I’m not big on “All Time” lists. So I thought I’d make one! One of the many reasons these lists are always inaccurate is that the game changes so often that the statistics aren’t always the best yardsticks for judging. So then we have to look at each player in context and that always depends on what context you use. For this list I am going to use stats to help my case but I’m mainly going to use the eye-test and just say who I think the best are based on flimsy criteria that can easily be refuted. And this list only has 2 players on it.
Running Backs don’t last long in the NFL due to injuries so longevity is a factor, but one that annoys me. Is Emmitt Smith the greatest of all time? I’m sure he is on some lists and if the criteria for that list is all time rushing yards I’m not going to argue but if it’s not, well, he’s not. So that puts us in a dilemma. Emmitt Smith was a great running back who was blessed with a great offense, offensive line, and health. But is he a better running back than Gale Sayers or Adrian Peterson? Most will say yes, I would think, but I’m not going to be one of those people. I am not really a results oriented person. Results for individual NFL players are based on a lot of factors and many of those are the 21 other players on the field, but looking at how a man runs with the ball, even if it results in negative yards, often means much more to me than a 1 yard run up the gut for a touchdown.
I’m not saying my criteria is better than anyone else’s but it is mine so I gotta roll with it.
1. Barry Sanders: It was extremely difficult for me to decide on a number 1 for this list. I don’t think this is a no brainer at all but I do think it is a sound choice. For me Sanders puts the elite ability together with the numbers and is one of the few to do so. His 1997 season was one of, if not the best season ever, by a running back. He is the only running back to ever average 128.3 yards per game and 6.13 yards per carry in a 16 game season. (Jim Brown most likely would have but we’ll never know for sure)
Oh, and take a look at his skills:
He could stop on a pin head, dance a jig and then go full speed in whatever direction a defender wasn’t. In his amazing 1997 season he set career highs in yards and yards per carry and coincidentally this was his first season under new head coach Bobby Ross who went away from Wayne Fontes’ Mouse Davis inspired Run and Shoot offense and finally got the best running back in the game a blocking fullback. Of course Sanders lost his love of the game a year later and retired within striking distance of Walter Payton’s rushing record.
So how can I have a player who lost his motivation to play the game as my #1 back of all time? Well, because I don’t care about that.
2. Jim Brown: Brown was the most dominant running back of his time, moreso than Barry Sanders. So why not put him at #1? Really it probably comes down to my own age bias. If I had grown up with Jim Brown I bet it would be hard to not put him at #1 but I didn’t and do believe the speed and athleticism of defenses coupled with a couple extra games a season make the game more difficult for running backs in the modern era. But let’s take a look at what Jim Brown did do in his career.
In his 9 seasons he led the league in rushing 8 times. He is the only running back to ever average over 100 yards rushing per game with 104.3. He leads all time in touchdowns per game with .9 TD/Per Game. He of course was the all time leading rusher before Walter Payton beat his number. He now sits 9th all time but of course not one of the players ahead of him has a better yards per carry or yards per game average (or behind him for that matter).
Brown left the game even earlier than Barry Sanders having played 118 games to Sanders’ 153 and Walter Payton’s 190 and Emmitt Smith’s 226. When watching Brown run you notice a fluid, fast, powerful running style. In many ways he reminds me of Adrian Peterson. He feels like a man among boys. When you watch highlight of Peterson you get the same feeling. They are just bigger and stronger and faster than any other running back playing.
Brown’s numbers extrapolated of course would be insane but we know longevity isn’t usually the case for running backs which of course makes Emmitt Smith’s accomplishments pretty amazing, but watching them on a split screen it’s not all that hard to tell who the more talented runner was.
Gale Sayers isn’t #3 on this list. The list ends at #2 with Jim Brown. For me it’s a tough call between Brown and Sanders and after that there are a lot of interesting players to consider. But as far as the eye test goes Gale Sayers was the most amazing runner I have ever seen on tape. The numbers aren’t eye popping in the big picture. He only played in 68 games and was not once the starting running back. He averaged 5 yards a carry and the only other player to do that with over 60 games is Jim Brown. In his rookie year he had 14 rushing TDs, 6 receiving TDs, 1 punt return TD, 1 kick return TD and one passing TD.
But like I said, his numbers weren’t that amazing overall since he was injured often and had to leave the game early. But if you watch him run you will see a grace and genius in his runs that can’t be matched.
Yes, there are many great running backs and the debate is easy to take up for many of them. Right now it’s Sanders and then Brown for me with an honorable mention for Sayers as far as pure talent goes.