In honor of the NFL’s 100th season, I’m talking about its best players. For more details and links to all the other positions, click here: https://robhowell.org/blog/?p=1833.
In this episode I’m talking about running backs. The NFL has chosen 24 finalists for 12 all-time running back spots. Here’s their list, including a small biography of each player: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000001078454/article/running-back-finalists-announced-for-alltime-team
As mentioned in the main post on the topic, I’m breaking this down into 4 sections. My all-time team, which is organized actually as a team, then the remaining choices I think the NFL should make for their all-time team, then the finalists who don’t make the cut, and finally some interesting players at this position who weren’t finalists.
All-Time Team Roster Choices
Jim Brown is, clearly, the best running back the NFL has ever seen. He averaged more yards per game than anyone else (104.3). He played in an era of 12 or 14 games per season and he quit while he still had years to play. Had he played a few more years and/or played in 16 game seasons, he might still have more yards than anyone else. He led the NFL in rushing in 8 out of 9 years. He *only* got 996 yards in the other year. In 1963 he *averaged* 133 yards per game, rushing for 6.4 yards per carry. This is ridiculous. He rushed for 5.2 yards per carry for his career. It’s ridiculous. He was also really good at catching passes. He’d be my RB1.
Barry Sanders, ironically, also retired before he had to. As a Cowboys fan it is no shame to say that Emmitt wasn’t as good as Barry. We’ll get to Emmitt soon enough, but Barry averaged more yards per carry and more yards per game. In fact, Barry is second to Brown in yards per game at 99.8. You might note that as good as that number is, it’s 4.5 yards per game less than Brown. Brown is just that far ahead of anyone, but Barry is a worthy next guy down. He’d be the speedy HB type RB2.
Lenny Moore: I’m putting him in the top 12 because of efficiency. He never once led the league in rushing. In fact, he never broke 1000 yards. However, he was the premier pass-catching RB of his time and maybe of all time. He led the league in yards per carry 4 times, 3 times getting 7 yards per carry or more. He led the league in yards per touch 6 times. *Six!* Also, he led the league in yards from scrimmage once. This guy was a huge weapon in the passing game in 50s and 60s, including getting over 70 yards per game in receiving yards for his career. This is my 3rd down back, because I don’t know there’s been a better receiving back ever.
Gale Sayers makes the team because he’s a home run hitter who could attack the other team as a runner, receiver, and returner. He led the NFL in his first 3 years in all-purpose yards. He led the NFL in rushing twice and in yards from scrimmage one of those years. It’s a true shame that he got hurt, because he averaged 5 yards a carry as a runner, 14.5 yards per punt return, and 30 yards per kickoff return, all stellar numbers in his short career. He gets on the team as my hybrid player and return specialist.
He doesn’t qualify as one of the top twelve RBs, but of the remaining players on this list, Bronko Nagurski would be the one I would add if I took a 5th RB on my 53-man roster. He’d be the lead fullback, backup OL, and play on coverage teams. I’ll talk about him more later.
Jim Thorpe would also get consideration here as RB and DB, but he’s tough case as I’ll talk about later. I also kind of think it would be fun to think of him as a gunner on the punt coverage team.
NFL All-Time Team
Eric Dickerson: Some critics thought he wouldn’t succeed because of his upright running style, but I remember how smoothly he glided through defenses. His career faded some at the end, but in his first six years he led the NFL in rushing 4 times, rushing 3 times for more than 1800 yards. I don’t think anyone else has more than that, though OJ Simpson did it twice.
Marshall Faulk: This man dominated as a receiver as well as a RB. Faulk never led the NFL in rushing, but he led the league in Total yards twice. He caught 767 passes, 2nd most among RBs, for 6875 yards, most among RBs. He was also extremely efficient as a RB, leading the league in yards per carry three times and exceeding 1000 yards 7 times.
Harold “Red” Grange: This is a hard pick to justify because the most we know he rushed for in a year is 277 yards. However, we don’t know what he got in his first 5 years because the stats weren’t kept. However, his impact on the NFL was incredible. It’s not a stretch to say he might be the single most important player to the success of the NFL. It was Grange that turned pro football from a game that only the lower classes played into a game everyone could watch and play without scorn.
Walter Payton: For most of his career, he was the Bears offense. Those teams were bad, but he was consistently good to great, and he is 6th in yards per game at 88 yards per game. He did whatever the team needed. He was skilled at HB option passes at a time when few teams dared anything like that. He even punted once. He was really good catching out of the backfield. I’d take him on my team ahead of Emmitt because he’d have been an amazing special teams player and would adjust to whatever role the team needed. Oddly, though, he only led the league in rushing once, which surprised me when I saw that. Side note: The best offensive player in the NCAA FCS each season receives the Walter Payton Award.
OJ Simpson is a tragic/horrific figure now, but he was an incredibly good RB. In 1973 he rushed for 2003 yards in *14* games. That’s 143 yards per game. From 1972 to 1976 he led the NFL in rushing 4 out of the 5 years. He averaged 110 yards per game during that time. His early years and later years came nowhere close to that peak, but wow he was good during those years.
Emmitt Smith: He did everything well except he was not terribly fast. If he had had breakaway speed he would be up there with Brown, I think. He was, in my mind, the most consistent RB. Sanders got his yards in bigger chunks, with a much higher percentage of negative carries. Smith, on the other hand, relied on consistent positive yardage and 10-20 yard carries. Also, he was a good receiver, and played one of the greatest games I’ve seen a player have. In the final game of 1993, the Cowboys played the Giants where the winner won the division. Emmitt hurt his shoulder, but he kept playing. He owned that game, rushing 32 times for 168 yards with 10 catches for 61 more yards. All this and for most of the game he couldn’t lift his arm above his shoulder. Incredible game.
Thurman Thomas never led the league in rushing yet he’s an easy choice for one of the top 12 because he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage 4 years in a row. He consistently rushed for over 1000 yards (8 years in a row) while also being a major threat as a pass-catcher.
LaDainian Tomlinson was another combination player, leading the league in rushing twice and all-purpose yards in another year. He was an efficient runner and a major threat out of the backfield. He was also efficient as a thrower, running the halfback option 12 times, completing 8 for 7 TDs. That’s really good, actually.
Finalists Who Didn’t Make The Top Team
Marcus Allen: Really good receiving RB, but only exceeding 1000 yards rushing 3 times and only had one great year.
Jerome Bettis: Consistent production, getting over 1000 yards 8 times. However, he only had 1 great year and was not efficient, finishing with a career 3.9 yards per carry.
Earl Campbell: This one surprises me. If you had asked me of the most dominant RBs, he would be right at the top. He led the league in rushing his first three years in the league. However, he’s also a symbol how RBs can get overused. He had over 1400 carries in his first 4 years. His career was never the same. His early years make him a deserving finalist, but I actually picked Thurman Thomas over him.
Earl “Dutch” Clark: It’s really hard to compare players from the early part of the NFL, but I don’t think he gets there. He led the NFL in TDs 3 times, but never led the league in rushing. Used as a passer quite often, but not particularly good at it, even for the era. He was also a tremendous defensive back, leading the NFL in interceptions twice. Hard to figure his place here.
Tony Dorsett: I really thought about him on the all-time roster above even though he never led the league in rushing. However, he was one of the greatest home run hitters in NFL history. I don’t know that he’s the only person to have both a run of over 90 yards and a catch of over 90 yards in his career. I also don’t know that he’s not. Tom Landry controlled his carries so he never got huge raw numbers, but that might have extended his career. Certainly, he remained efficient to later in his career.
Franco Harris: Like Bettis, he was really consistent, but rarely excellent. Led the league in TDs in 1976. That’s his only time leading the league. A deserved Hall of Famer, but because he was very good for a long time, not because he was dominant.
Hugh McElhenny: Here was an underrated player. Breakaway speed meant he was a threat as a receiver and returner as well as a rusher. His receiving stats in the 1950s were astounding, and he finished with 264 catches for 12.3 yards per catch. That’s really really good. However, he never led the NFL is rushing, though he did lead it in average in his rookie year.
Marion Motley: He’s a hard one to judge. He only led the league in rushing twice, never exceeding 1000 yards. However, he was a star for a Cleveland Browns team that won the title six times in a row. I think he’s a hell of a player, but I don’t think he makes the cut.
Bronko Nagurski: A great player and a versatile one. He’d actually be on my list of top players in NFL history, but not top RBs. He actually was a top-flight tackle for a while and a tough linebacker. I’d want him on my team, no doubt, but it’s hard to put him as one of the best RBs because the highest total he achieved in a year that we know of is 586. He might have gotten more, but we don’t have yardage totals for his first two years. Side note: The best defender in the NCAA each season receives the Bronko Nagurski Award.
Adrian Peterson: A great RB, and one who led the league in rushing three times. Yet I don’t think he quite matches up with the rest. He had some great years but injuries and inconsistency put him in this tier as opposed to the top tier. I suspect recency bias will make him one of the top 12 chosen, but I’d rather have those listed above over him.
Jim Taylor: A great player who was a part of some amazing Packer teams, winning the title 5 times. He led the league in rushing once, and had 5 years of over 1000 yards. He just doesn’t quite make the cut. However, he might very well be the 2nd best fullback of all-time behind Brown.
Steve Van Buren: I originally put him in the top section. He didn’t have a long career, but man was he good, especially for his era. He led the league in rushing 4 times in his first 6 years. He eclipsed 1000 yards twice at a time when the season was only 10 or 12 games. He led the league in yards per game 5 years in a row. A dominant player during his time. However, I bumped him in favor of Gale Sayers because of all-purpose yards.
Interesting Players to Remember
These include some players who aren’t necessarily the greatest, but have some intriguing qualities.
Larry Centers: A fantastic fullback who got more receptions as a RB than anyone else.
Jamaal Charles: Incredibly efficient as a rusher, getting 5.4 yards per carry for his career. Amazing.
Paddy Driscoll: We have almost no stats for the guy, but he was selected as 1st Team All-Pro 6 times in the 20s. Also the first All-Pro QB (yes, QB, it was a different time) in NFL history.
Frank Gifford: Not really close to being one of the finalists, but it’s fun to remember how good he was as an all-purpose back before becoming a great announcer.
Priest Holmes: Had a ridiculous 3 year stretch with over 2000 yards from scrimmage each year and 2 years of over 20 rushing TDs.
Bo Jackson: If he had stayed healthy and played only football, he might have been Jim Brown. Maybe even better. Averaged 5.4 yards per carry for his career.
Curtis Martin: one of the most consistent RBs ever. Never a big game-breaker, his only averaged 4.0 yards per carry. Only led the NFL in rushing once. However, he was over 1000 yards 10 straight years. In those 10 years he had at least 1456 total yards each year. What a player.
Ernie Nevers: We have no idea how many yards he got as records weren’t kept. Also, he only played 5 years. However, he was a scoring machine, in one case scoring all 40 points for the Chicago Cardinals.
Joe Perry: A dominant RB in the late 40s and 50s. Led the league in yards twice.
Darren Sproles: Whaaa? I can hear you all asking about this. However, this guy got a ton of all-purpose yards, including the most ever in a single year and 4 of the top 60 years all-time. A fantastic receiver, a slippery runner (4.9 yards per carry for his career), and a terrifying punt returner.
Jim Thorpe: What to do with him? He was clearly one of the greatest football players of all time and in the discussion for best athlete ever. However, none of his rushing stats were recorded and he was 33 the first year of the NFL. That meant his best years were long gone by the time we actually have an NFL. We have no good way to judge his career using statistics, meaning we have to used anecdotal evidence. He may not have been a great NFL player, given his age when the league starting, but it’s hard not to think he doesn’t have a place in the all-time team somewhere. We might see him appear in the DB list, but I doubt it. Side note: he was actually the NFL’s first president while actually playing. Side note two: The best DB in the NCAA each season receives the Jim Thorpe Award.
Doak Walker: Was a better college player than NFL RB, but he was a prolific kicker as well as a solid RB. Averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 16.7 yards per reception. He was also a very good returner and a solid defensive back. Side note: The best RB in the NCAA each season receives the Doak Walker Award.