This position demands the total package. The running back requires explosive speed, bruising power, agility, and rocket-fast acceleration. This magnificent athleticism must then be blended with vision, toughness, durability, and leadership. That is why it’s the most difficult job on the field. It is both mentally and physically challenging, requiring in-depth play knowledge and intense contact on every down.
An every-minute player, the running back never has a chance to rest. When he’s not carrying the ball, he must fake and pretend he does have it. He must know the various alignments of the defense and adjust to them. On a pass play, he may need to block, so the quarterback has time to execute. Not only must he know every play, but he needs to quickly react to its variations. Top running backs are tasked with rushing the football, receiving passes out of the backfield, blocking, breaking up big plays, protecting the quarterback, and driving the team towards victory. These top 10 NFL running backs of all time dazzled fans with their rich talent and dogged determination.
Top 10 Running Backs
- Eric Dickerson
Sporting goofy googles with a luscious head of rich, dark curls, it’s hard to take Erik Dickerson seriously, until you see him run. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he was taller than most running backs and an outstanding straight-line runner. After clearing the line of scrimmage, his long strides would gobble up yardage as he raced up the sidelines. Dickerson still owns the single season record of 2,105 rushing yards, set in 1984 when he played for the Los Angeles Rams.
- Walter Payton
Nicknamed “Sweetness” for his personality off the field, Walter Payton was quite the opposite on the field. This gridiron bruiser invented the stiff-arm as he mowed over defenders and refused to go out-of-bounds. Although he wasn’t fast, he accumulated yards through toughness and moves. He had a killer stutter-step and mentally punished the defense with his explosive spins as he tenaciously fought for every last inch. During his career with the Chicago Bears, Payton earned 16,726 rushing yards, 110 touchdowns, one MVP award, and one Super Bowl ring in 1985.
- Jim Brown
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Jim Brown on the Cleveland Browns was just too strong to be taken down. He would deliver forearm shivers and overpower many smaller, weaker cornerbacks. With incredible speed he would blow past a safety and then make it into the end zone. He achieved a career total of 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns, and between 1957 through 1965, he claimed eight rushing titles.
- Gale Sayers
A long-strider combined with unbelievable quickness and ability to catch balls, Gale Sayers was an all-around threat and a true nightmare for the defense. Unfortunately, injuries limited his career to seven NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears. During his short tenure, he still managed to become the best kickoff returner in history with an amazing 30.6 yard average per attempt.
- Emmitt Smith
A durable running back with great instincts and balance, Emmitt Smith wasn’t flashy, but he most definitely got the job done. He was a great inside runner and tough competitor. With 18,355 career rushing yards, he is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. A true warrior on the field for the Dallas Cowboys, he would run directly into the defense and grind out yards.
- Barry Sanders
A 1988 Heisman Trophy recipient, Barry Sanders was an incredibly elusive running back able to contort his body in unthinkable ways to quickly shimmy past linebackers. He broke the ankles of defensive backs and earned 15,269 rushing yards during his 10 seasons of play with the Detroit Lions. He shocked the world when he left the NFL after the 1998 season. Maybe he was tired of getting beat up every Sunday?
- Tony Dorsett
The second overall draft pick, Tony Dorsett entered the NFL as a Dallas Cowboy and became their starting running back after his tenth game. He has the longest run in NFL history — a 99-yard touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in 1983. In Super Bowl XII, Dorsett rushed for 66 yards on 15 carries to lead the Cowboys to victory (27-10) over the Denver Broncos.
- Earl Campbell
The 1977 Heisman Trophy winner, Earl Campbell was the first overall draft pick in 1978 for the Houston Oilers and then earned Offensive Rookie of the Year, NFL MVP, and All-Pro Honors. With his tree trunk thighs, he had tremendous power and often ran directly into the teeth of the defense. In addition to his imposing size and power, he was still able to run past the defense on the outside. Unfortunately, he paid the price for his bruising boldness and had just five healthy seasons in the NFL.
- O.J. Simpson
Although it’s difficult to put aside his infamous personal life, O.J. Simpson was a legendary running back who was wasted as a kick returner and decoy his first three seasons. In 1972, he became a running back and applied his USC track skills to effortlessly pass opponents. He is known for explosive speed and if a defender started closing in on him, he quickly found another gear and glided majestically towards the end zone. In just 14 games into the 1973 season with the Buffalo Bills, he ran 2,003 yards. Each of the other five members of the 2,000-yard club achieved the goal in 16 games.
- LaDainian Tomlinson
LaDainian Tomlinson on the San Diego Chargers could do it all. He had amazing running talent, and he could catch the football out of the backfield, go wide as a receiver, and even throw the football. With his extremely strong legs he had speed and power. He could also quickly scan the field with his trademark visor, move the football inside and outside of the tackles, and completely demolish the defense. Tomlinson now ranks fifth in NFL career yards with 13,684.
NFL Players Who Served or Are Still Serving in the Military
In addition to the players listed above, there are several outstanding running backs who served or are currently serving in the U.S. Army. These outstanding NFL athletes earn special praise for their devotion to our country.
- Rocky Bleier
Rocky Bleier was drafted into the Army after his 1968 rookie season in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers and deployed to Vietnam. While in the service, he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for a shrapnel injury to his leg. Although doctors told him he would never play football again, he returned to the Steelers and played on four Super Bowl-winning teams in 10 more NFL seasons. Bleier is known for his devotion to military veterans and wounded warriors.
- Glen Coffee
In 2009, Glen Coffee, the third round draft pick, was chosen by the San Francisco 49ers. He retired from the NFL after one year and is now enlisted in the Army. He is currently a specialist and part of the support staff for waterborne operations at the prestigious 6th Ranger Training Battalion at Eglin Air Force Base.
Many members of the NFL community have provided exceptional support to U.S. service members, veterans and their families. The Salute to Service Award presented by the United Services Automobile Association (USAA) was created to acknowledge their outstanding efforts.