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Tomlinson in top 10, but Jim Brown still sets standard for running backs

by | Senior NFL Columnist

Tomlinson's durability yielded eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. (Getty Images)  
Tomlinson's durability yielded eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. (Getty Images)  

Now that LaDainian Tomlinson is retired from pro football, here's what I want to know: Where does he rank on your list of running backs? I know where he ranks on mine, and let the roll call begin:

1. Jim Brown

He played for nine years, was named to nine Pro Bowls and led the league in rushing eight times. Check, please. Brown was as much a running back as he was a fullback, and he was damned near impossible to bring down. He averaged 104.3 yards rushing per game and 5.2 per carry, produced seven 1,000 yard seasons and scored 126 times -- or little over one per start. He also retired at the peak of his career, stepping down after five consecutive seasons where he didn't miss a game and after three straight where he led the league in rushing.

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2. Barry Sanders

He played one more season than Brown and produced nearly 3,000 more yards rushing. Of course, he also had over 700 more carries, but I'm not here to compare the two; just to extol them. Sanders was far different than Brown -- a shifty back who was compact and made tacklers miss with acrobatic moves. He didn't play behind much of an offensive line, either, forced to make many of his 15,000 yards on his own. Like Brown, he bowed out at the top of his game, and, like Brown, was unsurpassed in his era.

3. Walter Payton

There are two things that stand out about Payton's career: His productivity and his durability. From 1976-86, Payton had 10 1,000-yard seasons and never missed a start. When he retired, he led the league in career rushing yards and rushing touchdowns -- records that later were broken -- and was hailed as one of the greatest backs in NFL history. Nothing since then has changed. But there was more to Payton's record than productivity. The guy was always there. In fact, the only time he missed a game was his rookie season of 1975. He was consistent, dependable and remarkable -- all traits you're looking for in franchise players.

4. Gale Sayers

People want to penalize Sayers because he played only seven seasons, so they wonder how he can be mentioned in the top five or top 10 of career running backs. My response: Watch him play. For those who were so fortunate, Sayers was a treasure -- a back who could make right-angle cuts at full speed and whose shiftiness was duplicated only by Sanders. He broke into the league by scoring a rookie-record 22 touchdowns, including six in one game, and might have set a passel of marks were his career not ended prematurely by knee injuries. Sayers was an all-purpose back who averaged five yards a carry and excelled at everything -- including and most especially returns. In fact, in his first three pro seasons, he averaged over 31 yards per kickoff return.

5. Eric Dickerson

He could've led the league in every rushing category had he just stayed with the Rams. But he didn't, and while he turned the woebegone Indianapolis Colts into a winning franchise, he didn't have the success there he did in L.A. He led the league in rushing three of his first four seasons, including a 2,105-yard effort in Year 2 when he set a league record by rushing for 100 or more yards 12 times, and he was the first back to run for 1,000 or more yards in seven consecutive seasons. Dickerson was a power runner who accelerated between the tackles and was so effective that he reached 10,000 yards rushing in only 91 games, faster than Brown (96), Sanders (103), Emmitt Smith (106) and LaDainian Tomlinson (106).

6. O.J. Simpson

Like Sanders and Sayers, Simpson ran with dazzle. He could split the tackles or turn the corner and was just as comfortable juking a defensive back as he was running over a defensive lineman. He was that rare blend of speed and power that made him the league's first back to rush for 2,000 yards -- and he did it at a time when the NFL played 14-game seasons. From 1972-76 Simpson averaged 1,540 yards rushing per season -- again, when the NFL had 14-game seasons -- gained 5.1 yards per carry and led the league in rushing four times. And he did all that playing with a so-so team that all too often played in miserable conditions and went to only one playoff game while Simpson was there.

7. Emmitt Smith

Smith is the NFL's career rushing leader and holds the NFL record for most rushing TDs, but he was not the game's best back. He was one of them, leading the league in rushing four times in a five-year span and putting together a string of 11 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Of course, that won't satisfy Dallas fans who ask, "So, what's the problem?" Well, nothing really. The guy was terrific, but he did play on teams that were loaded with talent and that included a Hall of Fame quarterback, a Hall of Fame wide receiver and six Pro Bowl offensive linemen, and he did average less (4.2 yards per carry) than other backs on this list.

8. LaDainian Tomlinson

He produced eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, was named to six All-Pro teams and set the NFL record for scoring with 31 touchdowns in 2006 when he also averaged a league-best 113.4 yards rushing per game and was named league MVP. But that's only part of the story. Tomlinson was an all-around back who was as dangerous catching the ball in the open field. He had 100 catches in one season. He had over 50 in nine. Plus, the guy was durable, missing only one start in his first eight seasons. Tomlinson was the face of the franchise and, despite departing San Diego on less-than-ideal terms, remains one of the franchise's most popular players ever.

9. Earl Campbell

There have been backs who rushed for more yards, but there haven't been many who ran harder. Campbell was another package of size and speed, a back who could overpower opponents or run by them. He led the league in rushing his first three seasons -- including a career-best 1,934 in 1980 when he averaged 128.9 yards rushing per game and four times rushed for 200 yards -- and he was the backbone of those "Luv Ya Blue" Oilers that reached the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. A three-time All-Pro and three-time Offensive Player of the Year, Campbell was named the NFL's MVP in 1979 and might have lasted longer if he weren't overused by Bum Phillips.

10. Curtis Martin

The biggest mistake the New England Patriots made in the 1990s was letting Curtis Martin go to the Jets. Not only were they weaker offensively in the aftermath of the move; they allowed one of the game's best backs to go to a division rival. Martin wasn't merely good; he was sensational, producing 10 1,000-yard seasons in his 11-year career, including his first NFL rushing title in 2004 at the age of 31. Martin was another all-purpose back who was effective as a receiver, once catching 70 passes in a season and nine times having 41 or more receptions. He also was durable, suiting up for all 16 games eight times in a career that included five All-Pro selections.


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