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10 Best Running Backs in Arizona Cardinals History

The Cardinals franchise has seen its fair share of standout running backs throughout its 100-year history.

The Cardinals franchise has seen its fair share of standout running backs throughout its 100-year history.

Who Are the Top 10 Cardinals Running Backs of All Time?

The Cardinals have had a strong dose of superior running backs throughout their 100-year history. While the franchise's location has changed over time (Chicago 1920–59; St. Louis 1960–87; Phoenix 1988–93; and Arizona 1994–present), the Cardinals often had a strong running back in the starting lineup, and the players featured here span nearly the franchise's entire history. They may not have had the star power of the likes of Jim Brown or Walter Payton, but a handful of Hall of Famers passed through the franchise and several others showed flashes of brilliance in their short careers.

Selection Criteria

Many Cardinals running backs finished with similar career accomplishments, which made creating this list fairly difficult. Nevertheless, what follows is a list of the 10 greatest franchise running backs of all time. Also included is a handful of honorable mentions, as well as statistics from every 1,000-yard rushing season in team history. The criteria used to develop this list include:

  • Legacy Honors (Hall of Fame, Ring of Honor, retired number, etc.)
  • Single-Season Honors (MVP, All-Pro, Pro Bowl, etc.)
  • On-Field Success (League leader, playoff appearances, records, etc.)
  • Longevity (Years with the Cardinals, percentage of career with the Cardinals, etc.)
  • Versatility (Rushing ability, receiving ability, returning ability, etc.)

Only games played with the Cardinals are factored into this list, so while Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith would be a great player to include on a list about the Cowboys, his two seasons in Arizona with 1,193 yards won't place him in the top 10 here. You may find my top picks are somewhat controversial, reaching further back in time than most top 10 lists.

10. John David Crow

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1958–64
  • All-Pro: 1959–60, '62
  • Pro Bowl: 1959–60, '62
  • Legacy Honors: NFL 1960s All-Decade Team

After winning the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M, John David Crow came to the Cardinals as the second pick in the 1958 NFL Draft. The Cardinals had high expectations for his success, and their confidence was rewarded with seven strong seasons.

By his third season in the league, he became the first running back in franchise history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season. His 1,071 yards in 1960 still ranks 10th all-time in Cardinals history, and Crow led the league that season by averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

In 1962, Crow rushed for a career-high 14 touchdowns. Not only did he finish second in the league, he also became the first player in team history to record at least 10 touchdowns in a season—a team record until 2016. Crow missed most of the 1963 season but bounced back nicely in '64, his final season with the franchise. Over his seven seasons, he carried the ball 787 times for 3,489 yards and 33 touchdowns, while adding 138 receptions for 1,961 yards and 17 touchdowns. He closed out his career with four seasons in San Francisco.

John David Crow: Cardinals Stats

YearGGSRushYdsTDRecYdsTD

1958

7

6

52

221

2

20

362

3

1959

12

11

140

666

3

27

328

4

1960

12

12

183

1071

6

25

462

3

1961

8

7

48

192

1

20

306

3

1962

14

14

192

751

14

23

246

3

1963

3

0

9

34

0

0

0

0

1964

13

11

163

554

7

23

257

1

Cardinals running back David Johnson celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second half of a 2019 game against the Steelers at State Farm Stadium.

Cardinals running back David Johnson celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second half of a 2019 game against the Steelers at State Farm Stadium.

9. David Johnson

  • Years With the Cardinals: 2015–19
  • Playoff Appearances: 2015
  • All-Pro: 2016
  • Pro Bowl: 2016

When David Johnson was healthy, he proved to be one of the best running backs in football while with the Cardinals. Multiple health setbacks during his brief career, however, prevented him from showing his true greatness.

Johnson came running out of the gates after being taken as a third-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, picking up 1,038 yards from scrimmage as a rookie. He then broke out in a big way during his second season, setting a new franchise record by rushing for 16 touchdowns and leading the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage. He gained at least 100 yards in 15 straight games, tying an NFL record first set by Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.

Johnson was beset by a fractured wrist in the opening game of the 2017 season, but even after missing that entire year he returned to form in '18 with 1,386 yards from scrimmage. After a lackluster season in 2019, he was traded to the Texans in March '20. In five seasons, Johnson gained 3,128 yards and 33 touchdowns on 781 carries, while adding 208 receptions for 2,219 yards and 15 touchdowns. He fell just 14 rushing touchdowns short of becoming the all-time franchise career leader.

David Johnson: Cardinals Stats

YearGGSRushYdsTDRecYdsTD

2015

16

5

125

581

8

36

457

4

2016

16

16

293

1239

16

80

879

4

2017

1

1

11

23

0

6

67

0

2018

16

16

258

940

7

50

446

3

2019

13

9

94

345

2

36

370

4

8. Terry Metcalf

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1973–77
  • Playoff Appearances: 1974–75
  • All-Pro: 1975
  • Pro Bowl: 1974–75, '77

Terry Metcalf was a threat all over the field during his brief but wildly successful career. He spent only five seasons with the Cardinals, but in that time he proved to be a worthy running back, receiver and return specialist.

In 1975, Metcalf established a new NFL record for single-season all-purpose yardage (2,462), which included 960 yards on kick returns and 816 rushing yards. His record stood until 1985 but remains the high mark for a 14-game season. He also gained more than 2,000 all-purpose yards in 1974 and '77 to become the first player to do so in three seasons.

Metcalf had the rare ability to run with force inside the tackles and run with grace outside of the tackles. What caught up with him, however, was his troubles with fumbles—he twice led the league and dropped the ball at least 10 times in three seasons—and Cardinals fans punished him for it at every turn.

Ultimately, Metcalf's salary demands were too much for the team’s front office to commit to, which led him to sign a "lifetime" contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Because the field is wider in the CFL, it was thought that Metcalf would become one of that league's best players, but he never gained more than 700 rushing yards in a season.

Throughout his Cardinals career, Metcalf gained 3,438 yards and 24 touchdowns on 748 carries, while adding 197 receptions for 1,862 yards and nine touchdowns. In the return game, he added another 3,725 yards and three touchdowns.

Terry Metcalf: Cardinals Stats

YearGGSRushYdsTDRecYdsTD

1973

12

10

148

628

2

37

316

0

1974

14

13

152

718

6

50

377

1

1975

13

13

165

816

9

43

378

2

1976

12

12

134

537

3

33

388

4

1977

14

11

149

739

4

34

403

2

7. Larry Centers

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1990–98
  • Playoff Appearances: 1998
  • All-Pro: 1996
  • Pro Bowl: 1995–96

Larry Centers redefined the fullback position during his time with the Cardinals. Most of his damage, however, came in the receiving game. After being selected in the fifth round of the 1990 NFL Draft, Centers saw sparse playing time over his first three seasons, but his role did increase each season.

It wasn't until 1994 that he found his niche under a new head coach, and he had his first of three straight seasons with at least 980 yards from scrimmage. In 1995, he became the first running back to catch over 100 passes in a season and held that record (101) until 2014.

When he left the Cardinals after the 1998 season, he had run the ball 517 times for 1,736 yards and 10 touchdowns, while hauling in 535 passes for 4,539 yards and 19 touchdowns. At the time, he held the franchise record for receptions, and he still has the most career receptions in NFL history among running backs.

Larry Centers: Cardinals Stats

YearGGSRushYdsTDRecYdsTD

1990

6

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1991

9

2

14

44

0

19

176

0

1992

16

1

37

139

0

50

417

2

1993

16

9

25

152

0

66

603

3

1994

16

5

115

336

5

77

647

2

1995

16

10

78

254

2

101

962

2

1996

16

14

116

425

2

99

766

7

1997

15

14

101

276

1

54

409

1

1998

16

12

31

110

0

69

559

2

6. Elmer Angsman

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1946–52
  • Playoff Appearances: 1947–48
  • Pro Bowl: 1950

The 1947 Cardinals were built to be a championship contender, and Elmer Angsman made sure that became reality when he laced up his spikes for that year's NFL championship game against the Eagles. Angsman dashed down the field for a pair of 70-yard touchdowns and had 159 yards in the game, leading to a 28–21 victory that still stands as the last championship in Cardinals history. Angsman gained those yards on just 10 carries, and his average of 15.9 yards per attempt still stands as a single-game postseason record among rushers with at least 10 carries.

When he was selected in the third round of the 1946 NFL Draft at 20 years old, Angsman was the youngest player to be drafted into the league. Starting with his second season, he rushed at least 100 times for five straight seasons in a crowded backfield.

Angsman ran for more than 600 yards in both 1948 and '49, but his production dropped over the next two seasons. He was replaced as a primary rusher in 1952 by rookie Ollie Matson, who was beginning his Hall of Fame career, and Angsman retired after the season.

Throughout his seven seasons, Angsman carried the ball 683 times for 2,908 yards and 27 touchdowns, while adding 41 catches for 654 yards and five touchdowns. He was known as a fearless runner, and according to his obituary, he once finished a game after having eight teeth knocked out.

Elmer Angsman: Cardinals Stats

YearGGSRushYdsTDRecYdsTD

1946

11

5

48

328

2

2

44

0

1947

12

1

110

412

7

5

138

1

1948

12

8

131

638

8

9

142

1

1949

12

12

125

674

6

5

57

0

1950

12

12

102

362

1

7

56

1

1951

12

12

121

380

3

9

195

1

1952

12

2

46

114

0

4

22

1