10 Best Chicago Bears Running Backs of All Time
The Greatest Bears Running Backs
Many NFL teams can say some of the greatest running backs in history wore their colors, but few have as strong a claim as the Bears. That’s because the Bears are a storied franchise dating back to the very dawn of the NFL.
Founded in 1920 as the Decatur Staleys, owner and head coach George Halas cultivated the team into one of the NFL’s first championship dynasties. From 1921 to '46, the Bears appeared in 10 NFL championship games and won seven of them. Back then, if you were going to win in pro football, you did it on the ground.
A great collegiate running back known as the Galloping Ghost helped put the Bears, and the NFL, on the map in those early days. A bruising fullback named Bronko dominated the 1930s. In the '60s, Gayle Sayers—one of the best Chicago backs of all time—set records and put up stunning performances before knee injuries cut his career short. In the 1970s and ‘80s, a man they called Sweetness became the greatest running back in NFL history.
Given such an impressive legacy, how do we choose the best of these legendary backs? To make this list I considered three important qualities.
What makes a great running back?
- Statistics: Moving the ball on the ground is a running back’s job. Backs with impressive stats in categories like yards-per-carry and total rushing yards are getting it done. Receptions are important too, and some of the backs on this list were as much of a threat as receivers as they were as rushers.
- Importance to the Team: Sometimes, especially in the early days of pro football, running backs had to split duties. Because of the offenses they ran, that meant two or three backs were getting the yards, carries and touchdowns that one back would today. For example, the fullback often carried the ball as much as any halfback on the team. It is important to consider this when evaluating backs who played prior to 1980.
- Accolades: The NFL recognizes greatness with Pro Bowl and All-Pro team nominations and various other awards. Of course, the epitome of success is induction into the Hall of Fame.
With all of that in mind, here are the top running backs in Bears history.
10. Matt Suhey
Penn State alum Matt Suhey arrived in the Windy City in 1980 and took over fullback duties the following year. From 1981 to '89, he shared the backfield with All Pro tailback Walter Payton and Pro-Bowl tailback Neal Anderson.
In 1985, the Bears made it to Super Bowl XX. Suhey started at fullback and helped blow out the Patriots by a score of 46–10. He had 11 carries for 52 yards and a touchdown in the game.
Suhey played at a time when the fullback was still an important ball carrier. While he never had a 1,000-yard season, he managed to rush for 2,946 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career. He also caught 260 passes for 2,113 yards. He was a key part of the championship team in 1985, and he remains a fan favorite to this day.
Suhey's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1980–89
- Jersey Number: 26
- Accolades: 1x Super Bowl champion
- Stats: 148 games, 2,946 rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns
9. Thomas Jones
Thomas Jones was an outstanding running back who had a stellar 12-year NFL career in which he rushed for over 10,000 yards. However, he only spent three of those years with the Bears, so it didn’t seem right to rank him higher than some of the players who spent their entire careers in Chicago.
In all three of his seasons with the Bears, Jones led the team in rushing, totaling 3,493 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 118 passes for 724 yards. In 2006, Jones and the Bears made it as far as the Super Bowl, where they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts on a rain-drenched Miami field.
Though he only played three seasons in Chicago, Jones had an impressive impact, ranking sixth all-time for the franchise in rushing yards. Had he been a Bear for his whole career, he would undoubtedly rank higher on this list.
Jones's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 2004–06
- Jersey Number: 20
- Stats: 45 games, 3,493 rushing yards, 22 rushing touchdowns
8. Rick Casares
At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Rick Casares had the size to play even in today’s NFL. In the 1950s, he was an opposing defense’s nightmare. He was a former boxer known for his toughness and hard-charging playing style.
For 10 seasons in Chicago, Casares plowed his way over opponents. He led the team in rushing from 1955 to '60, and by the time he was done he had amassed 5,657 career rushing yards and scored 59 total touchdowns. He made five Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team.
Casares and the Bears lost the NFL championship game in 1956, but they finally won it in '63 when they defeated the Giants by a score of 14–10. Casares left the Windy City for Washington in 1965, but he is revered today as one of the greatest Bears running backs of all time.
Casares's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1955–64
- Jersey Number: 35
- Accolades: 5x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 1x NFL champion
- Stats: 121 games, 5,657 rushing yards, 49 rushing touchdowns
7. Neal Anderson
Neal Anderson started his career parked behind Walter Payton on the Bears’ depth chart. When Payton retired following the 1987 season, Anderson got his chance to show the world what he could do. He became one of the best running backs in the NFL, and the Bears’ rushing attack was able to keep on charging forward despite losing Payton.
It was tough for Bears fans to watch Payton retire after giving the city so many great seasons, not to mention a Lombardi Trophy. However, Anderson's emergence helped to quell the sting a bit. He was one more outstanding running back in a city that is known for them.
Anderson led the Bears in rushing for seven straight seasons. He currently ranks third in franchise history for rushing yards (with 6,166) and second for rushing touchdowns (51). He also caught 302 passes for 2,763 yards and 20 touchdowns as a Bear.
Anderson's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1986–93
- Jersey Number: 35
- Accolades: 4x Pro Bowl
- Stats: 116 games, 6,166 rushing yards, 51 rushing touchdowns
6. George McAfee
While his stats may not merit a higher placing on the list of best pure running backs in Bears history, it is hard to think of a player more versatile and valuable than George McAfee.
McAfee was a shifty back with blazing speed who earned the nickname “One-Play McAfee.” He’s also a good example of a back whose numbers would have been much more impressive had he not shared rushing duties with several other players and spent time playing defense. Unlike today’s NFL, back in the 1940s it was very much a rushing league, and teams stocked up on good running backs.
As it stands, McAfee rushed for 1,685 yards and 21 touchdowns, caught 85 passes for 1,359 yards and 11 touchdowns, intercepted 25 passes and ran back two each punts and kicks for touchdowns. He even threw three touchdown passes in his eight seasons with the team.
McAfee helped Chicago win three NFL championships during his career. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame with the class of 1966.
McAfee's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1940–41, 1945–50
- Jersey Number: 5
- Accolades: 1x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 3x NFL champion, Hall of Fame class of 1966
- Stats: 75 games, 1,685 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns
5. Matt Forte
In my opinion, Matt Forte was underrated as a running back during his playing years. I think the fact that he played for the Bears is a big reason for that. It has to be tough to walk in the shadows of players like Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange. Still, with all due respect to George McAfee, Forte well deserves to be in the top five on any list of the greatest Chicago running backs.
Forte never won a championship and only made the Pro Bowl twice. However, he is the second-leading rusher in franchise history. He ran for over 1,000 yards in five of his eight seasons as a Bear and led the team in rushing each year. In 2014, he caught 102 passes while also rushing for 1,038 yards.
In addition to rushing for 8,602 yards and scoring 45 touchdowns on the ground, Forte caught 487 passes for 4,116 yards and 19 touchdowns during his time in the Windy City. He was a versatile, durable back who deserved more accolades than he received during his playing time. He put up some impressive numbers, but whether they will be good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame remains to be seen.
Forte's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 2008–15
- Jersey Number: 22
- Accolades: 2x Pro Bowl
- Stats: 120 games, 8,602 rushing yards, 45 rushing touchdowns
4. Red Grange
It is tough to know where to rank Harold “Red” Grange on a list of the best Bears running backs of all time. His true stats have gone largely unrecorded, but his legend is the greatest in franchise history. Grange—arguably more than any other player in history—made the NFL and the Bears what they are today.
As a 22-year-old college senior at Illinois in 1925, Grange was one of the best college football players in the country. He had led his team to a national championship in 1923 and was selected to the All-America team three times. In college, Grange earned the nickname “The Galloping Ghost” due to his shifty running style.
In the 1920s, college football was incredibly popular in America, but many fans saw the pro game as a low-rate imitation. It was rare for a college player to go on to play pro football, let alone one as famous as Grange. But Bears owner George Halas saw an opportunity, and he offered Grange a contract that would change pro football forever.
Grange joined the Bears for the 1925 Thanksgiving Day game, a mere 10 days after his college season ended. Following the regular season, Grange and the Bears went on what would be called barnstorming tours where they traveled across the country and faced off against independent pro teams, all-star teams and local football clubs. This grueling schedule often pitted them against several teams in the same week, which seems like madness today. The intent was to expose more of the public to pro football—and the Galloping Ghost was the main attraction.
Grange helped the Bears win two championships during his time with the team. He made All-Pro twice and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1963. Most importantly, his presence drew attention to pro football and set it on the path to becoming what it is today.
Grange's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1925, 1929–34
- Jersey Number: 77
- Accolades: 2x All-Pro, 2x NFL champion, Hall of Fame class of 1963
- Stats: 96 games, 569 rushing yards*, 21 rushing touchdowns
* Stats incomplete
3. Bronko Nagurski
Bronko Nagurski was a 225-pound fullback who outweighed many of the offensive tackles of his day. In fact, he played tackle later in his career, but he made his mark as a bone-crushing ball carrier no opponent looked forward to tackling.
As with Grange, statistics are a little shaky for Nagurski’s time in the league. Official stats have him rushing for 2,778 yards in his career, though his first two seasons are missing from that number. He was also known for the jump pass, and he threw for 474 yards and seven touchdowns in his career.
Nagurski helped the Bears win three NFL championships. He won two during his first stint in the league from 1930 to '37, then came out of retirement in '43 at the age of 35 to win one more.
To save his body from the punishment that went along with his running style, Nagurski committed to playing tackle that final season, but he was called into the backfield one last time in the championship game. He carried 11 times for 34 yards and a touchdown as his Bears defeated the Washington Football Team by a score of 41–21.
Nagurski's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1930–37, 1943
- Jersey Number: 3
- Accolades: 4x All-Pro, 3x NFL champion, Hall of Fame class of 1963
- Stats: 97 games, 2,778 rushing yards*, 25 rushing touchdowns
* Stats incomplete
2. Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers was a triple-threat player who could change a game in the blink of an eye. During his brief seven-year career, he rushed for 4,956 yards and 39 touchdowns with an amazing 5.0 yards-per-carry average. He caught 112 passes for 1,307 yards and nine touchdowns.
But Sayers was most dangerous as a return man. He ran two punts and six kickoffs back for touchdowns in his career. As a punt returner, he had a career average of 14.5 yards per return, and his average as a kick returner was 30.6 yards per return. Incredible.
As a rookie in 1965, Sayers scored an amazing six touchdowns in one game against the 49ers. His stats for the day included carrying the ball nine times for 113 yards and four touchdowns, catching two passes for 89 yards and a touchdown and returning five punts for 134 yards and a touchdown.
A string of knee injuries cut Sayers's career short. During his last two seasons in Chicago, he played in only four total games and managed only 90 yards rushing. But for the five seasons before that, there was not a more dangerous back in the NFL. Had he played longer, and had he not shared rushing duties during his career with fullbacks Brian Piccolo and Ronnie Bull, Sayers might today hold every NFL rushing record.
Sayers's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1965–71
- Jersey Number: 40
- Accolades: 4x Pro Bowl, 5x All Pro, Hall of Fame class of 1977
- Stats: 68 games, 4,956 rushing yards, 39 rushing touchdowns
Gale Sayers, Brian Piccolo and Brian’s Song
Brian Piccolo was a free agent who worked hard to make the Bears' roster as a halfback. As a rookie in 1966, he found himself stuck behind Gale Sayers on the depth chart. In 1967, Piccolo moved to fullback. From that point, he and Sayers became a formidable rushing duo.
When the team traveled, Sayers and Piccolo were assigned as roommates and quickly became friends. That might not seem like a big deal—except Piccolo was white, Sayers was Black and it was the 1960s. At that time, player hotel rooms were still segregated. Sayers and Piccolo became the NFL’s first interracial roommate pair and a positive example of the change needed in the country.
Near the end of the 1969 season, Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma. After several unsuccessful surgeries, he passed away on June 16, 1970, at the age of 26. His struggles and his relationship with Sayers were immortalized in the 1971 movie Brian’s Song.
1. Walter Payton
Every football fan has their own opinion on who was the greatest NFL running back of all time. There is a strong argument for Jim Brown, but for me, it's Walter Payton. For 13 seasons he was nearly unstoppable, and by the time he was done he was the No. 1 rusher in NFL history with 16,726 total yards on the ground.
Though no one can say for sure how he got the nickname "Sweetness," it has often been attributed to his soft voice and laid-back disposition. One thing is for sure—Payton was anything but sweet to opponents on the field. He rushed for over 1,200 yards every season from 1976 to '86 (not counting the strike-shortened '82 season). He scored 110 rushing touchdowns and averaged 4.4 yards-per-carry for his career. He was also a receiving threat out of the backfield and caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career. Payton even passed for 331 yards and eight touchdowns as a Bear!
These numbers are staggering, but even more so considering that he played on sub-par teams for most of his career. From 1975 to '83, the Bears only had two winning seasons. In contrast to backs like Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith, Payton didn’t have the luxury of running behind a championship-level offensive line for most of his career.
By 1984, things were beginning to change. The Bears finished first in the NFC Central but lost the NFC championship to the 49ers. The following year, Payton and his Bears finally made it to the Super Bowl and won a championship.
Payton retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher after the 1987 season, and he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in '93.
Payton tragically passed away in 1999 at the age of 45. I don’t expect to see a comparable player in my lifetime. He was, in my opinion, the greatest running back in NFL history, and one of the best all-around football players of all time.
Payton's Career With the Bears
- Years Played: 1975–87
- Jersey Number: 34
- Accolades: 9x Pro Bowl, 5x All-Pro, 1x Super Bowl champion, 1977 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1977 NFL Man of the Year, 1977 NFL MVP, 1985 Bert Bell award, Hall of Fame class of 1993
- Stats: 190 games, 16,726 rushing yards, 110 rushing touchdowns
Here are a few more great Bears running backs who were considered for this top 10 list but didn’t quite make the cut.
Willie Galimore: 1957–63
It was tough choosing between Willie Galimore and Matt Suhey for the 10th spot on the list above. Both have championships under their belts, but Galimore has slightly better rushing stats. However, Suhey’s value as a blocker and receiver tipped the scales. Galimore was a great one, though. He ranks 10th all-time in franchise history for rushing yards, and he made one Pro Bowl in his career.
Roland Harper: 1975–82
For Roland Harper’s entire career, he played fullback alongside Walter Payton. The two players joined the league together in 1975, and they remained together until Harper retired after the '82 season. Despite Payton’s greatness and the impressive numbers he put up, Harper still managed to amass 3,044 career rushing yards during his career, which puts him ninth in Bears history.
Ronnie Bull: 1962–70
Ronnie Bull played for nine seasons in Chicago. In 1963, the Bears defeated the Giants to win the NFL championship; in that game Bull led his team in rushing with 42 yards. It would be the last championship for Chicago until the 1985 season. In fact, aside from 1965, the Bears had losing seasons every year until after Bull moved on to play for the Eagles in '71. Still, he rushed for 2,871 yards as a Bear, putting him No. 12 in team history.
Jordan Howard: 2016–18
Jordan Howard spent his first three seasons in Chicago and made the Pro Bowl his rookie year. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2016 and '17 before his rushing productivity dropped a bit in '18. For the 2019 season, he signed with the Eagles. During his tenure in Chicago he ran for 3,370 yards and 24 touchdowns, which is good enough to land him in the seventh spot for Bears all-time leading rushers.
Anthony Thomas: 2001–04
Anthony Thomas spent four seasons with the Bears and totaled 3,332 yards rushing along with 21 touchdowns. This makes him eighth all-time in Bears history. He earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year award for his 1,183-yard performance in 2001, but he never quite got his footing after that. He played for three more teams after leaving the Bears, but he never again ran for 1,000 yards in a season.
Tarik Cohen: 2017–Present
Tarik Cohen is a dangerous triple-threat player made in the molds of Geoge McAfee and Gale Sayers before him. He earned a Pro Bowl nomination and made the All-Pro team in 2018, a year where he rushed for 444 yards and caught 71 passes for 725 yards. His productivity dropped a bit in 2019, but he remains a powerful offensive weapon. Cohen is a player built for today’s wide-open offenses, and if he can stay healthy, he may find himself ranking in the top 10 on lists like this one someday.
Bears All-Time Leading Rushers
Who Is the Best Bears Running Back of All time?
I would argue that Walter Payton was the best Bears running back ever, one of the best running backs in NFL history and one of the greatest football players of all time. He set the NFL career-rushing record, which stood for 15 years, and he scored 125 total touchdowns in his career. He also made nine Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams—and won the 1985 Bert Bell award, 1977 NFL MVP and 1977 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award
In 1977, the NFL honored Payton with the Man of the Year award, an annual accolade presented to one NFL player for his volunteer charity work and involvement in the community.
After Payton's passing, the NFL honored him by renaming the NFL Man of the Year award to the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. It is a fitting memorial to a player who was as great off the field as he was on it.
Each year there is one nominee from each team. Since 2017, nominees wear a decal on their helmets during the regular season, and past winners display a patch on their jersey.
Bears Running Backs in the Hall of Fame
Making This List
I could not end this article without a few comments on the importance of many of the players listed here—not just for the Bears but for pro football history.
I have been a loyal student of NFL football for over 40 years. It is, in my subjective opinion, the greatest and noblest sport, with a long and fascinating history. Still, I found myself humbled while writing this article, walking the line between awestruck fan and fascinated historian. I wondered what it was like to watch Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski or George McAfee play football so many decades ago.
Today, these men are like mythical beings from another time and place. With their simple gear and grubby uniforms, they are hardly what we’d expect to see while watching pro football today. But they are the forefathers of pro football and, without them, we would not have the NFL as we know it.
Every NFL player today stands on the shoulders of the legends who came before him. It is amazing to think back to where it all began and incredible that so many of the past legends were Bears.
Note: All stats were taken from Pro Football Reference.