The Best Running Backs in Detroit Lions Team History

Updated on May 21, 2020
Detroit Lions runningback Barry Sanders (20) looks for a way around Dallas Cowboys James Washington (37) during the second quarter Sept. 19, 1994, in Irving, Texas.
Detroit Lions runningback Barry Sanders (20) looks for a way around Dallas Cowboys James Washington (37) during the second quarter Sept. 19, 1994, in Irving, Texas. | Source

Greatest Running Back in Detroit Lions History

The Detroit Lions have a paltry history when it comes to running back success. Despite being the fifth oldest currently operating franchise in NFL history, being founded in 1929, the team has only produced 18 seasons with a 1,000+ yard rusher. Those 18 seasons were produced by 6 total men, with 10 of them coming from Barry Sanders. Despite this, the Lions have arguably the greatest running back in the history of football on their side in Sanders. The team has only three running backs inducted into the Hall of Fame, with only two spending their entire careers in Detroit, so choosing who the best of all time for the franchise was a difficult task.

Selection Criteria

Because of the lack of incredible rushing stats throughout the Lions history, I decided to look at the players as a whole. This list was comprised of running backs who may have excelled in other areas of the game such as receiving, scoring, or playing other positions as well. They were chosen based on their accolades, records, and impact on the Lions' franchise.

5. Cory Schlesinger (1995–2006)

Cory Schlesinger was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Schlesinger's rushing statistics are far from impressive, ranking 68th in Lions' franchise history for career rushing yards, but his blocking abilities as a fullback and special teams player are why he makes this list. He blocked for runners like Barry Sanders during some of his greatest seasons, including two 1,500-yard seasons and a 2,000-yard season.

Schlesinger was a powerful and nasty blocker in the NFL. It's rumored that he broke over 200 face masks in his career due to his physical playstyle. His tenacity was evident early on in his career on special teams, when he led the team in special teams tackles 1996 and was a productive tackler for the team many other years. Schlesinger was a fantastic blocker as well, but due to the Lions using more three-wide-receiver-sets, he was reduced to starting his career as a special teams player. In 1999, Schlesinger became the Lions' starting fullback and would remain the starter for the rest of his career.

After Barry Sanders retired, Schlesinger stepped up in more ways outside of just blocking. He became a strong check down option in the passing game, recording a 60-reception season for 466 yards in 2001. He was a fan favorite and was loved by his teammates as well. He was voted the Lions MVP in 2003 by his teammates. He wasn't as respected by the league, however, only earning three alternate selections to the Pro Bowl in his career. Regardless, Schlesinger did an amazing job at his blue-collar position, pounding opponents for one of the best rushing teams in the NFL over the course of his career.

Jersey Number

  • 30

Franchise Statistics

  • 473 rushing yards
  • 5 rushing touchdowns
  • 1,445 receiving yards
  • 36 tackles

Accolades

  • 3x Alternate Pro Bowl selection
  • Sports Illustrated All-Pro 2001

Trivia

  • Cory Schlesinger is rumored to have broken over 200 facemasks during his football career.

Lions running back Mel Farr
Lions running back Mel Farr | Source

4. Mel Farr (1967–1973)

Mel "Super Star" Farr is a prime example of incredible skill with unfortunate circumstances. He was selected by the Detroit Lions seventh overall in the 1967 NFL Draft. Farr was an incredible athlete but was injured, or recovering from injury, nearly his entire career. His injuries are one of the reasons he only played for seven seasons. In 1968, Farr led the league in rushing yards with 490 yards before an injury ended his season early.

Farr began his career with amazing promise, winning the Rookie of the Year award with 860 rushing yards. He also led the Lions in receptions that season with 39. The following year he would lead the league in yards per touch with 6.4. On three separate occasions, Farr finished his seasons in the top-10 in rushing yards per game.

Farr had to deal with two major knee injuries, both requiring surgery before he returned for a second time to football in 1970. 1970 was the only season in his career in which he started every single game of the year. He earned a Pro Bowl selection by amassing 930 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns.

Farr retired from football after rumors of being traded to the Houston Oilers surfaced in 1973. He went on to invest his savings in opening a car dealership in Oak Park, Michigan. He had great success with the business, eventually expanding to 14 dealerships throughout Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Texas.

Jersey Number

  • 24

Franchise Stats

  • 3,072 rushing yards
  • 26 rushing touchdowns
  • 1,374 receiving yards
  • 10 receiving touchdowns

Accolades

  • 1967 NFL Rookie of the Year
  • 1967, 1970 Pro Bowl selection

Trivia

  • Mel Farr was a backup vocalist for Marvin Gaye's song, "What's Goin On."

A football card from the 1986 Jeno's Pizza NFL football card stickers set of Detroit Lions running back Billy Sims rushing the ball against the Los Angeles Rams during an away game on September 7, 1980 at Anaheim Stadium.
A football card from the 1986 Jeno's Pizza NFL football card stickers set of Detroit Lions running back Billy Sims rushing the ball against the Los Angeles Rams during an away game on September 7, 1980 at Anaheim Stadium. | Source

3. Billy Sims (1980–1984)

Billy Sims was selected first overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1980 NFL Draft. He had come off of an impressive college campaign at the University of Oklahoma, where he was a two-time All-American and won the Heisman in 1978. His success continued into the NFL where he put together the greatest rookie season for a running back in Lions' history.

In his first game, Sims ran the ball 22 times for 153 yards, an amazing 6.9 yards per carry. He also added 64 yards on two catches and 3 rushing touchdowns. It was clear he would be destined for greatness. Sims won the Rookie of the Year award after amassing an incredible 1,924 total yards and 16 total touchdowns in his first season. He led the league in rushing touchdowns with 13. He was one of three Lions players who were selected to the Pro Bowl that season.

Sims continued his dominance with the Lions for years, earning Pro Bowl selections the following two seasons as well. He was an incredibly exciting player to watch, with memorable plays such as the "Karate Kick." Sims ran a toss play to the right, and as he accelerated he tried to jump over a defender, using their back as leverage and kicking a second defender, Steve Brown, right in the face. It's still one of the most memorable plays in Lions' history.

One reason why Sims isn't higher on this list is due to the longevity of his career. Unfortunately for Sims, his career was cut short on October 21, 1984, against the Minnesota Vikings. Sims was running the ball to the right and, with his right leg planted, a Vikings defender jumped on his back causing Sims' knee to bow out. The injury took two years of rehabilitation in an attempt to return to the league, but Sims never was able to return.

Sims finished his career as the leading rusher for the Lions in both yards and touchdowns, along with many other rushing records. He currently still sits second in all of those categories, with 5,106 total rushing yards and 42 rushing touchdowns.

Jersey Number

  • 20

Franchise Statistics

  • 5,106 rushing yards
  • 42 rushing touchdowns
  • 2,072 receiving yards
  • 5 receiving touchdowns

Accolades

  • 1980 Rookie of the Year
  • 1980 All-Rookie Team selection
  • 1980–1982 Pro Bowl selection
  • Jersey number retired by Lions

Trivia

  • Sims' jersey number is retired as a trio of great players because both Barry Sanders and Lem Barney also wore the number.

Doak Walker practicing.
Doak Walker practicing. | Source

2. Doak Walker (1950–1955)

Doak Walker joined the Detroit Lions via trade in 1950. Coming into the league at only 5'1" and 178 pounds, many NFL executives believed he was too small to be successful on the field, despite having won the Heisman award in college. However, Walker instantly became the team's ultimate swiss army knife. Not only did he run the ball, but he also was a receiver, kicker, punter, and return man. In his first season, Walker amassed 1,262 total yards, 11 total touchdowns, and an additional 62 points between field goals and extra points. Of the team's 321 points scored on the season, Walker scored 128. He finished second overall in rushing and receiving yards but led the team in scoring. He even played defense a recorded an interception.

Walker went on to be an incredibly successful offensive weapon for the team, with over 1,000 all-purpose yards three times in his six years with the team, and 978 in 1953. Because of Walker's vast range of abilities, none of his individual areas seem to dominate statistically, but his scoring could not be argued. He accumulated 534 points during his career along with 2 scoring titles. That means because he played 12-game seasons, he averaged 89 points per season and 7.9 points per game.

Walker was also a huge part of winning two NFL Championships with the Lions in 1952 and 1953. In 1952, he rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on only 10 attempts. He also had 2 receptions for 11 yards. In 1953, Walker's yardage was slim, but he made up for his lackluster performance with his scoring ability. He scored the game's first touchdown and kicked the game-winning extra point. He had one rushing touchdown, a field goal, and two extra points to score 11 of the teams' 17 points.

Walker was selected to five Pro Bowls in his six-year career and was a First-Team All-Pro four times. He led the league in scoring twice. Walker was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

Jersey Number

  • 37

Franchise Statistics

  • 61 career games
  • 1,520 rushing yards
  • 12 rushing touchdowns
  • 2,539 receiving yards
  • 21 receiving touchdowns
  • 284 punt return yards
  • 1 punt return touchdown
  • 968 kick return yards
  • 1,956 punt yards
  • 49 field goals made
  • 183 extra points made

Accolades

  • 1950–1951, 1953–1955 Pro Bowl selection
  • 1950–1951, 1953–1954 First-Team All-Pro selection
  • 1950, 1955 Scoring Champion
  • 1952–1953 NFL Champion
  • 1986 Hall of Fame inductee

Trivia

  • Doak Walker is one of only three players in NFL history with at least 10 rushing touchdowns, 20 receiving touchdowns, an interception, and a punt return touchdown.

Barry Sanders ranks third all-time in rushing yards, was named a Pro Bowler 10 times and was the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in his first 10 seasons.
Barry Sanders ranks third all-time in rushing yards, was named a Pro Bowler 10 times and was the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in his first 10 seasons. | Source

1. Barry Sanders (1989–1998)

Barry Sanders was selected third overall in the 1989 NFL Draft. He was coming off of a Heisman winning season at Oklahoma State. Sanders' explosive career started three days after he signed his contract. His first play from scrimmage was an 18-yard run, finishing the game with 71 yards and a touchdown on only 9 attempts. He ended his rookie season only 10 yards shy of leading the league in rushing, finishing with 1,470 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, and 282 receiving yards. He won the Rookie of the Year award for his incredible season.

Sanders spent ten seasons with the Lions. During that time he was selected to ten Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro selection 10 of those years, with six of them being a First-Team All-Pro selection. He never rushed for less than 1,000 yards in his career and only had less than 1,500 total yards from scrimmage once. He led the league in rushing four times and total scrimmage yards twice. Sanders' dominance during his career was consistent and unwavering. When he retired he averaged 99.8 yards per game, good for second all-time in NFL history only behind Jim Brown.

Sanders retired after only his tenth season in the prime of his career. The year prior he had rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and the season before that he became only the third man in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards, earning him the Most Valuable Player award and the Offensive Player of the Year award in 1997. At the time, Barry was only 1,457 yards away from being the NFL rushing leader for a career. It was a decision that sent shockwaves through the sports world. In his retirement letter, Sanders stated, "The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it."

Naturally, this shocking decision led to many people wondering if his reasons were truthful. Since Sanders' retirement people have blamed the Lions organization for not surrounding Sanders with enough talent to make him want to stay. During his ten seasons with the Lions, they only had a top ten defense once. The team finished with a winning record only five times and only won their division twice! What hurts most of all is that the Lions went to the playoffs five times during Sanders' career, only winning one game. The world may never know the true reasons that led to Sanders retiring, some of his teammates even tried to convince him to stay.

Sanders had told teammate Tracy Scroggins that he planned to retire on the flight home from his final game. Scroggins said, "I tried my best to talk him out of retiring. I did everything in my power. I gave him the spiel about you’re so close to breaking the record, you’re only 1,400 and some change away from breaking Walter Payton’s (all-time rushing) record. Stay one more year and break the record." Unfortunately for the team, Sanders retired anyway. It was well-known that records were of little interest to him. At the end of his rookie season, Sanders was only ten yards away from earning the rushing title for the year. With the game in hand, he told his coach to send in the backup. He said, "Coach, let's just win it and go home."

Sanders was always the best of the best when he stepped on the field. He was on pace to shatter almost every single rushing record to date until he retired early. He was a powerful back who was hard to bring down, but also incredibly shifty to the point of danger for defenders. In the regular-season opener of 1995, Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson of the Pittsburgh Steelers attempted to tackle Barry Sanders in the open field. Sanders juked past him and Woodson tore his ACL, ending his season. Sanders was an incredible athlete who was awe-inspiring to watch.

Jersey Number

  • 20

Franchise Statistics

  • 153 career games
  • 15,269 rushing yards
  • 99 rushing touchdowns
  • 352 receptions
  • 2,921 receiving yards
  • 10 receiving touchdowns

Accolades

  • 1989 NFL Rookie of the Year
  • 1989-1998 Pro Bowl selection
  • 1989-1991, 1994-1995, 1997 First-Team All-Pro selection
  • 1994, 1997 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
  • 1997 Most Valuable Player
  • 2004 Hall of Fame inductee
  • Hall of Fame 1990s All-Decade team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team

Trivia

  • Barry Sanders didn't want to accept his Heisman Trophy award on national TV. He only did so after his linemen, who blocked for him that season, expressed how important it was to them.

Honorable Mentions

James Stewart (2000–2002)

James Stewart began his career as a perennial backup in Jacksonville, starting only 34 games in 5 years with the Jaguars. In 2000, Stewart joined the Lions and started all 16 games for the first time in his career. He had more carries that season than any other year, carrying the ball 339 times for 1,184 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. It was the best statistical season of his career.

Stewart played for the Lions for two more seasons, amassing a total of 713 carries for 2,951 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. He was one of the lone bright spots on a roster that consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in both offense and defense. During his time in Detroit, the team won only 14 games in 3 seasons.

Still, Stewart ranks top-ten in franchise all-time in rushing yardage and is one of only six men to ever run for 1,000 yards in a season. He's also one of only three backs to rush for 1,000 yards more than once for the franchise, the others being Billy Sims and Barry Sanders.

Jersey Number

  • 34

Franchise Statistics

  • 41 games
  • 713 carries
  • 2,951 rushing yards
  • 15 rushing touchdowns

Trivia

  • James Stewart's career was ended when he shattered his shoulder during a preseason game in 2003. The hit was part of a bounty system implemented by coach Greg Williams of the Buffalo Bills that paid players to injure their opponents.

Reggie Bush (2013–2014)

Similarly to James Stewart, Reggie Bush went to Detroit after spending the majority of his career elsewhere. The former Saint joined the Lions in 2013 and started all 14 games that he played in. Bush rushed for 1,006 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns with a respectable 4.5 yards per carry. He also added a pass-catching ability, catching 54 passes for 506 yards and 3 touchdowns. Reggie led all offensive players in all-purpose yards that season with 1,512, including Calvin Johnson.

Bush's playmaking ability helped lead the Lions to have the sixth overall ranked offense in the NFL that year. His following season was not nearly as productive, with Bush only having 76 carries in 11 games. Despite his one-hit-wonder year with the Lions, he's still only one of six men to ever rush for 1,000 yards for the franchise.

Jersey Number

  • 21

Franchise Stats

  • 25 games
  • 299 carries
  • 1,303 rushing yards
  • 6 rushing touchdowns
  • 94 receptions
  • 759 receiving yards
  • 3 receiving touchdowns

Trivia

  • Reggie Bush was only the second player in Lions' history to ever record a season with both 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards. The other player was Barry Sanders.

Nick Pietrosante (1959–1965)

Nick Pietrosante was selected by the Lions sixth overall in the 1959 NFL Draft. As a fullback, he only started 5 games that season, amassing 447 yards on 76 carries and 3 rushing touchdowns. His league-leading 5.9 yards per carry were enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year award. He followed that season up with two Pro Bowl seasons, rushing for 1,713 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns over that span.

Pietrosante played with the Lions for seven years in total. He accumulated over 5,000 all-purpose yards with the team and 30 total touchdowns. When he left the team he had set a then franchise record of 3,933 rushing yards.

Jersey Number

  • 33

Franchise Statistics

  • 88 games
  • 938 carries
  • 3,933 rushing yards
  • 28 rushing touchdowns

Accolades

  • Rookie of the Year
  • 1960–1961 Pro Bowl selection

Trivia

  • Coach Vince Lombardi once said, "(Pietrosante) shall be a great one someday. He is very tough to bring down."

Detroit Lions 1,000 Yard Rushers

Player Name
Year
Yardage
Barry Sanders
1997
2,053
Barry Sanders
1994
1,883
Barry Sanders
1996
1,553
Barry Sanders
1991
1,548
Barry Sanders
1995
1,500
Barry Sanders
1998
1,491
Barry Sanders
1989
1,470
Billy Sims
1981
1,437
Barry Sanders
1992
1,352
Barry Sanders
1990
1,304
Billy Sims
1980
1,303
James Stewart
2000
1,184
Kevin Jones
2004
1,133
Barry Sanders
1993
1,115
Billy Sims
1983
1,040
Steve Owens
1971
1,035
James Stewart
2002
1,021
Reggie Bush
2013
1,006
Every 1,000-yard rushing season in Lions' team history. League-leading yardage is highlighted in bold.

Detroit Lions Career Rushing Leaders

Name
Games
Rushing Yards
Yards Per Attempt
Yards Per Game
Rushing Touchdowns
Barry Sanders
153
15,269
5.0
99.8
99
Billy Sims
60
5,106
4.5
85.1
42
Dexter Bussey
150
5,105
4.2
34.0
18
Altie Taylor
91
4,297
3.7
47.2
24
Nick Pietrosante
88
3.933
4.2
44.7
28
The Detroit Lions top-5 franchise rushing leaders.

Is Barry Sanders the GOAT?

Barry Sanders is often in the conversation for the greatest running back of all time along with Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Emmitt Smith. All four hold or have held franchise and NFL rushing records during their careers, each exhibiting incredible skill throughout their careers. 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.

What NFL Running Back Played Longest?

When looking at the four 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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. Both Sanders and Brown have better averages than Payton and Smith on yards per carry and yards per game, as shown below, so it's easy to argue they could have surpassed the other two in their totals had their careers gone on longer.

Who is the Greatest Running Back of All Time?

(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
18,355
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 in bold.

Who are the Best Running Backs of All Time?

Running Backs in Different Eras

The four backs played in three separate eras of football, with Smith and Sanders in the 90s, 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.

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

Who is the Greatest Running Back of All Time?

While longevity helped to aide both Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton's records, no player did more with the ball than Barry Sanders and Jim Brown. Jim Brown slightly edges out Barry in yardage and scoring ability, but an argument can be made for the athleticism that Sanders faced in the league decades down the line. Brown dominated his league like no others 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. 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.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • JesseUnk profile imageAUTHOR

        Jesse Unk 

        5 weeks ago from Ohio

        Film Freak,

        Thanks man! I struggled with putting Dickerson in, as well as Peterson and OJ, but I feel these 4 are always the top guys in the argument. Hopefully one day soon I'll do an entire article dedicated primarily to the running back debate.

      • profile image

        The Film Freak 

        5 weeks ago

        Great work, Jesse. Your sentences are flowing a lot smoother, which keeps the pacing of your essays constantly engaging. As for the material, the Barry choice in the Lions is the easiest ever, so I’m glad you expanded on it, and then asked who the best runner of all time was. I agree with Jim being tops, but Emmitt statistically and longevity would be second for me personally. I’ve also always been a big Eric Dickerson fan. What I love about the compromise of your points is how any of the four listed could be argued as the best. It proves that football greats come a lot more often than the elite of basketball. Great stuff again

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