In honor of tomorrow’s NFL Draft, I decided to get a little funky.
Yeah, it was a time suck.
Yeah, I have a book to write.
Yeah, um … I sorta have no life.
Whatever the case, I decided to rank all 32 NFL teams by their three best running backs over the last 35 years (1980-2015). The criterion isn’t very complex: I took stats into consideration, but mainly, well, awesomeness. If a guy’s career only lasted a few seasons, but he dazzled during those years, he might surpass the guy who offered eight solid, workmanlike campaigns. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t. Bottom line: I judged the backs as a trio, then ranked. Best trios to worst. Sorry, Texans. You’re new, but you stink.
Admittedly, it’s pretty random. But also really fun. So I present to you, the jeffpearlman.com official rankings of running back trios, 1980-present. Let the debate begin …
1. Dallas Cowboys:
So, so, so good. Dorsett is the best little runner I’ve ever seen (outside of Sweetness), and Emmitt is Emmitt. The wildcard is Herschel, who is probably better known for his USFL dominance and the awful Viking trade than for some superb games in Dallas.
2. Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams:
Whoa. Jackson ran for 10,138 yards as a Ram … and he’s a distant third here. Dickerson is the most underrated running back in NFL history. He might be the best pure rusher we’ve ever seen. And Faulk—think Gale Sayers with better hands.
3. Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts:
Might look familiar. Faulk is considered a Ram because of the Super Bowls, but his most elusive work was done in Indianapolis. Come to think of it, Dickerson is also considered a Ram. But for a different reason—he was otherworldly as a Ram, great as a Colt. James compiled 9,226 yards in Indy. Not too shabby.
4. Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans:
Campbell was a bull, running toward a red flag. As physically dominant as any running back you’ll ever see. George is another guy who’s probably a tad underrated. He ran for 10,009 yards in Tennessee, and helped establish the franchise. Johnson was great, but fleeting.
5. Detroit Lions:
Jones is a pretty forgettable back who wouldn’t get recognized in a Detroit mall. But Sanders was otherworldly and Sims—believe it or not—was pretty much just as good. Two little explosive backs who made 1,001 guys miss.
6. Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders:
Name two guys on one team who rival Allen-Bo? Just an awesome twosome, and we all know how good Jackson would have been had he stuck strictly to football. Kaufman is one of those guys who vanishes, and we forget about him. But he was little and explosive and good.
7. Philadelphia Eagles:
One doesn’t necessarily think Eagles and running backs, but these three were all Grade-A stars. If you’re too young to have seen Montgomery break through a line … well, YouTube is a click away. A stud.
8. Kansas City Chiefs:
I badly want to put Joe Delaney on this list. Alas, I can’t. He ran for just 1,501 yards before dying in that awful drowning accident. Okoye was an absolute beast, but that style caught up with him. Holmes—outstanding. Charles—electrifying.
9. New York Giants:
No one jumps off the page here … until you realize how good all three players were. I grew up watching Morris, and while he benefitted from some amazing lines, the guy hit tiny holes and emerged from the other side. Like James Jones with the Lions, Hampton wouldn’t get recognized anywhere outside of his hometown. But 6,897 yards over eight seasons don’t lie.
10. Seattle Seahawks:
Actually a lot of quality names to pick from. Lynch probably won’t ever surpass the fabulous Alexander as the all-time team leader, but rings speak. Warner was drafted alongside Dickerson. Not as good, but injuries cut shot a potentially Grade-A career.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers:
Harris only has four years on this list, but he was still solid in the early 1980s. Bettis ran for 10,571 yards in Pittsburgh and carried many so-so offensive units. Foster ranks seventh all time on the Steeler rushing list, but I take him over Willie Parker.
12. Buffalo Bills:
I’m not a big Fred Jackson guy, but Cribbs—now you’re talking. Used to watch him dart through the Jet defenses, tears filling my eyes. Thurman Thomas did everything, and everything well.
13. Washington Redskins:
Not an amazing list. Portis was tough, Davis is best remember for getting beat up by Michael Westbrook. But Riggins—man. Generally speaking, white skill position players tend to be overrated by the masses. Riggins is probably underrated. Ran for 7,472 yards—the hard way. Just a brutally rugged runner who carried the Skins to a Super Bowl title.
14. New York Jets:
A better list than one might expect. Martin is an all-time Top 10er, Jones ran h-a-r-d and is hurt (truly) by having a pretty dull name. The wildcard is McNeil, who had Sanders moves but a tissue’s durability. Actually led the NFL in rushing in 1982, and a joy to watch.
15. San Francisco 49ers:
I thought this list would be a little better. I loved Craig’s game—high knees, caught everything. And Gore is probably Canton-bound. But … still. Watters once told me he’s a Hall of Famer. I don’t see it.
16. Chicago Bears:
Sweetness was a better runner in the 1970s than 80s, but his brilliance still covered much of the decade. Anderson was his replacement—a thankless task that he made up for with blazing speed. And Forte is terribly underrated.
17. San Diego Chargers:
The world’s Marion Butts fans can scream all day about his 4,297 yards, but the guy wasn’t good enough to crack this trio. Sorry, Butts. Tomlinson is Canton-bound, and Muncie—cocaine and all—was a deliciously fantastic NFL back.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars:
Kind of shocking to realize how damn good Fred Taylor was. Hall of Famer? No. But you try running for 11,271 yards behind some of those lines. Drew was a bottle of lightning. Watching him in Oakland last year just felt wrong.
19. Minnesota Vikings:
Say what you want about Peterson—there are few backs I want in a big spot more than the Oklahoma product. Smith retired early, but still wound up with 6,818 yards. Nelson was a pass-catching whirlwind.
20. Atlanta Falcons:
I wish Lynn Cain could make this list, because I met him last year at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and he was awesome. Alas, Cain only ran for 2,263 yards over five years. Riggs, for my money, is one of the most underrated backs in modern NFL history, and Andrews ain’t far behind. I was torn between Dunn and Jamal Anderson. But the Florida State product just did more.
21. Denver Broncos:
Davis is an obvious one—there’s a reason the Broncos won back to back Super Bowls, and it ain’t John Elway. Winder was a fine 80s back, and while Humphrey is only 11th on the team’s all-time rushing list, it ain’t because of talent. He was fluid and hard to tackle. He was also brittle and wackadoo.
22. Baltimore Ravens:
The Ravens never seemed to know what they had in Priest Holmes, who was here from 1998-2000 before owning Kansas City. Lewis was excellent and Rice just as good. Solid group.
23. New Orleans Saints:
The Saints have about 12 backs who could have made this list. None are all-time greats, none are dogs. You can replace Hilliard with Pierre Thomas. Or Rueben Mayes. Or Ricky Williams, Mario Bates, Wayne Wilson, Mark Ingram, Reggie Bush. Take your pick …
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
If you just look at Wilder’s numbers you think, “Meh.” He ran for 5,957 yards over nine seasons, averaged 3.8 yards per carry. But ask any defender from the 1980s—dude did everything behind a lot of bad linemen, coupled with brutal quarterbacks (Jack Thompson, anyone?). Dunn was fabulous, and makes two team lists. Bell had no one blocking for him.
25. Cincinnati Bengals:
Dillon is never discussed. Anywhere. Even in the Dillon household. But he was a monster running back in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Brooks and Johnson were actually traded for one another. Brooks ran r-e-a-l-l-y hard. Johnson was fat, but powerful.
26. Carolina Panthers:
Three very solid, professional runners who start for most teams, but not all. I really wanted Tim Biakabatuka to make this list, because saying Biakabatuka is awesome. Try it— Biakabatuka! Biakabatuka! Biakabatuka!
27. Cleveland Browns:
All three were good players, but only for their eras. Nothing special.
28. St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals:
Shit list. Anderson was a very good back who was probably overly hyped by calling himself “O.J.” in the Juice’s shadow. Mitchell was good, and Centers caught 500 balls a year.
29. Green Bay Packers:
Not a good list. Green was a fabulous talent who struggled staying on the field. Grant was wonderful, but wasn’t in Wisconsin for long. Levens did a lot, and teamed with Edgar Bennett to make the 1990s in Green Bay a fabulous time.
30. New England Patriots:
At long last, something the Pats don’t win. With Tom Brady, who needs a capable halfback?
31. Miami Dolphins:
Williams was an awfully solid NFL running back, but this list sucks. Natahn caught a ton of balls out of the backfield, and I always thought Don Shula should have turned more to Franklin when guys like Don Strock and David Woodley were throwing the ball. I suppose Ronnie Brown belongs here, but he was just an average guy.
32. Houston Texans:
Who the hell is Domanick Williams, and when did he run for 3,195 yards?