Only one current running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, deserves to be named one of the NFL’s all-time top 10, and only one other player who has played in the 21st century, Emmitt Smith, makes the list. Does that mean RBs today are worse than before? No, but times have changed… there are two reasons why veterans dominate this ranking.
First, while RBs are still roughly the same size, defensive tackles have gotten huge and strong linebackers and safeties have gotten much faster, and to counter that, a passing attack has become more prominent. Second, the 16-game season packs such a punch that most teams use a “runner-by-committee” system or insert a second member with a contrasting style to rest their starter, thus decreasing its importance.
Okay, LaDainian and Emmitt, here are your partners.
1.Jim Brown. No one has combined power and speed like Brown’s 6-2, 228 record. In his nine seasons before abruptly retiring in 1966 at age 30, he led the league in rushing eight times (a record). He also holds the mark for most seasons leading the league in attempts (six) and most seasons leading in rushing touchdowns (five). What’s most impressive is that, of all the running backs who have ever played and had 750 or more attempts in his career, Brown after all these years still has the highest average win (5.2).
2. OJ Simpson. Plenty of runners are fast, but none as dazzling as Simpson (9.4 in a 100-yard dash), and none with his sharp 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 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, primarily with the Cowboys, the same precise footwork he displayed in winning “Dancing with the Stars” had earned him most of the NFL 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 qualifies as the most electric runner in the history of professional football with his fast, snappy moves and curve balls. Before abruptly retiring (a la Brown) after just 10 seasons, he had set a record (he still holds) for most consecutive 100-yard games (14). He is second all-time in most 1,000-yard seasons (10) and third all-time (15,269).
5.Walter Payton. He held the most career records when he hung up his spikes in 1987, but they have since been broken. However, he still ranks second in rushing yards (16,726) and 100-yard games (77).
6. Gale Sayers. Until he suffered serious injuries to both knees, Sayers may have been even better than his Bears colleague, Payton. Three times he accomplished the incredible feat of scoring a rushing TD, a pass receiving TD and a kick return TD in one game.
7. Tony Dorset. He compiled 12,379 career rushing yards for him, second only to Payton at the time. He set the NFL record for the longest run from scrimmage…a 99-yard run.
8. LaDainian Tomlinson. He holds the record for most touchdowns in a season (28 in 2006) and has amassed five 200-yard rushing games. At 29 years old and hopefully has some mileage left on those wheels, he can increase his rank to third in career rushing touchdowns from him (115).
9. Frank Harris. He rushed for 1,000 yards nine seasons, but is best known for his quirky “Immaculate Receiving” in his rookie year of 1972. With the Steelers trailing the Raiders 7-6 in the playoffs with five seconds left, he caught a pass from Terry Bradshaw who had caromed off Oakland’s Jack Tatum’s shoulder pad and ran for the winning score.
10.Eric Dickerson. No one has surpassed the 2,105 yards he gained in 1984. He rushed for 10,000 yards faster than anyone … in just 91 games (Brown needed 98, Sanders 103, Smith 106).
Among today’s young running backs, the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson has a chance to break 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 the league in rushing three times) and John Riggins (rumbled for 11,352 career yards but oddly enough, gained more yards after age 30 than before) are other guys to remember.