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.
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Though he ranks second on the all-time rushing list, Payton is unquestionably the greatest running back of the Super Bowl era. "Sweetness" topped the 1,000-yard mark 10 times in 13 seasons and finished his career with 77 100-yard games. Most impressively, he claimed the NFC rushing title five straight seasons and scored 110 rushing touchdowns (fourth-most all time). Considering his feats as a standout receiver out of the backfield (492 career receptions) during a time when teams rarely put the ball in the air, there is little doubt Payton deserves the top spot on this list.
It'd be easy to place Sanders near the top due simply to his 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons and four NFL rushing titles, but his overall dominance at the position is what sets him apart as the runner-up on this list. The most electrifying runner in NFL history was also the first back to record five seasons of 1,500-plus yards; his 2,053-yard effort in 1997 included an NFL-record 14 consecutive 100-yard games. Although some observers view Sanders as a high-risk, high-reward ball-carrier, given the improvisational nature of his running style, the fact that he averaged just under 5 yards per attempt throughout his career suggests that he was capable of moving the chains when it mattered.
As crazy as it sounds, it's possible Tomlinson was the most complete running back to ever play in the NFL. The dazzling playmaker reached 15,000 scrimmage yards faster than anyone in NFL history, and he reached 11,000 rushing yards in fewer games (117) than everyone except Eric Dickerson (103), Jim Brown (107) and Barry Sanders (115). Not to mention, Tomlinson was the first player to score at least 15 touchdowns in six consecutive seasons and recorded the NFL's first 1,000/100 season (1,000 rushing yards and 100 receptions) in 2003. Throw in the fact that Tomlinson scored 162 career touchdowns, including a league record 31 touchdowns in 2006, and there is no disputing his place in NFL history.
The NFL's career rushing leader certainly deserves consideration for the top spot, having assembled an impressive résumé that features four rushing titles and 11 straight 1,000-yard seasons. Smith was an impressive between-the-tackles runner with exceptional vision, balance and body control in traffic. His blue-collar running style lacked the pizzazz of his counterparts, but it's hard to dispute his consistency and production. He also posted seven straight seasons with at least 40 receptions (1991-97) during his career. He gets this spot near the top of the charts.
The most explosive all-purpose back in NFL history gained 2,000-plus scrimmage yards in four straight seasons (1998-2001) and finished his career with 767 receptions. Those numbers complement exceptional rushing totals (12,279 career rushing yards) and reveal Faulk's greatness as a dual-threat playmaker out of the backfield. As the centerpiece of "The Greatest Show on Turf," Faulk produced the second 1,000/1,000 season (1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards) in NFL history in 1999 en route to guiding the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title. He was an unstoppable force, exhibiting the hands and route-running skills of a receiver while showcasing an electric running style on the perimeter. Although injuries limited his impact near the end of his career, Faulk was unquestionably a game changer at the position and one of the best playmakers to ever lace 'em up.
It can be easy to overlook Dickerson's greatness, especially as the years pass, but traditionalists certainly respect the remarkable production he put up during his time. Dickerson rushed for more than 1,800 yards in three of his first four seasons, including a 2,105-yard effort in 1984 that shattered O.J. Simpson's single-season record (2,003 in 1973). He surpassed the 10,000-yard mark quicker than anyone (in 91 games) and was the second-leading rusher in NFL history at the time of his retirement. Although his name no longer sits near the top of the charts, Dickerson's upright running style, Rec Specs and "cowboy" collar left a lasting impression on a young generation of runners.
The consistent Martin -- he topped the 1,000-yard mark in 10 of 11 seasons and tallied 57 100-yard games in his career -- is possibly underrated here. Although he only claimed one NFL rushing title (in 2004), he led his team in rushing in each of his 11 seasons and finished with 90 career rushing touchdowns. He had a fearless, downhill running style and no-nonsense approach, and his durability and toughness make him a worthy selection on this list.
It's a little premature to place Peterson on this list before his career concludes, but his impressive résumé makes him worthy of inclusion. Peterson has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in six of his eight seasons, including a 2,097-yard effort in 2012 that featured 10 100-yard games and a pair of 200-yard outings. He has a pair of rushing titles (captured 2008 and 2012) and owns the NFL's single-game rushing mark (296 yards). Although he missed all but one game in 2014, Peterson remains one of the most feared runners in the league, and his future production should solidify his standing among the game's greats.
"The Bus" finally will receive a gold jacket for his career efforts this summer, but he has always earned high marks from his peers due to his hard-nosed running style and nimble feet. It's uncommon to find a big-bodied back with the pitter-pat, balance and body control to elude and evade defenders in closed quarters. Bettis amassed 61 100-yard rushing games and finished with 91 rushing touchdowns during his 13-season career. He ranked fifth in all-time rushing yards (13,662) at the time of his retirement, leaving few questions about his dominance or impact as a workhorse runner.
James' spot on this list might surprise some observers, but few running backs made a greater impact during their time in the league. James led the NFL in rushing in each of his first two seasons, exhibiting a buttery-smooth running style that is uncommon for a big back. A knee injury limited his impact and production for nearly two years, but then James bounced back, putting up five straight 1,000-yard seasons -- including back-to-back 1,500-yard efforts in 2004 and '05. James finished with at least 50 receptions five times and displayed strong receiving skills for a big man on the perimeter.