Who Is the Greatest Running Back of All Time?

Updated on May 26, 2020
JesseUnk profile image

Jesse is a lifelong sports fan with a passion for finding the facts. His writing has been recognized and published by Sports Illustrated.

Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Walter Payton are universally acknowledged as the greatest running backs of all time.
Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Walter Payton are universally acknowledged as the greatest running backs of all time.

Who is the Greatest Running Back of All Time?

Throughout history, Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Walter Payton have earned praise as the greatest running back of all time from one generation or another. All four hold or have held franchise and NFL rushing records during their careers, each exhibiting incredible skill. While the argument may never be definitively solved, here are a few comparisons, as well as statistics, that may be able to make the argument more clear. This article will cover each player's overall statistics, their averages, their impact on their teams, their usage, and the strength of each era they played in, in comparison to others. Hopefully by the end of this article you will have enough information to make an educated argument as to who you feel is the greatest of all time.

Emmitt Smith has played the second most game of any NFL running back in history.
Emmitt Smith has played the second most game of any NFL running back in history.

What NFL Running Back Played Longest?

When looking at running backs, it may appear at first that Emmitt Smith is the greatest running back of all time. He leads the four backs in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and even receptions. However, Smith played 36 more games than the next leading rusher and nearly twice as many games as Jim Brown. The saying goes, "The best ability is availability." Running backs are players who take more hits than most positions in football, making them more susceptible to injury and having much shorter careers on average than other positions. Below are the number of games missed by each of the four backs:

  • Emmitt Smith missed 14 games in his 15-year career. With each of his seasons being 16-game seasons, Smith only missed 5.8% of his career games. This longevity and health are what helped him lead in most categories, allowing him to play football until the age of 35. He played a total of 226 games in his career.
  • Walter Payton only missed 4 games during his career, with a strike-shortened 9-game season in 1982 and a strike-shortened 15-game season in 1987. Of his 194 possible career games, he played in 190 meaning he only missed 2.0% of his career games. Payton played until the age of 33.
  • Barry Sanders missed 7 games in his NFL career. Of his 160 possible games, he only missed 4.3% of his total games. Sanders' career only lasted 10 years however, as stated above. With 73 fewer games than Smith and 37 fewer than Payton, it's incredible to see he was only a mere 3,086 yards from the all-time rushing yardage title. Sanders retired at the age of 31.
  • Jim Brown never missed a single game or start in his entire career, with a total of 118 games. Brown is the epitome of durability and health, being a complete workhorse back that was always available and ready to play. Despite averaging 262 carries over an average of 13.1 games a season, Brown never had to sit out of a game due to injury. His career only lasted nine seasons, leaving the game in his prime just like Sanders. He had just capped off his best statistical season and earned the Most Valuable Player award before he retired. Had his career continued, who knows what could have been?

It's clear that all four players were incredibly durable, and the shortened length of both Sanders and Brown's careers were due to personal reasons, not injury or diminished skill. However, Emmitt Smith was able to play an astounding amount of games more than the other three backs, playing in an incredible 226 games over 15 seasons. In fact, Smith is currently tied with Frank Gore for the most games ever played at the running back position and will be surpassed for the first time ever after Gore begins the 2020 season.

Who Has the Most Rushing Yards Ever?

(click column header to sort results)
Name  
Team  
Games  
Carries  
Yards  
Yards Per Carry  
Yards Per Game  
Rushing Touchdowns  
Receptions  
Receiving Yards  
Yards Per Reception  
Receiving Yards Per Game  
Receiving Touchdowns  
Fumbles  
Emmitt Smith
Dallas Cowboys/ Arizona Cardinals
226
4,409
18,335
4.2
81.2
164
515
3,224
6.3
14.3
11
61
Walter Payton
Chicago Bears
190
3,838
16,726
4.4
88.0
110
492
4,538
9.2
23.9
15
86
Barry Sanders
Detroit Lions
153
3,062
15,269
5.0
99.8
99
352
2,921
8.3
19.1
10
41
Jim Brown
Cleveland Browns
118
2,359
12,312
5.2
104.3
106
262
2,499
9.5
21.2
20
57
All leading statistics are in bold.
Walter Payton played in an era that averaged nearly 10 more offensive plays than the other three backs mentioned in this article.
Walter Payton played in an era that averaged nearly 10 more offensive plays than the other three backs mentioned in this article.

Which Running Back Played in the Toughest Era?

The four backs played in three separate eras of football, with Smith and Sanders in the 90s, Smith extending into the 00s, Payton in the 70s and 80s, and Brown in the 50s and 60s. All three eras boasted different styles of play, and often arguments are made that this strengthens or diminishes each players' claim to the GOAT status. Below are the average yards passing versus rushing during each players' career, as well as accolades they earned throughout their career:

  • Brown played in a time when running the ball dominated the league. During his career, the league averaged 176.8 passing yards to 131.8 rushing yards. The league also averaged 26.6 pass attempts to 32.3 carries. This means the league ran an average of 58.9 offensive plays during Brown's career, running the ball 54.8% of the time, accounting for 42.7% of the league's total offense. During his nine-year career, he led the league in rushing yards eight times, rushing touchdowns five times, carries six times, and all-purpose yards six times. Brown also led the league in yards per attempt twice.
  • Walter Payton entered the league as the offense began running more plays. During his career, teams averaged 191.3 passing yards versus 128.8 rushing yards and 31.3 pass attempts versus 38.1 rushing attempts. This means the NFL ran an average of 69.4 offensive plays during Payton's career, running the ball 54.8% of the time, accounting for 40.2% of the league's total offense. During Payton's 11-year career, he led the league in attempts four times, rushing yardage once, rushing touchdowns once, and total yardage twice.
  • Barry Sanders played in the 90s when offenses became even more passer friendly. During Sanders' career, the NFL averaged 32.2 pass attempts versus 28.0 rushing attempts, with rushing accounting for only 46.5% of the total play calls. The NFL also averaged 204.1 passing yards versus 110.4 rushing yards, with rushing only accounting for a mere 35.1% of all yardage. The Lions followed this trend. Despite Sanders never leading the league in attempts or total touches, he led the league in rushing yards four times, rushing touchdowns once, total scrimmage yards twice, and total touchdowns twice.
  • Emmitt Smith played in the same era as Sanders, continuing on into the early 2000s. During his career, the NFL averaged 32.4 pass attempts versus 24.0 rush attempts, with rushing accounting for 42.4% of all play calls. The NFL also averaged 205.2 passing yards versus 111.3 rushing yards, with rushing only accounting for 35.1% of all yardage. In Smith's 15-year career, he led the league in attempts three times, rushing yardage four times, rushing touchdowns three times, total touches four times, total scrimmage yards twice, and total touchdowns three times.

It's clear that as the years went by, the NFL has turned more and more into a passing league. Brown played in a day when rushing accounted for over half the play calls and 42.7% of the league's total offense. The NFL during Payton's era saw an identical breakdown of run calls, but the rushing efficiency dipped slightly, with only 40.2% of total yards coming from running plays. Both Sanders and Smith saw the league turn to pass as a first option, but both saw exactly 35.1% of all yards coming from runs during their careers. However, Sanders averaged 4.1% more run calls during his time, meaning the league was less effective rushing the ball than during Smith's entire career.

Regardless of the time each player played, no one dominated the league as Jim Brown did. Despite each player setting and holding records, Brown led the league in every major statistical category for more than half of his career. In fact, Brown led the league in yardage eight times and rushing touchdowns five times, equalling the total of the other three backs combined in both categories! With the league running the ball more than half the time and throwing for less yardage than any other era, it's safe to say that defenses knew Brown was going to get the ball, making his efforts even more impressive.

What Running Back Has the Best Stats?

Name
Years Played
League Avg Passing Yards
League Avg Rushing Yards
League Avg Pass Attempts
League Avg Rush Attempts
League Avg Offensive Plays
Total Rush %
Total Offensive Yardage by Run %
# Rushing Yards Leader
# Rushing Touchdowns Leader
# Carries Leader
# All-Purpose Yards Leader
# Yards Per Attempt Leader
Jim Brown
1957–1965
176.8
131.8
26.6
32.3
58.9
54.8%
42.7%
8
5
6
6
2
Walter Payton
1975–1987
191.3
128.8
31.3
38.1
69.4
54.8%
40.2%
1
1
4
2
1
Barry Sanders
1989–1998
204.1
110.4
32.2
28.0
60.2
46.5%
35.1%
4
1
0
2
1
Emmitt Smith
1990–2004
205.2
111.3
32.4
24.0
56.4
42.4%
35.1%
4
3
3
2
1
Leading statistics are in bold.
Barry Sanders is the second-best statistical running back out of the four mentioned in this article. He's second all-time in rushing yards per game with 99,8.
Barry Sanders is the second-best statistical running back out of the four mentioned in this article. He's second all-time in rushing yards per game with 99,8.

Who Has the Most NFL MVPs?

Each of the four backs had Hall of Fame worthy careers, setting records and winning plenty of games along the way. Their dominance led to them all receiving great honors and accolades during their careers. Below are a list of each players' accolades and NFL career records:

Emmitt Smith (15 seasons):

  • NFL Rookie of the Year
  • 8x Pro Bowler
  • 4x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 1x NFL MVP
  • 3x Super Bowl Champion
  • 1x Super Bowl MVP
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1990s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • NFL Record: 18,355 career rushing yards
  • NFL Record: 4,409 career rushing attempts
  • NFL Record: 164 career rushing touchdowns

Walter Payton (13 seasons):

  • 9x Pro Bowler
  • 5x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Walter Payton Man of the Year
  • 1x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 1x Offensive Player of the Year
  • 1x NFL MVP
  • 1x Super Bowl Champion
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1970s Team
  • Pro Football Hall of FAme First-Team All-1980s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team

Barry Sanders (10 seasons):

  • Rookie of the Year
  • 10x Pro Bowler
  • 6x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 2x Offensive Player of the Year
  • 1x NFL MVP
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1990s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team

Jim Brown (9 seasons):

  • NFL Rookie of the Year
  • 9x Pro Bowler
  • 8x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 3x NFL MVP
  • 1x NFL Champion
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1960s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • NFL Record: 104.3 yards per game

Jim Brown amasses the most total awards with 26, versus Sanders' 25, Smith's 25, and Payton's 23. The most amazing thing about this is he had the shortest career, and still stands as the most decorated back of the bunch. Brown was a Pro Bowler every single year of his career and a First-Team All-Pro all but one season. He was the league's MVP 33% of the time he played and is the only running back in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game rushing.

Jim Brown is the most decorated running back of all time, shattering records and piling up awards nearly every year of his career.
Jim Brown is the most decorated running back of all time, shattering records and piling up awards nearly every year of his career.

Why Jim Brown is the GOAT

While longevity helped to aide both Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton's records, no player did more with the ball than Jim Brown. Brown dominated his league like no other and earned accolades as a top player for nearly every single season he ever played. He also has as many MVPs as the other three backs combined. Brown stepped away from football earlier than any of the other players but based on his averages he could have set records that would go untouched forever.

When Brown stepped away from the game he had just finished earning his third MVP. During that season, Brown led the league in attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards per game, total touches, total yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns. He also led the league in approximate value. While we can never be entirely sure in the matter of "what ifs", it's safe to say he was capable of playing at a high level for a long time considering he had never missed a single game or start in his career.

While the argument will continue to rage on, I think it's safe to say that Jim Brown is the greatest with Barry Sanders trailing ever so slightly behind. Regardless, these four backs will remain legends in the history of football forever.

The Greatest Running Back of All-Time

Who do you think is the GOAT at running back?

See results

© 2020 Jesse Unk

Comments

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    • JesseUnk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jesse Unk 

      5 weeks ago from Ohio

      Shawn,

      I appreciate you taking the time to read! I agree Barry is the closest to Jim, but its Jim all the way for me!

    • Hosefan81 profile image

      Shawn Story 

      5 weeks ago from Holley

      Goodjob putting it together, lots of research. As far as whos the best running back ever that's simple. Barry Sanders he had an awful o-line and he played on crap teams. He the talent level on defense was much better while he played ad opposed to Brown.

    • profile image

      Matt 

      6 weeks ago

      Jesse,

      I'm glad you know these things!!

      Jim Brown was like a man amongst boys. If you critique him from the standards of a RB now, people may say that he didn't catch the ball or pass block or have agility with direction change. However, he chose to run through you rather than around you. He was a force to be reckoned with.

    • JesseUnk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jesse Unk 

      6 weeks ago from Ohio

      Matt,

      Agreed. People talk about athleticism of the era, but forget that he was an all-american in lacrosse and football and that many others were just as athletic then too. The game moved slower by design, but people still played hard!

    • JesseUnk profile imageAUTHOR

      Jesse Unk 

      6 weeks ago from Ohio

      Film Freak,

      I appreciate the kind words!

    • profile image

      Evan Pol 

      6 weeks ago

      Lamar Jackson. Best RB

    • profile image

      Matt 

      6 weeks ago

      Jim Brown. Hands down. He was dominant against anyone and everyone. If he played now, he would be the most dominant running back in the game.

    • profile image

      The Film Freak 

      6 weeks ago

      A much more elaborate article of the conversation starter you previously mentioned, and such an entertaining read it brought forth. Not only do you bring up stats and vantage points that I’ve never thought of in this debate, but you also break them down graphically in a way that makes them easy to grasp for sports fans of every dedication level. Nothing feels like fandom despite your choice, and I absolutely loved the breakdown of each respective generations. Your talent is excessively limitless, my man. I’m going to definitely share

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