Only one current running back – LaDainian Tomlinson – merits being named one of the NFL’s all-time 10 best, and only one other guy who has played in the 21st century – Emmitt Smith – makes the list. Does that mean today’s RBs are worse than before? No, but times have changed … there are two reasons why the old-timers dominate this ranking.
First, although RBs remain roughly the same size, defensive tackles have become enormous and linebackers and strong safeties have gotten much faster and to counter that, a passing attack has become more prominent. Second, the 16-game season gives backs such a pounding that most teams use a “running back by committee” system or insert a second-stringer with a contrasting style to give their starter a rest, hence diminishing his importance.
OK, LaDainian and Emmitt, here are your partners.
1. Jim Brown. No one has ever combined power and speed the way Brown did at 6-2, 228. In his nine seasons before he abruptly retired in 1966 at age 30, he led the league in rushing eight times (a record). He also still holds the mark for most seasons leading the league in attempts (six) and most seasons leading in rushing TDs (five). Most impressively, of all the running backs who ever played and had 750 or more career attempts, Brown after all these years still has the highest average gain (5.2).
2. O.J. Simpson. Lots of backs are fast but no one ever as blazingly so as Simpson (9.4 in 100-yard dash), and none with his shiftiness and eye for daylight. He was the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season (he did it in just 14 games) and he holds the record for most 200-yard games (six). He led the league in rushing four times.
3. Emmitt Smith. When he retired in 2004 after 14 seasons, mostly with the Cowboys, the same precise footwork he displayed in winning “Dancing with the Stars” had earned him most of the NFL’s career rushing records. These include most attempts (4,409), yards gained (18,355), 1,000-yard seasons (11), TDs (164) and 100-yard games (78). Enough?
4. Barry Sanders. He rates as pro football’s most electric runner ever with his quick, darting moves and squirming switchbacks. Before retiring abruptly (a la Brown) after just 10 seasons, he had set a record (still holds it) for most consecutive games with 100 yards (14). He is second all-time in in most 1,000-yard seasons (10) and the third all-time rusher (15,269).
5. Walter Payton. He held most of the running records when he hung up his spikes in 1987 but they’ve since been broken. He still ranks second, though, in rushing yardage (16,726) and 100-yard games (77).
6. Gale Sayers. Until he suffered bad injuries to both knees, Sayers may have been even better than his Bears colleague Payton. Three times he achieved the amazing feat of scoring a rushing TD, pass reception TD and kick return TD in a game.
7. Tony Dorsett. He compiled 12,379 rushing yards in his career, second only to Payton at the time. He set the NFL record for longest run from scrimmage … a 99-yarder.
8. LaDainian Tomlinson. He holds the record for most TDs in a season (28 in 2006) and has reeled off five 200-yard rushing games. At age 29 and hopefully some mileage left on those wheels, he can add to his rank of third in career rushing TDs (115).
9. Franco Harris. He rushed for 1,000 yards nine seasons but is best known for his quirky “Immaculate Reception” in his rookie year of 1972. With the Steelers trailing the Raiders 7-6 in the playoffs with five seconds to go, he snagged a Terry Bradshaw pass that had caromed off the shoulder pad of Oakland’s Jack Tatum and ran it in for the winning score.
10. Eric Dickerson. No one has ever topped the 2,105 yards he gained in 1984. He got to 10,000 yards rushing faster than anybody … in just 91 games (Brown needed 98, Sanders 103, Smith 106).
Among today’s young RBs, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings has a chance to crack this list (he set a record last year when he gained 296 yards in a game, against a tough Chargers defense, no less) as does, presumably, rookie Darren McFadden of the Raiders. Ask me again in 2018. Marcus Allen (second in most career TDs with 123), Earl Campbell (led league in rushing three times) and John Riggins (rumbled for 11,352 yards in his career but in an oddity, he gained more yards after age 30 than before) are other guys to remember.