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Top running backs of Super Bowl era: Walter Payton is king

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Earlier this month, the San Diego Chargers announced that they're retiring LaDainian Tomlinson's number (21) with an official ceremony in November. It's a well-deserved honor for one of the best NFL players of the new millennium. That got us thinking: Where does L.T. stand among the greatest running backs of the past half-century? Elliot Harrison, Dave Dameshek and Bucky Brooks have strong opinions on this matter. Consequently, they've provided their respective rankings of the top 10 running backs in the Super Bowl era.

For additional analysis on this topic -- and a whole lot more -- listen to "The Dave Dameshek Football Program."

1) Walter Payton

This took all of one second to decide. Payton could run, block, catch and even throw. And on top of all that, "Sweetness" had longevity, to boot. There really isn't anything missing on his résumé, other than the infamous lack of a Super Bowl touchdown. (Who cares?) Payton retired as the NFL's all-time leading rusher. I always felt the most impressive thing about his career was the fact that he led the NFC in rushing every year from 1976 to 1980, despite the Bears being thoroughly mediocre. Earning a Super Bowl ring in the 1985 campaign was almost obligatory, considering the grand scope of Payton's career.

2) Barry Sanders

I have mixed feelings placing Barry at No. 2. Over the last decade, it's become commonplace for 20- and 30-somethings to call him the greatest of all time. He was certainly must-see TV, an electric playmaker with a unique -- and spectacularly creative -- jitterbug style of running. And, of course, let's not sleep on his prolific production: Sanders ranks third in career rushing yards, despite logging just 10 NFL seasons to Payton's 13 and Emmitt Smith's 15. All that said ... I don't want to disparage Sanders, but he was not particularly effective in the postseason, when the competition was stiffer. And despite everyone feeling sorry for him because he played on the Lions, many forget (or never knew) how many solid players resided on those '90s teams in Motown. In fact, Detroit made the playoffs six times in the decade. That's not indicative of a sucky outfit.

3) Emmitt Smith

Some of my colleagues don't give Smith any respect. It's complete bull. You've heard it all before ... Dallas had a great team, and maybe the best offensive line in history! Sure, that Cowboys O-line was wonderful -- through about Smith's sixth year. Too bad he played nine more seasons! Starting in 1996, that Dallas line began to crumble. Nate Newton entered his mid-30s, Mark Tuinei was getting older (he would retire after the '97 campaign) and Erik Williams' play declined late in the decade (truthfully, after a car accident in 1994, he never regained his consistent dominance). Center Ray Donaldson retired in 1997, closing a 17-year NFL career, while tight end David LaFleur's back problems limited his ability to be an effective tight end, much less blocker. All that said, I saw nearly every run of Smith's career. The guy averaged 1,200 yards rushing from 1996 to 2001, despite running behind a mediocre line. Not to mention, when the competition was toughest, Smith absolutely shined -- unlike Sanders. Still, I took Barry over Emmitt for his astounding yearly production and outstanding yards-per-carry average (4.99 over his career).

4) O.J. Simpson

Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat: This list is about on-field performance at the running back position, and nothing else. OK, now that that's out of the way ... Spotlighting Simpson is a nod to his incredible productivity in the 1970s, when everyone knew he was getting the ball and no one could stop him. Although Simpson got off to a slower start than any other player in the top 10, what he was able to do from 1972 until his knee injury midway through the '77 campaign is startling. Despite playing in the era of the 14-game season, Simpson posted rushing outputs of 2,003, 1,817 and 1,503 yards. He ran wild on everybody. Simpson famously made Pittsburgh's legendary "Steel Curtain" defense look silly in a game in 1975, racking up 227 yards on 28 carries. And his average of 143.1 yards per game in 1973, the year he joined the 2,000 yard club, is still an NFL record.

5) Eric Dickerson

Dickerson could easily have ranked second on this list. My colleague @Dameshek and I agree that somehow Dickerson is underrated. His first two years in the league are the best first two seasons of any player, irrespective of position, ever. Dickerson ran for over 3,900 yards in 1983 and '84 alone! In fact, no running back has ever put up the rushing yards Dickerson did in his first six years. That's right: Take any running back's best six-year span, and it can't match Dickerson's run from '83 to '88. Keep in mind, too, that includes a holdout (in 1985) and a players' strike ('87) in which the Hall of Famer lost time. The only reason I have Dickerson behind Sanders, Smith and Simpson is because he became a distraction for both the Rams and Colts with his contractual complaints.

6) Tony Dorsett

Consider Dorsett and the next guy on this list, LaDainian Tomlinson, 6a and 6b. Dorsett was more spectacular than Tomlinson. Actually, he was a smoother runner than anyone on this list, and his explosiveness coming out of a cut (and blowing through a hole) was breathtaking. Peers respected his rare toughness -- despite being 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds when he entered the league, Dorsett was fearless running up the middle. One thing that held Dorsett back: Cowboys head coach Tom Landry was so concerned about his star runner breaking down -- and maintaining offensive balance -- that he didn't consistently allow Dorsett 20-plus carries. On that note, Dorsett was often better as the game wore on, which would have made it more advantageous to continue feeding him the ball. Despite the lightened workload and a career that spanned two separate player strikes, Dorsett still managed to finish as the second all-time leading rusher at the time of his retirement, largely because of his exquisite health.

7) LaDainian Tomlinson

As mentioned just above, you could rank Tomlinson ahead of Dorsett and you'd get little argument here. Like T.D., L.T. could be explosive through the hole, and his lack of size didn't stop him one bit from running inside. Tomlinson was also impactful as a receiver out of the backfield, logging 100 catches in 2003. The 2006 season was when it all came together for him, as Tomlinson eclipsed 1,800 yards rushing, set the record for most touchdowns in a season (31) and won league MVP. Don't forget his brief tenure with the Jets, either, as he made many clutch plays in helping New York get to the 2010 AFC Championship Game.

8) Adrian Peterson

With Peterson resuming his career in Minnesota, we will see how far up this list he climbs in the coming years. What he has accomplished in essentially seven seasons is incredible. In 2012, Peterson was a one-man wrecking crew, practically carrying the Vikings on his back to the playoffs with over 2,000 yards rushing -- despite being fresh off major knee surgery. The only marks against Peterson on this list: His trouble with ball security early in his career, and his absence for nearly all of 2014. Had he just put up 1,800 rushing yards, we could've at least entertained the idea that he'd catch Smith in career rushing yards. That won't happen now.

9) Marshall Faulk

Faulk might be the most interesting player on this list because, when he was at his best, nobody could rival his all-around skill set at the position -- not even Payton. In his first three years with the Rams, Faulk was unstoppable, be it in the ground game or the passing attack. He was named league MVP, won a Super Bowl and -- at one point in time -- was probably the premier player in pro football. Faulk also put up nice numbers in Indianapolis, particularly in 1994 and '98. The only reason he is not higher on this list is because the other players were a bit more durable over the course of their respective careers. Faulk missed a lot of time in Indy and suffered through knee problems late in his tenure with the Rams. Still, what a remarkable career for No. 28.

10) Earl Campbell

Campbell is the greatest power back to ever walk this Earth. Even Beast Mode would have to bow down to the Hall of Famer from Tyler, Texas. During his first three seasons in the league, Campbell prodigiously ran through everybody, lifting Houston to its first three postseason appearances in a decade. Campbell was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1978, NFL MVP in 1979 and darn near hit the 2,000-yard mark in 1980. He led the league in rushing during each of those seasons. All this, despite the fact he literally ran through people. Campbell would go on to have three more very good seasons before his body began suffering wear and tear. And while Campbell played just eight seasons in the league, the admiration he garnered from teammates and opponents alike was as lofty as any player who's ever laced 'em up.

Random thoughts on a few other Super Bowl-era backs

John Riggins: Riggins, Campbell and Payton were the most physical NFL backs in the early- to mid-80s. But no one could match what we saw from Riggo in the 1982 postseason, in terms of the unbelievable workload and ability to wear down his opponent. Like Larry Fitzgerald in the 2008 postseason, Riggins spectacularly overwhelmed four straight opponents: the Lions, Vikings, Cowboys, and Dolphins. He averaged -- averaged -- 34 carries per game over those four contests, capping it off with a 38-carry, 166-yard performance that earned him Super Bowl MVP honors in the win over Miami. The funny deal about "Diesel" is that he was actually fast, despite his reputation as a slow, white plodder. He was a two-time high school state champion in the 100-yard dash!

Herschel Walker: This freakish athlete posted over 25,000 all-purpose yards if you include his USFL numbers. Good grief.

Terrell Davis: Yes, his career was short, but he was the best running back in the league during a time when Sanders, Smith and Faulk were all playing.

Priest Holmes: He was every bit as good as Faulk before getting hurt in 2004. What a forgotten player he is ... (Gets my vote for the best fantasy running back ever.)

Fred Taylor: The longtime Jaguar was -- and still is -- underrated. I caught up with Maurice Jones-Drew the other day in the NFL Media makeup room (where real men discuss football), and it wasn't long before the topic turned to how productive Taylor was for such a long time.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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