Skip to main content

See also:

Top ten running backs since 1980

Does Corey Dillon make the cut?
Does Corey Dillon make the cut?
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Last week, I took a look at the top ten quarterbacks of the last thirty years. That made me curious as to who would be my top ten running backs of the last thirty years (pretty much my adult lifetime). I never saw Jim Brown play, but, from all the stories, he would top anyone's list of best running backs of all-time.

There were some tough omissions from my list. Earl Campbell is the toughest one. My first reaction was he belonged, but I was surprised at how brief his career was. He only had five years in which he rushed for over 1,000 yards. Plus his best years were before 1982. But I really wanted to put him on this list, if, for nothing else, that one jersey-ripping run against the Rams (who is the Ram here?).

Other candidates who barely missed the cut: Jerome Bettis, John Riggins, Terrell Davis, Marcus Allen, Roger Craig, and Tony Dorsett.

10. Bo Jackson
10. Bo Jackson George Rose

10. Bo Jackson

I don't care that he only played 38 games in the NFL. Those 38 games in the NFL were must watch. Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete I've ever seen and he makes my list. End of story. You cannot convince me otherwise. In fact, I have to resist the urge to place him higher. Career average of 5.4 yards per carry. Three runs in those measly 38 games of over 88 yards. In one of those games he rushed for 221 yards in a game on Monday night and destroyed Brian Bosworth at the goal line. In the same game, he had a 91-yard TD run in which he just kept running down a tunnel and seemingly out of the stadium at the old Seattle Kingdome. As I get older, my memory keeps fading, but I can still see those two runs as if they happened yesterday... and they happened 27 years ago. Nobody, in my lifetime, combined the speed and power of Bo. I never saw Jim Brown play, but I imagine Bo Jackson as the closest thing.

9. Thurman Thomas
9. Thurman Thomas Rick Stewart/All Sport

9. Thurman Thomas

I grew an appreciation for Thurman Thomas having to watch him play twice every year against the Patriots. Thomas helped the Buffalo Bills get to four consecutive Super Bowls. I have an affinity for running backs who catch the ball out of the backfield, and he was one of the first I remember to do both extremely well. Roger Craig was the first, and he barely missed out on making this list. Thomas was the perfect fit for the Jim Kelly-led K-Gun offense.

8. Eric Dickerson
8. Eric Dickerson Mike Powell/All Sport

8. Eric Dickerson

Ahhh, those goggles. I remember thinking he was the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the NFL. Both were great at their respective sports and both wore trademark goggles. Eric Dickerson wasn't your protypical running back-- standing at 6'3". His upright running style was unique. As opposed to running like a bull, he was a stallion. He had three seasons when he rushed for more than 1,800 yards and still holds the single-season record of 2,105 yards rushing in 1984.

7. Curtis Martin
7. Curtis Martin Jamie Squire/All Sport

7. Curtis Martin

It still stings me. Curtis Martin should have been a Patriot for life. That's why I chose a picture of him in a Patriots' uniform for this page. What an under-the-radar career he had. Would you be surprised if I told you he finished fourth all-time in rushing yards? When he was younger, he reminded me of a bigger version of Barry Sanders. He had the spin moves and the jab steps that made defenders look foolish. Bill Parcells said, "Don't go putting him in Canton yet," after Martin's first NFL game, but that is where Martin is now.

6. Marshall Faulk
6. Marshall Faulk Al Messerschmidt/Allsport

6. Marshall Faulk

Despite his hatred for the Patriots and Bill Belichick, I have to put Marshall Faulk high on this list. Just stop being so bitter, will ya? He took the baton from Thurman Thomas (who took it from Roger Craig) as the ultimate dual threat running back. Faulk took it to another level, having five consecutive seasons with 80 receptions or more. If Curtis Martin is the one that got away for the Patriots, Marshall Faulk is that for the Indianapolis Colts. Would Peyton Manning have won more Super Bowls if he had Faulk lined up behind him? Only if Peyton didn't have to throw the ball. (Did I say that out loud?)

5. LaDainian Tomlinson
5. LaDainian Tomlinson Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

5. LaDainian Tomlinson

There were few running backs this last decade I've been more afraid of my team facing than LaDainian Tomlinson. He is the closest thing I've seen to Walter Payton. Tomlinson could do it all. He could run, catch, and pass. He threw seven touchdown passes, second only to Walter Payton among non-quarterbacks. He ranks fifth all-time in rushing yards. He scored a NFL record 28 touchdowns rushing in 2006. Tomlinson struggled in the postseason. He only had one 100-yard rushing game in 10 tries and averaged only 3.57 yards per carry (his career average was 4.3). Otherwise, Tomlinson might be a notch higher on my list.

4. Emmitt Smith
4. Emmitt Smith Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

4. Emmitt Smith

I almost feel obligated to put Emmitt Smith this high. He is the NFL all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. I don't view him as spectacular, but he had amazing longegivity for a running back. At age 35, his final season in the NFL, he still managed to rush for 937 yards. He benefited greatly by playing behind one of the all-time best offensive lines while with the Dallas Cowboys. One thing is for sure-- Emmitt is the top dancer of this group.

3. Adrian Peterson
3. Adrian Peterson Jamie Squire/Getty Images

3. Adrian Peterson

Too soon? I don't think so. I try to resist the temptation of putting too high of a value on a player whose career is ongoing, but Adrian Peterson is an exception. The scary part is, at age 28, Peterson may only be hitting his prime now. He has only played seven seasons and already has over 10,000 yards rushing and is fast approaching 100 rushing touchdowns. Emmitt Smith is just the guardian of those two records until Peterson takes them. The sky is the limit with Peterson. I just hope Peterson has the opportunity to have a better team around him at some point soon.

2. Barry Sanders
2. Barry Sanders Tom Pidgeon/Allsport

2. Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders took the Jim Brown route. He retired while he was on top of his game and while he still had his health. I can't argue with that. Just look at the unfortunate post-career health plights of Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett. Do I feel deprived I don't get to see Sanders break more defensive back's ankles with his spinning, video game-style moves? I'd be lying if I said I didn't. Sanders shocked everyone by walking away at the age of 30, two years older than what Adrian Peterson is now. Despite having defenses focusing on him, Sanders still finished with an average 5.0 yards per carry. Despite only playing 10 seasons, Sanders ranks third all-time in rushing yards. He rushed for almost 1500 yards in his last season. He rushed for 2053 yards in his second to last season!

1. Walter Payton
1. Walter Payton George Rose/Getty Images

1. Walter Payton

Just the name "Walter Payton" makes my jaw involuntarily drop in awe. He was Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, and LaDainian Tomlinson all rolled into one. He possessed the power, the speed, and the moves. I even remember him lining up at quarterback more than a handful of times in a game when the Chicago Bears were struggling at the position. The Bears were a bad team for a long time before their rise to dominance late in Payton's career. For most of his career, "Sweetness" had little help, running one against eleven in the elements of Chicago winters, which makes all his accomplishments all the more impressive.