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In yet another new feature, Sport Crack presents NFL History 101, in which I will discuss the history of the game… whether that be the top skill positions, top games, top anything. It’s my mission to bring you a history lesson that you most certainly will not fall asleep through. At least I hope not...
Anyway, first up: NFL History 101: Top Running Backs.
<cue dramatic NFL history music>
It’s gone by many names in it’s storied history. The running back. The tailback. The fullback. The halfback. Each one exhibit’s a certain mystique. Each one suggests that the player it is the title of is a game changer, a skilled athlete who can take punishment like no other position in sports.
To run the ball into a group of rabid behemoths 20-30 times a game takes a certain kind of player. Hell, it takes a certain kind of person. Many say that the quarterback is the heart of the team, but I say it’s the one who takes a beating play in and play out. I say it’s the one who is the target of a kill the man with the ball mentality of the opposing defense for about a third of the entire game.
There have been many men who have graced us with their athleticism and toughness in the storied history of the NFL. So many that it’s almost a travesty to try and classify each one into a list. It just doesn’t make any sense to try and rank them from best to almost best when each one had their own strengths and their own ways in which they entertained us through the various mediums we enjoyed them with.
How do you measure receiving yards versus career yards per game? What about the amount of touchdowns one scored? If you favor one, your limiting the other and it finally dawned on me that there was only one way to do this. To shit with rankings, let’s just take a look at the best running backs.
So in no particular order, here is a brief profile of the top running backs the NFL has ever seen. There’s no sense trying to rank them because it would do them an injustice. Until someone comes up with a formula to put all of their careers on a level playing field (which I‘m pretty sure will never happen…), it’s just no use. Stop trying to rank them! Just appreciate what they each did individually for the game of football!
As with everything I write, feel free to agree or disagree vehemently in the comments. It’s why I do it.
Jerome Bettis, or “The Bus” as he was formally known as will go down in NFL history as a touchdown machine. His running style exhibited the traits of a bus in more ways than one… he could either run through you like road kill, or he could turn on a higher gear and run right by you. In 13 years (3 of which were with the Rams [and 2 of which of those were when the Rams were still in L.A.]) he racked up 13,662 yards and bowled his way through the goal line for 91 touchdowns. Nearly half those years he was awarded a trip to the Pro Bowl and he is fifth all time in career rushing yards and tied for tenth for all time touchdowns. To think that all that time he had asthma… amazing.
Career highlights: 6-time Pro Bowler & 2-time first-team All-Pro (13 year NFL career)
Nicknamed “Sweetness” in college, Walter Payton would go on to have one of the finest careers the NFL had ever seen. Rushing for 16,726 yards and an astonishing 110 touchdown’s, Payton’s career is easily one of the best ever. Coach Mike Ditka even went so far as to say that Payton was the greatest football player he had ever seen, which is no small feat. Why the man was nicknamed Sweetness is up for debate. Some have said it was acronym for how he ran the ball (which was extremely aggressive). Others have said it stemmed from his easy going personality and still others have said it was because of the ease he played the game with. No matter what the case, The Sweetness will go down as one of the best rushers the game of football has ever seen.
Career highlights: 9-time Pro Bowler & 5-time first-team All-Pro (13 year NFL career)
Arguably one of the most thrilling, electric runners of all time, Barry Sanders was generally regarded as a human highlight reel. No matter where he touched the ball, or the situation of the defenders in his proximity, he was always a threat to bring it in for six. His 15,269 and 99 touchdowns is all the more impressive when you take into account that he never really had a capable offensive unit around him (not to mention his offensive lines…). Although his retirement before the 1999 season shocked the entire football world, his career stats and classy reputation put him into the conversation of best backs to have ever played the game.
Career highlights: 10-time Pro Bowler & 6-time first-team All-Pro (10 year NFL career)
Perhaps the best “complete” back of all time, Marshall Faulk brought an entirely different dynamic to the running back position. He could kill you by rushing the ball but he could also kill you catching the ball out of the backfield. Not only do his 12,279 career yards with 100 rushing touchdowns put him on the map for one of the best backs, his 6,875 receiving yards with 36 touchdown’s finish the conversation. While not the best running back of all time, a strong case can be put up for Faulk to have been the most complete all around running back the NFL has or ever will see.
Career highlights: 7-time Pro Bowler & 3-time first-team All-Pro (12 year NFL career)
Just nine years in the league and Jim Brown is proclaimed by many more knowledgeable than I as the best back to ever play the game. Sure, we can compare stats, but by pure athleticism and dominance, Brown makes a strong case as the best back to have played the professional game. In his mere nine years in the NFL, Brown rushed for 12,312 and 106 touchdowns. Not to mention, he was named to the Pro Bowl in all nine of his NFL seasons. His dominance, at a time when many NFL legends were born builds him a strong case for best ever. If he is or not is of no concern, because all that I need to know is that I was born 25 years too early, fore I never got to witness the force that was Jim Brown.
Career highlights: 9-time Pro Bowler & 8-time first-team All-Pro (9 year NFL career)
Curtis Martin’s career is often look at how he the player was looked at when he was playing. Sure, he was a great running back -- but look a little closer and you might just find a little more. 14,101 yards and 90 touchdowns are offset only by some of his inconsistent years. Not to mention he had perhaps one of the best rookie seasons of any running back in the history of the league (1,487 yards and 14 touchdowns on 368 attempts). No matter what the case against Curtis Martin, he had himself a fantastic career and was a class act similar to Barry Sanders. He went about his business and did what he could to win. Because of this, he’s one of the best in my opinion.
Career highlights: 5-time Pro Bowler & 1-time first-team All-Pro (11 year NFL career)
Regardless of the comparisons between he and Barry Sanders, and his new position as wordsmith on ESPN, Emmitt Smith had a fantastic career. While some will say he had the best career ever, it was certainly in part to the talent he had around him. None the less, Smith had skills, and those skills, surrounded by supreme talent or not, rushed for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns (most all time in both categories). Both of these accomplishments will be the mark to beat in the NFL for many years to come.
Career highlights: 8-time Pro Bowler & 4-time first-team All-Pro (15 year NFL career)
Yes, he played 16 years, but instead of knocking him for it -- why not give him a hand? The man had less than 100 attempts only twice in his sixteen year career and took an absolute beating en route to 12,243 yards and 123 touchdowns (second all time). A Marshall Faulk before their was one, Marcus Allen caught 587passes for 5,411 yards and 21 touchdowns. In conjunction with his rushing stats (which may be a bit low in the yards per game category) expose Allen as one of the most skillful, tough players to have ever played the game.
Career highlights: 6-time Pro Bowler & 2-time first-team All-Pro (16 year NFL career)
A running back mercenary for hire if you will, Dickerson played for four different teams in his twelve year career. Not one to have scenery alter his play, Dickerson would rush for 13,259 yards and 90 touchdowns. When he retired, he was second all time in rushing yards behind Walter Payton. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for us) the NFL was in an influx for talented all time rushers, with Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders and Emmit Smith eventually passing him. Dickerson’s 90.8 yards per game remains one of the best all time averages in NFL history.
Career highlights: 6-time Pro Bowler & 5-time first-team All-Pro (12 year NFL career)
12,120 and 91 touchdowns? A nine time Pro Bowler in thirteen seasons? A focal point in one of the best offenses who have ever played? Franco Harris is a legend in the NFL, never mind his lore in Pittsburgh. I’m not even from Pittsburgh and I get jitters watching him tear it up in the old school games with the Steelers. Maybe he was overshadowed by a bunch of other players on the same team, but Franco Harris had one hell of a career.
Career highlights: 9-time Pro Bowler & 1-time first-team All-Pro
Known as “The Diesel” to teammates and fans, John Riggins is arguably the best Redskins running back of all time. His pure grit and toughness led him to a respectable 11,352 yards and 104 touchdowns (sixth all time). In his fourteen year career, Riggins carried the ball nearly 3,000 times -- an amazing accomplishment considering his reckless abandon running style.
Career highlights: 1-time Pro Bowler & 1-time first-team All-Pro (14 year NFL career)
About to enter his eighth NFL season, L.T. is in position to strike as perhaps the greatest running back we have every seen. Already third on the list of career rushing touchdowns (with 115), Tomlinson is equally as dangerous on the ground as well. He has a 4.5 rushing average for his career and if he can hold up a mere two more years, he could very well jump into the Top 10 rushing yards of all time. While it may strike some as surprising to already name someone still playing as one of the best of all time, L.T. has shown that even if he retires tomorrow, he could be put into the conversation with ease. The reason I included him is because he is my generations premier back -- we are going to be talking about him 10, 20 years from now. So boys and girls who are under the age of 25 like me -- enjoy this man make history while you still can.
Career highlights: 5-time Pro Bowler & 3-time first-team All-Pro (7 year NFL career… and still going!)
Again, this is not the end all be all list. If you feel that someone was left off of my list, you’re probably right! But state why in the comments, it’s why this site exist! And who do you think is THE best all time? Let the debates begin!!
(And what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t source the absolutely amazing http://pro-football-reference.com -- if you’re at all interested in football history, than go there. You will not leave.)
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