The Best Postseason Running Backs
March 22, 2011 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
For years, a great running back would rise up in the playoffs and just take over, leading his team to a title. Seven RBs have been named as Super Bowl MVP, more than any position except quarterback. The last running back to win the award was Terrell Davis, following the 1997 season. Yeah, we've gone 13 years in a row without a running back as MVP of the big game. The seven winners were:
Larry Csonka, Miami Dolphins, Super Bowl VIII
Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl IX
John Riggins, Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XVII
Marcus Allen, Los Angeles Raiders, Super Bowl XVIII
Ottis Anderson, New York Giants, Super Bowl XXV
Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl XXVIII
Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos, Super Bowl XXXII
Not only do we miss players like Harris, Riggins, and Smith driving their teams through the postseason, but RBs seem to have less impact every year, as teams rely more and more on the passing game. Super Bowl XLIII (Steelers over Cardinals) set records for the fewest rush attempts (37) and fewest rushing yards (91) in a Super Bowl, breaking the previous records set ... the year before (Giants over Patriots).
Since they may be a thing of the past, here's a look back at the greatest postseason runners in history, eight terrific RBs presented in chronological order. These are players who consistently brought their A-game in the postseason, not one-hit wonders like Timmy Smith or Keith Lincoln.
Steve Van Buren
Philadelphia Eagles, 1944-51
We don't have reliable statistics for all of Van Buren's postseason games, but he makes this list for a pair of legendary performances when the Eagles won NFL championships in 1948 and 1949.
In 1948, when Van Buren led the NFL in rushing by almost 300 yards — 21 per game — the Eastern Conference champion Eagles faced the 11-1 West champion Cardinals, who had beaten them the year before. It snowed so heavily that Van Buren assumed the game would be cancelled, and was almost late getting to Shibe Park when he found out the game was on. The snow was so thick that it was impossible to use chains for the measurements, and the otherwise invisible sidelines were marked by laying rope on the field. In these nearly unplayable conditions, one player excelled. Van Buren rushed for 98 yards and the game's only touchdown, giving Philadelphia a 7-0 victory and its first-ever NFL championship.
The next season's title game, against the Rams in Los Angeles, was plagued not by snow but by mud. Ankle-deep mud. Van Buren rushed for 196 yards, an NFL championship record that stood for almost 40 years, and the Eagles won 14-0. Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z) called him "perhaps the best who ever lived on a muddy, slippery field." In the 1940s, the playoffs usually consisted of a single championship game, so Van Buren only played in four postseason games, but the Eagles went 3-1 and won two titles, with their Hall of Fame RB overcoming a blizzard and a mudfield on his way to the record books.
Miami Dolphins, 1968-74, 1979; New York Giants, 1976-78
225 att, 891 yds, 3.96 avg, 9 TD
Csonka's best postseason came the year after Miami went undefeated, the '73 season when the team finished 12-2. Csonka rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown in the first game. That's pretty good, nothing special. But in the AFC Championship victory over Oakland, Zonk ran for 117 and 3 TDs. Facing the Vikings in Super Bowl VIII, he set a Super Bowl record with 145 rushing yards, and scored two TDs, earning MVP honors. Csonka had also rushed for over 100 yards (112) against Washington in the previous Super Bowl.
Csonka's teams went 8-4 in postseason play, with Csonka averaging 74 yards on the ground, a 1,188-yard pace over 16 games. Four times he rushed for at least 100 yards in a postseason game.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1972-83; Seattle Seahawks, 1984
400 att, 1556 yds, 3.89 avg, 16 TD
As a rookie, playing in his first postseason game, his Immaculate Reception led the Steelers to their first postseason win in franchise history, after nearly 40 years of futility. Argue whether it was a catch if you're a Raider fan, or if you just want to ruin one of the great moments in NFL history, but it's still a pretty nice way to start your postseason career.
Harris had five 100-yard games in the postseason and retired as the all-time leader in postseason rushing yards, but his greatest achievements came in 1974 postseason. That year, Franco scored 5 TDs in two playoff games, then rushed for 158 yards in Super Bowl IX, breaking Csonka's record en route to being named the game's MVP.
Altogether, he played in 19 postseason games, during which the Steelers went 14-5. Harris averaged 82 rushing yards per game, equivalent to 1,310 in a 16-game season.
New York Jets, 1971-75; Washington Redskins, 1976-79, 1981-85
251 att, 996 yds, 3.97 avg, 12 TD
No running back has ever had a postseason quite like Riggins did in 1982. When the playoffs began, Riggins — always one to speak his mind — told Joe Gibbs to give him the ball. Gibbs obliged, and Riggins responded by running for 119 yards (100 more than Pro Bowler Billy Sims) in a 31-7 pasting of the Lions. The next week, Riggins put up 185 yards and a TD against Minnesota, then 140 yards and two TDs against the arch-rival Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. Riggins was named MVP of Super Bowl XVII, rushing for 166 yards, including one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history. With Washington down 17-13 in the 4th quarter, Riggins took a handoff on 4th-and-1. He bulled over one defender, shook off another, and rumbled 43 yards for the game-winning TD.
That's 650 yards in four games, against playoff teams. It's a unique accomplishment. Riggins also combined for 242 yards and 5 TDs in two playoff games in 1983. In Super Bowl XVIII, he was held to 64 yards but scored Washington's only touchdown. Altogether, he had six 100-yard games in the postseason. His teams went 6-3 in postseason play, with the Diesel averaging 111 yards per game on the ground — a 1,771-yard pace in a 16-game season.
Los Angeles Raiders, 1982-92; Kansas City Chiefs, 1993-97
267 att, 1347 yds, 5.04 avg, 11 TD
On January 8, 1983, Marcus Allen was a 22-year-old rookie, appearing in his first playoff game. He gained a combined 147 rushing and receiving yards and scored two touchdowns in a Raider victory. The team lost its next game, but in 1983 the Raiders were back, and no one more so than Allen. In the divisional round, the Raiders dominated Pittsburgh, 38-10, with Allen rushing for 121 yards and 2 TDs. In the AFC Championship Game, another blowout victory, Allen posted 154 rushing yards, 62 receiving yards, and scored on a catch. In Super Bowl XVIII, he rushed for a record-setting 191 yards and was named the game's MVP.
For those of you keeping track, Csonka's Super Bowl rushing record was broken by Harris, who had it broken by Riggins, and then by Allen. Allen's record fell to Timmy Smith in Super Bowl XXII. Smith's mark (204 yards) has never been broken, and probably never will be.
Allen's teams went just 7-9 in postseason play, but we normally blame that more on Marty Schottenheimer than on Allen. His career featured five 100-yard rushing performances in the postseason, and he averaged 84 rushing yards per game (plus 33 receiving). That would be good against regular-season opposition: 1,347 yards, over five yards a carry, 530 receiving yards, 13 TDs. Allen did that against playoff defenses.
Buffalo Bills, 1988-99; Miami Dolphins, 2000
339 att, 1442 yds, 4.25 avg, 16 TD
Okay, I know this probably seems wrong. Thomas played on teams that went 0-4 in the Super Bowl, including three games that weren't particularly close. He even missed the beginning of Super Bowl XXVI because he lost his helmet. Boooo.
However, Thomas rushed for 1,442 yards in the postseason, third-best all-time. That includes six 100-yard rushing games, tied with Riggins for third all-time. He's one of only three players — the others are Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith — to score at least 20 TDs in postseason play. Arguably his best game came in Super Bowl XX. Thomas belongs on this list, maybe not in the same category as someone like Riggins or Smith, but up there with Csonka and Allen.
Thomas cemented his legacy in the 1990 postseason. The Bills got into a shootout with Dan Marino's Dolphins, and Thomas went off for 117 rushing yards, 38 receiving, and 2 TDs in Buffalo's 44-34 victory. In a 51-3 rout over the Raiders, Thomas tallied 138 yards on the ground, 199 total, with a 12-yard TD run. In Super Bowl XXV, facing a Giants defense that ranks among the best of all time, Thomas rushed for 135 yards with a 9.0 average, adding 55 receiving yards (190 total). His 31-yard TD run gave the Bills a 19-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Giants came back to win, and Thomas' heroics were largely forgotten.
The Bills went 11-10 in postseason play with Thomas, though that includes a 4-game losing streak at the end of his career, when Thomas wasn't playing a big role in the offense any more. He averaged 68.7 rushing yards per game, 1,099 per 16 games.
Dallas Cowboys, 1990-2002; Arizona Cardinals, 2003-04
349 att, 1586 yds, 4.54 avg, 19 TD
The all-time leader in postseason rushing yards and TDs, he ran for 105 yards and a score in his first playoff game. His postseason highlight was a third-quarter scoring drive in Super Bowl XXVIII, on which Emmitt gained 61 of the team's 64 yards and scored a TD. He finished the game with 132 rushing yards, 26 receiving yards, and 2 touchdowns, earning MVP honors.
Smith's 1992 postseason, the year before, was probably even better. In two playoffs and the Super Bowl, Emmitt rushed for over 100 yards in all three games (336 total), scoring in each contest. In the 1995 NFC Championship Game (which was played in 1996, just so we're all clear), Smith burned the Green Bay Packers for 150 yards and 3 touchdowns, securing his team's last Super Bowl appearance.
During his time in Dallas, Smith set a postseason record — since tied — with seven 100-yard rushing games. In 17 games, he actually averaged nearly 100 yards on the ground, 93 per game (1,488 in 16 games). The Cowboys were 12-5 in postseason play during Smith's tenure.
Denver Broncos, 1995-2001
204 att, 1140 yds, 5.41 avg, 12 TD
Because his career was so short, Davis doesn't have the big numbers like Franco Harris and Emmitt Smith do, but there is an argument to be made that he is the greatest postseason runner of all time. Not only was he the last of the great postseason backs, the final player at his position to put a team on his shoulders and carry it to a title, but his per-game averages are off the charts, easily the best of any player on the list. Only John Riggins is even in the same neighborhood.
Davis played in eight postseason games. In each of the last seven, he ran for over 100 yards. His seven 100-yard games tie Emmitt Smith, who made 19 postseason appearances, for the most in history. Davis took over the 1997 playoffs in a way we hadn't seen since Riggins in '82. Facing a Jacksonville team that had knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs the year before, Davis rushed for 184 yards and 2 TDs before leaving with a rib injury. He was back the next week against Kansas City, running for 101 and 2 more touchdowns. In the AFC Championship Game, he was held to one TD but pounded out 139 yards on 26 attempts.
Super Bowl XXXII made Davis a legend even before his 2,000-yard season the next year. Davis rushed for a touchdown in the first quarter, but he missed almost the entire second quarter because of a blinding migraine. Famously, Mike Shanahan forced him onto the field for a play so that the Broncos could use him as a decoy on play-action. "They won't believe the fake if you're not in there." Davis trotted onto the field, the Packers bought the fake, the play worked. Davis returned for the second half, finishing with 157 yards and 3 touchdowns in only three quarters of play. He was named game MVP.
The Broncos went 7-1 in the postseason with Davis, and he averaged an unreal 142.5 yards per game — 2,280 over 16 games.
This list is is chronological order rather than any type of ranking, but in my mind, four players stand out even among this elite group of eight. Those are Harris, Riggins, Smith, and Davis. Harris and Smith are the guys who played in a million games and performed at a high level. Riggins and Davis played in fewer games, but at an exceptional, almost unbelievable level. Make a movie with the same plot as the '82 or '97 playoffs, and no one would believe it. It's clichéd and unrealistic. But it happened. That's why I love sports. There is no substitute for watching people accomplish things you always believed were impossible.