There is arguably no more dangerous occupation in sport than that of a running back in the NFL. These short, stocky, impossibly quick men take the ball and charge directly into a ferocious line of violent men nearly twice their size apparently without fear. Built like fire hydrants they spin, bounce, crash and leap to evade their opponents, and gain their team precious field position while protecting the ball from potential turnovers. Any starting running back on an NFL team is an incredible athlete, but to gain recognition as one of the top 10 NFL running backs of all time an athlete has to be superhuman, a quicksilver bull that can defy the physical restraints that hamper the rest of the human population. Here is my list of the greatest to ever play the game:
10 – Marshall Faulk
This amazingly versatile player could not only run with the ball, he could catch it as well. He is the only player in NFL history to have at least 100 rushing touchdowns (in fact he finished his career with an even 100), and over 30 receiving touchdowns (36). He also finished with more than 19,000 combined yards. This rare double-threat capability opened up options, confused defenses and created time and space for teammates. He played in two championship games in his career, and won Superbowl XXXIV as a member of the Rams
9 – OJ Simpson
Before becoming famous for alleged criminal activities, OJ Simpson, once upon a time, was a hell of a football player. “The Juice” was the first running back to ever go over 2,000 yards in a single season, accomplishing the feat in a 14 game season. He was the league’s rushing leader four times, and was a six time Pro-bowler. It is a shame that what has occurred since his playing days ended has left such a tarnish on what was a spectacular NFL career. Still, despite the allegations that will always hang over his head he merits a spot on the list of the top 10 NFL running backs of all time.
8 – Eric Dickerson
It just goes to show how many great running backs the NFL has been graced with over the years when a player as good as Eric Dickerson was is ranked as low as number 7. Dickerson wasted no time showing the world how good he was, with over 1,800 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns in his rookie season! In his second season he rushed for 100 yards on 11 occasions, breaking OJ Simpson’s record of 10. In that same year he rushed for 2,105 yards, beating another of Simpson’s records for yards in a single season. Though to be fair to Simpson, Dickerson had the benefit of a 16 game season, 2 more than the 14 game season Simpson set the record in.
7 – Earl Campbell
The ultimate power back, Campbell, at 5’11” and almost 250 pounds was a fearsome combination of speed and brutality. He shredded defensive lines, using his massive legs to drive right through anyone foolish enough to get in his way. His crash-bang style unfortunately wore his body out after only 8 grueling seasons, but during the prime of career he was as dominant a running back as ever played the game of football.
6 – Emmitt Smith
Another player whose mid-range selection in this top 10 list shows the depth of talent he was up against. Dallas Cowboy fans no doubt are howling in outrage right now, claiming their boy should be number one. They have a good case for that argument. The all time leader in career rushing yardage, and career rushing touchdowns, and 3 Superbowl rings, Smith was a model of consistency and durability. This list is based on pure ability, however, and despite his numbers, Smith must defer to the players listed below. Sorry Cowboy fans.
5 – LaDanian Tomlinson
LaDanian Tomlinson had every trait that makes a dominant running back: speed, raw power, ability to break tackles, and intelligence. LT was the complete package. Like Faulk, he also has incredible versatility, showing great receiving hands as well. He is the only player in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards and have over 100 receptions in the same season. He reached the 100 rushing TD plateau faster than anyone in NFL history (89 games), including a run that saw him score a mind-boggling 19 touchdowns in 6 games. His accomplishments speak for themselves, and in his prime there was no more dangerous player in the game than LT.
4 – Adrian Peterson
It is hard to believe that this amazing athlete has only played 7 NFL seasons, yet in that short span he has built a resume that has him in fourth place among the greatest running backs of all time. Some might argue it is too early to bestow such a lofty ranking on him, yet it is hard to place him any lower considering the numbers he’s put up to date. He holds the NFL record for most yards rushing in a single game with 296. His 2,097 yards rushing in the 2012 season was the second highest total of all time, and was just 9 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s record. He once rushed for 1,322 yards in just 8 games, another NFL record. He was the 2012 NFL MVP. Yes, all this in 7 seasons. If he can stay relatively healthy and play 7 more he has an outside shot of finishing his career as the all-time leader in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
3 – Jim Brown
Though Jim Brown, like Earl Campbell, had a relatively short career, he packed in a lot of exceptional football during those years. When Tomlinson set the record for the fastest player to 100 TDs, it was Brown’s record he broke (Brown had done it in 93 games). He was a Pro-Bowl selection in each of the 9 seasons he played, and a 3 time NFL MVP. At the time of his retirement, he was was the all time leader in rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns, rushing yards, all-purpose yards, and held the record for the most yards in a single season (1,863 in just 14 games). He is truly one of football’s all time great players at any position, and many NFL historians would rank Brown at number one on the list of the greatest running backs of all time.
2 – Walter Payton
Probably the consensus pick among NFL pundits for the greatest NFL running back of all time, but he comes in at number two on my list. A superstar from the moment he turned pro, Payton’s durability was legendary. Despite taking the brutal pounding that any running back can expect to face, Payton managed to miss only a single game in his 13 year career. With more than 16,000 rushing yards and 110 rushing touchdowns his numbers made his Hall of Fame induction a guarantee. Payton was pure “Sweetness”.
1 – Barry Sanders
If there is anyone wondering how Barry Sanders beat out Jim Brown and Walter Payton to take top spot on my list of the top 10 NFL running backs of all time, just remember one thing: this guy played on a bad team. When you look at the numbers, and the incredible performances he put up in spite of this, you have to wonder just how prolific this guy would have been had he had the luxury of playing on a Superbowl caliber team. Despite only playing 10 seasons, he is third in career rushing yards with 15,269 and eighth in career rushing touchdowns with 99. His second to last year in the league he went over the 2,000 yard mark for the first time (2,053), averaging an incredible 6.1 yards per carry. Barry is at the top of this list for more than the numbers though. No other player in the history of the sport was as elusive and electrifying as Barry Sanders. His ability to break multiple tackles, and turn nothing into a touchdown time and time again make him the best ever in my book. Argue all you want. I’m not changing my mind on this one. (Though LT and Adrian Peterson may have a thing or two to say about that in years to come).
Featured image by Joe Bielawa