This is always an extremely difficult question, and there really is no right answer but we will do our best to dissect and give analysis on who we believe are the greatest RBs in NFL History.
5. Jim Brown
Jim Brown played in a completely different era than the others on the list, and was a freak of nature for the Cleveland Browns in his 9 year career from 1957 to 1965. He rushed 12,312 yards and 106 TDs He also helped the Browns win 1964 NFL Championship, the only championship Cleveland had until LeBron James and the Cavaliers won the NBA title this year. The people who saw Brown play claim he was the greatest RB to ever play, as he had a great combination of speed, power and vision. Very few teams threw the ball back then, so defenses would load the box and yet they could not stop Brown. He averaged over 1,300 yards in all nine seasons as a pro and just under 12 TDs per season, which is proof that he was unstoppable in an era where RBs were prominent. He would be higher on this list had he played longer and dominated for a few more years, as he ranks 10th all-time in rushing yards and 5th all-time in TDs.
4. LaDainian Tomlinson
We don’t know why, but Tomlinson never seems to be mentioned as an all-time great RB in league history. He certainly deserves to be, as his 13,684 career rushing yards and 145 TDs are good for 5th and 2nd all-time. He also holds the single season TD record by a non QB with his 31 TDs in 2006. He also threw 7 career touchdowns, and ranks third all-time in total touchdowns with 162. He was an All-Pro six times, and won the NFL rushing title twice in his career. He never had the playoff success most expected from his Chargers team’s and received criticism for sitting out the AFC Championship game in 2007 because of an injury. LaDainian Tomlinson never won a Super Bowl, but football is a team sport and his teams were never fully healthy for the playoffs. He was always one of our favorite players to watch as children and is a great role model, combine that with his production in his eleven year career and there is no doubt in our mind L.T. is a top five RB in NFL history.
3. Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders absolutely created havoc on NFL defenses in his 10 year career. The truly amazing thing is that he was able to dominate the league without any help at all. His Detroit Lions team’s were historically bad, and he was the only offensive weapon they had yet he was still able to win the NFL rushing title four times in his career. He was exceptionally quick and had great vision to make unbelievable cuts and something out of nothing. He is 3rd all-time in rushing yards with 15,269 and 9th all-time in rushing TDs with 99. He become the first RB in league history to rush for 1,500 yards in five seasons and remains the only one to do it in four consecutive seasons. He also was the 3rd player in history to rush for 2000 yards in a season in 1997. Sanders never had any help on his teams, and never won a Super Bowl. When we look back on his career, we cannot help but ask the simple question of “what if?” What if Barry Sanders had any kind of offensive help so he did not have to carry the load? What if he did not walk away from the game he spoiled after ten fantastic seasons while still in his prime? He was without a doubt the most explosive and quickest RB in history, and should be a top 3 RB all-time.
2. Walter Payton
The Chicago Bears were the epitome of “pound the rock and play great defense” in order to win football games. Walter Payton was a huge part of that formula for success, as he helped the 1985 Bears win Super Bowl XX over the New England Patriots. Payton was known as Sweetness during his career, and for good reason. In 13 seasons, he rushed for 16,726 yards and scored rushing TDs which are 2nd and 4th all-time. Payton was famous for never giving up on a run, and always initiating contact with defenders. He never ran out of bounds, instead choosing to run defenders over to gain extra yards. He also made the high step famous, when he hit open field with one last defender to beat he would slow down to make the defender guess if Payton would cut back or accelerate down the sideline. He was the NFL MVP twice in his career, and only missed one game in his entire 13 year career. His motto was “never die easy” and it is clear that he played that way on the field. He gave everything he had to the game of football and we lost him way too soon. Sweetness is definitely a top 2 RB in league history and one could make a serious case for him being number one.
1. Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing TDs and a three time Super Bowl champion, that resume is very difficult to top. Smith rushed for 18,355 yards. 1,629 more than Walter Payton. He also rushed for 145 TDs, 19 more than LaDainian Tomlinson. Smith was just a great all-around back, but his keys to success were his toughness and very smooth running style. He could not out-run most defenders, and was not the strongest RB but yet he just continued to keep grinding out yards while refusing to go down easily. He was also small and could “hide” behind the Cowboys offensive line and then from out of nowhere he was hitting the second level as defenders had trouble seeing him. The only thing we will say against Smith is that out of all the RBs on this list, he had by far the most talent around him. QB Troy Aikman and WR Michael Irvin are both Hall of Famers, and Smith also had arguably the best offensive line in football during his prime. Smith played 15 years and his running style will always be remembered by football fans. He was just very tough, and a great north south runner that grinded out extra yards for his team. In our opinion, the toughness and great statistics as well as the super bowls make Emmitt Smith the greatest RB in NFL history.