Skip to main content

Top running backs of Super Bowl era: Don't forget Eric Dickerson

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."

When people talk about how Barry Sanders never had the benefit of being on a good team, tell 'em about Payton, who spent his prime taking handoffs from non-Hall of Famers Bob Avellini, Mike Phipps and Vince Evans. In 1977, "Sweetness" put up one of the two or three best seasons by a running back in the Super Bowl era, going for 1,852 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns -- plus 269 receiving yards and a couple more TDs -- in 14 games. (If you extrapolate the rush yards per game over a 16-game season, it'd be an NFL-record 2,117 yards ... and with the receiving yards, over 2,400!) But those are just numbers. No need to overthink this: Payton is football's all-time combo of might and grace -- and he was versatile! He had almost 500 catches, he was a great blocker, he threw eight touchdown passes, he jumped over entire defenses and he wore Roos.

It's an oxymoron, I know, but there are some severely underrated Hall of Fame running backs: Franco Harris, Thurman Thomas, (future HOFer) Jamaal Charles and -- above the rest -- Eric Dickerson. Maybe the residents of Mt. Pious still resent him for the SMU scandal. Maybe 21st-century fashionistas can't get past his period-specific style. Or maybe it's as basic as that upright, gliding gait, which -- just like Jerry Rice's style (and Steph Curry's and Mario Lemieux's and Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson's) -- made it look like it was all too easy. Check out the numbers, though: He went for a minimum of 1,800 yards in three of his first four seasons (and averaged 14 rushing TDs over those four years); he took a team that started Dieter Brock at QB to the '85 NFC title game; and, in his less-heralded Colts' years, he went over 1,000 yards in his first nine games, then almost 3,000 yards (with 21 TDs) in '88 and '89. Maybe the most impressive stat of all: He averaged at least 100 yards per game five times. Among the guys on this list, only Barry Sanders did it as many as four times. (In case you were curious, Jim Brown did it seven times.)

He averaged more than 1,500 yards per season and was just two-tenths of a yard shy of averaging 100 yards per game for his career. He also had a career average of 4.99 yards per carry. But if you watched his games and not just his highlights, you'll recall Barry dancing in the backfield looking to break a big one, the RB equivalent of swinging for the fences, and -- like most sluggers -- striking out a fair amount of the time. He also gets too much credit for putting up his numbers against defenses allegedly focused on him; in fact, Sanders was actually lucky to spend a fair amount of time playing in an early form of the spread offense (Mouse Davis' run-and-shoot), which spreads the field and creates lots of space for a runner (but I trust you already knew that). Then again, we're just nitpicking. He represented a splendid mix of style and substance; as "Dave Dameshek Football Program" conversationalist Henry "Handsome Hank" Hodgson said, "Of all the runners on this list, Sanders' highlight video would be the one I'd most want to watch."

Speed personified, he was Chris Johnson if Chris Johnson did it for a dozen years instead of a season. Longtime Cowboys architect Gil Brandt will tell you the best runner in his franchise's history was notthe NFL's all-time leading rusher, but college football's one-time career rushing leader, who went to Dallas as part of a jarringly one-sided trade. (Gil, the Seahawks' alleged braintrust or maybe both belong in white-collar prison for illegal trading. And by the way, the Buccaneers always get off the hook because of their 1976 expansion partners' boneheadedness, but taking the late Ricky Bell instead of Dorsett with 1977's No. 1 overall pick effectively meant both teams fumbled away their respective short-term prospects, while the Cowboys extended the life of their dynastic stretch into the '80s.) History's eighth-leading rusher was a burner who -- along with Payton -- blazed a trail as a high-end RB who could double as pass catcher. (Dorsett still ranks 10th all-time in career yards from scrimmage.) My old man will tell you -- and anyone else who'll listen -- that the original "TD" would've gone down as the NFL's all-time rushing leader if Tom Landry had given him the ball four or five more times a game. Statistically, at least, he's not wrong. Then again, Dorsett was pretty slight at 190 pounds.

From a literal Day 1 1978 rookie breakout (he dashed off a 73-yard TD run in the first quarter of his NFL debut) through the 1980 campaign, Campbell ran himself into the ground carrying the Oilers to three straight playoff appearances. (Per-season carries in his first four years, including the playoffs: 377, 401, 400, 361 -- virtually all of which ended in a head-on collision, with plenty featuring *multiple* head-on collisions.) I love Bum Phillips for his cowboy hat, cowboy boots and cowboy swagger, but in trading the legs of "The Tyler Rose" for the team's benefit, he helped perpetuate one of contact sports' longstanding ironies: The biggest guys are usually the ones who take the worst beatings. An '83 bounceback (1,301 rushing yards, 12 TDs) notwithstanding, Campbell was burned out by the time he rejoined Bum in NOLA -- but his all-too-brief Houston prime impacted the upward trajectory of his team as much as any runner's in the Super Bowl era. Do yourself a favor and watch him run: Those massive churning legs and flailing arms make him look almost out of control, like a plus-sized rodeo rider on an invisible bull.

For the purposes of this exercise, let's try to set aside Orenthal's après-pigskin deeds for the next 18 or so seconds and look at the '70s running back/icon whose stardom overshadowed all-timers in front of and behind him on this very list.

Now ... football. His unique gallop ranks him with Sanders, Gale Sayers and Shady McCoy on the all-time list of Pretty Runners -- but if that's not substantial enough for you, he's still the only guy in history to hit 2,000 yards in just 14 games. Yes, it's important to note his prime played out in the last days of disco and the 14-game schedule (1972-76), because if we extend each of those seasons by two games and give him his per/game average, the numbers go from historic to absurd:

1972: 1,251 rushing yards in 14 games becomes ... 1,430 in 16.
1973: 2,003 ... 2,289.
1974: 1,125 ... 1,286.
1975: 1,817 ... 2,077.
1976: 1,503 ... 1,718.

While there'd be 120 more minutes of wear and tear to deal with, of course, the 1,760-yard average over that hypothetical half-decade would look pretty juicy.

Like an updated version of Dorsett, this MFer had serious wheels, soft hands and loads of durability. Between 1998 and 2001, his lowest single-season, yards-per-scrimmage total was 2,147 yards (and he never fell below 1,319 rushing yards in those years). He had eight seasons with double-digit TDs. He's NFL history's No. 1 receiving yards leader among RBs, and his 767 receptions rank him 33rd all-time (and second to Larry Centers among runners). In '98 and '99, he had nearly 2,000 combined yards receiving. Long story short, he was very good.

If we're not including moral judgment against other people on this list, we can't give "LT" extra credit for being such a delightful fella. Fortunately for him, he doesn't need any: The fifth-leading rusher of all time averaged 1,569 yards over a one six-season span from 2002 to '07 (especially stunning because of the threat he also posed as a pass catcher). He posted a 100-catch campaign, as well as three seasons with at least 2,172 yards from scrimmage. Oh, and he's the only player to have two seasons that rank in the top 10 -- let alone the top seven -- in yards from scrimmage (2003 and '06). If all that's not enough, LT also threw seven TD passes and notched a 146.9 career passer rating.

He was terrific and tough, and the busted-shoulder-in-Jersey game was all-time heroic, and three of his biggest individual seasons coincide with three Lombardi wins for Dallas, and no, I don't think he succeeded solely because he happened to be on a great team. However ... For those who are wondering how I could place eight guys ahead of the all-time leading rusher, he did have the impossible good fortune of playing behind one of the best O-lines ever and having a lethal passing game to distract defenses. His specialty was scoring touchdowns (second all-time with 175) ... but LaDainian (162 TDs) would've passed him if he'd stuck around a couple more years. Emmitt's more important quality, though, was his ability to deliver in January. If "clutch" counts for QBs, it should be a factor here, too (albeit to a lesser degree) -- and along with Franco Harris, John Riggins and Marshawn Lynch, No. 22 had a knack for delivering in the biggest games.

Aside from his celebrated 2,000-yard return from major knee surgery, Peterson's most impressive number is the career average of 4.96 yards per carry. (By the by, the aforementioned Jamaal Charles is averaging 5.49 yards per carry seven years into his glorious run.) However, history suggests we've already seen the sunniest days for 30-year-old "All Day" -- and any realistic hopes of catching Emmitt disappeared in the darkness of 2014.

The next 15

Gale Sayered trio

The USFL quintet

Follow Dave Dameshek on Twitter @Dameshek.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content