10 Best Chicago Bears Running Backs of All Time

Updated on March 26, 2020
Will Tarik Cohen go on to become one of the greatest Chicago Bears running backs of all time?
Will Tarik Cohen go on to become one of the greatest Chicago Bears running backs of all time? | Source

The Greatest Bears Running Backs

Many NFL teams can say some of the greatest running backs in the NFL history wore their colors, but few have as strong a claim as the Chicago Bears. That’s because the Bears are a storied franchise dating back to the very dawn of the NFL.

Starting back in 1920 as the Decatur Staleys, owner and head coach George Halas crafted the team into a one of the NFL’s first championship dynasties. From 1921 to 1946, the Bears appeared in ten NFL Championship Games and won seven of them. Back then, if you were going to win in pro football, you did it on the ground.

A great collegiate running back known as the Galloping Ghost helped put the Bears, and the NFL, on the map in those early days. A bruising fullback named Bronko dominated the 1930s. In the 1960s, one of the best Bears backs of all time set records and put up stunning performances before knee injuries cut his career short. In the 1970s and ‘80s, a man they called Sweetness became the greatest running back in NFL history.

Given such a legacy of greatness throughout Bears' history, how do we choose the best of these legendary backs? To make this list I considered three important qualities.

What makes a great running back?

  • Statistics: Moving the ball on the ground is a running back’s job. Backs with impressive stats in categories like yards-per-carry and total rushing yards are getting it done. Receptions are important too, and some of the backs on this list were are much of a threat as receivers as they were as rushers.
  • Importance to the Team: Sometimes, especially in the early days of pro football, running backs had to split duties. Because of the offenses they ran, that meant two or three backs were getting the yards, carries, and touchdowns that one back would today. It is important to consider this when evaluating backs who played prior to 1980.
  • Accolades: The NFL recognizes greatness with Pro Bowl and All-Pro team nominations and various other awards. Of course, the epitome of success is induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

With all of that in mind, here are the top running backs in Bears history.

10. Matt Suhey

1980-1989

Penn State alum Matt Suhey arrived in the Windy City in 1980 and took over fullback duties the following year. From ’81 to ’89, he shared the backfield with all-world tailback Walter Payton and Pro-Bowl tailback Neal Anderson.

In 1985, the Chicago Bears made it to Super Bowl XX. Suhey started at fullback and helped blow out the New England Patriots by a score of 46-10. He had 11 carries for 52 yards and a touchdown in the game.

Matt Suhey played at a time when the fullback was still an important ball carrier. While he never had a 1,000-yard season, he managed to rush for 2,946 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career. He also caught 260 passes for 2,113 yards. He was a key part of the championship team in 1985, and remains a fan favorite even today.

Jersey Number: 26

Accolades as a Bear

1x Super Bowl Champion

Stats as a Bear

  • 148 games
  • 2,946 rushing yards
  • 20 rushing touchdowns

9. Thomas Jones

2004-2006

Thomas Jones was an outstanding running back who had a stellar 11-year NFL career in which he rushed for over 10,000 yards. However, he only spent three of those years with the Bears, so it didn’t seem right to rank him higher than some of the players who spent their entire careers in Chicago.

In all three seasons he was with the Bears, Jones led the team in rushing, totalling 3,493 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 118 passes for 724 yards. In 2006, Jones and the Bears made it as far as the Super Bowl, where they lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on a rain-drenched Miami field.

Had Jones remained in Chicago for his whole career, he would have the second-most rushing yards in team history. As it stands, his three seasons of work earned him a respectable sixth place all time in rushing yards.

Jersey Number: 20

Accolades as a Bear

1x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Bear

  • 45 games
  • 3,493 rushing yards
  • 22 rushing touchdowns

8. Rick Casares

1955-1964

At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Rick Casares would be a big running back even in today’s NFL. In the 1950s, he was an opposing defense’s nightmare. He was a former boxer known for his toughness and hard-charging playing style.

For ten seasons in Chicago, Casares plowed his way over Bears’ opponents. He led the team in rushing from 1955 to 1960, and by the time he was done, he had amassed 5,657 career rushing yards and scored 49 touchdowns. He made five Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team.

Casares and the Bears lost the NFL Championship game in 1956, but finally won it in 1963 when they defeated the New York Giants by a score of 14 to 10. Casares left the Windy City for Washington in 1964, but he is revered today as one of the greatest Bears running backs of all time.

Jersey Number: 35

Accolades as a Bear

  • 5x Pro Bowl
  • 1x All-Pro
  • 1x NFL Champion

Stats as a Bear

  • 121 games
  • 5,657 rushing yards
  • 49 rushing touchdowns

Casares played college football at the University of Florida
Casares played college football at the University of Florida | Source

7. Neal Anderson

1986-1993

Neal Anderson started his career parked behind Walter Payton on the Bears’ depth chart. When Payton retired following the 1987 season, Anderson got his chance to show the world what he could do. He became one of the best running backs in the NFL, and the Bears’ rushing attack was able to keep on charging forward despite losing Payton.

It was tough for Bears fans to watch Walter Payton retire after giving the city so many great seasons, not to mention a Lombardi Trophy. However, Anderson's emergence helped to quell the sting a bit. He was one more outstanding running back in a city that is known for them.

Anderson led the Bears in rushing for seven straight seasons. He currently ranks third in franchise history for rushing yards (with 6,166) and second for rushing touchdowns (51). He also caught 320 passes for 2,763 yards and 20 touchdowns as a Bear.

Jersey Number: 35

Accolades as a Bear

4x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Bear

  • 116 games
  • 6,166 rushing yards
  • 51 rushing touchdowns

6. George McAfee

1940-1950

While his stats may not merit a higher placing on the list of best pure running backs in Bears history, it is hard to think of a player more versatile and valuable than George McAfee.

McAfee was a shifty back with blazing speed who earned the nickname “One-Play McAfee.” He’s also a good example of a back whose numbers would have been much more impressive had he not shared rushing duties with several other players and spent time playing defense. Unlike today’s NFL, back in the 1940s it was very much a rushing league, and teams stocked up on good running backs.

As it stands, McAfee rushed for 1,685 yards and 21 touchdowns, caught 85 passes for 1,359 yards and 11 touchdowns, intercepted 25 passes, and ran back two each punts and kicks for touchdowns. He even threw three touchdown passes in his 11-years as a Bear.

McAfee helped the Bears win three NFL championships during his career. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1966.

Jersey Number: 5

Accolades as a Bear

  • 1x Pro Bowl
  • 1x All-Pro
  • 3x NFL Champion
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1966

Stats as a Bear

  • 75 games
  • 1,685 rushing yards
  • 21 rushing touchdowns

5. Matt Forte

2008–2015

In my opinion, Matt Forte was underrated as a running back during his playing years. I think the fact that he played for the Bears is a big reason for that. It has to be tough to walk in the shadows of players like Payton, Sayers, Nagurski, and Grange. Still, with all due respect to George McAfee, Forte well deserves to be in the top 5 on any list of the greatest Chicago running backs.

Forte never won a championship and only made the Pro Bowl twice. However, he is the second-leading rusher in franchise history. He ran for over 1,000 yards in five of his eight seasons as a Bear and led the team in rushing each year. In 2014, he caught 102 passes while also rushing for 1,038 yards.

In addition to rushing for 8,602 yards and scoring 45 touchdowns on the ground, Forte caught 487 passes for 4,116 yards and 19 touchdowns during his time in the Windy City. He was a versatile, durable back who deserved more accolades than he received during his playing time. Forte put up some impressive numbers, but whether they will be good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame remains to be seen.

Jersey Number: 22

Accolades as a Bear

2x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Bear

  • 146 games
  • 8,602 rushing yards
  • 45 rushing touchdowns

Was Matt Forte underrated during his time with the Bears?
Was Matt Forte underrated during his time with the Bears? | Source

4. Red Grange

1925-1934

It is tough to know where to rank Harold “Red” Grange on a list of the best Chicago Bears running backs of all time. His true stats have gone largely unrecorded, but his legend is the greatest in franchise history.

Grange was a 22-year-old college senior in 1925 and one of the best college football players in the country. He had led his University of Illinois team to a National Championship in 1923 and had been named an All-American three times. In college, Grange earned the nickname “The Galloping Ghost” due to his shifty running style.

In the ‘20s, college football was incredibly popular in America; but many fans saw the pro game as a low-rate imitation. It was rare for a college player to go on to play pro football, let alone one as famous as Grange. But Bears owner George Halas saw an opportunity, and he offered Grange a contract that would change pro football forever.

Grange joined the Bears for the 1925 Thanksgiving Day game, only a short time after his college season had ended. Following the regular season, Grange and the Bears went on what would be called “Barnstorming Tours” where they traveled across the country and faced off against independent pro teams, all-star teams, and local football clubs. This grueling schedule often pitted them against several teams in the same week, which seems like madness today. The intent was to expose more of the public to pro football, and the Galloping Ghost was the main attraction.

Grange helped the Bears win two championships during his time with the team. He made All-Pro twice and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Most importantly, his presence drew attention to pro football and set it on the path to becoming what it is today.

Jersey Number: 77

Accolades as a Bear

  • 2x All-Pro
  • 2x NFL Champion
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1963

Stats as a Bear

  • 96 games
  • 569 rushing yards*
  • 21 Rushing Touchdowns*

* Stats incomplete

Red Grange was one of the first college stars to play pro football.
Red Grange was one of the first college stars to play pro football. | Source

3. Bronko Nagurski

1930-1937, 1943

Nagurski was a 225-pound fullback who outweighed many of the offensive tackles of his day. In fact he played tackle later in his career, but he made his mark as a bone-crushing ball carrier no opponent looked forward to tackling.

As with Grange, statistics are a little shaky for Nagurski’s time in the league. Official stats have him rushing for 2,778 yards in his career though some of his earliest games are missing from that number. He was also known for the jump pass, and he threw for 474 yards and seven touchdowns in his career.

Nagurski helped the Bears win three NFL championships. He won two during his first stint in the league from 1930 to 1937, then came out of retirement in 1943 at the age of 35 to win one more.

To save his body from the punishment that went along with his running style, Nagurski committed to playing tackle that final season, but he was called into the backfield one last time in the championship game. He carried 11 times for 34 yards and a touchdown as his Bears defeated the Washington Redskins by a score of 41-21.

Jersey Number: 3

Accolades as a Bear

  • 4x All-Pro
  • 3x NFL Champion
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1963

Stats as a Bear

  • 97 games
  • 2,778 rushing yards*
  • 25 rushing touchdowns

* Stats incomplete

2. Gale Sayers

1965-1971

Sayers was a triple-threat player who could change a game in the blink of an eye. During his brief seven-year career, he rushed for 4,956 yards and 39 touchdowns with an amazing 5.0 yards-per-carry average. He caught 112 passes for 1,307 yards and nine touchdowns.

But Sayers was most dangerous as a return man. He ran two punts and six kickoffs back for touchdowns in his career. As a punt returner, he had a career average of 14.5 yards per return, and his average as a kick returner was 30.6 yards per return. Incredible.

As a rookie in 1965, Sayers scored an amazing six touchdowns in one game against the San Francisco 49ers. His stats for the day included carrying the ball nine times for 113 yards and four touchdowns, catching two passes for 89 yards and a touchdown, and returning five punts for 134 yards and a touchdown.

A string of knee injuries cut Sayers’ career short. During his last two seasons with the Bears, he played in only four total games and managed only 90 yards rushing. But for the five seasons before that, there was not a more dangerous back in the NFL. Had he played longer, and had he not shared rushing duties during his career with fullbacks Brian Piccolo and Ronnie Bull, Sayers might today hold every NFL rushing record.

Jersey Number: 40

Accolades as a Bear

  • 4x Pro Bowl
  • 5x All Pro
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1977

Stats as a Bear

  • 68 games
  • 4,956 rushing yards
  • 39 rushing touchdowns

Brian Piccolo and Brian’s Song

Brian Piccolo was a free agent who worked hard to make the Bears' roster as a halfback. As a rookie in 1966, he found himself stuck behind Gale Sayers on the depth chart. In 1969, Piccolo moved to fullback and, together with Sayers, made up a formidable rushing duo.

When the team traveled, Sayers and Piccolo were assigned as roommates and quickly became friends. That might not seem like a big deal except Piccolo was white, Sayers was black, and it was the 1960s. At that time, player hotel rooms were still segregated. Sayers and Piccolo became the NFL’s first interracial roommates and a positive example of the change needed in the country.

Near the end of the 1969 season, Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma. After several unsuccessful surgeries, he passed away on June 16, 1970, at the age of 26. His struggle and his relationship with Sayers were immortalized in the movie Brian’s Song.

1. Walter Payton

1975-1987

Every football fan has their own opinion on who was the greatest NFL running back of all time. There is a strong argument for Jim Brown but, for me, it's Walter Payton. For thirteen seasons, he was nearly unstoppable and by the time he was done, he was the No. 1 rusher in NFL history with 16,726 total yards on the ground.

Nicknamed “Sweetness” for his soft voice and laid-back disposition, Walter Payton was anything but sweet to opponents on the field. He rushed for over 1,200 yards every season from 1976 to 1986 (not counting the strike-shortened 1982 season). He scored 110 rushing touchdowns and averaged 4.4 yards-per-carry for his career. He was also a receiving threat out of the backfield and caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career. Payton even passed for 331 yards and eight touchdowns as a Bear!

These numbers are staggering, but even more so considering that he played on sub-par teams for most of his career. From 1975 to 1983, the Bears only had two winning seasons. Unlike backs like Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith, Payton didn’t have the luxury of running behind a championship-level offensive line for most of his career.

By 1984, things were beginning to change. The Bears finished first in the NFC Central but lost the NFC Championship to the San Francisco 49ers. The following year, Payton and his Bears finally made it to the Super Bowl and won a championship.

Walter Payton retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher after the 1987 season, and he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

Payton tragically passed away in 1999 at the age of 45. I don’t expect to see another player that compares to him in my lifetime. He was, in my opinion, the greatest running back in NFL history, and one of the best all-around football players of all time.

Jersey Number: 34

Accolades as a Bear

  • 9x Pro Bowl
  • 5x All-Pro
  • 1x Super Bowl Champion
  • 1977 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
  • 1977 NFL Man of the Year
  • 1977 NFL MVP
  • 1985 Bert Bell Award
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1993

Stats as a Bear

  • 190 games
  • 16,726 rushing yards
  • 110 rushing touchdowns

Honorable Mentions

Here are a few more great Bears running backs who were considered for this top 10 list but didn’t quite make the cut.

Willie Galimore

1957-1963

It was tough choosing between Willie Galimore and Matt Suhey for the tenth spot on the list above. Both have championships under their belts, but Galimore has slightly better rushing stats. However, Suhey’s value as a blocker and receiver tipped the scales. Galimore was a great one, though. He ranks tenth all time in franchise history for rushing yards, and he made one Pro Bowl in his career.

Roland Harper

1975-1982

For Harper’s entire career, he played fullback alongside Walter Payton. The two players came in to the league together in 1975, and remained together until Harper retired after the 1982 season. Despite Payton’s greatness and the impressive numbers he put up, Harper still managed to amass 3,044 career rushing yards during his career, which puts him ninth in Bears’ history.

Ronnie Bull

1962-1971

Bull played for 11 seasons in Chicago. In his rookie season of 1963, the Bears defeated the New York Giants to win the NFL Championship. Bull led his team in rushing in the game with 42 yards. It would be the last championship for Chicago until the 1985 season. In fact, aside from 1963, the Bears had losing seasons every year until Bull moved on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1971. Still, he rushed for 2,871 yards as a Bear, putting him No. 12 in team history.

Jordan Howard

2016-2018

Howard spent his first three seasons in Chicago and made the Pro Bowl his rookie year. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2016 and 2017 before his productivity dropped a bit in 2018. For the 2019 season, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. During his tenure in Chicago he ran for 3,370 yards and 24 touchdowns, which is good enough to land him in the 7th spot for Bears’ all-time leading rushers.

Anthony Thomas

2001-2004

Thomas spent four seasons with the Bears and totaled 3,332 yards rushing along with 21 touchdowns. This makes him eighth all-time in Bears' history. He earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award for his 1,183-yard performance in 2001, but never quite got his footing after that. He played for four more teams after leaving the Bears in 2005, but never again ran for 1,000 yards in a season.

Tarik Cohen

2017-Present

Tarik Cohen is a dangerous triple-threat player made in the molds of McAfee and Sayers before him. He earned a Pro Bowl nomination and made the All-Pro team in 2018, a year where he rushed for 444 yards and caught 71 passes for 725 yards. His productivity dropped a bit in 2019, but he remains a powerful offensive weapon. Cohen is a player built for today’s wide-open offenses, and if he can stay healthy, he may find himself ranking in the top 10 on lists like this one someday.

Chicago Bears All-Time Leading Rushers

Player
Yards
Touchdowns
Years
Walter Payton
16,726
110
1975-1987
Matt Forte
8,602
45
2008-2015
Neal Anderson
6,166
51
1986-1993
Rick Casares
5,657
49
1955-1964
Gale Sayers
4,956
39
1965-1971
Former Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard on a run against the Buffalo Bills
Former Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard on a run against the Buffalo Bills | Source

Who Is the Best Chicago Bears Running Back of All time?

Walter Payton was the best Bears running back ever, the best running back in NFL history, and one of the greatest football players of all time. He set the NFL career-rushing record and scored 125 total touchdowns in his career while making nine Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams, winning the 1985 Bert Bell Award, 1977 NFL MVP, and 1977 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award

In 1977, the NFL honored Walter Payton with the Man of the Year Award, an annual accolade presented to one NFL player for his volunteer charity work and involvement in the community.

The NFL renamed the NFL Man of the Year Award the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in his honor after his passing. It is a fitting memorial to a player who was as great off the field as he was on it.

Each year there is one nominee from each team. Since 2017, nominees wear a decal on their helmets during the regular season and past winners display a patch on their jersey.

Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner J.J. Watt
Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner J.J. Watt | Source

Chicago Bears Running Backs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Player
Year Inducted
Bronko Nagurski
1963
Red Grange
1963
George McAfee
1966
Gale Sayers
1977
Walter Payton
1993

Making This List

I could not end this article without a few comments on the importance of many of the players listed here—not just for the Chicago Bears but for pro football history.

I have been a loyal student of NFL football for over 40 years. It is, in my subjective opinion, the greatest and noblest sport, with a long and fascinating history. Still, I found myself humbled while writing this article, walking the line between awestruck fan and fascinated historian. I wondered what it was like to watch Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, or George McAfee play football so many decades ago.

Today, these men are like mythical beings from another time and place. With their simple gear and grubby uniforms, they are hardly what we’d expect to see while watching pro football today. But they are the forefathers of pro football and, without them, we would not have the NFL as we know it.

Every NFL player today stands on the shoulders of the legends who came before him. It is amazing to think back to where it all began and incredible that so many of the past legends were Chicago Bears.

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