare autoimmune liver disease. His legacy lives on as many NFL players and fans hail "Sweetness" as the best player to ever step on the field.

2) Emmitt Smith (Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals)

When Emmitt Smith entered the 1990 NFL Draft, some teams passed on picking him due to his size and speed. The Dallas Cowboys, on the other hand, traded up to draft Smith. And the rest is NFL record book history. Emmitt Smith is in an elite class of running backs that are considered the best of them all. He is only one of three NFL running backs to start their careers with 7 straight ten touchdown seasons. In fact, Smith leads them all with 164 career touchdowns. He also holds the record for most postseason rushing touchdowns with 19.

But it is the NFL career rushing record that puts Emmitt Smith in a class by himself. In the 2002 season, Smith broke Walter Payton's career rushing record and finished his career best all-time with 18,355 career rushing yards. He left the game in 2005 after winning 3 Super Bowls (SB XXVIII MVP), being selected to 8 Pro Bowls, and notching 78 games of 100-yards or more. Emmitt Smith will surely be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame next year, his first year of eligibility.

1) Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns)

With Emmitt Smith holding the record for most rushing yards in a career, you may wonder why Jim Brown is #1 on this list. Well, the answer is simple: Brown left the game at 30 years old, the peak of his career. Had he played 15 seasons like Emmitt instead of the 9 seasons he actually played, Brown's stats would have been astronomical. Jim Brown also never played in a 16-game regular season format. His first 4 seasons were in 12-game format and the rest were with 14 regular season games.

With all of that being said, Jim Brown still has the numbers to show for his dominant time on the field. He played for 9 seasons and made the Pro Bowl every year that he played. He led the NFL in rushing 8 of those 9 seasons. He was league MVP 4 times. He averaged 104 yards per game and 5.2 yards a carry. Brown was also unique in his ability to do anything to help the team win games. He would catch the ball, return kicks and even through a pass or two if needed. Even more astonishing, Brown never missed a single game in his career. No other running back had the durability and versatility of Jim Brown.

Well, there you have it. My 10 best running backs of all-time. There were lots of other names that were pondered upon when this list was created. Names such as: Terrell Davis, Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk, Lenny Moore, and even Bronko Nagurski. But at the end of the day, I know I gave this one a lot of thought and evaluation. As always, feel free to comment and debate. You know me, I love that stuff.

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Scot said...

Great list, Q! I'm thrilled to see Marcus Allen on this list. I'm one of the few who think Barry Sanders is overrated. I can't think of one TD he scored that actually meant something.

The only one I can think of that I would add is Marshall Faulk. I don't know who he would replace, though.

Great list!

"Q" the fan said...

Hey Scot,

Thanks for the feedback. I'm sure there are a lot of Lions fans out there that will disagree with us. But, I couldn't justify Barry being any higher than I had him. The season with over 2,000 yards was his biggest stat.

You're right on the money about Marshall. I definitely considered him, but who would I get rid of?

Thanks for reading :)

Lionluver said...

1. Sweetness
2. Jim Brown
3. Barry Sanders
4. OJ Simpson
5. Eric Dickerson
6. Emmitt Smith
7. Gayle Sayers
8. Tony Dorsett
9. Marcus Allen
10. Earl Campbell

Basically the same list with a few spots moved around. I almost spit out my pudding when I read the 'overrated' line about Barry, then I remembered that a lot of times he could be stopped simply by playing on grass in a light drizzle. I just kept him at #3 because he quit. I completely condone the way he went out and I think time has shown he was right about the Lions organization, but you can't call a quitter the GOAT. Too bad Bo Jackson got hurt, I think he would've ended up high on this list.

"Q" the fan said...

Hey Jute!

Funny :). Our lists are very comparable. Maybe the word "overrated" is a bit strong for Barry. But, as I said, I couldn't place him any higher than I had him.

Sweetness, Emmitt, and Jim Brown were always in the top 3 in my mind. It was just a matter of sorting 'em out. I'm surprised you placed Emmitt at 6; he holds the record for most yards and he won 3 SBs. Very interesting....


Scot said...

I think the fact that Barry led the league for 9 straight years in rushes for loss disqualifies him for top 3 status. As much as Lions fans want to blame the o-line, they lose credibility when giving the line ZERO credit for Barry's huge yardage gains.

His style is what lost him yards. It's also what made him the most exciting RB to watch...perhaps ever. In the end, though, it's not a style you can win with.

I'm a die-hard Lions fan, but I'll take Emmitt, Payton, Jim, Dickerson, OJ, Allen, Thurman, and Marshall over Barry any day.

"Q" the fan said...

I think Barry definitely had his moments of greatness. His numbers keep in in the top 5.

My problem is the way he quit. I know the Lions sucked and the management seemed bent on making stupid decisions, but Barry was all they had going for them and he just bounced. Then he tried to keep the money :).