When voting for the GrideFe Hall of Fame, it was important that we looked at players through the prism of their era and didn’t try to put modern restrictions on players operating in a different context than today’s. With rule changes and schematic shifts designed to increase the impact of the passing game, the role and impact of running backs has diminished in recent years. However, for much of NFL history, great backs have played pivotal roles on great offenses and championship teams. Whether they were pure runners, receiving or blocking specialists, or a combination thereof, they were celebrated for their achievements and for their parts in shaping their teams. Because of the importance of the position for so much of the league’s history, as well as the mystique surrounding the role, an impressive 22 running backs received votes for the GridFe Hall of Fame. Seven didn’t make the cut. These are the fifteen who did.1
Hall of Fame Running Backs
Lenny Moore (1956-1967)
1 MVP; 5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award
Spats Moore was an efficient rusher and a gifted receiver. He led the leaue in yards per carry four times, including three seasons over 7.0. A dynamic receiving option, he actually retired with more yards through the air than on the ground. These weren’t just checkdowns – he had six seasons with at least 15 yards per catch. Moore was also a prolific scorer, once finding the endzone in 18 straight games and trailing only Jim Brown in career touchdowns at the time of his retirement.
Jim Brown (1957-1965)
4 MVPs; 8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 2 Title Losses; 2 GridFe Automatic Awards; 4 GridFe World Awards; 5 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 7 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Brown was a feature back in an era of platoons, leading the NFL in carries six times. His workload was justified, as he dominated the position like no one before or since. He led the league in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons, and he led in total touchdowns five times. He retired as career leader in yards and touchdowns and held onto those records for over twenty years apiece. The question isn’t whether Brown is the greatest running back of all time, but whether he is the greatest player of all time.
Jim Taylor (1958-1967)
Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints
1 MVP; 2 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award; 1 GridFe Motley Award
The hard-nosed Taylor was the perfect back for the Lombardi Packers. He was a tough runner who excelled in the mud and the frigid Green Bay winters. Taylor had the quickness to get outside on the sweep and the raw power to demolish defenders, and he used those to boast terrific production in the murderer’s row of the NFL West. He refused to be tackled and insisted on punishing anyone who tried. On top of that, he was a ferocious blocker who didn’t mind sacrificing his body for his teammates.
Gale Sayers (1965-1971)
5 First Team All Pros; 4 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award; 2 GridFe Gray and White Awards
The Kansas Comet is perhaps the smoothest runner ever to don a pair of cleats. He could make sharp cuts but was even more impressive in his ability to use subtle jukes without losing speed. A severe injury robbed him of that part of his game, but he modified his playing style and was able to return and earn a second rushing title before further injuries ended his career for good. Sayers was a dynamic playmaker who was always a threat with the ball in his hands. He still owns the career record for kick return average (30.6).2
O.J. Simpson (1969-1979)
Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers
2 MVPs; 5 First Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards
The Juice carried the Bills on his back in the early 70s, leading the league in rushing four times. During his five-year peak, Simpson averaged 2021 yards and 12 touchdowns per 16 games. This includes two of the greatest seasons in history. His 2003 yard season3 was legendary, but 1975 was perhaps even better. Playing a 14-game schedule in the depths of the dead ball era, he averaged 160.2 scrimmage yards per game and scored 23 touchdowns.4 His time at the top was short, but his peak was a high as anyone’s in history.
Walter Payton (1975-1987)
2 MVPs; 7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Sweetness is among the most versatile backs the game has ever seen. His rushing prowess is legendary. He possessed a potent combination of speed, power, balance, and determination, using them to become all-time leading rusher and touchdown scorer. Payton was a dedicated and fierce blocker, a stellar receiver, and even capably filled at at quarterback when called upon. He was universally respected and beloved by his teammates. There have been thousands of players to grace the field throughout the league’s history. Only Payton has a namesake media award given to the NFL’s Man of the Year.5
Earl Campbell (1978-1985)
Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints
3 MVPs; 3 First Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards
The Tyler Rose dominated his opponents with raw power and sheer tyranny of will. His runs were at once violent and poetic, leaving a trail of bodies strewn in his wake. Few have ever brought such savagery to the position. He was the first, second, and third option for his offenses. Defenses knew he was getting the ball, and he ran through them anyway. He began his career with three straight rushing crowns, averaging 110.5 rushing yards per game. His reckless style ultimately contributed to an abbreviated career, but at his peak he may have been the most feared runner ever to carry a football.
Marcus Allen (1982-1997)
Los Angeles Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs
1 MVP; 2 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards; 1 GridFe Motley Award
Marcus Allen started off his career with a bang, leading the league in yards and touchdowns as a rookie. The following year, he authored one of the great Super Bowl performances in history, gaining 209 yards and scoring twice en route to the game’s MVP award. Over the course of his first four seasons, Allen averaged 1949 yards and 16 scores per 16 games. He was a versatile dual threat who ended up spending a large part of his prime sacrificing his body as a lead blocker for a part time player. He got a fresh start in Kansas City, scoring 47 touchdowns in the new city and becoming the only back to score in 16 NFL seasons. His late career resurgence saw him retire with the career touchdown record.
Eric Dickerson (1983-1993)
Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Raiders, Atlanta Falcons
1 MVP; 5 First Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 4 GridFe Supersonic Awards
In terms of pure rushing ability, Dickerson may have been the best there ever was. He was fast, powerful, and sleek, with an unorthodox upright running style. With his large frame and long gate, he was reminiscent of Secretariat in football pads. The bespectacled virtuoso led the NFL in yards in three of his first four seasons, and once again after being traded to Indianapolis. This includes his masterful sophomore campaign that saw him set the single season rushing record at 2105 yards.
Thurman Thomas (1988-2000)
Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
1 MVP; 3 First Team All Pros; 2 Second team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award
The Little Cyclone was a dynamic playmaker who served as the engine that made the explosive K-Gun Bills offenses run. He led the league in yards from scrimmage every season from 1989-92, adding at least a dozen touchdowns each year. Thomas was the most versatile back in a league full of all-time greats, and he actually improved in the postseason. From 1989-95, he averaged 120 scrimmage yards and 1.1 touchdowns in 16 playoff games.
Barry Sanders (1989-1998)
3 MVPs; 8 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 4 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Maybe the most exciting runner of all time, Sanders was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. He averaged an astonishing 1819 yards from scrimmage over the course of his decade in the NFL, never falling below 1320 in a given season. Sanders looked like a sure thing to break the carer rushing record, but he abruptly called it a career after a 1500 yard season. He stands apart from many other great backs in that his offenses would take the field in obvious passing formations, and defenses would still focus on him. Despite all the attention paid to him, tacklers were usually left grasping at air.
Emmitt Smith (1990-2004)
Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals
2 MVPs; 4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Smith wasn’t the fastest, strongest, or quickest back. His greatest strengths were ones that didn’t jump off the screen: balance, vision, pad level, and the ability to be like water. He always seemed to find yards and elevate his offensive lines, he fell forward far more often than not, and he rarely absorbed hits. This combination of skills, on concert with legendary mental toughness, afforded Smith the opportunity to become the all-time leader in rush yards and touchdowns, posting 14 seasons over 1000 yards from scrimmage along the way. He is also one of the game’s most prolific playoff performers, for what it’s worth.
Marshall Faulk (1994-2005)
St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis Colts
2 MVPs; 3 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Faulk is very likely the greatest chess piece ever to play the position. He was an elusive runner, a smart blocker, and the best receiving back in history. With the ability to run a full route tree, Faulk had the skill to be an all pro receiver if he wanted to be. His prowess as a pass catcher has caused some to forget about his rushing contributions. Take note: there are eight seasons in history in which a player gained 80 rushing yards per game and 50 receiving yards per game. Faulk owns half of them, for two different teams, four years in a row.
LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-2011)
San Diego Chargers, New York Jets
1 MVP; 4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Tomlinson made playing football look easy. He possessed a rare combination of speed and strength and was the greatest of the early-2000s feature back era. His devastating stiff arm is the stuff of legends. He was a dangerous three down back with solid receiving skills and capable pass protection. Incredibly, Tomlinson Started his career with eight straight seasons over 1500 scrimmage yards. It was his nose for the end zone, however, that was his calling card. He began his career with nine seasons of double digit touchdowns, including a record 31 in 2006.
Adrian Peterson (2007-present)
Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints
2 MVPs; 5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Peterson is as great a runner as there ever has been, with the speed to break off huge chunks of yardage and the power to demoralize would-be tacklers. Perhaps his most important characteristic as a runner is his balance through contact. Whether he is taking or initiating a collision, he consistently rolls off tackles to pick up more yards. He has produced eight double-digit rushing touchdown seasons in an era when that doesn’t happen much for stud running backs. Peterson is a throwback to a bygone era, when a superhuman rusher could serve as an offense’s primary point of attack.
- Others receiving votes: Marion Motley*, Joe Perry*, Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson, Ollie Matson*, Tony Dorsett*, Curtis Martin (asterisk denotes players for whom I voted). Note that this does not include Steve Van Buren, who went through a different process as those who followed him. He is a Pioneer entry, and you can read about him here. ↩
- Prior to injury, he averaged an incredible 33 yards per return. ↩
- The total has since been surpassed, but it has only ever been topped by runners in the 16-game schedule era. Simpson’s 143.1 yards per game are a full ten yards higher than the next highest season average. ↩
- That’s equivalent to 2563 yards and 26 touchdowns in a 16 game schedule. ↩
- The Whizzer White and Bart Starr awards are similar, but they are not awarded by media. ↩