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The Greatest Running Back Ever Is...
David M. Dorey
2004

The retirement of Emmitt Smith, coupled with the impending long off-season, has generated one of the most enjoyable, fruitless and pointless debates of spring - exactly who can be considered the greatest running back ever? Is it Emmitt with most of the career records? Walter Payton who held them for many years? Barry Sanders and his ability to tear the ACL of a linebacker with his quick cuts? Or is it Jim Brown who played a long time ago but by most accounts was ridiculously in a class by himself at the time?

The only objective measurement are statistics, but even within them there will always be the question of how they were accumulated and against whom at which NFL era. As the years roll by, defensive players are getting bigger and faster as are offensive blockers. The style of offenses are important as well since some ran the ball more than others. Some players had a good passing game to balance them while others had to provide almost all the production. It's all impossible really to equate 1:1 for the top four running backs over the last 40 years.

But it is the offseason and without free agency to talk about yet, let's break down the statistics of the top four runners and award some "Best of" titles. Maybe by the end we can better determine who is worthy of "The Greatest". First off, let's look at career marks:

Career
Rushing
Receiving
Total
Name
TM
Yrs
Gms
Att
Yards
TD
Rec
Yards
TD
Touches
Yards
TD
Jim Brown
CLE
9
118
2,359
12,312
106
262
2,499
20
2,621
14,811
126
Walter Payton
CHI
13
190
3,838
16,726
110
492
4,538
15
4,330
21,264
125
Barry Sanders
DET
10
153
3,062
15,269
99
352
2,921
10
3,414
18,190
109
Emmitt Smith
DAL
15
226
4,409
18,355
164
515
3,224
11
4,924
21,579
175

Career Best:

1. Emmitt Smith - Hands down for all categories other than receiving yards and scores. His 15 seasons were astounding and his durability coupled with talent and situation has buried most career records for at least the foreseeable future.

2. Walter Payton - No other top runner can claim to have been a more effective pass catcher than Payton over the course of their career. His 4,538 yards far outstrips what any other runner was able to do. In most other categories, he comes in second thanks to his 13 seasons.

3. Barry Sanders - His marks across the board were commensurate or better than the others but he only played ten seasons. He doesn't rank tops in any area shown and he falls a bit short on receiving but overall, the numbers dictate that Sanders was not only #3, but that his earlier departure from the league is probably the only reason why.

4. Jim Brown - No matter that he had a much shorter career, Brown was easily the best scorer as a pass receiver with 20 touchdowns over the span of 9 years. His total numbers are the lowest for carries and catches but he still ranks #2 with total touchdowns in spite of playing so much less than the others.

But let's make this at least a little more comparable by considering only the first nine seasons played for each player (since Jim Brown only played nine years). And let's consider their production "per game" since Brown never played in a 16 game season. We'll consider longevity later, but for now, the closest 1:1 we can get is comparing the first nine seasons with "per game" averages. No - not perfect, but at least the closest thing to an objective measurement.

Rushing Numbers First Nine Seasons
Per Game Played
Player
Gms
Att
Yards
TD
Att
Yards
YPA
TD
Jim Brown
118
2,359
12,312
106
20
104
5.2
0.9
Emmitt Smith
140
2,914
12,566
125
21
90
4.3
0.9
Barry Sanders
137
2,719
13,778
95
20
101
5.1
0.7
Walter Payton
130
2,666
11,625
78
21
89
4.4
0.6

It depends on the argument you want to make here. In the first nine seasons, Emmitt Smith had the most rushing yards in the games he could play while Jim Brown had the best yards per game, yards per carry and tied with Emmitt for how often he scored a touchdown. Barry Sanders actually had the most yardage in the first nine seasons played.

Receiving Numbers First Nine Seasons
Per Game Played
Player
Gms
Rec
Yards
TD
Rec
Yards
YPR
TD
Jim Brown
118
262
2,499
20
2
21
9.5
0.2
Emmitt Smith
140
415
2,609
9
3
19
6.3
0.1
Barry Sanders
137
315
2,632
10
2
19
8.4
0.1
Walter Payton
130
328
3,088
9
3
24
9.4
0.1

Emmitt again comes out on top overall in number of games and receptions, but Payton covered the most yardage and still Brown was the best at actually scoring on a pass. Looking at per game averages, Brown was the best at gaining yards and scoring while Payton had the slightly better yardage per game.

Total Numbers First Nine Seasons
Per Game Played
Player
Gms
Touch
Yards
TD
Touch
Yards
YPT
TD
Jim Brown
118
2,621
14,811
126
22
126
5.7
1.1
Emmitt Smith
140
3,329
15,175
134
24
108
4.6
1.0
Barry Sanders
137
3,034
16,410
105
22
120
5.4
0.8
Walter Payton
130
2,994
14,713
87
23
113
4.9
0.7

Once again, Emmitt shows up as the heavy use back and the most durable. Sanders rushing yards made him as the best in the first nine seasons at running down the field while defenders chased him and likely looked silly trying to keep up. Per game, Jim Brown was the best at yards, scores and yards per touch. Pretty important.

So considering these numbers, with the career marks, allow me to make some awards. Quite simply, there is no answer to the question "Who is the greatest running back ever" because that quality relies on what you are measuring. All four running backs here were the best at something, so it is only fair to give them all equal props on their accomplishments. Let's be serious - an offensive coordinator would say a prayer of thanks each day if he had any of these four players. After four decades, these are the best runners by any measure.

Most Prolific and Durable Running Back - No question here. Emmitt Smith's durability and heavy use allowed him to rack up marks that will take years and maybe decades to ever challenge again. There's a lot to be said for being the most reliable workhorse in any backfield ever. For 13 years, there were never any questions in the Dallas backfield. Over the 15 seasons, he gained every possible accolade that he could as a runner and an NFL player.

Most Effective Running Back - There is no doubt - Jim Brown. He had more yards and scores, and gained more per touch than any other runner considered. Maybe he could be as good now and maybe not, but for his period there is no denying that he was the most effective runner to ever play the game - while he played. He was the most effective runner by his numbers and we'll never know what he might have done had he not left the game early by most opinion. He could have been injured in the first game of his tenth year or maybe he would have gone for years and buried records for good. All we can know is that while he played, if only in the time he played, there has been no more effective a running back.

Best Runner - Barry Sanders had the most rushing yardage in nine years of playing and could have exceeded all career totals had he not played three seasons less than Payton and five years less than Smith. His rushing yardage was the highest in his first nine seasons and his yards per carry were as good as Brown. Surprisingly, he was not as used as a pass catcher as the others and that depressed his numbers some from what could have been. Sanders left the game early on his own terms and while he may have slightly trailed in some categories, he has to be given a secondary award here and in some ways, perhaps the most important - Most Fun To Watch. Simply put, he was in a class all his own from a unique running style.

Best All Around Running Back - This is not to merely award something to Walter Payton. He deserves it. Payton delivered the durability to rival Smith, a comparable per game rushing ability of any of the three and adds in being the best pass catcher of them all. Quite simply, no matter the down or the distance, Payton was a threat rushing or receiving and did it for longer than all but Emmitt. He is the tops in most receiving categories and rivals on any of the rushing aspects. What more could an offense want than someone who can deliver the goods for a long time in several ways?

Apologies to those who feel Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett or O.J. Simpson was slighted by not being considered, but these players reviewed all richly deserve a seat at the head table that only sits four. And each deserves to be there for a different reason. Who was the best? Depends on what you are looking at and what you consider the criteria to be. They represent the four horsemen of the apocalypse to opposing defenses in the history of the NFL. They are the finest the game has ever produced.

Below are the statistics for each year these players were in the NFL if you are interested in how they broke down. Now that all four of these runners are gone from the game, we're left with only arguments that can never satisfy everyone and more importantly, the chance to figure out who the next great running back is. Hope you draft him next summer...

Jim Brown (CLE)
Rushing
Receiving
Total
Year
Gms
Att
Yards
TD
Cat
Yards
TD
Yards
TD
1957
12
202
942
9
16
55
1
997
10
1958
12
257
1,527
17
16
138
1
1,665
18
1959
12
290
1,329
14
24
190
0
1,519
14
1960
12
215
1,257
9
19
204
2
1,461
11
1961
14
305
1,408
8
46
459
2
1,867
10
1962
14
230
996
13
47
517
5
1,513
18
1963
14
291
1,863
12
24
268
3
2,131
15
1964
14
280
1,446
7
36
340
2
1,786
9
1965
14
289
1,544
17
34
328
4
1,872
21
Total
118
2,359
12,312
106
262
2,499
20
14,811
126
Walter Payton (CHI)
Rushing
Receiving
Total
Year
Gms
Att
Yards
TD
Cat
Yards
TD
Yards
TD
1975
13
196
679
7
33
213
0
892
7
1976
14
311
1,390
13
15
149
0
1,539
13
1977
14
339
1,852
14
27
269
2
2,121
16
1978
16
333
1,395
11
50
480
0
1,875
11
1979
16
369
1,610
14
31
313
2
1,923
16
1980
16
317
1,460
6
46
367
1
1,827
7
1981
16
339
1,222
6
41
379
2
1,601
8
1982
9
148
596
1
32
311
0
907
1
1983
16
314
1,421
6
53
607
2
2,028
8
1984
16
381
1,684
11
45
368
0
2,052
11
1985
16
324
1,551
9
49
483
2
2,034
11
1986
16
321
1,333
8
37
382
3
1,715
11
1987
12
146
533
4
33
217
1
750
5
Total
190
3,838
16,726
110
492
4,538
15
21,264
125
Barry Sanders (DET)
Rushing
Receiving
Total
Year
Gms
Att
Yards
TD
Cat
Yards
TD
Yards
TD
1989
15
280
1,470
14
24
282
0
1,752
14
1990
16
255
1,304
13
36
480
3
1,784
16
1991
15
342
1,548
16
41
307
1
1,855
17
1992
16
312
1,352
9
29
225
1
1,577
10
1993
11
243
1,115
3
36
205
0
1,320
3
1994
16
331
1,883
7
44
283
1
2,166
8
1995
16
314
1,500
11
48
398
1
1,898
12
1996
16
307
1,553
11
24
147
0
1,700
11
1997
16
335
2,053
11
33
305
3
2,358
14
1998
16
343
1,491
4
37
289
0
1,780
4
Total
153
3,062
15,269
99
352
2,921
10
18,190
109
Emmitt Smith (DAL)
Rushing
Receiving
Total
Year
Gms
Att
Yards
TD
Cat
Yards
TD
Yards
TD
1990
16
241
937
11
24
228
0
1,165
11
1991
16
365
1,563
12
49
258
1
1,821
13
1992
16
373
1,713
18
59
335
1
2,048
19
1993
14
283
1,486
9
57
414
1
1,900
10
1994
15
368
1,484
21
50
341
1
1,825
22
1995
16
377
1,773
25
62
375
0
2,148
25
1996
15
327
1,204
12
47
249
3
1,453
15
1997
16
261
1,074
4
40
234
0
1,308
4
1998
16
319
1,332
13
27
175
2
1,507
15
1999
15
329
1,397
11
27
119
2
1,516
13
2000
16
294
1,203
9
11
79
0
1,282
9
2001
14
261
1,021
3
17
116
0
1,137
3
2002
16
254
975
5
16
89
0
1,064
5
2003
10
90
256
2
14
107
0
363
2
2004
15
267
937
9
15
105
0
1,042
9
Total
226
4,409
18,355
164
515
3,224
11
21,579
175