As a lover of football history, I enjoy writing about the evolution of the game and examining statistical achievements from a historical perspective. I’m also fond of looking at the progression of career records, as doing so can often give us a glimpse into the progression of the game itself. I’ve previously written about the history of the passing touchdowns, passing yards, and receptions records. Today, I’ll focus on the storied history of the carer rushing touchdowns record.
The first ever Football Sunday in league history occurred on September 26, 1920.1 Rock Island Independents back Eddie Novak scored the first touchdown on a ten yard rush, but that was in the day before official stats. We have to move twelve years from that point till we find a full season with officially recorded stats. Note that, while the NFL does not recognize as official most records prior to 1932, it does recognize touchdowns; whether or not the league is correct in doing so is beyond the scope of this article. My aim is to begin in 1932, but to use the numbers the league recognizes for its first rushing touchdown king, Ernie Nevers. Without further ado…
Running Backs to Hold the Career Rushing Touchdowns Record
Ernie Nevers (16 years, 1 month as official record-holder)
Nevers is perhaps most known for holding the single game scoring record; his six rushing touchdowns and four extra points gave him all forty of the Cardinals’ points in a 1929 victory over the Bears. Those six touchdowns on the ground composed half of his scores that year, and nearly 16 percent of his career touchdowns. He retired after the 1931 season, having played five years as a pro and rushed for 38 touchdowns.
The late 1920s and early 1930s was a much different era than the one you’re familiar with today (or even the one your grandfather may have known in his day). The schedules were not well-regulated, and different teams played a different number of games in any given year.2 Sports medicine was just an old guy saying “walk it off,” so careers were much shorter back then, even for the superstars. With all that going against him, Nevers managed to set a record that stood for nearly two decades.
Steve Van Buren (15 years as official record-holder)
After Nevers retired, the league didn’t see another truly great feature back until Van Buren entered in 1944. A true workhorse back, he led the league in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns four times apiece (and yards per game five times). He tied the career touchdowns record with his third rushing score of the day in a victory over the Packers in 1947. Van Buren took sole possession of the record the following season and, ultimately, pushed the record to 69 rushing touchdowns by the time he retired in 1951. Like Nevers before him, his record lasted until the next generation’s greatest workhorse back eclipsed him.
Before we get to the next official record holder, it’s only fair to mention Perry, who scored 71 rushing touchdowns as a pro. Despite technically surpassing Van Buren’s mark of 69, Perry doesn’t get credit for breaking the official record because his first 18 touchdowns came during his playing time in the AAFC. I don’t believe in ignoring his production in those seasons,3 but, given the inferior level of competition in the upstart league, it seems fair to at least discount some of his output. Unofficially, Perry broke Van Buren’s record in 1961, as a member of the Baltimore Colts, in a blowout win over the Packers. He finished his career with 71 rushing touchdowns, but only 53 of those came in the NFL.
Jim Brown (24 years, 9 months as record-holder)
When Brown entered the league, he was a force of nature. He led the NFL in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons and in rushing touchdowns in five seasons. His 1962 campaign is often seen as a down year for him, but it did have one major highlight: In a week 14 victory over the 49ers, he scored his 69th and 70th rushing touchdowns, breaking Van Buren’s long-held record.
Brown gave the world three more stellar seasons before unexpectedly retiring at the age of 29. By that time, he had scored 106 rushing touchdowns, a mark that would stand for nearly a quarter century. He benefited from the league’s expansion to a 14-game schedule, but simply watching the film shows that he was far more than just a product of a changing era. Fascinatingly, the same can be said of the man who broke his record.
Walter Payton (10 years as record-holder)
Like Brown, Payton used an expanded schedule to help gain the career touchdown title. Also like Brown, Payton was a once-in-a-generation talent who inflicted his will upon defenses and made would-be tacklers pay for the sin of believing he could be contained. Unlike Brown, Payton spent the majority of his prime years toiling for bad teams, often having to make the most out of an anemic offensive line.4
Despite this, he was able to play well enough, for long enough, to eventually wear the crown. He tied the record with a one yard plunge against the Cowboys in the last game of 1986. He took sole ownership of the title in the second game of 1987, with yet another one yard trot into the endzone. In all, Payton scored 110 times on the ground and held the esteemed record for a decade.
Marcus Allen (2 years as record-holder)
Fairly or unfairly, Allen is rarely mentioned on people’s shortlists of the greatest running backs of all time. After a Heisman winning college career and an incredible start to his pro career, Allen was relegated to part time duty due to a feud with Raiders owner Al Davis. During what is normally the prime of most backs’ careers, Allen spent a great deal of time blocking for Bo Jackson (upon Davis’s mandate).However, his coaches thought enough of him to override the owner’s protestations and give Allen the ball in important situations.
After a disappointing final season with the Raiders in 1992, Allen signed with the rival Chiefs and played till the ripe age of 37. In 1996, Allen scored his 106th rushing touchdown in a week four victory over the Broncos. He scored his record-breaking touchdown two weeks later in a loss to the Steelers. He added eleven more in his final year, 1997, retiring with 123 rushing touchdowns. Allen’s time with the crown was short-lived, as another young legend was quickly making his way up the leader boards.
Emmitt Smith (17 years, 5 months, and counting as record-holder)
When it comes to scoring touchdowns, Smith’s first seven years in the league are second to none; by the end of his age 27 season, he had already scored 108 rushing touchdowns. After a down year in 1997, he posted two more double digit scoring seasons before seeing his production slip with age.5
Smith broke Allen’s record in 1998, ending the year with 125 scores. He tied the record with his third scoring tote in week 11 against Minnesota, and then moved into sole possession of first place with a TD against Washington in the final week of the season. Smith added 39 more touchdowns to his total over his final six seasons, retiring with an incredible 164 rushing touchdowns. He has held the record longer than any player aside from Jim Brown, and it is likely that he will surpass his predecessor once the 2023 season begins.6
- This is in dispute, however, because that game, between the Rock Island Independents and the St. Paul Ideals, only featured one official NFL team – the Independents. ↩
- Nevers’s Duluth Eskimos and Chicago Cardinals played 14, 9, 13, 13, and 9 games in his five years with those squads. In 1926, the NFL featured teams that played as many as 17, and as few as 4, scheduled games. Things were only slightly better by 1931, when that number ranged from 14 to 8. It wasn’t until 1936 that every team played the same number of scheduled games. ↩
- His 49ers did, after all, have to play the dominant-in-any-league defense of the Cleveland Browns twice a year. ↩
- Brown, on the other hand, played behind arguably the best lines of any great back in history. See Doug Drinen’s study on offensive line help. ↩
- Bear in mind, however, that he did score 9 touchdowns as a 31 year old and as a 35 year old (his final season). Smith often takes heat for stretching out his career too long, but gaining 937 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns as a 35 year old is hardly what I would call a “compiling” season. ↩
- Smith needs to hold the record for another 7 years and 2 months to do this, which would technically occur just prior to the 2023 season. Unless scientists find a way to prevent Adrian Peterson from aging, or LaDainian Tomlinson miraculously returns and scores another 20 rushing touchdowns, the feat is as good as Emmitt’s. ↩