Idiots Guide: 12 Greatest NFL Running Backs

Throughout NFL history, more often than not, the backbone of an efficient and successful NFL offense has been the stalwart running back coming out of the backfield. These backs represent a variety of styles, from elusive, to slashing speed, to the soul affirming brute force of downhill running. On most teams the quarterback is the qualified star on the offensive side of the ball, however, every now and then there comes a back with the kind of transcendent ability that supersedes the signal caller and literally carries an offense to the promised land of end zone gaiety. In many ways the position of running back represents a romantic notion of football, a kaleidoscope of grace, power and tactical violence. Gaining yards around and through opposing defenses with power and skill. We have chosen to define greatness as much in terms of impact as in yardage gained. The Idiots Guide presents our list of the 12 greatest backs to gain rushing yards in the National Football League.


Coming Soon:  Adrian Peterson

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Coming Soon:  Marshawn Lynch

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The List…

#12.  Bo Jackson   /   Oakland Raiders 

Bo Jackson

It’s understood that Bo Jackson didn’t necessarily have the kind of longevity to warrant the 12th spot on our list, however his impact and provided excitement combined with the ‘what could have been’ factor gives Jackson a spot on our all-time list. In the better part of 4 NFL seasons (Average 10 Games), this 2 sport athlete gained 2782 yards, averaging over 5 yards per rush,  while prolifically scoring 16 touchdowns in a relatively short period of time. He thrilled crowds wherever he played with amazing runs that illustrated a never before seen combination of raw power and breakaway speed. Bo Jackson was special, a generational talent. Had it not been for a freak injury to his hip, it is likely that he would have broken every record ever invented for the running back position.

#11.  Tony Dorsett   /   Dallas Cowboys 

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams

In a prolific 12 year NFL career, Tony Dorsett dazzled fans and eluded defenders with uncommon grace. He ended his career with 12,739 rushing yards with 77 touchdowns and an additional 13 receiving touchdowns. Dorsett averaged over 4 yards per rush for his entire career in over 150 career starts. Tony was one of a bevy of stars on the 1970-80’s Dallas Cowboys, but their #1 rusher for years on end. The 4-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

#10.  Earl Campbell   /   Houston Oilers 

Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell was known as the ‘Tyler Rose’ throughout his memorable career. What was amazing about Campbell is that each and every one of his 9,407 rushing yards were a clinic in battering ram running. Earl initiated severe contact on defenders and he seemed to relish it. He also found the end zone 74 times in his career. It was a joy to watch Earl Campbell run the football. Hard-nosed, physical and effective is the best description. This 5-time Pro Bowl selection and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991.

#9.   LaDainian Tomlinson   /   San Diego Chargers

LaDainian Tomlinson

From the 2001 season until the 2008 season, LaDainian Tomlinson was arguably the best running back in the NFL. That stretch of time was littered with success and exciting running that culminated in 13,684 career rushing yards and a mind boggling 145 touchdowns. Tomlinson was an elusive runner, although he wasn’t afraid of contact. This 5-time Pro Bowler anchored the Chargers offense for a decade, and is considered the very best the franchise has ever had. ‘L.T.’ was a standout runner from his days at Texas Christian University, where he holds several all-time records. He is almost assuredly a future 1st ballot Hall of Famer and it isn’t really up for discussion.

#8.   Gayle Sayers   /   Chicago Bears

Gale Sayers

The great Gayle Sayers got every ounce of talent out of his 6 foot 200 pound frame. Sadly his career was cut short due to injury, but for 5 seasons he was a beast of a runner for the Chicago Bears teams of the 1960’s.  Sayers’s friendship with teammate and Cancer victim Brian Piccolo was immortalized in the film ‘Brian’s Song’ (1971). This 4-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.

#7.   Marshall Faulk   /   St. Louis Rams 

Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk was a key member of the vaunted St. Louis Ram’s ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The offenses were prolific, perhaps the most prolific in NFL history. When his career was all said and done he was standing on a mountain of 12,279 rushing yards, 6,875 receiving yards and 100 touchdowns. Sick. This amazing running back was a 7-time Pro Bowler and was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 on the 1st ballot.

#6.   O.J. Simpson   /   Buffalo Bills 

O.J. Simpson

For the purposes of this esteemed list of legendary running backs, we at Idiots Guide are going to focus solely on Orenthal James Simpson‘s football greatness, while keeping in mind that this is not a good human being to say the very least. Before his days of being charged with double murder, O.J. Simpson rushed for 11,236 yards in the NFL. He also set (at the time) the record for most rushing yards in a single season (2,003) in 1973. He reached the end zone 61 times as a rusher and another 14 times as a receiver. This 6-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. Nine years later his reputation went from adoration to notorious and hasn’t improved.

#5.   Barry Sanders   /   Detroit Lions 

Barry Sanders 3

Not many NFL superstars decide to retire at the height of their powers. Barry Sanders did. Not many running backs ran for 15,269 yards in a career. Barry Sanders did. In fact there were a lot of things that set Sanders apart from his peers, something to be expected from a man with his kind of prodigious ability. His ability to stop and change direction on a dime is legendary. His elusiveness, otherworldly. His lack of fortune for playing on perennial playoff teams, a sad fact. Barry Sanders was a 10-time Pro Bowler, an NFL MVP in 1997, a 2-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year  (1994, 1997) and was an easy 1st ballot induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

#4.   Eric Dickerson   /   Los Angeles Rams 

Eric Dickerson

At 6’3 and 220 pounds Eric Dickerson ran like an olympic sprinter, while occasionally lowering his head like a fullback. His career was epic and his running style was a joy to behold. In 12 NFL seasons Dickerson rushed for a lofty 13,259 yards and rushed for 90 touchdowns. He was also a good receiver, taking in 281 catches for 2,137 yards. In 1984 Dickerson broke O.J. Simpson’s single season rushing record with 2,105 yards. Suffice it to say that this back was one of the very best to ever play in the NFL. He was a 6-time Pro Bowler who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

#3.   Emmet Smith   /   Dallas Cowboys 

Emmitt Smith

In the simplest terms, Emmet Smith is a Dallas Cowboy legend. A major factor on the dynastic Cowboys teams of the early 1990’s, Smith was the ultimate rushing weapon. The 5’9 220 pound running back was part of a team that had multiple Hall of Fame players on it’s roster. He has 3 Super bowl rings to go with being an 8-time Pro bowl selection. His low center of gravity running style made him increasingly difficult to tackle and he seemed to always get those needed 1st down yards. Smith was an all-timer of all-timers and a 1st ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in 2010.

#2.  Walter Payton   /   Chicago Bears 

Chicago Bears

What can you say about a running back whose talent was so amazing they called him ‘sweetness’? Nothing that 16,726 rushing yards doesn’t already say for itself, regardless of the 110 touchdowns. Without question Walter Payton was one of the greatest running backs in NFL history and he did it with a violent intensity that belied his otherwise agreeable demeanor. He was known as a wonderful teammate and human being. In 1985 he finally got his Super Bowl ring with the legendary Bears team that had the best defense the NFL has ever known. This 9-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Walter Payton passed away at the young age of 45 after a bout with Cancer in 1999.

#1.   Jim Brown   /   Cleveland Browns 

Jim Brown

Before Barry Sanders shocked the football world with an abrupt early retirement, there was the legendary great Jim Brown who did it back in 1966. He was busy making a movie ‘The Dirty Dozen’. Prior to that Brown had already cemented himself as the greatest single running back the NFL has ever known. In just 9 NFL seasons (12-14 game seasons) he rushed for a mind numbing 12,312 yards! While scoring 106 touchdowns on his journey. He could run through people, over people, around people, and right past people, consistently and with a kind of graceful violence that is legendary. Jim Brown was a Pro Bowler in each of his 9 NFL seasons. He was perhaps the easiest 1st ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in history in 1971. For our money Jim Brown is an incomparable number one running back in NFL history with a bullet!