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The Best Running Backs

Updated on February 12, 2014

The Runners

I believe that Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett are among the greatest backs to ever play the game. This article however will not include these all time greats for one simple reason. I never saw them play the game therefore I do not feel like I could do their greatness justice. There are a plethora of men who have played this position who could qualify for the title of best running back of all time. Emmit Smith is the league's all time rushing yards leader. LaDanian Tomlinson has the record for most touchdowns scored in a season. Barry Sanders had the most unique running style I have ever seen. Terrell Davis and Bo Jackson could have shattered records if not for injury. Marshall Faulk could be the most versatile runner of all time in that he could catch passes like a wide receiver as well as run the ball as well as any runner in history. Adrian Peterson is still writing his tome in the annals of NFL history, but as a member of the 2,000 yard club and the most punishing runner of his generation he easily makes this list. These seven runners make up the club of the best running backs I have ever seen. Honorable mentions go out to Curtis Martin, Thurman Thomas, Priest Holmes, Marcus Allen, Edgerrin James and Jerome Bettis. These runners were dynamic in their own ways but not enough so to make the list of the best.

Terrell Davis Denver Broncos Ring of Fame Member
Terrell Davis Denver Broncos Ring of Fame Member | Source

Terrell Davis

Terrell Davis makes this list despite an injury shortened career. Enjoying perhaps the greatest calendar year for any player in the history of the NFL. Notice the key words here, calendar year. Super Bowl MVP in February of 1998, NFL MVP for the 1998 season, 2,000 yards rushing in 1998, and capped off with another Super Bowl victory in February of 1999. By far the best running back in Denver Broncos team history, Davis was drafted out of the University of Georgia in 1995. Davis made his presence felt in the Super Bowl against Brett Favre's heavily favored Packers. The talk heading into Super Bowl week was all about Gilbert Brown, Green Bay's behemoth defensive tackle known best for shutting down the running game. Davis was undaunted leading the Broncos to victory behind 157 yards rushing and a Super Bowl record 3 rushing touchdowns. Davis followed up his MVP performance by joining the 2,000 yard club the following year and winning the league MVP. Davis would never again play a full season but his flash in the pan is rivaled by no one else in league history. 2 rings, an MVP, a Super Bowl MVP and a 2,000 yard season. Davis had a downhill running style where he would make one cut and rip off chunks of yards behind one of the best offensive lines in the game. Bolstered by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, Davis had all the ingredients to success and he made the most of his situation.

Emmitt Smith Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame
Emmitt Smith Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame | Source

Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys may have had the best season and total career of any running back to ever play. The reasons I won't separate him out from the group as the greatest to ever play are that his supporting cast was by far the best of any runner on the list, offensively and defensively his Cowboy teams were stacked. The other reason is that despite his statistical success over a long career he just didn't jump off of the screen as a beast runner. Now that being said Smith was an absolute man. A nose for the goal line, a strong and compact runner, and ultimately a winner. In 1993 Smith won the rushing crown, league MVP, the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl MVP. Smith won three rings in his illustrious career, and retired as the leagues all time leading rusher. Smith was a first round draft pick out of the University of Florida in 1990 after setting the school's rushing record. Smith became a first ballot Hall of Famer behind a career that left him first place among rushers in not only yards but touchdowns as well. He is second place all time for any position in touchdowns scored behind only Jerry Rice. Smith will be remembered for his durability, reliability, and clutch performances in the playoffs.

Bo Knows

Bo Jackson Oakland Raiders
Bo Jackson Oakland Raiders | Source

Bo Jackson

Throw statistics and hardware out the window and just marvel at an amazing running back. Bo Jackson was a combination of speed and power the likes of which has never been seen before or since. The only comparison I have for Bo is in another sport and that would be Lebron James. Just pure speed and raw power. Jackson won the Heisman trophy at the University of Auburn in 1985 and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1987. Jackson was a rare two sport athlete playing professional baseball as well as football. Jackson may not have put up spectacular totals in rushing yards or touchdowns but he was dynamite with the ball in his hands. Ripping off an amazing 5.4 yards per carry over his short career Bo Jackson was a runner that jumped off the screen in every way. Jackson's 4.12 forty yard dash at the NFL combine is still the fastest time on record. Jackson shared the Oakland back field with Marcus Allen so its easy to see why his career numbers are not better. There is no doubt that Jackson was a unbelievable athlete perhaps the best ever, and he completely passed the eye test as one of the best running backs I have ever seen play the game.

LaDainian Tomlinson San Diego Chargers
LaDainian Tomlinson San Diego Chargers | Source

Who Is The Best Running Back Ever?

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LaDainian Tomlinson

LaDainian Tomlinson better known as LT was absolute touchdown machine for the San Diego Chargers. LT set the single season record for touchdowns in 2006 with 31 total 28 rushing and 3 receiving. LT won the MVP that season after amassing over 2,200 all purpose yards. Tomlinson was a spectacular runner, fast, powerful, and elusive with great hands. With his signature dark shade on his helmet and a signature running style LT was unmistakably the best player on the field whenever he suited up. The only knock on LT was his lack of performance during the playoffs, having never led the Chargers to the Super Bowl LT mysteriously disappeared in the playoffs annually. Despite his lack of playoff success, which could be partially attributed to average offensive line play and quality opponents, LT is one of the best running backs of all time passing the statistical and eye tests. Drafted out of Texas Christian University in 2001 LT holds over 50 NFL records. Tomlinson amassed over 13,000 yards rushing and nearly 5,000 yards receiving, cementing his place in NFL history.

Barry Sanders Detroit Lions
Barry Sanders Detroit Lions | Source

Barry Sanders

The most elusive and fun to watch running back ever is Barry Sanders. A typical Sanders drive would be a rush for no gain, a rush for negative yards, then a 72 yard scamper to the end zone. Barry did the most with the worst talent around him with the Detroit Lions. The knock on Barry is his lack of performance in the playoffs but honestly to blame Barry would be insane. The man played behind some of the worst offensive lines I have ever seen, with equally terrible quarterbacks. Constantly running against eight men in the box, Barry used his lack of height to almost hide behind linemen before bursting through a hole no one else could fit through, then throwing a juke that left a linebacker and a safety reeling. Barry led the league in rushing four times winning the MVP award twice and is also a member of the 2000 yard club. The Hall of Fame was all that awaited Barry when he unexpectedly retired in 1999. Many attribute the ineptitude of his pro organization, the Detroit Lions, to his early retirement. Detroit had drafted Barry third overall in 1989 out of Oklahoma State where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1988. Had Barry continued his career at the pace he was on he would have shattered Walter Payton's rushing record later broken by Emmitt Smith. Sanders crushed the statistical and eye tests for a running back making him the most exciting and quite possibly the best runner to ever play.

The Amazing Barry Sanders

Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk started out his career with the Indianapolis Colts but he flourished with the St. Louis Rams. Faulk was one of the premier receivers in the game from the running back position that the NFL has ever seen. Equally dynamic as a runner, Faulk's elusive cutting running style was equally devastating as his pass catching. Faulk enjoyed success winning the Super Bowl along side Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt, dubbed the most exciting show on turf. Winning back to back MVP awards in 2000 and 2001, Faulk is one of three backs in history to amass 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving. Marshall Faulk was never the fastest or strongest player on the field but he changed the game with his dual threat ability, and consistent running attack. Faulk was extremely durable and reliable and a winner. Faulk was drafted by the Colts in the first round of the 1994 draft and was the NFL offensive rookie of the year. Faulk was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 2011 and now serves as analyst with NFL Network. Faulk's versatility and consistency as a runner and a winner make him one of the best backs to ever play.

Show Time With Marshall Faulk

Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson | Source

Adrian Peterson

"All Day" Adrian Peterson is the only player currently in the NFL to make this list. A member of the 2,000 yard club and a league MVP, Peterson is a beastly runner much in the mold of Bo Jackson or from what analysts say Jim Brown. Peterson runs over defenders like they are not even on the field and he has the break away speed to take it to the house. His best season as a pro, in which he came up five yards short of the single season rushing record held by Erick Dickerson, came on the heels of an ACL surgery that keeps most athletes sidelined for an entire year or more. Peterson was a first round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2007 out of the University of Oklahoma. Peterson has led the league in rushing twice and has already eclipsed the 10,000 yard mark in his short career becoming the third fastest player to do so. A.D. has also been plagued by relative lack of success in the winning department, but again this should be attributed more to the revolving door at quarterback for the Vikings than the performance of Peterson. In reality had Brett Favre handed him the ball in NFC title game against the Saints in 2009 rather than throwing a game ending interception he could very well be a Super Bowl champion. Never the less A.D. is an exceptional runner who will undoubtedly end up in the Hall of Fame and the annals of Pro football as one of the best to ever play the game.


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    • Kevinjackson47 profile image

      Kevin Jackson 3 years ago from North Carolina

      True sanders made a career full of highlight films of amazing runs. Some of the tackles he avoided were unreal

    • Camby24 profile image

      Jon Campbell 3 years ago from Littleton Colorado

      I agree whole heartedly, however I doubt Barry would have been as creative and dynamic if all he had to do was hit the hole instead of dancing around three linemen just to get back to the line of scrimmage.

    • Kevinjackson47 profile image

      Kevin Jackson 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Bo Jackson could've been really great if he didn't have hip problems. His body gave out on him trying to play baseball and football. Barry was the man on a lackluster team and his QB was Scott Mitchell. Emmitt smith had one of the best offenses when he played, imagine if sanders ran behind that o-line.

    • Kevinjackson47 profile image

      Kevin Jackson 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Second best is Barry sanders. Sanders ran entire career behind the worst o-line and no help in the pass game. Scott Mitchell was his QB

    • BC Messplay profile image

      Thomas Messpaly Jr. 3 years ago from Waukesha, WI

      I like your article, but I have to disagree about Terrell Davis. He was a good running back, but Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, and Olandis Gary all had great seasons behind that line. He was good, but I don't think he was one of the best.

    • ParadigmEnacted profile image

      ParadigmEnacted 3 years ago

      Walter Payton is the greatest running back of all-time. Everybody has taken a page from him.