Ranking the NFL running back trios, 1980-2015 …

Walker and Dorsett. The Cowboys win again—dammit.

Walker and Dorsett. The Cowboys win again—dammit.

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:

Tony Dorsett

Emmitt Smith

Herschel Walker

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.

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Emmitt remains in the NFL’s all-time rushing king.

2. Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams:

Eric Dickerson

Marshall Faulk

Steven Jackson

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.

Only Dickerson could make goggles cool

Only Dickerson could make goggles cool

3. Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts:

Marshall Faulk

Edgerrin James

Eric Dickerson

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.

James was no joke.

James was no joke.

4. Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans:

Earl Campbell

Eddie George

Chris Johnson

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.

Campbell: Frightening.

Campbell: Frightening.

5. Detroit Lions:

Barry Sanders

Billy Sims

James Jones

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.

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Though obscured by Sanders, Sims (above) was in the same class.

6. Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders:

Marcus Allen

Bo Jackson

Napoleon Kaufman

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.

Allen (left) and Bo. Double headache for defenses.

Allen (left) and Bo. Double headache for defenses.

7. Philadelphia Eagles:

Wilbert Montgomery

Brian Westbrook

LeSean McCoy

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.

McCoy brought speed and moves to Philly.

McCoy brought speed and moves to Philly.

8. Kansas City Chiefs:

Christian Okoye

Priest Holmes

Jamaal Charles

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.

Okoye—aka The Nigerian Nightmare.

Okoye—aka The Nigerian Nightmare.

9. New York Giants:

Tiki Barber

Rodney Hampton

Joe Morris

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.

Little Joe played big.

Little Joe played big.

10. Seattle Seahawks:

Shaun Alexander

Curt Warner

Marshawn Lynch

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.

Curt Warner: Not to be confused with Kurt Warner.

Curt Warner: Not to be confused with Kurt Warner.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers:

Jerome Bettis

Franco Harris

Barry Foster

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.

Bettis: Don't let the bus run you over.

Bettis: Don’t let the bus run you over.

12. Buffalo Bills:

Thurman Thomas

Joe Cribbs

Fred Jackson

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.

Joe Cribbs: Really good.

Joe Cribbs: Really good.

13. Washington Redskins:

John Riggins

Clinton Portis

Stephen Davis

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.

Stephen Davis: not an easy tackle.

Stephen Davis: not an easy tackle.

14. New York Jets:

Curtis Martin

Freeman McNeil

Thomas Jones

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.

McNeil: Jet fans know how good he was.

McNeil: Jet fans know how good he was.

15. San Francisco 49ers:

Roger Craig

Frank Gore

Ricky Watters

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.

Roger Craig: Joe Montana's best runner.

Roger Craig: Joe Montana’s best runner.

16. Chicago Bears:

Walter Payton

Matt Forte

Neal Anderson

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.

Sweetness.

Sweetness.

17. San Diego Chargers:

LaDainian Tomlinson

Chuck Muncie

Natrone Means

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.

Chuck Muncie: RIP

Chuck Muncie: RIP

18. Jacksonville Jaguars:

Fred Taylor

Maurice Jones-Drew

James Stewart

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.

Few ran harder than Taylor.

Few ran harder than Taylor.

19. Minnesota Vikings:

Adrian Peterson

Robert Smith

Darrin Nelson

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.

Nelson was never as good in the NFL as he was at Stanford.

Nelson was never as good in the NFL as he was at Stanford.

20. Atlanta Falcons:

Gerald Riggs

William Andrews

Warrick Dunn

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.

Andrews goes down as an all-time underrated baller.

Andrews goes down as an all-time underrated baller.

21. Denver Broncos:

Terrell Davis

Sammy Winder

Bobby Humphrey

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.

Bobby Humphrey: Was amazing in House Party.

Bobby Humphrey: Was amazing in House Party.

22. Baltimore Ravens:

Jamal Lewis

Ray Rice

Willis McGahee

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.

Ray Rice. Sigh.

Ray Rice. Sigh.

23. New Orleans Saints:

George Rogers

Deuce McAllister

Dalton Hilliard

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 …

Saints selected Rogers with top overall pick in 1981 Draft. Giants got Lawrence Taylor second. Oops.

Saints selected Rogers with top overall pick in 1981 Draft. Giants got Lawrence Taylor second. Oops.

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

James Wilder

Warrick Dunn

Ricky Bell

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.

James Wilder: Great moves, cool duds, no quarterback.

James Wilder: Great moves, cool duds, no quarterback.

25. Cincinnati Bengals:

Corey Dillon

Pete Johnson

James Brooks

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.

James Brooks: Tough as a boot.

James Brooks: Tough as a boot.

26. Carolina Panthers:

DeAngelo Williams

Jonathan Stewart

DeShaun Foster

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!

Foster could run, but it's more fun saying Biakabatuka.

Foster could run, but it’s more fun saying Biakabatuka.

27. Cleveland Browns:

Earnest Byner

Mike Pruitt

Kevin Mack

All three were good players, but only for their eras. Nothing special.

Mike Pruitt: Little, good, a Brown.

Mike Pruitt: Little, good, a Brown.

28. St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals:

Ottis Anderson

Larry Centers

Stump Mitchell

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.

Anderson could run, but he was no Juice.

Anderson could run, but he was no Juice.

29. Green Bay Packers:

Ahman Green

Ryan Grant

Dorsey Levens

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.

Ryan Grant: Solid Packer.

Ryan Grant: Solid Packer.

30. New England Patriots:

Curtis Martin

Craig James

Tony Collins

At long last, something the Pats don’t win. With Tom Brady, who needs a capable halfback?

James: An excellent running back and an even better homophobe.

James: An excellent running back and an even better homophobe.

31. Miami Dolphins:

Ricky Williams

Tony Nathan

Andra Franklin

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.

Franklin: Gone and sorta forgotten

Franklin: Gone and sorta forgotten

32. Houston Texans:

Arian Foster

Domanick Williams

Steve Slaton

Who the hell is Domanick Williams, and when did he run for 3,195 yards?

Hi, I'm Domanick

Hi, I’m Domanick

3 thoughts on “Ranking the NFL running back trios, 1980-2015 …”

  1. Love this list and the sheer amount of procrastination it represents, but it feels like the Bears trio is way too low. You know about Walter than I can ever hope to, but the numbers from the 80s don’t lie…9800 yards, 51 rushing TDs, plus 336 receptions and 11 receiving TDs. He was otherworldly in the 70s, but still a huge force in the 80s.

    Anderson had a thankless task, but turned that into 6,166 rushing yards (three 1,000-yard seasons), 51 rushing TDs and another 20 receiving TDs. He was awfully good.

    And you said it yourself, Forte is underrated, a mistake I feel you are making. Look at his season last year for a crap team…beyond the solid rushing numbers, he caught 102 passes for 800 yards.

    FYI, its Shaun Alexander, not Shawn. Ironic given the Warner joke just below.

  2. Steve Bittenbender

    As a Bengals fan, I’d put Rudi Johnson in over Pete Johnson – especially if you’re starting in 1980. Two seasons of 1,450+ and two other solid seasons. Rudi was a workhorse and a key part of getting the Bengals out of the Bungles era.

  3. with some exceptions obviously the top running backs don’t have too many rings. Looking through your top ten teams, how many rings do those backs have?

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