The 10 Greatest Running Backs of All Time


The running back position has been a cornerstone of the NFL since its inception. These powerful athletes have captivated fans with their elusiveness, breakaway speed, and ability to churn out yards in the trenches. But who truly stands out amongst the greats? Comparing 10 Greatest Running Backs from different eras presents a unique challenge, as the game has evolved significantly. However, by considering a combination of factors – statistics, accolades, team success, and overall impact – we can identify the 10 greatest running backs of all time.

1. Emmitt Smith: The All-Time Rush King

Emmitt Smith reigns supreme as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with a staggering 18,355 yards. His unmatched consistency is further emphasized by his record 11 seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards. Smith wasn’t just a statistical juggernaut; he was a winner. As a key figure for the dynasty Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, he secured three Super Bowl victories (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX), even claiming the coveted Super Bowl MVP award in XXVIII. Smith’s longevity and consistent excellence, with eight Pro Bowl appearances and six All-Pro selections. Solidify his position as one of the 10 Greatest Running Backs ever.

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2. Jim Brown: A Paragon of Efficiency

In an era known for physical defenses, Jim Brown defied expectations. His statistics are impressive – 2,359 rushing attempts, 12,312 rushing yards, and 106 touchdowns. However, what truly separates Brown is his unmatched efficiency. He boasts the NFL record for career average yards per carry (5.2), showcasing his exceptional skillset. Brown’s dominance is further cemented by his eight rushing titles, four MVP awards, and eight All-Pro selections. Remarkably, He achieved all of this in just nine seasons, highlighting his immense talent and impact on the game.

3. Walter Payton: Sweetness personified

Walter Payton, affectionately known as “Sweetness,” is synonymous with running back excellence. His illustrious career is decorated with three league MVP awards (1976, 1977, 1985), a Super Bowl Championship (XX) with the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, and nine Pro Bowl selections. Payton’s consistency is unmatched – he achieved over 1,200 rushing yards a remarkable 10 times, a feat no other running back has replicated. His career rushing total of 16,726 yards stood as a record for years and currently places him fifth all-time. Payton’s high motor and powerful stiff arms left defenders grasping at straws throughout his 13-year career.

4. Barry Sanders: The Magician

Barry Sanders captivated audiences with his electrifying ability to defy physics. Despite a career spanning just 10 seasons, Sanders’ legacy is undeniable. He secured two MVP awards, four rushing titles, and a Pro Bowl selection in each of his seasons. Even more impressive, Sanders never rushed for fewer than 1,115 yards in a season. Exceeding 1,300 yards in eight seasons, culminating in remarkable campaigns of over 2,000 and 1,400 rushing yards. His 15,269 rushing yards in his first 10 seasons stand as the most ever accumulated. Sanders’ unmatched elusiveness and efficiency, with the highest career yards per carry average (5.0) among high-volume rushers, make him a true legend.

5. LaDainian Tomlinson: A Scoring Machine

LaDainian Tomlinson, widely known as “L.T.,” is a force to be reckoned with. His impressive career stats – 13,684 rushing yards, 145 rushing touchdowns, 624 receptions, 4,772 receiving yards, and a total of 162 touchdowns – speak volumes about his impact on the field. He holds the single-season rushing touchdown record (28) and the record for consecutive games with a touchdown (18). Tomlinson’s achievements earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017. Beyond his rushing prowess, he showcased versatility with his receiving skills, ranking third all-time in receptions from the running back position.

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6. Marshall Faulk: Redefining the Running Back Role

Marshall Faulk carved his own path to greatness with a mesmerizing blend of rushing and receiving skills. He accumulated an impressive 12,279 rushing yards and 100 rushing touchdowns, while also showcasing exceptional receiving abilities with 767 receptions, amassing 6,875 receiving yards and 36 receiving touchdowns.

Faulk’s achievements transcended traditional expectations. He is one of only three players to achieve the remarkable feat of gaining over 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Additionally, he holds the NFL record for the most consecutive seasons with at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage (four seasons). A pivotal figure in the revolutionary “Greatest Show on Turf” offense, Faulk played a crucial role in the St. Louis Rams’ Super Bowl XXXIV victory. He redefined the running back position, showcasing exceptional receiving abilities and leading the offense with his multifaceted skillset.

7. Adrian Peterson: A Force of Nature

Adrian Peterson burst onto the NFL scene with a rare combination of size, speed, and athleticism. As the Minnesota Vikings’ all-time leading rusher, he personified the ideal running back. Peterson’s greatness is evidenced by numerous records and accolades. He holds the esteemed NFL record for the most rushing yards in a single game (296 yards) and ranks among the top five in career rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He secured three NFL rushing titles and the coveted NFL MVP award in 2012. During his tenure with the Vikings, Peterson consistently delivered impactful performances, amassing a staggering 11,747 rushing yards. While injuries hampered him later in his career, Peterson’s impact on the field remains undeniable.

8. Eric Dickerson: Breaking Records and Turning Heads

Eric Dickerson defied the mold of a traditional running back at 6-foot-3, yet his speed and agility propelled him to extraordinary success. In his rookie season, he amassed 1,808 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, earning him the Rookie of the Year award. He continued to impress, breaking the single-season rushing record in his second year with 2,105 yards. Dickerson maintained excellence with five more seasons exceeding 1,000 rushing yards, earning six Pro Bowl selections and five first-team All-Pro appearances. Despite not winning a Super Bowl, his distinctive style and iconic Jheri Curls made him a household name in football history.

9. Gale Sayers: A Legacy of Brilliance Cut Short

Gale Sayers, “The Kansas Comet,” displayed unparalleled brilliance on the football field, cut short by injury. He set records, including scoring six touchdowns in a single game, a feat still unmatched. His rookie season boasted 22 touchdowns, the most ever by a rookie, and he holds the highest career kickoff return average. Known for his friendship with Brian Piccolo, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at 34, the youngest ever. Bears legend Mike Ditka hailed him as the best runner he ever saw.

10. Tony Dorsett: A Pioneering Playmaker

Prior to Emmitt Smith’s rise to prominence, Tony Dorsett commanded the spotlight for the Dallas Cowboys. He played a crucial role in securing their second Super Bowl victory (XII) and solidified his status as a top-tier running back of his time. As a Heisman Trophy recipient and four-time All-American, Dorsett entered the NFL with lofty expectations, all of which he exceeded. Throughout his 12-season tenure, Dorsett consistently surpassed the 1,000-yard mark, demonstrating his exceptional skill year after year. With his game-changing speed, he posed a constant threat to break free for long touchdowns. Dorsett currently ranks as the tenth-leading rusher in NFL history, boasting a Super Bowl championship and a rightful place in the Hall of Fame among his achievements.

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Summing it Up

Picking the NFL’s all-time top 10 Greatest Running Backs is tough, but legends like Emmitt Smith (rush yards leader), Jim Brown (efficiency king), and Walter Payton (scoring machine) rise to the top. From Barry Sanders’ elusiveness to LaDainian Tomlinson’s touchdowns, these backs shaped the game. Marshall Faulk’s multifaceted skills and Adrian Peterson’s power earned them spots too. Gale Sayers’ brilliance shone bright despite a short career, while Tony Dorsett was a pioneering force. These 10 Greatest Running Backs are gridiron greats who left a lasting legacy.

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