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Top Ten Running Backs of All Time


Comparing players from different eras is tough because the game of football has evolved so much over the years. And unlike some other sports, statistics, while a great starting point, aren't always the greatest indicator as to who is the best of the best. There are aspects of the game that cannot be measured in numbers.

With that in mind, we have taken a look at the careers of many NFL greats and put together this list of the top ten running backs of all time.

10. Marcus Allen

Undated: Marcus Allen #32 of the Los Angeles Raiders stands on the sidelines during a game against the Seattle Seahawks at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Los Angeles, California.
Mike Powell / Allsport / Getty Images

A six-time Pro Bowl selection and two time All Pro, Marcus Allen was the first player ever to gain more than 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving during his career. Spending time with both the Los Angeles Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, he was regarded as not only an explosive threat out of the backfield, but one of the best short-yardage and goal-line runners ever.

When Allen retired from the game, he held what was then an NFL record with 123 touchdowns. Overall, he carried the ball 3,022 times for 12,243 yards, and added 5,411 yards receiving. He also set records in Super Bowl XVIII with a 73-yard touchdown run and 191 yards rushing overall.

9. Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Marshall Faulk began his NFL career in Indianapolis, and was a force out of the backfield for the Colts. But it was his days with the St. Louis Rams that he is most remembered for. Playing in one of the most prolific offenses of all time, he was a versatile weapon as both a runner and receiver. And it was his versatility that kept opposing defenses off balance, because he was such an effective weapon in the Rams legendary passing attack.

The only player in NFL history to have 12,000 yards rushing and 6,000 yards receiving, Faulk is also the only one to have scored more than 70 rushing touchdowns and more than 30 receiving touchdowns. And that is enough to land a spot on our list of the top ten running backs of all time.

8. Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If longevity were the biggest key in ranking running backs, Emmitt Smith, who played 15 years in the NFL, would be at the top of the list. But it's not. He is, however, one of the most complete backs to ever play the game. He could run. He could catch the ball. And he could block. He was also a tremendous team leader.

Smith spent the majority of his career with the Dallas Cowboys before moving on to the Arizona Cardinals. Over that period he became the NFL's all-time rushing leader, and played for three Super Bowl-winning teams. He is also the only running back to ever win a Super Bowl championship, the NFL MVP award, the NFL rushing crown, and the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award all in the same season.

7. Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers
Doug Benc/Getty Images

Because of injury, Gale Sayers played in just 68 games during his NFL career, but because of the way he dominated, there is no doubt he deserves inclusion among the top ten running backs of all time. He burst onto the NFL scene by breaking the record for touchdowns in a season with 22 during his rookie year. And he still holds the record for the most touchdowns in a game with six, which also came during his rookie campaign.

Prior to a serious knee injury, Sayers was selected as an All Pro in all of his first five seasons. He also earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1965, and is still regarded as perhaps the greatest return man to ever play the game.

6. Eric Dickerson

Eric Dickerson
George Rose/Getty Images

Drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983, Eric Dickerson quickly established himself as a rising NFL star by earning Rookie of the Year, Player of the Year, All Pro, and Pro Bowl honors while setting rookie records with 1,808 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. And that season was just the tip of the iceberg as he went on to slash and dash his way to an illustrious 11-year NFL career.

During his career, Dickerson was named All Pro five times and was selected for the Pro Bowl six. And in 1984, he set a single season record with 2,105 yards rushing as he topped the 100-yard mark in 12 games. He is also the quickest of all running backs to have topped the 10,000-yard mark by eclipsing the plateau in just 91 games.

5. O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson
Getty Images

The first and only running back to surpass the 2,000 yard rushing mark in a 14-game season, O.J. Simpson has unfortunately become known more for his infamous off-field activities than his accomplishments on the field. There is, however, no denying the talent he once possessed while carrying a football.

Blessed with an incredible burst, Simpson shot through holes in the line and used his world-class speed to outrun defenders downfield. He retired as the No. 2 ground gainer of all time, behind only Jim Brown, and had an NFL-best six 200-yard games. Despite the negative image he has cultivated since his retirement, no list of the top ten running backs of all time would be complete without him.

4. Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

With incredible lower-body strength and a low center of gravity, it was often said that trying to bring down Earl Campbell was like trying to tackle a 245 pound bowling ball. One of the more physical runners in NFL history, he punished defenders with his imposing style of play and simply wore down defenses over the course of a game.

Over a three-consecutive-year period, Campbell led the league in rushing, which was something only Jim Brown had done before. He was also named All Pro three years in a row and named to five Pro Bowl teams during his eight-year career. His physical play may have led to his career winding down a little shorter than it might have, but he still managed to carry the ball 2,187 times for 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns.

3. Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Barry Sanders was perhaps the most elusive and electrifying runner the game has ever seen. His ability to cut on a dime and quickly accelerate to top speed frustrated defenders and made him a threat to score from anywhere on the field at any time. Incredibly, he was named All Pro and made the Pro Bowl in all of his ten seasons. He won Rookie of the Year honors as well as an MVP. He also set numerous records.

But he never won a championship.

Because of the losing culture that was the Detroit Lions, Sanders walked away from the game while still very much in his prime, just 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton's career rushing record. Had he not retired prematurely, most likely he would currently reign as the league's all-time leading rusher.

2. Walter Payton

Walter Payton
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

There probably was never a more complete running back than the Chicago Bears Walter Payton. He was among the best in the game at running the ball. He was a tremendous receiver out of the backfield. And he was a prolific blocker who could blow up a blitzing linebacker like no one else.

Despite playing the majority of his career behind below average offensive lines, Payton was still a six-time All Pro, was selected to play in nine Pro Bowls, was awarded the NFL MVP, and won a Super Bowl. He also, at the time of his retirement, held records for most career yards rushing, most combined net yards, most seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing, most yards rushing in a single game, most rushing touchdowns, and most receptions by a running back,

1. Jim Brown

Jim Brown
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When watching tape of Jim Brown during his playing days, he appears to be a man playing against boys. And the biggest argument against him being the best running back of all time is the fact that defenders during his generation just weren't as big as they are today. The thing his critics fail to take into consideration, however, when making that argument is that if he played today, he would be privy to all the latest training techniques and advances in nutrition and would be bigger, stronger, and faster himself.

Brown led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons, and his 5.2 yards-per-carry average is the highest ever among all backs with 750 or more carries. He was also named NFL Most Valuable Player three times during his career.

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