Analysis  

 

Top 10 running backs ever: What is LaDainian Tomlinson's rank?

LaDainian Tomlinson's retirement on Monday got me to thinking about the all-time RB hierarchy, raising an obvious question: Who are the top 10 running backs ever?

Now, ranking the 10 best running backs is like picking the winner of the Miss USA pageant -- they're all attractive choices. In the game's history, there have been so many game-changing running backs with so many different running styles. It's almost impossible to distinguish between a number of elite options.

But in my estimation, the following 10 running backs are the best to ever play the position. One thing that really helped in this exercise: I had the pleasure of seeing each back perform live and in person.

1. Jim Brown: The Cleveland Browns actually wanted Purdue QB Len Dawson with the sixth overall pick in the 1957 NFL Draft, but the Pittsburgh Steelers pounced on him at No. 5. So Cleveland had to settle for the Syracuse running back. Not a bad silver lining. In his second season, Brown ran for 1,527 yards -- a staggering total, considering the next-best rusher in the entire league was Alan Ameche with 791 yards.

Brown played in a completely different era of football, with simple, run-oriented offenses and rules that prevented blockers from using their hands in any way (a player had to block with his shoulders/upper body). If Brown played in today's spread-out offenses with blockers who could use their hands, his production would be otherworldly.

At the end of the day, Brown was one of the greatest pure athletes to ever play the game -- or any game, for that matter.

2. Barry Sanders: My favorite memory of Sanders came before he'd even taken a single NFL snap, at Oklahoma State's pro day back in 1989. Sanders was fresh off one of the most dominant seasons in college football history, rushing for 2,850 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns as the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner. Having just received another award, Sanders was late in returning to campus for the pro day. But he arrived at the field in a pair of cutoff jeans and, without warming up, blazed a 4.38 40-yard dash.

Sanders obviously boasted unbelievable quickness, vision and elusiveness, but people overlook his exceptional strength. He posted 15,269 rushing yards -- the third-highest total in NFL history -- despite playing for a lackluster Lions squad. Like everyone else, I think he retired way too early, but it seemed like he was just tired of getting beat up every Sunday.

3. Walter Payton: Payton came into the NFL during my days with the Dallas Cowboys. We had the No. 2 pick in the draft, and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that QB Steve Bartkowski would be going No. 1. The entire time leading up to the draft, we couldn't decide who to take with the second pick: Payton or DT Randy White. After going back and forth hundreds of times -- because these were two excellent prospects -- we finally settled on White about 30 minutes before the event began. White turned out to be a Hall of Famer, so we came out just fine. But the Baltimore Colts, who held the No. 3 pick in that draft, passed on Payton for a guard named Ken Huff. This didn't work out as well.

"Sweetness" was unbelievably talented in all aspects. He could run inside and outside equally well, and was an outstanding blocker, to boot. He eclipsed the 1,200-yard mark in 10 different seasons and totaled the second-most rushing yards in NFL history (16,726).

4. Gale Sayers: The Chicago Bears took Dick Butkus and Sayers with the Nos. 3 and 4 picks of the 1965 NFL Draft -- the only time in draft history that a team has selected eventual Hall of Famers back-to-back.

Injuries limited Sayers to just seven NFL seasons, but he certainly made his mark in an abbreviated career. Sayers was a long strider, but unlike other long striders throughout time, he still boasted unbelievably quick moves and cuts. He was such a well-rounded threat. In Week 13 of his rookie season, Sayers had nine rushes for 113 yards and four touchdowns, two catches for 89 yards and a touchdown and five punt returns for 134 yards and an additional score. To this day, he still owns the NFL record for career kick-return average at 30.6 yards per attempt.

5. O.J. Simpson: He was the first running back ever to eclipse 2,000 yards in a season -- going for 2,003 in 1973 -- and he accomplished the feat in a 14-game season. (Each of the other five members of the 2,000-yard club hit the mark in a 16-game campaign.) Simpson was a majestic runner, effortlessly gliding past opponents. And just when it looked like a defender was closing in on him, O.J. always hit another gear to burst into the open field.

Unfortunately, Simpson's individual brilliance never translated into much team success. He only participated in one playoff game, a 32-14 loss at Pittsburgh in 1974. And of course, his personal life completely came apart after his playing days.

6. Earl Campbell: Talk about instant impact! Fresh off winning a Heisman Trophy for Texas in 1977, Campbell was selected with the first overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft. And all he did during his rookie season was lead the NFL in rushing while earning NFL MVP (according to PFWA and NEA), Offensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro honors.

Campbell had tree trunks for thighs, which helped him become one of the most devastating power backs in football history. But despite his imposing size and raw power, he was still able to beat a defense outside, too. He could run over defenders and run past them, with a rare combination of strength and speed.

7. Eric Dickerson: This guy was hard to miss. He was a big back at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and wore more pads than any player I can remember. And then there were those signature goggles ...

Dickerson still holds the record for rushing yards in a season (2,105) and ranks seventh in career rushing yards (13,259), but his numbers would've been even better had he not forced a trade due to contract disputes in 1987. (His production with the Rams was far better than his production with the Colts, Raiders and Falcons.)

John Robinson, Dickerson's coach in Los Angeles, put it best: "Whenever he doesn't do something unbelievable, you're disappointed."

8. Tony Dorsett: Leading up to the 1977 draft, it became clear that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would probably spend their first overall pick on a running back. Not Dorsett, though -- USC's Ricky Bell. With this in mind, my Cowboys brethren and I worked out a secret deal with the Seattle Seahawks, who held the second selection: If Dorsett were available, they'd trade the pick to us. That's exactly how things played out and the rest is history: Bell ended up with 3,063 career rushing yards, including one 1,000-yard campaign; while Dorsett racked up 12,739 career yards with eight 1,000-yard seasons.

As most people know, Dorsett produced the longest run in NFL history: a 99-yard touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in 1983. But something that's often overlooked is that the Cowboys only had 10 players on the field for that play. Who was missing? Dorsett's fullback, Ron Springs. Go figure.

9. LaDainian Tomlinson: As a product of TCU's option offense, Tomlinson faced questions before the draft about his inside running ability. But he quickly proved proficient in this area -- and in every other aspects of the position. Tomlinson eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in his first eight seasons, but he was also a huge threat catching (and even throwing) the football. He really rang in a new era of running backs who can do it all. Tomlinson's most notable attribute was his extremely strong legs. He was the first player I can ever remember making a pronounced jump cut.

In my opinion, he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And a class act off the field, too, as a leader in the community.

10. Emmitt Smith: The NFL's all-time leading rusher certainly wasn't the flashiest running back around. In fact, he wasn't flashy at all. But he was as durable as they come, had fantastic vision and balance as an inside runner and just plain loved to compete.

Of his 18,355 yards, probably about 12,000 of them came on his signature play: the lead draw. That play -- which ran right into the teeth of the defense -- really represented the kind of warrior Smith really was. Not to mention, when he wasn't toting the rock, he was a superb pass blocker.

Other running backs considered: Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas, Ollie Matson, Marion Motley, Steve Van Buren and George McAfee.

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