Last week, the writers of Sports Unbiased tackled the job of determining the best QBs in NFL history. This week they move into the backfield and try to figure out who the best running backs in history are.
As always, the voters were tasked with ranking their top-5 and explaining why they picked each player. Then, the votes were tallied and the rankings determined based on total points (1 point for a fifth place vote, up through 5 points for a first place vote).
The voters for this week were: Rich Stowe, Matt Strobl, Brian Podoll, Mike Santangelo, John Yeomans, Kimani Gregoire, Derek McVay, Jen Rainwater, JR Williams, and Nate Gerst.
It was up to each voter individually to determine the criteria they would use. Did pure numbers matter or did how the player look when they were in a game matter? From what I can tell, each voter balanced these for all their votes.
In all, 15 running backs received at least one vote with only two RBs being named on all ballots (nine total ballots cast).
We ended up with ranking these 15 RBs through nine spots; there were many ties for eighth and ninth with no way to break the ties. The tie breakers are total number of ballots appeared on and then, if needed, highest single vote received. The players that ended up tied for seventh and eighth, each received one vote and they were for fifth or fourth place respectively, so there was no fair way to break the ties.
Let’s start with the running backs ranked Number 9 and work our way up to the running back deemed to be the Greatest Running Back in NFL History! At the end of the article, there will be a poll so you can vote for your top-5 running backs of all-time and as always, feel free to comment to let us know what you think!
There are four running backs who finished tied for 9th place in our rankings.
Derek McVay: The 4th all time leading rusher, Martin was one of the more durable running backs in league history, missing only eight games in 11 seasons. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in all but one season and is arguably the best RB in Patriot’s history even though he only spent three seasons with them. He scored 90 TDs, had a career average of four yards per carry and was tremendous at securing the football.
Mike Santangelo: Five consecutive Pro Bowls with four straight Super Bowl appearances (and losses). Thurman was not known as much for his running ability as he was for his all-purpose ability. The amount of yards he racked up yearly both receiving and running was impressive. He was the ultimate safety valve, and he was always fun to watch play the game.
Brian Podoll: This choice falls under the same historical consideration as I used for Red Grange – for a larger impact upon the game. Thorpe was really past his playing prime, when he was named president of the American Professional Football Association by 1920, the one-year precursor of the NFL. It was really his exploits and success as a triple-threat tailback with the Canton Bulldogs in the mid-late 1910s, however, that led to the formation of a pro league. His statue stands in the lobby entry way rotunda at Canton for a reason. Bo Jackson was perhaps the modern equivalent of qualifying as legendary, but there would be no NFL without Thorpe. And just remember, all the early guys took punishment on both sides of scrimmage as 60-minute players, until about 1950.
Matt Strobl: I’ll get more than a few dirty looks for leaving Emmitt Smith out of my Top-5, and someone else will have to go once Adrian Peterson retires. But in the meantime, I’m starting with Davis. It’s a surprising choice considering that injuries curtailed his career. With only four productive seasons, is it really fair to rank him with the best of the best? Here’s the thing. Davis’s 97.5 yards per game trails only Barry Sanders and Jim Brown among non-active players. His 4.6 yards per carry is a dominant number and was achieved even with three lost seasons dragging it down. Obviously Davis wasn’t among the most productive backs. But when he was healthy and on the field, he was virtually unparalleled. In that way he reminds me of Gale Sayers, thought the two were different types of runners.
There are four running backs that finished tied 8th place in our rankings.
Nate Gerst: Faulk brought the best of both worlds; he was a great runner and one of the best receiving running backs of all time. Faulk was awarded Offensive Player of the Year three straight seasons. In 13 seasons he rushed for 12,279 yards and also tallied up 6,875 receiving yards. Faulk’s best season came in 1999 when he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in both rushing and receiving.
Kimani Gregoire: Marcus Allen was probably the most versatile running back ever. He was great at rushing the ball (12,243 career-yards), catching (587 passes for 5412 yards), and even throwing the ball (285 yards passing with six TDs). He had a nose for the end-zone and was considered one of the best goal line runners in NFL history (123 career rushing TDs). His Super Bowl XVIII performance was one of the best ever by a running back ever. Had it not been for his feud with Raiders owner Al Davis (who benched him for most of his final three seasons with the team) he would have had even better stats.
Rich Stowe: I normally don’t list active players in these all-time lists, but Peterson combines the speed and escapability of Sanders while having the power of Brown. His comeback from ACL surgery and then almost breaking the single-season rushing record was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in any sport.
Mike Santangelo: The second of the unbelievable pantheon of Chicago Bears runners, Gale only got to play in seven full NFL seasons, and yet those seven seasons were unbelievable in terms of the things he did on the field. The stat I’ve always liked was this game stat for Sayers – in his rookie year: nine rushes for 113 yards and four touchdowns, two catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, and five punt returns for 134 yards and another touchdown. Sayers also still holds the record for kick return yardage during a career at 30.6
There was one player that finished in 7th place (due to tie-breakers).
Jen Rainwater: My number five came down to Earl Campbell and O.J Simpson. O.J’s post football “antics” maybe should tip the spot to Campbell but since this is based on what was done while playing the game, number five goes to O.J Simpson. Campbell had a shorter career and was injured more often while Simpson still holds the record for most 200+ yard games with six in his career. He won the rushing title four times and he did so playing as the only standout talent on mostly mediocre teams.
JR Williams: When he was in his prime, O.J. Simpson was arguably the best running back in the league. Simpson’s speed was unparalleled, he possessed outstanding field vision, and he had a second gear that is virtually unmatched in today’s game. If his career had not been foreshadowed by his infamous murder trail, I believe many people would surely list him as a top-3 running back.
We had one running back finish in 6th place.
Brian Podoll: Some players have to be measured by their impact upon the game, without a modern stats assessment. “The Galloping Ghost” and his contemporary, fullback Ernie Nevers, were two such Hall of Famers. The Illinois halfback from the single-wing days of early pro football was such a sensation coming out of college, that Grange’s initial 19-game barnstorming tour with the Bears netted him over $100,000. The first rival American Football League was built around him to be a showcase in 1926. For man who had the likes of Bronko Nagurski, Gale Sayers, and Walter Payton with the Bears, George Halas rated Grange as the greatest running back he ever saw and his arrival brought a level of respectability to pro football that had remained at odds with the college game.
Up Next: 5th, 4th, and 3rd Places