Running Wild: The Greatest Running backs in NFL History

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Shifty. Hard-nosed. Elusive. Powerful. Squishy. Most of these adjectives have been used to describe an NFL running back. It’s the most physically demanding of all of the offensive skill positions and arguably the only position besides quarterback where one draft pick can change the fortunes of an entire franchise.

The running back is tasked with perhaps the most daunting job in football. He is handed the ball in the backfield and told, “Here, try to carry this oblong ball through that large group of terrifying behemoths sprinting toward us,” and he happily obliges. And the great ones, well they actually succeed. But who was the most successful ever? Read on to find out.

5 O.J. Simpson

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Say what you will about his post-playing days (just make sure he doesn’t find out about it), but there’s no denying that “The Juice” was one of the most dominant running backs in NFL history. O.J. somehow managed to amass more than 11,000 career rushing yards even though he was used only as a kick returner until his fourth year in the league. And once he started running out of the backfield, his numbers were right up there with the best of them. Simply put, the man was a killer (on the field). When he was given the chance, he absolutely murdered (defenses). And no matter how hard anyone tried to catch him, he always seemed to get away scot-free (for a touchdown).

4 Emmitt Smith

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This man was the linchpin for the dynasty that ruined the lives of Buffalo Bills fans everywhere. And as much as we all hate the Cowboys, you have to admit that Emmitt Smith rushing the football was a sight to behold. He carried the Cowboys to three Super Bowls, leads the NFL in all-time rushing yards and still holds the world record for largest forehead. And even if you forget all about his stellar playing career, you can’t deny his entertainment value as an analyst. After all, this is a man who once said “The Packers don’t has a running game” live on the air, and didn’t even flinch.

3 Jim Brown

To describe Jim Brown’s running style, you’ll need to use the same words you’d use to describe his general presence: seriously terrifying. He was bigger in stature than most of the poor saps that were trying to tackle him and, simply put, that made him a friggin’ bulldozer with a helmet on. Brown ran for an average of 5.2 yards per carry, the highest in history for any running back, and never missed a single game in the eight-year career he cut short to star in movies (incidentally, he was cast in far fewer family-friendly comedies than he had initially anticipated).

2 Walter Payton

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They called him “Sweetness,” though most of the defensive backs he ran past and/or through knew him mostly just as “That mother f*@#er.” Payton spent his entire twelve-year career with the Bears, where he racked up stunning numbers that landed him at second all-time in rushing yards, fourth in touchdowns and first in heinous 80’s raps. What truly made him unique was that Walter Payton was equally tricky and powerful. He could run around you or run you over, whichever happened to strike his fancy on that particular play. In the end, it was best to just stay out his way because, as he clearly stated in the Super Bowl Shuffle, for Sweetness, “Runnin’ the ball is like makin’ romance.”

1 Barry Sanders

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If you had the pleasure of watching Barry Sanders play, then you saw a man do something that was equally impressing and hilarious. Sanders eluded more tackles than anyone who ever played the position, and always left a trail of completely demoralized defensive backs in his wake. He’s third on the all-time rushing yards list despite retiring in what many thought was his prime, and was a Pro Bowl selection in every single season that he played. Bottom line is this, if you were trying to fill a job with the description “Must make giant men look like incompetent morons on a consistent basis,” then you’d hire Barry Sanders.

Well, there you have it; an undeniably accurate and handsomely formulated list of the greatest running backs of all-time. No matter how you slice it (had to fit in one more O.J. pun), these five are the best to ever carry the pigskin. Disagree? Make a list of your own, but be warned: it’s probably going to be terrible.

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