Reaction to ESPN’s Top 10 Running Backs List

Due to hectic events, I have been a little remiss in writing lately.  I hope to make up for some of that with this hot sports opinion.

 

ESPN has published a list of the top running backs of all time, and it is a big steaming pile of horse s—.  You know it must be the slowest sports time of the year when they have nothing better to dredge up than the second most tired argument in sports (the first being the Pete Rose Hall of Fame argument)- the ‘who was better Emmitt or Barry’ argument.  I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the purpose of this article is simply to create interest through ‘shock value.’

 

Here is a short version of the list:

1. JIM BROWN
Career: Upon retiring before ’66 season, the Browns’ RB was all-time leader in rushing yards (12,312), all-purpose yards (15,549) and touchdowns (126).

2. BARRY SANDERS
Career: Sudden retirement in ’99 came with the Lions’ RB trailing only Walter Payton on the all-time rushing list. Ran for more than 1,500 yards in a season five times.

3. WALTER PAYTON
Career: Played on mediocre Bears teams until late in career but retired as leading rusher (16,726) in history.

4. EMMITT SMITH
Career: Smith, who played 13 seasons for Dallas and two for Arizona, took over as all-time rushing leader in ’02. His 164 rushing touchdowns are the most in history.

5. GALE SAYERS
Career: Knee problems forced him to retire in ’71 after seven seasons with the Bears. At 33, he was the youngest person selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

6. LADAINIAN TOMLINSON
Career: The Chargers’ RB has at least 1,200 rushing yards and 50 receptions in each of his first seven seasons.

7. MARSHALL FAULK
Career: Began career with Indianapolis in ’94 but was traded to St. Louis in ’99 and became cornerstone of “Greatest Show on Turf.” First running back in history to lead his team in receptions in five different seasons.

8. O.J. SIMPSON
Career: The Bills’ great became the first player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season when he gained 2,003 in ’73.

9. LENNY MOORE
Credentials: One of Johnny Unitas’ key weapons for the Colts, he scored a touchdown in 18 straight regular-season appearances between ’63 and ’65.

10. ERIC DICKERSON
Credentials: Reached 10,000 rushing yards in 91 games (the fastest pace in history) and rushed for 2,105 yards in ’84. Played for Rams, Colts, Falcons and Raiders.

 

To distance themselves from the ridiculousness of this list, they have been upfront in giving credit/assessing blame to these authors of the list Don Shula, Marv Levy, Dan Reeves, Robert Smith, Jerry Richardson, Floyd Reese, Jack Bushofsky and Emmitt Thomas.

 

I do not have a problem with Jim Brown being at the top of the list.  What he did during the time he was in the league, and when he did it compared with the other running backs of his era, makes his stand out above the rest on the list.

 

I start having problems at number two on the list.  Emmitt Smith is at number four.  I will deal with the tiring Barry/Emmitt argument first.  I do not want to hear about Barry’s self-truncated career any more.  He was a great back, but his career does not compare with Emmitt’s because he threw a fit and quit.  We do not know if he would have had a better career that Emmitt, because,… he quit.  There is no data, and it is not fair to project ‘could have been’ data to an argument such as this.  Barry should be on the list, but I put him at number five.  All of you Barry lovers need to let it go and realize that his early retirement actually hurt his legacy.

 

The authors of this article defend the list by saying that Walter Payton was great while playing most of his career on bad teams.  On the contrary, they spend a whole section of the article backhandedly complimenting Emmitt and explaining his position at number four as a result of the fact that he played with other stars, such as Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, together with a great offensive line who assisted in making Emmitt good.

 

How about this argument?  It is easier for a great running back to rack up yards on a bad team than a good team.  A bad team will place a larger part of the load on a great running back’s shoulders in order to keep from exposing the other bad parts of the offense.  On the other hand, a player like Emmitt could lose carries to other great players in his offense.  It seems worse than wrong to penalize a player for being on a great team.  The Cowboys played a #1 schedule against some of the best teams (including being in the NFC East) in the league for much of Emmitts career.  Payton and Sanders played much easier schedules in a much weaker division.  Check out Sanders’ performance in games that counted.  He could turn in a nice 25 yard performance with the season on the line.  Emmitt never did this.

 

Emmitt closed the deal also.  He not only set the all-time rushing record and the all-time rushing touchdowns record, he carried the Cowboys to three Superbowl victories in four years.  The article curiously gives some numbers, but does not just lay them out for consumption.  This is, of course, because the numbers do not back up the opinions espoused by the authors.  They oddly say, “Sudden retirement in ’99 came with the Lions’ RB trailing only Walter Payton on the all-time rushing list. Ran for more than 1,500 yards in a season five times”, regarding Barry Sanders.  When it comes time for the quick blurb about Emmitt it says, “Smith, who played 13 seasons for Dallas and two for Arizona, took over as all-time rushing leader in ’02. His 164 rushing touchdowns are the most in history.”  Dallas’ playoff record and Superbowl victories are not mentioned.  Of course, looking pretty as you run down the field is much more important than actually putting skins on the wall.

 

While I believe there is a legitimate debate near the top of the list, it begins to fall apart after Emmitt.  I am truly tired of seeing Gale Sayers at the top of these lists.  He is the biggest example of ‘good old days syndrome’ in sports.  In truth, if he had played in the last few years, we would not have even made the Hall of Fame.  His numbers compare with someone like Terrell Davis, who also had a very good short career, but does not deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.  Unfortunately, the argument that he is in the Hall of Fame is used to bolster many backs such as Davis who do not deserve to be there.

 

Seeing the rest of this list only underscores how difficult it is to have a great and sustained career at running back in the NFL.  Of course, Dickerson belongs on the list and much higher than #10.  He belongs in the top five in my book easily.  Compared with some of the others on the list, and listening to names that arises when the best backs of all time are listed, he may be the most underrated of the greatest running backs in the history of the game.

 

Even though he as a bastard and a killer, O.J. belongs on the list, and I put him at #6.  He was a undeniably the best back of his era.  Faulk probably deserve to be on the list, but he was as much a receiver as a rusher.  He changed the way the position was played, and he has his skins in the wall.  I put him at #7.

 

I’ really like Ladainian Tomlinson, and agree that if he continues to put up number even close to those he has so far, he may end up as the greatest back in the history of the game.  The point is, he has not done it yet, and as a result, I have to give him an incomplete, and cannot include him on the list.  He has already had one ‘career ending’ injury, and was hurt at the end of the last two seasons.  It is too early to give him a place on the list.  When I was in college, as a history major, we talked about the concept of history.  We were told that it is best not to write history until about twenty years after the fact.  This allows time for personal politics and such to wash away, and just leave the facts.  The same goes for this list.  We should at least allow the player’s career to end before evaluating it.

 

Lenny Moore?  Oh yeah, his name just rolls of the tongue in any conversation involving great running backs.  I find it interesting that they say his longevity, and the good job he did on a great team with other great players on the team, propelled him onto the list while these same facts seemed to hold Smith from reaching the top of the list.

 

Here is my list:

1. Jim Brown

2. Emmitt Smith

3. Walter Payton

4. Eric Dickerson

5. Barry Sanders

6. Marshall Faulk

7. OJ Simpson

8. Franco Harris

9. Earl Campbell (There is a big drop off to the last two places, and I might be talked into some else at these two slots).

 

Here are a couple of other lists for comparison, though the second is very suspect:

List 1

List 2

 

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One Response

  1. I’ve been a little disappointed that of the hundreds of people who have read this post, I have not been able to ferret out one Gale Sayers or Barry Sanders supporter to at least make an argument for them. Perhaps putting together a cogent argument while holding on to an untennable point of view is just too difficult for them.

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