The 32 Greatest NFL Running Backs

Joe Posnanski is quickly becoming one of the most popular writers at SI.com, and developing a substantial following for his own site. There are obvious reasons for this, and he's maybe my favorite sportswriter at the moment. His writing is engaging, he chooses interesting topics, and he knows a ton about baseball. He does not, however, know a great deal about football, which made it surprising that he recently chose to create a list of 32 great running backs through history. He followed it up with a list of 32 great receivers.

Posnanski is, very simply, not qualified to create a list of the 32 best running backs in history. He recognizes this, and includes an explicit disclaimer: "this list is not saying the thirty-two GREATEST running backs but thirty-two GREAT running backs". That said, when you create a limited list like that and put numbers next to the names, you're obviously attempting to do exactly that. The disclaimer is basically his admission that there might be some questionable choices. Below, I'll present my own choices for the 32 greatest running backs in the history of professional football, plus a few names it was hard to leave off and comments on the players who made Posnanski's list but not mine.

1. Jim Brown

Jason Lisk at PFR has done some really interesting research
suggesting that Brown's accomplishments may have been inflated by the soft schedule he played in the Eastern Conference, and that Jim Taylor might have been just as good. Taylor is criminally underrated because he was always overshadowed by Brown, and the data is well worth reading. But Brown's combination of power and speed, backed up by other-worldly numbers, makes him an easy choice for the top position here. His 1958 and 1963 seasons are arguably the two best by any RB in history.

(Posnanski's rank: 1)

2. Walter Payton

He could do everything. He held the career rushing record for nearly two decades, might still have it if he'd played 16-game schedules his whole career. He was a fine receiver and a dedicated blocker. Payton had speed, but he wasn't the fastest player. He bulldozed into tacklers, but he was too small to be a true power back. He could cut, but he wasn't going to make anyone forget Gale Sayers or The Juice. No one, no RB in history, played with more heart. You just never saw this guy give up on a play, and he was an elite runner for over a decade.

(Posnanski's rank: 2)

3. Barry Sanders

He's remembered as a finesse runner who was useless in short yardage. Sanders scored double-digit rushing TDs six times, including a career-high 16 in 1991. The Emmitt-Barry debate is eternal, and at different times I've fallen on different sides of it. It's close.

(Posnanski's rank: 4)

4. Emmitt Smith

Like Payton, he had a ton of heart and was remarkably consistent and well-rounded. Unlike Payton, he was surrounded by great offensive talent. Posnanski, in making the case for Smith, cites his reception totals, as if this were more a function of his receiving talent than his offensive system. It seems silly to me to suggest that there was any substantial difference between Sanders and Smith as receivers.

(Posnanski's rank: 3)

5. O.J. Simpson

I know I already said this about Jim Brown, but Simpson's 1973 and 1975 seasons may be the best by any running back in history. His 1973 single-season record for rushing yards per game still stands and has never been seriously challenged.

(Posnanski's rank: 7)

6. Marshall Faulk

I know my list mostly agrees with Posnanski's so far; that will cease after this entry. Faulk is the greatest dual threat runner-receiver in NFL history. Better than Lenny Moore, Bobby Mitchell, Roger Craig, and everyone else. He could have been a Pro Bowl wide receiver, and he probably should have won three NFL MVP Awards.

(Posnanski's rank: 6)

7. LaDainian Tomlinson

It amazes me that anyone still ranks him outside the top 10. He's clearly the top RB of his era, he's 2nd all-time in rushing TDs, he won an MVP Award, and he excelled for a really awful Charger team in 2003.

(Posnanski's rank: 13)

8. Steve Van Buren

The most underrated HOF RB in history. His 1945 season is the equal of anything turned in by Smith, Faulk, Eric Dickerson... he led the NFL in rushing and set a touchdown record, in a 10-game season, that stood for over a decade and was finally broken in a 14-game season. Van Buren's 1947-49 three-year run ranks among the best in history, including the 2nd and 3rd official 1,000-yard rushing seasons in NFL history. Van Buren is also among the greatest postseason RBs in history. He was the hero of the 1948 NFL Championship Game, with 98 yards and the game's only touchdown on a field completely blanketed by snow. The next year, this time in ankle-deep mud, he set a postseason record with 196 rushing yards.

(Posnanski's rank: 28)

9. Eric Dickerson

Posnanski wrote that Dickerson "didn’t look fast … but nobody ever caught him from behind." I guess that makes Darrell Green a nobody. (Green catches Dickerson from behind at :30 of the link)

(Posnanski's rank: 11)

10. Joe Perry

This will not sit well with some people. Everybody ranks Joe Perry among the top 30, but almost no one puts him in the top 10, and most rankers set him behind his teammate Hugh McElhenny. Perry wasn't as flashy, but he was more consistent, he played forever — mostly at a high level — and for a couple years there, he was clearly the best RB in the league. In 1953-54, Perry became the first player ever to post consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

(Posnanski's rank: 25)

11. Jim Taylor

The argument against Taylor, if you really want to make one, is that he only had four great seasons. That's four more than most people, but he wasn't effective long enough to make my top 10. He also played behind an exceptionally talented offensive line, for an exceptionally gifted offensive coach.

(Posnanski's rank: 22)

12. Gale Sayers

There are three players I rank lower than almost anyone else. Not by a lot, but by a little: Sayers, Earl Campbell, and McElhenny. Most educated fans and analysts put them all in the top 10. I don't have anything bad to say about Sayers, and I wish he'd had access to modern medical techniques that could have lengthened his career. He rushed for just 4,956 yards and only had one season in which he was clearly the best RB in football.

(Posnanski's rank: 8)

13. Earl Campbell

You had to see him to believe him. I remember watching Campbell continuing to run forward while his jersey was being torn off, ripped away, from behind. I remember seeing him take a shot from Jack Tatum at the goalline and fall forward into the endzone flirting with unconsciousness. Sayers lit up the game with his speed and agility, but it was too much for his body and he burned out. Campbell amazed us with his power, but ran too hard for his body and fell apart. People forget his speed; this guy could run.

(Posnanski's rank: 5)

14. Hugh McElhenny

Many years of research have gone into this article, and I have a great deal of confidence in the rankings you're reading, but the definitive list of this type was written almost a decade ago by Paul Zimmerman. He ranked McElhenny 6th.

(Posnanski's rank: 27)

15. Marcus Allen

Lost years of his prime to Al Davis' eccentricity. He was NFL MVP in 1985: 1,785 rushing yards, 4.63 average, 67 receptions, 555 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns. He never again topped 223 carries, although he was healthy. His rookie season was cut short by the 1982 strike, but Allen won Rookie of the Year and was the most productive RB in the NFL that season.

(Posnanski's rank: 19)

16. Thurman Thomas

Had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, but for several years, it was not apparent that they stood out from him; Thomas won NFL MVP in 1991. He is remembered as a better receiver than he really was, but he doesn't get enough credit as a runner.

(Posnanski's rank: 16)

17. Lenny Moore

This is probably too low a ranking for such a dynamic player, but Moore (whom Posnanski correctly notes was "more receiver than running back" and who made the NFL 50th Anniversary Team as a flanker) is difficult to categorize. In 1958, he averaged 7.3 yards per carry, gained 938 receiving yards, scored 7 rushing TDs and 7 receiving TDs, and won an NFL Championship.

(Posnanski's rank: 20)

18. Marion Motley

A sensational run-blocker, a fantastic pass-blocker, and a standout runner. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a rookie and led the NFL in rushing in 1950. Like most great power runners, he also possessed underrated speed. Of course, it's the power that first and foremost captures our imaginations. Purely as a player, Motley would rank much higher than this, because of his blocking, but as a running back, with the assumption that being a ball-carrier comes first, this seems about right to me.

(Posnanski's rank: 12)

19. Herschel Walker

This is a totally unorthodox ranking, and I know nobody agrees with me. One day I'll write a full-length article to spell this out more fully, but here's the short version: Walker was a top-10 running back every year from 1983-1994. He was a great runner, great receiver, great returner, and because he was a man of many talents rather than one, the full scope of his contributions has never been properly appreciated. Walker was also a terrific back in the USFL, and he typically receives no credit for that because the league fell apart.

(Posnanski's rank: NR)

20. Tony Dorsett

I love Tony Dorsett. My issue is basically the same as Joe's: Dorsett was very good for a long time, but it's not obvious that he was ever really the best, and he didn't have nearly as high a peak as most of the other runners listed here. He's like the Eddie Murray of running backs.

(Posnanski's rank: 18)

21. Curtis Martin

See Tony Dorsett.

(Posnanski's rank: 30)

22. Franco Harris

The heart of the offense in the early years of the Steel Curtain Dynasty, a consistent performer and terrific postseason runner.

(Posnanski's rank: 17)

23. John Riggins

Nobody ranks Riggins ahead of Larry Csonka. No one except Washington fans. I don't understand why. Riggins had many more yards, many more TDs, offered some value as a receiver, played longer, had more good seasons, and was a better postseason player.

(Posnanski's rank: NR)

24. Leroy Kelly

In a pure statistical ranking, he would rate much higher than this. He suffers by comparisons with Jim Brown and Gale Sayers.

(Posnanski's rank: 31)

25. Terrell Davis

A modern-day Sayers, he didn't have the same pure athletic ability, and he played behind a terrific offensive line rather than a miserable one, but from 1996-98, there was a visible separation between Davis and the rest of the league. He didn't stick around to pile up numbers, but at his prime, he was among the best the game has seen.

(Posnanski's rank: 15)

26. Bronko Nagurski

The only pre-Modern Era player to make my list, unless you count Van Buren. Purely as a runner, Nagurski probably wasn't as devastating as his present-day reputation represents him, and he simply didn't do all that much running. As a blocker, he may actually be underrated. Nagurski was considered as fine a blocker as there was in the league, including linemen. Comparable to Marion Motley.

(Posnanski's rank: 14)

27. Tiki Barber

Criminally underappreciated, he posted 10,000 rushing yards, 5,000 receiving yards, and six 1,000-yard seasons. He was effective running inside and outside, a fine receiver, and a good returner. Rushed for 1,500 yards three times, one of only 11 players to do so. Only O.J. Simpson had more 200-yard rushing games.

(Posnanski's rank: NR)

28. Ollie Matson

Never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, though he certainly would have if they played 14- and 16-game schedules in the '50s. Matson was a dynamic runner and receiver, and ranks as one of the greatest return men in history.

(Posnanski's rank: 26)

29. Ricky Watters

Another player in the Dorsett/Martin mold, he was never the best, but he was consistently great, a top-5 RB every year from 1992-2000.

(Posnanski's rank: NR)

30. Fred Taylor

I'll always wonder what Fred Taylor could have done if he hadn't gotten injured. I realize Taylor returned from his injuries to have a long, productive career, but in 1998 and 2000, he was really outstanding. I mean, this guy looked like he was in the same class as Terrell Davis and Marshall Faulk.

(Posnanski's rank: NR)

31. Larry Csonka

Put up good numbers in the running back equivalent of the deadball era. A good postseason player who usually came through when the team needed him.

(Posnanski's rank: 23)

32. Edgerrin James

Never really set the world on fire, at least for me, but he was a versatile, consistent performer who rushed for 1,500 yards four times.

(Posnanski's rank: 29)

On Posnanski's List, not on mine

9. Bo Jackson — Bo was great, a shooting star who wowed spectators. He played four seasons, carried the ball just 515 times. Terrell Davis had a short career, and he carried 1,655 times, 1,859 including the playoffs. As sensational as Jackson was, I just don't see how you can rank him ahead of players with full careers. Take the best 515 carries of anyone in my Top 32, and they're comparable to Jackson's, but all those guys, even Sayers, had far longer careers. Posnanski wrote that Jackson was the greatest running back ever in "Super Tecmo Bowl". The game was Tecmo Super Bowl, and Jackson was great in that, but the game Joe really means is probably the original Tecmo Bowl.

(My rank: Very difficult to judge, but probably Top 100.)

10. Red Grange — An absurd choice. Grange is not one of the top 100 running backs in NFL history. He might not be one of the top 200, though he probably is among the top 300. Grange was a phenomenal college running back, and a good pro defensive back. His value was much more at the ticket counter than on the field, though. I'm not just saying that Grange was not a great pro running back; he was barely a good pro running back.

(My rank: around 200)

21. Priest Holmes — Tough to leave off my list, he had 3½ remarkable seasons. This may not be fair, but I was influenced by how easily Larry Johnson stepped in for him and put up nearly the same numbers when Holmes got hurt. The Chiefs had a terrific offense in the early 2000s, and to some extent I think Holmes was just along for the ride. Like Posnanski, I swooned over Holmes' 2002 season, but he claims that if Holmes had not gotten hurt against Denver in the 14th game, it would have been the best season a running back has ever had in NFL history, which is silly. It just shows an astounding lack of historical knowledge for someone with as much interest in sports history as Posnanski.

(My rank: Top 50)

24. Chris Johnson — I'm not ready to include him after only two seasons, but no player has ever had a season as good as Johnson's '09 and not gone on to an exceptional career.

(My rank: Top 100)

32. Frank Gifford — A fine player who could do it all, but his reputation benefitted from playing in New York, and I don't see him standing out from the other great RBs of his era.

(My rank: Top 50)

Rounding Out the Top 50

In alphabetical order:

Shaun Alexander
Ottis Anderson
William Andrews
Larry Brown
Rick Casares
Roger Craig
Corey Dillon — would be a Hall of Famer if he hadn't been trapped in Cincinnati during his prime
Chuck Foreman
Frank Gifford
Cookie Gilchrist — had some of his best years in the CFL
Priest Holmes
Floyd Little
Bobby Mitchell — a Hall of Fame receiver who would have been a Hall of Fame running back in the Lenny Moore mold if he hadn't switched positions
Lydell Mitchell
Ernie Nevers
Clinton Portis
Spec Sanders — a tailback in the AAFC, he lit the field on fire for three seasons
Dan Towler — best RB in the NFL, 1951-53, averaged 5.2 yds/att, member of the greatest offense in history

Comments and Conversation

August 18, 2010

Kevin Beane:

Hey Brad,

Wanted to touch on your comment on Payton, “He could do everything. He held the career rushing record for nearly two decades, might still have it if he’d played 16-game schedules his whole career.”

You are right that that Payton could still, under different circumstances, still be the record holder, but not because of the 16-game schedule thing. I think you have the right idea for the wrong reasons.

Payton only played in three 14-game seasons, effectively costing him six games. If my math is correct, if we gave Payton six more games, he’s have to average 271 yards a game to catch Emmitt Smith.

Of course, Smith didn’t play in six more games than Payton, he played in 36 more games. Payton has Smith covered in both yards per game and yards per carry.

That said, when it comes to YPG and YPC, Sanders has both of them smashed, often on poor team and in a single-back formation he was unhappy with.

His YPG and YPC numbers are much closer (though behind) Jim Brown’s, and given the outliers I mentioned above, and because I’m inclined to be more generous to recent players (because I think as football players get stronger and faster, it’s more difficult to be way ahead of the curve, which Sanders was), he remains my #1 as he was a few years ago when we did that all-time draft.

Strongly agree with Walker and Riggins. I don’t know if it’s true post-Emmitt, but Walker had more career yards than Payton if you count his USFL numbers. And the USFL was a strong league. It won’t happen but I think it would be fun to have a league rival the NFL for signings today. Guess I will have to console myself with Daunte Culpepper and J.P. Losman in the UFL. Woo.

Riggins…he was ridiculous in 1982, would love to have seen what would have come out of it if it wasn’t a strike-shortened year. As it is, he ran for 610 yards in the playoffs that year. Still a record. And against, you know, playoff teams.

August 18, 2010

Andrew Jones:

Very nice article and a list I have a hard time disagreeing with. That being said, I still think Sayers is a touch overrated. Longevity is something that is largely underrated in general.
I put Franco Harris a bit higher in my book due to the Super Bowl victories. Yes, he had a great team, but rings aren’t worth nothing.
Lack of rings is also why I continue to be ok with Barry Sanders at 3 or 4 instead of 1 or 2.

August 19, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Thanks for the feedback, guys. Kevin, Payton didn’t miss 6 games. He missed 17. Unlike Emmitt and Barry, Payton played 14-game seasons and missed games because of both the 1982 and 1987 strike seasons. He easily lost 1,000 yards — probably a lot more — relative to 16-game seasons. His projected total comes to 17,935, which is still behind Emmitt, but not by much.

Andrew, I can’t agree with your reasoning with regard to Super Bowls. We shouldn’t reward players for being on the right teams, or punish them for playing on the wrong ones. Harris was a great postseason RB, and he deserves recognition for what he did in those situations, but I’m not comfortable granting extra credit for the accomplishments of his teammates. If Barry had played with the Steel Curtain, I’m sure he’d have some rings, too. Getting drafted by the Lions doesn’t make him a worse player.

August 25, 2010

larz:

terrell davis should be higher though he didnt have a long career because of an injury he did all you can do as a running back and more than most can do in a 15 yr career including two super bowl rings a super bowl mvp pro bowls and 2000 yard rushing season and the most yards ever rushed if you count playoffs and the super bowl

September 6, 2010

web:

my favorite running backs of all time, sanders, payton, brown, smith, campbell, allen, dickerson, harris, faulk, riggins,dorsett,t davis,alstott, bettis, e george, sayers, martin, craig, holmes, jamal lewis,simpson, a green, alexander, peterson, not in this particular order but close, and bo jackson don’t make the list because he didn’t play long enough, to have the number’s he could have been great, and chris johnson, is alright so far but let’s see about longevity… he’s not even the best in titan’s history , he’s no eddie george, he played with passion for the game and played hurt and loved the game.. he wasn’t all bout bling, bling looking good first , neither was the other above rb’s that i just mentioned, if adrian peterson would hang on to the ball , he’s better than johnson

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