Last entry I ranked 60 running backs of the Super Bowl Era according to a system I devised that utilizes three main criteria: 1) peak numbers, 2) career numbers, and 3) the eyeball test. This week I’m going to go through each player in the top 25.
25. Steven Jackson
Jackson narrowly edges Clinton Portis for the 25th spot, and I wish it was the other way. I think Portis was the superior back. Jackson was remarkably durable, putting up eight straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2005-2012, but he only had one truly special season — 2006 when he ran for over 1,500 yards and added over 800 more through the air on a whopping 90 receptions.
24. William Andrews
A powerful dual-threat for the Atlanta Falcons for four seasons in the early ’80s. He wrecked his knee after the 1983 season, and subsequently played just one more season, as an H-back in 1986.
23. Roger Craig
I would put Roger Craig in the Hall of Fame. I think he’s underrated because so much of his production came through the air. For some reason people like the “pure runner” more than the receiving running back. But if you put Craig’s overall production up against the “weaker” Hall of Famers, he rates very well. I’m not saying he’s a Canton shoo-in — just that I lean “yes.” Plus, he’s the greatest running back in NFL history who has the same name as a baseball manager who was managing a team to the World Series in the same city in which he was playing and in the same year as his team went to the Super Bowl.
22. Chuck Foreman
If Roger Craig is underrated, then I don’t know what to call Chuck Foreman – quantum-rated? beneath-rated? I guess we will just have to go with way underrated. Foreman didn’t get a single vote point in the G.O.A.T. running back crowd-sourcing ballots, meaning he wasn’t in any voter’s top 20. This is utterly absurd being that he was the most productive back in the NFC during a half-decade stretch in the mid-’70s (1973-1977).
21. Priest Holmes
You might think he didn’t do it long enough to make the top 25, and you might be right, but probably not. Holmes only had three big seasons (2001-2003), but one of those was terrific (2001), and the other two were beyond terrific — among the greatest seasons of all time. And he put up half of a fourth great season in 2004 before getting hurt and essentially ending his career. Also, people sometimes forget that Holmes wasn’t a chump before he came to Kansas City. He had a 1,000-yard season with Baltimore as an undrafted rookie in 1998, and he was a solid contributor on the ’99 team and the Super Bowl-winning ’00 squad.
20. Ottis Anderson
Like Steven Jackson, this is a guy I would kick out of this list, if I was ranking backs just by my “wits.” (I’d go with Herschel Walker over him.) But he was Super Bowl MVP with the ’90 Giants, and he had some legitimately tremendous years with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early ’80s. So, OK, it’s not an egregious offense that he’s on the list at number 20.
19. Lydell Mitchell
More so than Roger Craig, more so than Chuck Foreman, Lydell Mitchell has not gotten his just due from football fans. In the mid-’70s, he was Marshall Faulk without the glamour. From 1975 to 1977, Mitchell racked up over 1,000 rushing and 500 yards receiving (he led the NFL in receptions twice), and yet not a single voter ranked him in his or her top 20. Mitchell’s career was relatively short, but his peak was higher than most players’ on this list.
18. Ricky Watters
He really got dogged by the whole “For who? For what?” quote, but the truth is the Eagles really missed him when he was gone. He provided the Seahawks with some excellent production (three straight seasons of more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage) before Shaun Alexander took over. And then of course there was his terrific early years in San Francisco with the Steve Young-Era 49ers.
17. Terrell Davis
Davis only had four productive seasons in the NFL, but three of them were All-Pro efforts. Throw in his two Super Bowl victories, his 2,000 yard season, and the fact that he was arguably the best offensive player (not just running back) in the league in 1997 and 1998, and, yeah, I’m fine with him being ranked 17th. Davis was a big crowd favorite, and it’s easy to see why.
16. Tiki Barber
Barber is the player whose numbers most outweigh his reputation. Very few people ranked Tiki high on their ballots, but his yardage totals, both during his prime and over the course of his career, are outstanding. In 2004 and 2005, he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage, and in 2006, his final season, he finished fifth and went over the 2,000 mark for the third straight season. Tiki Barber was really, really good. Why doesn’t he get more love?
15. Franco Harris
More than a little overrated because he played for a great team that won a bunch of Super Bowls, and because he made one of the most famous catches in NFL history, but Franco was still quite good. Number 15 feels too high to me, but I think he belongs on this list somewhere. I mean, he did have eight 1,000-yard seasons in a 13-year career with the Steelers … and the Seahawks. Don’t forget the Seahawks.
14. Edgerrin James
Detractors of Edge will point out that he played in Peyton Manning‘s high-powered offense his entire prime. Supporters will point to every other running back Manning has ever had. I mean, Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes, and Knowshon Moreno were/are all perfectly cromulent backs, but they never came close to James’ production with or without Manning. You don’t put up 4,442 yards from scrimmage in your first two seasons, just because you have a great quarterback. You have to be damn good yourself too.
13. Marcus Allen
Four outstanding seasons to start his career, then a decade of good-but-not-great play. For most his career, Marcus Allen was not the dominant back people remember. But what separates him from a typical overvalued compiler (say, Jerome Bettis) is that he did have a few seasons in which he was arguably the best back in his conference (e.g.,1983). Oh, and he also had that one run in the Super Bowl. You know the one I’m talking about. Yeah, that one.
12. Curtis Martin
If you judge a player by how good he was in his worst seasons, then Curtis Martin was among the best of the best. In an 11-year career, his only below average season was his last one, and he got hurt part way through it, with an injury Wikipedia uses the adjective “bone on bone” to describe. (And he was an All-Pro for the only time in his career the season before that.) Martin never threatened to be the best back in the game, but he was better than many of the other “longevity guys,” like Ottis Anderson and Steven Jackson, because for him longevity did not equal mediocrity. His lean years were still pretty fat.
11. Tony Dorsett
Dorsett helped the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory as a rookie in 1977, and then he was one of the top halfbacks in the league for the better half of the next decade. He also once scored a 99-yard touchdown on a play in which his team only had ten guys on the field.
10. Thurman Thomas
He’s ranked a few spots too low, in my opinion. People don’t realize how good a dual-threat Thurman Thomas really was (both in real life and on Tecmo Super Bowl). From 1989 to 1992, he led the league in yards from scrimmage each season. If you toss in his ’93 season, which was also pretty good, that’s a five-year stretch in which he legitimately challenged Emmitt and Barry for the running back championship belt. Thomas was right with the elite of the elite for a solid half decade. After that his play quickly deteriorated, which is way he’s “just” a Hall of Famer and not a top-five guy on this list.
9. Earl Campbell
The most overrated running back on the list, in my opinion. He had a relatively short career, and his prime years were not on par with the other “big peak only backs” ranked behind him — Andrews, Holmes, and Davis. He rates this highly almost completely because of the crowd-sourcing votes. I think people see the fact that he led the NFL in rushing yards his first three seasons, and they watch the highlights of him bowling over people (namely Isiah Robertson), and they get excited and don’t look at his downside — he provided almost no value as a pass receiver (he average about 90 receiving yards a season) and that his bruising style meant he was washed up before he turned 30. By no means am I denying that Earl Campbell was a fantastic player; I’m just saying that among the greats, I think he should be dropped down ten to 15 spots.
8. Adrian Peterson
If his career was over, I’d say he was also ranked too high, but it’s not, and if we project out just a little bit, number eight seems just about right for A.P. He’s the only active player on this list other than Steven Jackson, and with Jackson you really have to stretch the definition of “active.” He’s still in the league, but active is a very generous description of him these days.
7. O.J. Simpson
O.J. is comfortably ahead of A.P., both in terms of gridiron production and off-field transgressions. (Sorry, I had to.) An interesting thing about O.J.’s career is that if you graphed it, his peak would actually look like a mountain peak. He wasn’t great immediately out of college, he had three “warm up” seasons, and then he had three seasons at the end of his career in which he was clearly washed up (remember O.J. the 49er?). But for the five years in between, he was phenomenal — a four-time rushing champion, a five-time All-Pro, and a single-season record setter in rushing yards (2,003 in 1973) and yards from scrimmage (2,243 yards in 1975), both of which still stand today, prorated for a 16-game season. Simpson was the man. If only he stayed out of the news after football. No, wait — if only he stayed out of the news after The Naked Gun. As a kid, I thought he was hilarious in that movie.
6. Eric Dickerson
His first two seasons were legendary. In 1983, he set a rookie record by running for 1,808 yards, and then the next season he set the NFL record with 2,105 rushing yards. (Both records stand today.) And there was much more Rec Specs-wearing excellence to come. After a down year in ’85 — in which he missed two games due to a contract dispute — Dickerson came back with another 1,800-yard season in 1986. His status with the Rams then became untenable, and he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts with whom he led the NFL in rushing for a fourth time, before eventually fading into running back oblivion. Although people tend to remember his fall from grace in Indy, they often forget that he was quite good for nearly three full seasons with the Colts before that happened. (He also played a season with the Raiders and one with the Falcons, but at that point he really was completely washed up.) He doesn’t quite crack the top 5, but when he was on his game — slicing through defenses with his straight-up running style — he gave you the impression nobody could possibly be better.
5. Marshall Faulk
You could basically flip a coin between Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson — both were amazing dual-purpose threats. Faulk began his career in Indianapolis, where he was just your garden-variety superstar, but then he was traded to the Rams, with whom he turned into the ball carrier in the “normal play” on John Elway’s Quarterback. From 1999 to 2001, Faulk ran for at least 1,300 yards and added at least 700 more through the air. He also accomplished just the second 1,000/1,000 season in NFL history and won an MVP Award. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call this the greatest three-year stretch of any running back of the Super Bowl Era.
4. LaDainian Tomlinson
Speaking of greatest things from running backs of the Super Bowl Era, it’s tough to beat LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2006 campaign — 1,815 yards rushing, 508 yards receiving, 31 touchdowns, 26 AV — when it comes to single-season dominance. And the amazing thing is that it wasn’t that much better than any of his other top-five seasons. He narrowly edges out his NFL Network compatriot for the number four spot and is narrowly edged out by the NFL’s all-time leading rusher for a place on the medal podium.
3. Emmitt Smith
The popular perception of Emitt Smith seems to be that his success in his prime years of the early ’90s was owed mostly to his outstanding Cowboys teammates, and then he was just a good-but-not-great compiler after that. I think this is all wrong. Although it’s difficult to prove definitively, my feeling is that he was actually the foundation of those great Dallas offenses, supporting everybody else. (The Derrick Lassic experience certainly adds some credence to this notion.) And while it’s true that the rushing record was largely a product of his ability to hang on and get regular carries late in his career when he was a replacement-level back, that shouldn’t negate his remarkable peak. Emmitt is often put side-by-side with Barry Sanders, and I think up until 1996, Emmitt was actually winning the race.
2. Barry Sanders
But Barry caught him, surpassed him, and then abruptly retired. In a ten-year career, Sanders had ten 1,000-yard rushing seasons, ten Pro Bowl appearances, and six All-Pro selections. Yes, I know he had that one playoff game in Green Bay, where he ran for negative one yard, but the season before that he went for 169 against the same team, and the Lions still lost, so … yeah. Anyway you slice it, it’s tough to beat Barry.
1. Walter Payton
Which is why only one man does — the one they called “Sweetness.” Walter Payton was like Tim Duncan in that his peak was outstanding and then his later years were nearly just as good. His two best seasons (1977 and 1985) came eight years apart. In 1977, he led the NFL in rushing (1,852) and total yards (2,121), and in 1985 he was nearly the entire offense of one of the greatest teams in NFL history — again racking up over 2,000 total yards (2,034) and leading the Bears in both rushing yards (1,551) and receptions (49). It’s true that he didn’t get a touchdown in the Bears’ Super Bowl blowout victory of the Patriots, but he did a ring, and if you ask Irving Fryar which one he would rather have, I think you know what the answer will be. Super Bowl score or otherwise, you can sum up Walter Payton’s career quite simply: He was the best.