Best Running Backs in Miami Dolphins History

Andrew Harner

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
A Dolphins helmet is seen on the field before a 2019 game against Washington at Hard Rock Stadium.© Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Who Are the Greatest Running Backs in Dolphins History?

In their 54-year history, the Dolphins have made 23 postseason appearances and advanced all the way to the Super Bowl on five of those occasions. With that kind of legacy, it's no surprise that the franchise has had its fair share of standout running backs. Most notable were the three ball-carriers who anchored the offense during the dynasty years of the early 1970s, when the Dolphins made it to the Super Bowl three times in as many years (winning twice) and completed the only undefeated season in the history of the NFL. But those three weren't the only greats.

In total, the Dolphins have seen 10 different players rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season. In 1972, Miami became the first team in league history to have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in the same campaign. That feat has since been replicated just six times.

Selection Criteria for This List

In addition to the five greatest Miami Dolphins running backs of all-time, I've included a handful of honorable mentions, as well as franchise rushing records and statistics from every 900-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 Dolphins, percentage of career with the Dolphins, etc.)
  • Versatility (rushing ability, receiving ability, returning ability, etc.)

Only games played with the Dolphins are factored into this list, so while Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas would be a great player to include on a list about the Bills, his nine games and 136 yards with Miami won't place him in the top five here. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on these selections in the comments section below.

5. Jim Kiick

  • Years With the Dolphins: 196874
  • Playoff Appearances: 197074
  • AFL All-Star: 196869

Despite being the 118th player selected in the 1968 combined AFL-NFL draft, Kiick got off to a fast start. He gained at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his first four seasons and led the Dolphins in rushing in 1968 and '69, and his nine touchdowns in '69 paced the AFL. In 1970, he was surpassed as the team's leading rusher, but he ended up among Miamis leaders in receiving yardage on his way to gaining a career-best and team-high 1,155 yards from scrimmage.

Kiick was also an integral piece of Miami's star-studded backfield during the Super Bowl dynasty years from 1971 to '73. From 1972 to '74, his statistical production dipped, but his importance to the offense remained steadfast.

In the 1972 postseason, Kiick scored four touchdownsincluding the game-deciding score in each round of the playoffs. In 11 postseason matchups, Kiick rushed 115 times for 401 yards and six touchdowns, while adding another 115 receiving yards.

In 97 games with the Dolphins, Kiick rushed 997 times for 3,644 yards and 28 touchdowns, while adding 221 receptions for 2,210 yards (second in team history among running backs) and three touchdowns. Kiick rushed for a career-high 121 yards against the Jets in 1971, and he had three touchdowns in a game against the Bills in 1970. In a 1969 game against the Raiders, he gained 169 offensive yards (76 rushing, 93 receiving).

Kiick and two teammates left the Dolphins after the 1974 season to join the upstart World Football League. When the WFL folded a year later, Kiick returned to the NFL and signed with the Broncos.

Jim Kiick's Statistics With the Dolphins

Year
G
GS
Rush
Yds
TD
Rec
Yds
TD

1968

14

13

165

621

4

44

422

0

1969

14

14

180

575

9

29

443

1

1970

14

13

191

658

6

42

497

0

1971

13

11

162

738

3

40

338

0

1972

14

3

137

521

5

21

147

1

1973

14

4

76

257

0

27

208

0

1974

14

8

86

274

1

18

155

1

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
Former Dolphins running back Tony Nathan (center) stands with former wide receivers Mark Duper (left) and O.J. McDuffie (right) prior to a 2018 game against the Raiders at Hard Rock Stadium.© Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

4. Tony Nathan

  • Years With the Dolphins: 197987
  • Playoff Appearances: 1979, 198185
  • All-Pro: 1979

Among the most versatile running backs in the history of the Dolphins is Tony Nathan, who was selected by the team in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft. After opening his career as a return man, Nathan worked his way into the offense and became a reliable runner and receiver while helping Miami to a pair of Super Bowl appearances.

As a rookie, Nathan led the NFL with an average of 10.9 yards per punt return, and had more than 1,000 yards on kick returns. It wasn't until 1981, however, that he started making a big contribution on offense. Nathan had a career-high eight total touchdowns that season, and it was the first of four years in his career with at least 1,000 offensive yards. He also had an impressive 162-yard, two-touchdown showing in the 1981 AFC title game.

In the strike-shortened 1982 season, he didn't produce his strongest regular-season statistics, but he helped lead the Dolphins to Super Bowl XVII with multiple standout games in the playoffs. He had more than 130 offensive yards in each of the first two rounds that season, but was slowed in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl.

Two seasons later, a young quarterback named Dan Marino pushed the Dolphins deep into the postseason again, and Nathan did his part to help. In each of the three playoff games, Nathan had at least 90 yards. That included his postseason career-best 178 offensive yards in the 1984 AFC Championship game and 101 yards in Super Bowl XIX.

Nathan actually had more career receiving yardage (3,592 yards on 383 receptions) than rushing yardage (3,543 on 732 carries), and he is the ninth leading receiver in franchise history. He scored 32 touchdowns in his career16 each rushing and receiving.

Tony Nathan's Statistics With the Dolphins

Year
G
GS
Rush
Yds
TD
Rec
Yds
TD

1979

16

0

16

68

0

17

213

2

1980

16

6

60

327

1

57

588

5

1981

13

11

147

782

5

50

452

3

1982

8

7

66

233

1

16

114

0

1983

16

12

151

685

3

52

461

1

1984

16

12

118

558

1

61

579

2

1985

16

15

143

667

5

72

651

1

1986

16

0

27

203

0

48

457

2

1987

6

0

4

20

0

10

77

0

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
Former Dolphins running back Mercury Morris holds his commemorative ball during a halftime ceremony at Sun Life Stadium where he was named a member of the franchise's all-time team.© Andrew Innerarity-USA TODAY Sports

3. Mercury Morris

  • Years With the Dolphins: 196975
  • Playoff Appearances: 197073
  • All-Pro: 197173

Mercury Morris may not have been the most prolific rusher during the Dolphins' 1970s dynasty, but that doesn't mean he was any less effective. As an important cog in the three-headed rushing attack, as well as a standout return man, Morris enjoyed plenty of success during his seven-year career in Miami.

Morris came to the Dolphins in 1969 as a third-round draft pick and instantly became the best return man in the NFL. Morris led the league by returning 43 kicks for 1,136 yards and one touchdowna 105-yard jaunt against the Bengals in the first game of his career. Over the next few seasons, Morris would see his role in the offense increase after averaging 6.8 and 5.5 yards per carry in 1970 and '71, respectively.

Morris had a breakout season in 1972, when he rushed for 1,000 yards. He and fullback Larry Csonka became the first teammates to each rush for 1,000 yards in the same season, and they helped the Dolphins win the first of two back-to-back Super Bowl championships. In 1973, Morris nearly reached 1,000 yards again, finishing the season with a league-high average of 6.4 yards per carry.

In the postseason, Morris had a nose for the ball, gaining 70 or more yards in four of six playoff games in 1972 and '73. He was injured for most of 1974, but he did lead the Dolphins in rushing in 1975, his final season with the team.

During his time with the Dolphins, Morris carried the ball 754 times for 3,877 yards and 29 touchdowns. His overall career average of 5.1 yards per carry is tied for sixth all-time in NFL history. Morris also caught 46 passes for 491 yards and another score with the Dolphins and was a standout at returning kicks and punts. Altogether, he had 111 returns for 2,947 yards and three touchdowns.

Mercury Morris's Statistics With the Dolphins

Year
G
GS
Rush
Yds
TD
Rec
Yds
TD

1969

14

0

23

110

1

6

65

0

1970

12

1

60

409

0

12

149

0

1971

14

3

57

315

1

5

16

0

1972

14

11

190

1000

12

15

168

0

1973

13

10

149

954

10

4

51

0

1974

5

3

56

214

1

2

27

1

1975

14

14

219

875

4

2

15

0

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
Former Dolphins running back and 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams signs autographs at the ESPN Heisman House at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in 2018.© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2. Ricky Williams

  • Years With the Dolphins: 200203, '05, 200710
  • Playoff Appearances: 2008
  • All-Pro: 2002
  • Pro Bowl: 2002

Ricky Williams had the talent to be the best running back in Dolphins history, but unfortunately, off-the-field issues developed soon after he posted the greatest single season from a running back in team history. Though Williams' career was essentially derailed from there, he's still remembered as a talented runner.

Williams holds the single-game (228 yards) and single-season (1,853) rushing records for the Dolphins, as well as the single-season record for rushing touchdowns (16). All of those marks came in 2002, when he was acquired by the Dolphins in a trade with the Saints. Following his 228-yard effort against the Bills, he then added 216 yards against the Bears on his way to leading the league in rushing.

After another strong season in 2003, Williams announced his retirement from football two days before the start of training camp in 2004. Williams was facing a hefty fine and a four-game suspension at the time due to failed drug tests. He ended up serving that suspension at the start of the 2005 season, when he came out of retirement and returned to the Dolphins. But the trouble didn't stop there, as Williams later failed another drug test and was suspended for the 2006 season.

He played professionally for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL that season, and when he was reinstated to the NFL in 2007, he was injured in the first game he played. Williams, however, righted himself and played all 16 games in each of the next three seasons. That included an impressive 1,121 yards at age 32 in 2009.

Williams ranks second all-time in franchise history with 6,436 yards and 48 rushing touchdowns. His 1,509 rushing attempts are a team record. Williams added 197 catches for another 1,431 yards and six receiving touchdowns with Miami.

Ricky Williams' Statistics With the Dolphins

Year
G
GS
Rush
Yds
TD
Rec
Yds
TD

2002

16

16

383

1853

16

47

363

1

2003

16

16

392

1372

9

50

351

1

2005

12

3

168

743

6

17

93

0

2007

1

0

6

15

0

0

0

0

2008

16

3

160

659

4

29

219

1

2009

16

7

241

1121

11

35

264

2

2010

16

0

159

673

2

19

141

1

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
Former Dolphins running back Larry Csonka acknowledges the crowd at the Gator Bowl in January 2020. © Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

1. Larry Csonka

  • Years With the Dolphins: 196874, '79
  • Playoff Appearances: 197074, '79
  • All-Pro: 197173
  • Pro Bowl: 197074
  • Major Awards: Super Bowl VIII MVP, Comeback Player of the Year (1979)
  • Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1987), Miami Dolphins No. 39 Retired

If Miami's offense needed to gain a few yards in the early 1970s, there was a good chance the play call would be to hand off the ball to Larry Csonka. The bruising fullback was one of the best of the decade, helping the Dolphins to three Super Bowls. Csonka is the only Hall of Famer to prominently play at running back for the Dolphins, and is remembered as one of the toughest players of all-time at any position.

Csonka was the eighth selection in the 1968 combined AFL-NFL draft. He struggled with injuries and average play throughout his first two seasons. Once legendary coach Don Shula came to the Dolphins in 1970, however, the fortunes of both Csonka and the team drastically improved.

Over the next four seasons, Csonka wouldn't miss a game. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards each season from 1971 to '73, becoming the first player in franchise history to do so. While teaming up with Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, and opposite one of the best defensive units in the league, Csonka and the Dolphins advanced to the Super Bowl each of those seasons. They won the championship in 1972 and '73, with Csonka taking home the game's MVP award in the 1973 victory over the Vikings. He rushed for a then-record 145 yards on 33 carries, while also scoring twice in the win. It was a fitting end to a brilliant postseason for Csonka, who carried the ball 82 times for 333 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff victories.

After the 1974 season, Csonka and two teammates left the NFL to pursue a career in the upstart World Football League. The WFL quickly folded, and when Csonka returned to the NFL, he joined the Giants. In 1979, however, Csonka came back to the Dolphins, winning Comeback Player of the Year after posting a career-high 12 rushing touchdowns and gaining 837 yards. Twice during that campaign, Csonka rushed for a career-high three touchdowns in a game. He retired following the season.

During his time with Miami, Csonka had 15 regular-season games with at least 100 rushing yards, including a career-high 137 yards against the Jets in 1971. With the Dolphins, Csonka rushed for franchise records of 6,737 yards and 53 touchdowns; his 1,506 carries rank second in team history. He had four postseason games with at least 100 rushing yards. In 12 playoff games, Csonka carried the ball 225 times for 891 yards and nine touchdowns.

Larry Csonka's Statistics With the Dolphins

Year
G
GS
Rush
Yds
TD
Rec
Yds
TD

1968

11

11

138

540

6

11

118

1

1969

11

11

131

566

2

21

183

1

1970

14

14

193

874

6

11

94

0

1971

14

14

195

1051

7

13

113

1

1972

14

14

213

1117

6

5

48

0

1973

14

14

219

1003

5

7

22

0

1974

12

11

197

749

9

7

35

0

1979

16

16

220

837

12

16

75

1

Honorable Mentions

With several standout running backs in Miami's history, I've decided to include a handful of players who also left an indelible mark on team history, but didn't quite make the top five.

Ronnie Brown (200510)

Brown played for the Dolphins during the time Ricky Williams was in and out of football, and he made for a pretty good replacement. As the third all-time leading rusher in franchise history, Brown made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and was a reliable force as a rusher and pass catcher. He racked up 1,008 yards in just 13 games in 2006 and had a career-high 10 touchdowns in 2008. In six seasons with the Dolphins, he carried the ball 1,128 times for 4,815 yards and 36 touchdowns, while adding 184 receptions for 1,491 yards and two touchdowns.

Karim Abdul-Jabbar (199699)

As a rookie in 1996, Abdul-Jabbar picked up an accomplishment most first-year players can't achievehe led his team in rushing. His 1,116 yards that season were a career-high, and the next season, he tied for the NFL lead with 15 rushing touchdowns. He gained over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in all three of his full seasons with the Dolphins, but was traded to the Browns in Week 6 of the 1999 season. He closed his career in Miami with 888 carries for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns, as well as 77 catches for 527 yards and a touchdown.

Mark Higgs (199094)

When the Dolphins signed Mark Higgs in 1990, he wasn't brought in to make a big splash on offense. And he didn'tuntil the incumbent starter was injured. Holding the starting reins midway through the 1991 season, Higgs rushed for 905 yards to lead the team in yardage for the first of three straight seasons. Only three other Dolphins have accomplished that feat. The two best games of his career both came in 1991, when he rushed for 146 yards against the Bills and 131 yards against the Buccaneers. In his career with Miami, Higgs ran the ball 702 times for 2,648 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Andra Franklin (198184)

Many wonder how good Andra Franklin would have been had he not suffered a career-ending knee injury in 1984. As a second-round draft pick, Franklin had 711 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season, then led the NFL by carrying the ball 177 times in the strike-shortened 1982 campaign. In the 1982 season, he added 701 yards on his way to a Pro Bowl selection, and he scored a touchdown in each of the first two rounds of the postseason. Also in 1982, he had back-to-back weeks that ended up as his two best single games; in Week 13, he had 129 yards against the Vikings, and in Week 14, he added 107 yards against the Patriots. In 1983, he had career-highs with 746 yards and eight touchdowns. Franklin only played two games in 1984, injuring his left knee against the Patriots in Week 2. His career ended with 622 carries for 2,232 yards and 22 touchdowns.

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill celebrates after rushing for a touchdown against the Seahawks in 2016. Tannehill is the franchise leader in rushing yards among quarterbacks.© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Dolphins Rushing Quarterbacks

Among Dolphins quarterbacks, Ryan Tannehill was the most impressive in the rushing attack. From 2012 to '18, Tannehill carried the ball 248 times for 1,210 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Jay Fiedler had the most touchdowns, scoring 11 from 2000 to '04.

How Many Rushing Yards Did Dan Marino Have?

Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino may have led the NFL in career passing yardage when he retired, but he wasn't as prolific running the ball. Marino only gained 87 rushing yards in his 17-year career, but he did score nine rushing touchdowns.

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
Running back Jay Ajayi (23) eludes a tackle during the second half at New Era Field in a 2016 overtime loss to the Bills. Ajayi is the last Dolphins player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.© Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Dolphins Running Back History

The following is a look at the franchise rushing records, as well as a handful of other facts and trivia about Miami's running backs.

How Many Dolphins Running Backs Have Rushed for 1,000 Yards in a Season?

The Dolphins have 10 players who have rushed for at least 1,000 yards in a season. Larry Csonka and Ricky Williams each achieved the feat three times, the most of any players in team history.

Who Is the Current Starting Running Back for the Dolphins?

Jordan Howard, Myles Gaskin and Matt Brieda are currently sharing carries at running back for the Dolphins.

What Is the Longest Rushing Play in Dolphins History?

Lamar Miller scored on a 97-yard touchdown run on Dec. 28, 2014, which is the longest rushing play in Dolphins history. The longest non-scoring rushing play was a 70-yard run by Mercury Morris on Oct. 15, 1973.

How Many Running Backs Have the Dolphins Drafted in the First Round?

The Dolphins have selected seven running backs in the first round of the NFL Draft.

  • 2005: Ronnie Brown (No. 2)
  • 1998: John Avery (No. 29)
  • 1989: Sammie Smith (No. 9)
  • 1985: Lorenzo Hampton (No. 27)
  • 1981: David Overstreet (No. 13)
  • 1968: Larry Csonka (No. 8)
  • 1966: Jim Grabowski (No. 1)

Dolphins Rushing Records

Listed below are the franchise's rushing records, as well as individual statistics for every 900-yard rushing season in Dolphins history.

  • Career Yards: 6,737, Larry Csonka (196874, '79)
  • Single-Season Yards: 1,853, Ricky Williams (2002)
  • Single-Game Yards: 228, Williams (Dec. 1, 2002)
  • Career Touchdowns: 53, Larry Csonka (196874, '79)
  • Single-Season Touchdowns: 16, Williams (2002)
  • Single-Game Touchdowns: 4, Ronnie Brown (Sept. 21, 2008)
  • Career Rushing Average: 5.1 yards per carry, Mercury Morris (196975)
  • Single-Season Rushing Average: 6.4 yards per carry, Morris (1973)
  • Single-Game Rushing Average: 13.1 yards per carry, Morris (Sept. 30, 1973)

Dolphins Running Backs With 900 Yards in a Season

Player
Year
G
GS
Att
Yds
TD

Ricky Williams

2002

16

16

383

1853

16

Ricky Williams

2003

16

16

392

1372

9

Jay Ajayi

2016

15

12

260

1272

8

Delvin Williams

1978

16

15

272

1258

8

Lamar Smith

2000

15

15

309

1139

14

Ricky Williams

2009

16

7

241

1121

11

Larry Csonka

1972

14

14

213

1117

6

Karim Abdul-Jabbar

1996

16

14

307

1116

11

Lamar Miller

2014

16

16

216

1099

8

Reggie Bush

2011

15

15

216

1086

6

Larry Csonka

1971

14

14

195

1051

7

Ronnie Brown

2006

13

12

241

1008

5

Larry Csonka

1973

14

14

219

1003

5

Mercury Morris

1972

14

11

190

1000

12

Reggie Bush

2012

16

16

227

986

6

Lamar Smith

2001

16

16

313

968

6

Karim Abdul-Jabbar

1998

15

15

270

960

6

Mercury Morris

1973

13

10

149

954

10

Ronnie Brown

2008

16

13

214

916

10

Mark Higgs

1992

16

15

256

915

7

Ronnie Brown

2005

15

14

207

907

4

Mark Higgs

1991

14

10

231

905

4

best-running-backs-in-miami-dolphins-history
Dolphins running back Lamar Miller (26) stiff arms Giants linebacker, J.T. Thomas, on his way to a touchdown in a 2015 game.© Andrew Innerarity-USA TODAY Sports
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Comments (2)
No. 1-2
FinFanJim
FinFanJim

Kinda hard to rack up rushing yards as a QB when you're kneeling at the end of all your wins. Sorry Marino...

Alain Poupart
Alain Poupart

Editor

I understand all these lists serving as an ode to the 1972 team, but these never seem fair to me to players who weren't fortunate enough to be on those teams. When it comes to running backs, let's not forget the offensive line featured two Hall of Famers (Larry Little and Jim Langer) and a third player who maybe should be in the Hall of Fame (Bob Kuechenberg). With all that said, I think Ronnie Brown belongs on this list, and as I ranked in my jersey countdown series, I have Nathan ahead of Morris based on his longevity and his contributions as both a runner and receiver.


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