Updated date:

The 10 Best Running Backs to Never Win a Super Bowl

I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.

As one of a handful of NFL rushers to ever amass 2,000 yards in a season, Adrian Peterson is one of the best running backs never to win a Super Bowl.

As one of a handful of NFL rushers to ever amass 2,000 yards in a season, Adrian Peterson is one of the best running backs never to win a Super Bowl.

Who Are the Best Running Backs to Never Win a Super Bowl?

Being among the NFL's best at one of the most important offensive positions does not guarantee the team will have success. Just ask any of the running backs you're about to read about. A significant portion of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL never even appeared in a Super Bowl, despite many of them helping their team into the postseason multiple times. In total, the 10 rushers featured here accounted for 43 playoff appearances, but only three players here have made a combined total of six appearances in the Super Bowl—none of them hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

Only players who played the bulk of their career during the Super Bowl era were considered for this list, so a player like Jim Brown will not be featured here because he retired following the 1965 season and Super Bowl I was held following the 1966 season.

10. Curtis Martin

  • Years Active: 1995–2005
  • Teams: Patriots (1995–97) and Jets (1998–2005)
  • Postseason Appearances: 1996, '98, 2001–02, '04
  • Super Bowl Appearances: 1996

Curtis Martin is the sixth-leading rusher in NFL history (14,101 yards), but he never translated his success into a Super Bowl championship. Martin rushed for at least 1,000 yards in all but his final season, and was rewarded with five Pro Bowls, as well as a first-team All-Pro selection in 2004 (when he led the league with 1,697 yards). In five playoff appearances, Martin was solid, rushing for 795 yards and eight touchdowns on 182 carries. He scored four touchdowns on the way to Super Bowl XXXI, but the Patriots lost to the Packers, 35–21.

Gale Sayers remained a popular figure in retirement, even though the Bears didn't have much success during his productive career.

Gale Sayers remained a popular figure in retirement, even though the Bears didn't have much success during his productive career.

9. Gale Sayers

  • Years Active: 1965–71
  • Team: Bears (1965–71)
  • Postseason Appearances: None
  • Super Bowl Appearances: None

Gale Sayers didn't have the longest career, but he made the most of his opportunities, even though the Bears never made the postseason during his playing days. Sayers was the 1965 Rookie of the Year, then led the NFL in rushing yards twice and made five straight first-team All-Pro teams over his first five seasons. Injuries, however, stalled his career and limited him to just two games in each 1970 and '71 before he retired. The Bears finished above .500 just twice during Sayers' career, and went a dismal 1–13 in 1969, despite his league-high 1,032 yards.

Frank Gore lost the Super Bowl XLVII, which is so far his only appearance in the big game.

Frank Gore lost the Super Bowl XLVII, which is so far his only appearance in the big game.

8. Frank Gore

  • Years Active: 2005–present
  • Teams: 49ers (2005–14), Colts (2015–17), Dolphins (2018), Bills (2019) and Jets (2020)
  • Postseason Appearances: 2011–13, '19
  • Super Bowl Appearances: 2012

Frank Gore is one of two players on this list who still have a chance to win it all. Even at age 37, Gore is still carrying the ball at a productive level—though in 2020 he is playing for the worst team in the league. Gore is third all-time on the NFL's career rushing list and has nine seasons with at least 1,000 yards. He's never led the league in a major category, but has instead been a model of consistency (Gore played in 94% of his possible games going into the 2020 season) and has appeared in more games than any other running back in league history. With the 49ers, he made several postseason appearances, and in nine playoff games, he's rushed for 668 yards and five touchdowns. His best effort came in 2012, when he had three touchdowns on the way to Super Bowl XLVII, but San Francisco lost the championship to the Ravens, 34–31.

7. Thurman Thomas

  • Years Active: 1988–2000
  • Teams: Bills (1988–99) and Dolphins (2000)
  • Postseason Appearances: 1988–93, 1995–96, 1998–99
  • Super Bowl Appearances: 1990–93

Perhaps the saddest case on this list is that of Thurman Thomas, the Hall of Famer who helped the Bills into the postseason 10 times and lost the Super Bowl in four straight seasons. It was clear Thomas was a special player from his rookie season, and he led the NFL in total offensive yards from 1989–92. Along the way, he added a pair of first-team All-Pro selections and the 1991 Offensive Player of the Year honor—and annually helped the Bills into the postseason. Thomas appeared in 21 total playoff games in his career, and even though he scored a touchdown in each Super Bowl in which he played, the Bills couldn't find victory. Buffalo twice lost to the Cowboys, and also dropped matchups to Washington and the Giants.

6. O.J. Simpson

  • Years Active: 1969–79
  • Teams: Bills (1969–77) and 49ers (1978–79)
  • Postseason Appearances: 1974
  • Super Bowl Appearances: None

Another standout running back from Buffalo who never won a championship was O.J. Simpson. In 1973, Simpson became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, which unsurprisingly earned him Offensive Player of the Year honors and helped him retire as the second-leading rusher in NFL history (his 11,236 yards are now 21st). That breakout season came amid a string of five straight years that he was named a first-team All-Pro, and he led the league in rushing in four of those seasons. The Bills, however, didn't match Simpson's success, finishing above .500 just three times in his nine seasons and making one playoff appearance.

5. Earl Campbell

  • Years Active: 1978–85
  • Teams: Oilers (1978–84) and Saints (1984–85)
  • Postseason Appearances: 1978–80
  • Super Bowl Appearances: None

Earl Campbell proved right away he belonged in the NFL. Campbell led the league in rushing yards in each of his first three seasons, providing the Oilers with an exciting star that regularly led them to the postseason. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns in five of his first six seasons (the exception being the strike-shortened 1981 season). With those efforts, Campbell was the 1978 Rookie of the Year and the 1979 MVP, and the Associated Press named him NFL Offensive Player of the Year from 1978–80. But Houston was unable to reach a Super Bowl during Campbell's tenure and went just 3–3 in the postseason. In 1978 and '79, the Oilers lost the AFC Championship game to the Steelers, and in 1980, they were eliminated in the wild card round.

The Chargers had several strong seasons behind the rushing of LaDainian Tomlinson (21), but never reached the Super Bowl during his tenure.

The Chargers had several strong seasons behind the rushing of LaDainian Tomlinson (21), but never reached the Super Bowl during his tenure.

4. LaDainian Tomlinson

  • Years Active: 2001–11
  • Teams: Chargers (2001–09) and Jets (2010–11)
  • Postseason Appearances: 2004, 2006–10
  • Super Bowl Appearances: None

LaDainian Tomlinson was atop the NFL world during the peak of his career with the Chargers, but it wasn't enough to even push them into the Super Bowl. For the first eight years of his career, Tomlinson rushed for more than 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns, but he was at his finest in 2006. That's when he was named MVP after setting a single-season record with 28 rushing touchdowns and leading the NFL with 1,815 yards. He added two more touchdowns and 123 yards in a postseason matchup that year, but the Chargers lost to the Patriots, 24–21. Tomlinson retired as the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history (his 13,684 yards are now seventh), but his teams went just 5–5 over six postseason appearances.

Adrian Peterson has played for several franchises throughout his career, and remains hopeful he will win a Super Bowl before retiring.

Adrian Peterson has played for several franchises throughout his career, and remains hopeful he will win a Super Bowl before retiring.

3. Adrian Peterson

  • Years Active: 2007–present
  • Teams: Vikings (2007–16), Cardinals (2017), Saints (2017), Washington (2018–19) and Lions (2020)
  • Postseason Appearances: 2008–09, '12, '15
  • Super Bowl Appearances: None

Adrian Peterson is another current player who has defied rushing tradition by continuing to play at a high level into his mid-30s. Peterson is far from the dominating running back he was over the first nine seasons of his career, but he hopes to continue playing and chase down the elusive Super Bowl title. Peterson ranks fifth all-time in career rushing yards and has led the league three times. He was at his best in Minnesota in 2012, when he was the NFL MVP after rushing for 2,097 yards, but the Vikings lost to the Packers in the first round of that season's playoffs. Otherwise, Peterson has only been in the postseason three other times, and his team has won just once.

Eric Dickerson holds multiple NFL records, but he was never a Super Bowl champion.

Eric Dickerson holds multiple NFL records, but he was never a Super Bowl champion.

2. Eric Dickerson

  • Years Active: 1983–93
  • Teams: Rams (1983–87), Colts (1987–91), Raiders (1992) and Falcons (1993)
  • Postseason Appearances: 1983–87
  • Super Bowl Appearances: None

Eric Dickerson burst onto the scene with 1,808 rushing yards as a rookie and a record 2,105 yards in his second season, but that wasn't enough to get the Rams to the Super Bowl. In four seasons, Dickerson had more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage, and he scored at least 10 touchdowns five times. When he retired, he was the NFL's second-leading rusher (his 13,259 yards are now ninth). Nevertheless, in five straight seasons, his team faced an early exit from the playoffs. In one of Dickerson's two career playoff wins, he rushed for an NFL record 248 yards and two touchdowns in a 20–0 thrashing of the Cowboys.

Barry Sanders is in the argument about who is the greatest running back in NFL history, but he never appeared in a Super Bowl.

Barry Sanders is in the argument about who is the greatest running back in NFL history, but he never appeared in a Super Bowl.

1. Barry Sanders

  • Years Active: 1989–98
  • Teams: Lions (1989–98)
  • Postseason Appearances: 1991, 1993–95, '97
  • Super Bowl Appearances: None

The argument can be made that Barry Sanders is the greatest running back in the history of the NFL, but one aspect not found in that argument is Super Bowl success. Sanders famously played his entire career for the Lions, who are one of just one of four current teams never to appear in a Super Bowl. He rarely missed a game throughout his career, and his swiftness and elusiveness helped him rush for at least 1,000 yards in all 10 of his seasons (including 2,053 yards in his MVP season of 1997). Sanders retired abruptly after the 1998 season as the second-leading rusher in NFL history (his 15,269 yards are now fourth), and his average of 99.8 yards per game remains second all-time. The Lions were successful during Sanders' tenure, but only won one postseason game in five tries. That was a 41–10 whipping of Washington in 1991—the only playoff game in which Sanders scored a touchdown.

Honorable Mentions

The 10 best running backs never to win a Super Bowl were featured above, but here are a few more standout players who didn't win a championship.

Shaun Alexander (2000–08)

Though he was essentially an afterthought as a rookie, Shaun Alexander rose toward the top of the NFL rushing ranks from 2001–05. He booked five straight seasons with at least 1,175 yards and led the NFL with 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns in '05. But in nine postseason games, his 564 yards and nine touchdowns weren't enough to get the Seahawks a Super Bowl championship. He did appear in Super Bowl XL, but Seattle lost to the Steelers, 21–10.

Fred Taylor (1998–2010)

After playing the bulk of his career with the Jaguars, Fred Taylor finished with a pair of seasons for New England during its dynasty. Unfortunately for him, those two years were not included in the six titles the Patriots won between 2001 and '18. Taylor reached the postseason five times in his career, but never appeared in a Super Bowl. He rushed for 11,695 yards, but only was invited to a single Pro Bowl, despite carrying the ball over 1,000 yards in seven seasons.

Bo Jackson (1987–90)

Known as one of the best athletes ever to play in the NFL, Bo Jackson's career was both prolific and brief. He never played a full season in his four-year career, but is regarded as one of the best ball carriers of all-time and broke away for the longest run of a season three times. The Raiders made the postseason just once during his career.

Emmitt Smith has scored more rushing touchdowns in the Super Bowl than any other running back.

Emmitt Smith has scored more rushing touchdowns in the Super Bowl than any other running back.

Super Bowl Rushing Records

Below are Super Bowl rushing records.

  • Career Rushing Yards: Franco Harris (354)
  • Single-Game Rushing Yards: Timmy Smith (204)
  • Career Rushing Touchdowns: Emmitt Smith (5)
  • Single-Game Rushing Touchdowns: Terrell Davis (3)
  • Career Rushing Average: Marcus Allen (9.6 yards per carry)
  • Single-Game Rushing Average: Tom Matte (10.5 YPC)
  • Longest Rush: Willie Parker (75 yards)

© 2020 Andrew Harner

Related Articles