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Top 10 Running Backs in NFL History


photo by Joe Bielawa, 2013, CC 2.0

No position in professional sports requires greater athleticism than the NFL running back. Speed, agility, balance and power are all attributes of a successful back. The position also requires toughness, as running backs take a beating on nearly every carry or catch. While NFL teams are featuring the pass more than ever, the running back is still an indispensable part of today’s offenses. This list features the 10 greatest running backs in NFL history.

1) Jim Brown, 1957-65


Quite simply, no player dominated the position of running back more than Brown. His combination of speed, power and toughness was something the NFL hadn’t seen in one runner prior to 1957. The Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer led the league in rushing in eight of his nine pro seasons, finishing as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards. This was over 2,500 more than the second place Joe Perry, who played in seven more seasons. Brown also retired as the all-time leader in touchdowns (126) and yards from scrimmage (14,811), and his 104.3 rushing yards per game is still the highest in league history. The 8-time All-Pro was named the NFL’s MVP three times (1957-58, 65). No other running back has more than one.

2) Walter Payton, 1975-87


The man known as “Sweetness” was loved and admired by fans and players alike, but his playing style on the field ran counter to his nickname. One of the most physical runners ever, Payton ran roughshod over the NFL for 13 years, bruising bodies and egos alike, all while flattening defenders with his signature stiff arm. The Chicago Bears Hall of Famer retired in 1987 as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards. Remarkably durable and consistent, Payton ran for at least 1,200 yards and amassed 1,500+ yards from scrimmage 10 of 11 seasons from 1976-86, missing only in the strike-shortened season of 1982. The 9-time Pro Bowler also played in 186 consecutive games, still a record for running backs.

3) Emmitt Smith, 1990-2002


His runs may not have made as many highlight reels as some of his contemporaries, but those runs resulted in more rushing yards than any other player in league history. The Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer ran for 18,355 yards and scored 175 touchdowns in his 15-year career. From 1991-95, Smith led the NFL in rushing four times, helping the Cowboys win three Super Bowls along the way. The durable and steady Smith was at his best in the postseason, rushing for 1,586 yards and scoring 21 total touchdowns in 17 playoff games. The 8-time Pro Bowler was named both NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in 1993.

4) Barry Sanders, 1989-98


Sanders is the NFL’s unofficial leader in highlight reel runs. Using moves that even the most accomplished Madden player couldn’t replicate, the elusive Sanders made even five-yard runs look spectacular. The Detroit Lions Hall of Famer finished his career with 15,269 yards in 10 seasons, averaging a robust 5.0 yards per carry. The 10-time Pro Bowler and 6-time All-Pro led the NFL in rushing four times, including 2,053 in his MVP season of 1997. His average of 99.8 rushing yards per game is second only to the great Jim Brown.

5) Marshall Faulk, 1994-2005


Faulk was one of the most versatile runners of his or any other era. The former Indianapolis Colt and star attraction for the St. Louis Rams’ “greatest show on turf” possessed speed, agility, elusiveness and a football IQ that was matched by few. From 1998-2001, the Hall of Famer averaged 1,360 rushing yards, 888 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns per season. In 1999, he became the second player to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season, helping lead the Rams to their only Super Bowl title. The 7-time Pro Bowler finished his career with 12,279 rushing yards, 6,875 receiving yards and 136 total touchdowns.

6) Eric Dickerson, 1983-93


You couldn’t script a better start to an NFL career than Dickerson’s. In 1983, he set the rookie rushing record with 1,808 yards. The sequel in 1984 was even better, as Dickerson broke the single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards, a mark that still stands. In his first seven seasons, the Hall of Famer used his superior speed and long, graceful strides to run for 11,226 yards, more than any other back in a seven-year span. The 5-time All-Pro finished his career with 13,259 rushing yards, leading the NFL three times for the Los Angeles Rams and once for the Indianapolis Colts.

7) Adrian Peterson, 2007-present


Peterson runs with raw aggression, as if every play might be his last. And if that isn’t enough, this bruiser of a back also runs a 4.4 40. In 13+ seasons, the 7-time Pro Bowler has run for 14,461 yards, leading the league three times. But as talented as Peterson is, the path hasn’t always been easy. In a career that has often been marked by adversity, no season defines his career better than 2012. Less than nine months after suffering a torn ACL, the Minnesota Vikings All-Pro ran for 2,097 yards, the second highest total in league history, and captured the NFL’s MVP.

8) LaDainian Tomlinson, 2001-11


Tomlinson could impact a game like few others. He was a superior runner, an accomplished receiver, and was always a threat to throw the halfback pass. In his 11 seasons, the Hall of Famer ran for 13,684 yards, caught 624 passes for 4,772 yards, and scored 162 touchdowns, the third most in history. In his 2006 MVP season, the San Diego Chargers great led the league with 1,815 rushing yards, and set NFL records with 31 touchdowns and 186 points scored.

9) O.J. Simpson, 1969-79


Between 1972 and 1976, Simpson had one of the best five-year stretches in NFL history. The Hall of Famer and Buffalo Bills great ran for 7,699 yards, averaged 110 rushing yards per game, and was named All-Pro five straight years. In 1973, he became the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season (2,003). His 143.1 yards per game remains the highest single-season average in history. When he retired in 1979, Simpson had 11,236 rushing yards, trailing only the great Jim Brown on the all-time list.

10) Steve Van Buren, 1944-51


A dominant force in the later years of the NFL’s Iron Man era, Van Buren was a punishing runner who could change a game on multiple levels. The Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Famer led the league in rushing four times, touchdowns twice, and kick returns, punt returns and scoring once each. The 5-time All-Pro had two of the only three 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the NFL’s first 33 years. Van Buren saved his best for the big games, though, rushing for a combined 294 yards in the Eagles’ two NFL Championship Game wins in 1948-49.

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