10 Best Running Backs in Cleveland Browns History

Jesse Unk

best-running-backs-in-cleveland-browns-history
Jim Brown is the not only the greatest running back in Browns history, he's also the greatest running back in NFL history. © Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Greatest Browns Running Backs of All Time

Throughout NFL history, the Browns have deployed some of the greatest running backs of all time. Of the 52 running backs, fullbacks, tailbacks and halfbacks enshrined in the Hall of Fame, the Browns lay claim to four. Only the Bears, Packers, Giants and Cardinals have more, and many of those players played before the Browns were even founded.

The following list will cover the greatest running backs to ever be a part of the Browns franchise; it will cover the players' stats, their dominance during their era of play, their impact on the team's history and their awards and accolades. Players selected to this list are determined by their versatility both running and catching the ball, their overall dominance during their careers or years in Cleveland and their All-Pro selections or Hall of Fame eligibility. These players have their fingerprints all over the record booksboth the Browns' and the NFL's.

10. Peyton Hillis (201011)

Of all the players on this list, Peyton "The Albino Rhino" Hillis had one of the shortest careers with the Browns, but he also had one of the greatest impacts. He's mostly known for being the most unrecognizable NFL player to ever grace the cover of the Madden video game in 2012. In 2011, Madden created an online voting bracket to allow fans to choose their next cover athlete. Each team was given one player to vote for, eliminating players weekly until a final player was chosen.

Cleveland fans rallied together to make sure that they were noticed as one of the greatest fanbases in the NFL, catapulting a relatively unknown player like Hillis on the cover. During the voting period, Hillis beat out perennial Pro Bowlers and some future Hall of Famers such as Aaron Rodgers, Ray Rice, Matt Ryan, Jamaal Charles and finally, Michael Vick. The final vote for the championship round garnered a whopping 66% in favor of Hillis over Vick.

Hillis may have gained national fame because of that vote, but Cleveland fans discovered him the previous year when he became a top running back in the NFL seemingly out of nowhere. His career started as a fullback for the Broncos, but a preseason trade brought him to the Browns in 2010. Injuries to the Browns' two starting running backs put Hillis in the starting role in Week 3 of the season against the Ravens. Hillis would end that season with 1,177 rushing yards, 477 receiving yards, 11 rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns. In his two seasons with the Browns, he started 14 of his 16 games.

Hillis's running style was powerful. It was not unusual for him to run over defenders, or drag them along behind him as he powered his way down the field. Despite being 61 and 240 pounds, Hillis would even occasionally leap and hurdle over his opponents. In 2010, he averaged 4.4 yards per carry and caught 79.2% of the passes thrown his way.

Unfortunately, his career in Cleveland would end the following year after holdouts over money, head-scratching statements and injuries. Hillis sat out a game in 2011 for strep throat, an illness that many believed he should have played through. At one point in an interview about the fans' unhappiness with his play, NFL Insiders' Adam Schefter reported that Hillis wanted to join the CIA. Hillis denied the claim. This led to questions about his mental health and love of the game.

After a disappointing second season, the Browns didn't offer him a contract, allowing him to leave the team and continue his career in Kansas City. He never had a significant season again and retired in 2014.

9. Jamal Lewis (200709)

Jamal Lewis isn't just an all-time Browns running back, he's also an all-time Ravens running back. In 2007, the Browns signed Lewis after he spent his first six seasons with the rival Ravens. He immediately made a significant impact. Lewis rushed for 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns his first year in Cleveland. That season, the Browns ended the year with their first winning season since 2002, finishing with a record of 106 and narrowly missing out on the playoffs by one win.

The team had hope for the first time in years, and a huge part of that was due to a strong running game led by Lewis. That season, he had stellar performances. He ran for 216 yards in a game against the rival Bengals, averaging an amazing eight yards per carry. Against the Seahawks, he amassed four rushing touchdowns. Against the Bills, in a game that ended 80, Lewis carried the ball 33 times for a whopping 163 yards to clinch the win. The excitement in Cleveland was bursting at the seams.

The following year, Lewis rushed for another 1,000-yard season, finishing with 1,002 yards on the ground. His final season was the following year in 2009, when he ran for exactly 500 yards before retiring. Lewis currently sits 10th all-time in rushing yards for the Browns' franchise.

8. Earnest Byner (198488, 199495)

Earnest Byner is typically associated with a horrible memory in Cleveland, "The Fumble," in which he fumbled on the one-yard line and cost the Browns a chance to go to the Super Bowl in 1987. Despite this, however, his career was exemplary. He should be remembered for the skillful way he played the game and how well he was able to catch the ball as a dual-threat running back.

Byner rushed for 1,002 yards his second year and added an additional 460 yards receiving. It was his best season as a Brown. He finished his career with the Browns with 276 catches for 2,630 yards, making him the second-best receiving back in franchise history. He also rushed for 3,364 yards and 27 touchdowns in his career, all while sharing a backfield with Kevin Mack.

Byner was the running back for the team for two of their AFC championship appearances. Despite his infamous fumble in 1987, he was also the sole reason the Browns were able to stay in the game up to that point. In that game, he had 187 all-purpose yards and singlehandedly kept the Browns close.

He was a versatile back who could run, catch and even return kicks. His career should be remembered with honor, and not for one terrible play that unfairly immortalizes him today. In 2019, he was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

7. Kevin Mack (198593)

Kevin "Mack Truck" Mack was drafted in the supplemental draft in 1984. In his first season, alongside Browns running back Earnest Byner, Mack rushed for 1,104 yards while scoring 10 total touchdowns. Mack was a perfect complement to Byner, being one of the best one-two punches in the NFL at running back. Despite his power-inspired nickname, Mack also had the soft hands needed to be a versatile back who could also catch the ball. He was part of the last dominant era of Browns football in Cleveland, but he feels hopeful for the future; Mack recently said he believes that the current Browns offense shows similarities to his team.

Mack currently works for the Browns organization in alumni relations. In 2016, he was interviewed for a documentary on the history of Cleveland's major sports teams called Believeland. He's a very vocal city booster and is often seen at events for the team and in videos and promotions. He embraced the Cleveland fanbase and remained in the area after his retirement. He calls it home to this day.

In Mack's career, he caught 197 passes for 1,602 yards and eight touchdowns. He was selected to two Pro Bowls and was also part of the team's three AFC championship appearances in 1986, 1987 and 1989. He was selected for the 1985 All-Rookie team in the NFL, and he currently sits fifth in rushing yards and fourth in rushing touchdowns in the Browns' franchise history.

6. Eric Metcalf (198994)

Say the name Eric Metcalf in Cleveland, and the immediate association is often the phrase "Metcalf up the middle." This phrase isn't a compliment. Rather than meaning, perhaps, that Metcalf was a bruising back who ran into the teeth of the defense, it instead reflects the poor choices of the play-callers who underutilized his talent. Metcalf was flashy, fast and could score from anywhere at any time. Instead of utilizing his talents with sweep runs, short throws or other plays that would set him free, the coaches would often send him right up the middleas if he were any other typical back.

Looking at Metcalf's stats, you might think he was a subpar running back, but in fact he was more versatile than any other back on this list. Metcalf ran the ball, caught the ball and was one of the Browns' best return men of all time. In Cleveland's franchise history, he currently sits 14th in rushing yards, 10th in receptions, fourth in punt return yards, third in kick return yards and he has the second-most receptions by a running back. He also led the league in punts returned for a touchdown four separate years, two of which were with the Browns. In 1990, he led the entire NFL in kick returns, return yardage and return touchdowns, and he had the longest kick return touchdown of the season, totaling 101 yards.

In short, Metcalf may not have had the greatest rushing stats but he certainly had the most talent all around. He played for seven teams throughout his career and was selected to three Pro Bowls and was a two-time First-Team All-Pro. In 2019, he was selected as a nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

5. Greg Pruitt (197381)

Greg Pruitt was drafted in the second round of the 1973 NFL Draft. Pruitt was a smaller back in the league, but this never stopped him from producing at a high level.

Pruitt tells the story of how, as a child, other children in his neighborhood wouldn't allow him to play football. One day, he offered to play center for both teams, because none of the other boys wanted to play on the offensive line. The boys accepted. He said he would fake a snap and take off running, dominating the other kids and finally proving that his size wasn't an issue. This success continued on into his college years, and eventually his NFL career.

After a promising first season, he took over as the lead running back his second season. After his first two years in the league, Pruitt rushed for over 1,000 yards three years in a row. In those three years, he totaled over 4,200 total yards and 18 total touchdowns. He was also known for his ability to catch the ball, averaging 35.9 receptions per year while he was with the Browns. In his final season in Cleveland, he caught 65 passes for 636 yards.

Pruitt was able to do all of this while splitting carries with Mike Pruitt, a fellow running back of no relation to Greg. Though Mike ultimately racked up more carries than Greg, Greg was still able to amass a stellar career with the Browns.

While in Cleveland, Greg Pruitt made it to four Pro Bowls. He currently sits fourth in career rushing yards for the franchise.

4. Marion Motley (194653)

Marion Motley was one of the first African-Americans to play in football's modern era. Alongside Bill Willis, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, Motley broke the color barrier in football in 1946, a whole year before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play professional baseball. Aside from his social impact on the game, Motley was also one of the most talented running backs in NFL history.

Motley started his rookie year with a bang. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry, an astronomical number even for the era. He went on to lead the league in rushing yards twice and rushing touchdowns once. He played an integral role in five Browns championships wins, four in the AAFC and one in the NFL. He retired from football in 1953 due to lingering knee problems but returned for one season in 1955 to play linebacker for the Steelers.

Motley was selected to one Pro Bowl in his career and was a two-time First-Team All-Pro selection. He won five total championships while he played for the Browns, and he currently sits sixth all-time in rushing yards for the franchise. In 1968, he was elected to the Pro Hall of Fame and is also a part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1940s Team.

3. Mike Pruitt (197684)

Just a few years after Greg Pruitt joined the team, he was followed by Mike Pruitt (no relation). Mike was taken seventh overall in the 1976 NFL Draft. He began his career opening holes from the fullback position and was rarely used as a ball carrier since Greg was playing well. However, in 1979, Greg went down with a knee injury and Mike finally got his chance to start. He excelled, instantly becoming a household name in the NFL.

He ran for 1,294 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He also added another 372 yards receiving and two touchdowns. In the following years, he would remain a starter, rushing for over 1,000 yards in three of his next four seasonsthe one outlier resulting from a strike-shortened NFL season.

Mike Pruitt was a powerful force in the NFL. He earned two Pro Bowl selections in 1979 and 1980. He currently sits third all-time in Browns franchise history for yardage with 6,540 yards, as well as third all-time in touchdowns with 47. He only trails those two categories behind Leroy Kelly and Jim Brown, both Hall of Famers. In 2003, Pruitt was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.

2. Leroy Kelly (196473)

Leroy Kelly entered the NFL with a large shadow cast over him. As a rookie, he was the backup running back for the great Jim Brown, and he would eventually follow in his footsteps after Brown retired. To say that he faced exceedingly high expectations after Brown's departure would be an understatement. Up until that point, Brown was the greatest football player to ever step on the field, and Kelly had to fill his shoes. In his third year, Kelly became the starterand he quickly put any worries about his abilities to rest.

In his first year starting, Kelly ran for 1,141 yards and a league-leading 15 touchdowns. He also led the league with 5.5 yards per carry. The next season he became the league's leading rusher with 1,205 yards, a league-leading 11 touchdowns and a league-leading 1,487 total yards from scrimmage. His third season as a starter was the best season of his career, leading the league in rush attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns. He ran for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry. He also amassed another 297 yards receiving and four additional receiving touchdowns.

Kelly went on after that three-year stretch to have a consistently good career before he left the NFL in 1973. During his 10 years with the Browns, he was selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls and had three consecutive First-Team All-Pro selections. He won his only NFL championship his rookie year while backing up Jim Brown. In 1968, he won the Bert Bell Award, which goes to the player of the year. In 1994, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To this day he sits second all-time in franchise history in rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns. He has played the most games as a Brown from a running back position with 136 games.

1. Jim Brown (195765)

Jim Brown is not only the greatest running back in Browns history, he's also the greatest running back to ever play the game of football. In fact, until the arrival of Tom Brady, Brown was the greatest player to ever step on a football field.

Brown was drafted sixth overall by the Browns in 1957. The Rams were in need of a running back with the second overall pick, but their owner turned their decision to Jon Arnett from USC instead. The Browns wanted to select a quarterback with their pick, but their primary targets in the draft were taken, so they settled on Brown. This string of decisions led to the Browns snagging the most dominant talent in NFL history.

In Brown's rookie year, he fell just short of the 1,000-yard mark, one of only two times in his career. But he rushed for a league-leading 942 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He would continue the trend of leading the league in rushing yards the following four seasons, as well as in every other season of his career except for 1962, when he finished fourth overall. In his nine-year career he led the league in rushing attempts six times, rushing yards eight times, rushing touchdowns five times, yards per game eight times, total yards from scrimmage six times and total touchdowns five times. He dominated the competition in every single major rushing category for his entire career.

Brown also holds strong positions on the NFL all-time lists in rushing categories. He currently sits 11th in career rushing yardage with 12,312 yards, sixth in career rushing touchdowns with 106, third in yards per rushing attempt with 5.22 yards and first in yards per game with 104.3. He is the only player in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game across his career. These marks are even more impressive when you take into account that Brown retired in the prime of his career.

Why Did Jim Brown Retire Early?

Brown retired at the peak of his career after finishing the 1965 season, during which he led the league in yards and touchdowns and also earned the MVP award. In fact, 1965 was arguably the greatest statistical season of his career.

Football wasn't Brown's only career; he was also an actor. Before the 1966 season, the film he was shooting, The Dirty Dozen, ran into a production delay. The delay was going to cause Brown to be several weeks late for the team's upcoming training camp, and this news displeased owner Art Modell. When Brown told Modell that he would be late because of the movie, Modell informed him that he would be fined $100 for every missed day of training camp to ensure that a bad message wasn't sent to other players about missing camp. When the issue couldn't be worked out, Brown informed the team he would be retiring. He went on to have roles in more than 30 movies. If not for that disagreement between Modell and Brown, who knows how much higher his records would have soared?

Jim Brown's Career Accolades

In Brown's nine-year career he had nine Pro Bowls selections and eight First-Team All-Pro selections. He received the Bert Bell Award in 1963 and was awarded NFL MVP three times. He won his only NFL championship in 1964. In 1963, Brown set a since-broken NFL record for rushing yards in a season with 1,863 yards in only 14 games. At that point in time, no other running back had ever broken 1,600 yards, and the record stood for another 10 years before it was surpassed by O.J. Simpson. Of the 10 players who had more yards in a season than Brown, only one did so in 14 or fewer games.

Honorable Mentions

Ernie Green (196268)

Ernie Green was unfortunate enough to have to play alongside Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. He was primarily utilized as a fullback, blocking and opening holes for lead running backs. When he did have the ball he was very successful, averaging 4.8 yards per attempt. Green's greatest value, however, was his ability to block. He was the main blocker for Brown when he set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season. When Brown retired unexpectedly, Green became the primary blocker for Kelly, who went on to become one of the best backs in the NFL. When Green retired in 1968, Kelly's season averages dropped between 400 and 600 yards a season until he retired. Green's fantastic play helped two Hall of Fame running backs earn their greatest achievements.

Dub Jones (194855)

Dub Jones was a complementary piece to Marion Motley. He played on five championship teams in his career. Jones's stats don't jump off the page, but he was a very talented back who was used primarily as a receiving option. He averaged 16.8 yards per reception during his time in Cleveland, and he also boasted a respectable 4.2 yards per rush. He was a pivotal player in the Browns' early dynasty, and he was a great partner to Motley during that time. Jones played eight seasons with the Browns, over half of which resulted in championship rings.

Which NFL Team Has the Best Running Backs in NFL History?

The Browns have some of the greatest running backs in NFL history. While they are tied for third in NFL history with Hall of Famers at the running back position with four total, they have only two fewer and were founded 24 years later than the Bears. The Browns have the most dominant running back by far in their history—and had he not retired early, Jim Brown would have run away with records that would never have been touched. Their history has amassed a collection of versatile backs who could attack the defense from anywhere on the field. The Browns' franchise running backs embody the blue-collar attitude of Cleveland with their hard-nosed running styles and ability to get the job done. Both the city's fans and their running backs aren't afraid to get dirty to earn success.

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1
TheFilmFreak
TheFilmFreak

Awesome article, Jesse. That question in the last paragraph is an interesting ones. I’m not even sure which TEAMS I would put up there. Maybe Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh? The length of the article felt perfect this time, as you dissected each player, and still had time for side discussions that were long enough without taking away from the focus of the article. All ten of your choices are solid. I even forgot Adams was a Brown. A consequence of the revolving door of the last two decades, I guess. My only disagreement is that Byner should be higher. Other than that, this is passionate writing from a hardcore fan that doesn’t feel like just propaganda for his team, but rather an impartial dissection of what makes a great runner overall. Can’t wait for the next one


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