Top 5 Running Backs in Detroit Lions Team History

Jesse Unk

the-best-running-backs-in-detroit-lions-team-history
Lions running back Barry Sanders (20) looks for a way around Cowboys James Washington (37), Sept. 19, 1994, in Irving, Texas.© Julian H. Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press

Greatest Running Back in Lions History

The Lions have a paltry history when it comes to running back success. Despite being the fifth-oldest currently operating franchise in NFL history, having been founded in 1930, the team has had only 18 seasons with a 1,000+ yard rusher. Those 18 seasons were produced by six total players, with 10 of those seasons coming from Barry Sandersa man who many believe may be the greatest running back of all time.

Selection Criteria

The Lions have had only two running backs inducted into the Hall of Fame who spent their entire careers in Detroit. Choosing other players who are worthy of being on this list was a difficult task; few other players produced incredible rushing stats.

Because of this, for the remaining slots on the list, I decided to look at the contributions the players made to the team as a whole, not just their rushing stats. Therefore, this list includes running backs who may have excelled in other areas of the game such as receiving, scoring or playing other positions. They were chosen based on their accolades, records and impact on the franchise.

5. Cory Schlesinger (19952006)

Cory Schlesinger was drafted by the Lions in the sixth round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Schlesinger's rushing statistics are far from impressive, ranking 68th in Lions franchise history for career rushing yards, but his blocking abilities as a fullback and special teams player are why he makes this list. He blocked for runners like Barry Sanders during some of his greatest seasons, including two 1,500-yard seasons and a 2,000-yard season.

Schlesinger was a powerful and nasty blocker in the NFL. He was known for frequently breaking his face masks due to his physical play-style. His tenacity was evident early in his career on special teams. He led in special teams tackles in 1996, and between 1995 and 2001 he recorded 118 special teams tackles, more than anyone on the team. Schlesinger was a fantastic blocker as well, but due to the Lions using more three-wide receiver sets, he was reduced to starting his career as a special teams player. In 1999, he became the Lions' starting fullback and would remain the starter for the rest of his career.

After Barry Sanders retired, Schlesinger stepped up in more ways outside of just blocking. He became a strong checkdown option in the passing game, recording a 60-reception season for 466 yards in 2001.

He was a fan favorite and was loved by his teammates as well. He was voted the Lions' MVP in 2003 by his teammates. He wasn't as respected by the league, however, earning only three alternate selections to the Pro Bowl in his career. Regardless, Schlesinger did an amazing job at his blue-collar position, pounding opponents for one of the best rushing teams in the NFL over the course of his career.

Jersey Number: 30

Franchise Stats

  • 473 rushing yards
  • 5 rushing touchdowns
  • 1,445 receiving yards
  • 36 tackles

Accolades

  • 3x Alternate Pro Bowl selection
  • Sports Illustrated All-Pro 2001

Trivia: Schlesinger is rumored to have broken over 200 face masks during his football career.

4. Mel Farr (19671973)

Mel "Superstar" Farr is a prime example of incredible skill with unfortunate circumstances. He was selected by the Lions seventh overall in the 1967 NFL Draft. Farr was an incredible athlete but was injured, or recovering from injury, nearly his entire career. His injuries were one of the reasons he played for only seven seasons. In 1968, he led the league in rushing yards with 490 yards before an injury ended his season early.

Farr began his career with amazing promise, winning the Rookie of the Year award with 860 rushing yards. He also led the Lions in receptions that season with 39. The following year he would lead the league in yards per touch with 6.4. On three separate occasions, he finished his seasons in the top 10 in rushing yards per game.

Farr had to deal with two major knee injuries, both requiring surgery, before he returned for a second time to football in 1970. That season was the only one in his career in which he started every single game of the year. He earned a Pro Bowl selection by amassing 930 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns.

Farr retired from football after rumors of being traded to the Oilers surfaced in 1973. He went on to invest his savings in opening a car dealership in Oak Park, Michigan. He had great success with the business, eventually expanding to 14 dealerships throughout Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland and Texas.

Jersey Number: 24

Franchise Stats

  • 3,072 rushing yards
  • 26 rushing touchdowns
  • 1,374 receiving yards
  • 10 receiving touchdowns

Accolades

  • 1967 NFL Rookie of the Year
  • 1967, 1970 Pro Bowl selection

Trivia: Farr was a backup vocalist for Marvin Gaye's song, "What's Goin On."

3. Billy Sims (19801984)

Billy Sims was selected first overall by the Lions in the 1980 NFL Draft. He had come off of an impressive college campaign at Oklahoma, where he was a two-time All-American and won the Heisman in 1978. His success continued into the NFL where he put together the greatest rookie season for a running back in Lions history.

In his first game, Sims ran the ball 22 times for 153 yards, an amazing 6.9 yards per carry. He also added 64 yards on two catches and three rushing touchdowns. It was clear he would be destined for greatness. He won the Rookie of the Year award after amassing an incredible 1,924 total yards and 16 total touchdowns in his first season. He led the league in rushing touchdowns with 13, and he was one of three Lions players who were selected to the Pro Bowl that season.

Sims continued his impressive play in Detroit for years, earning Pro Bowl selections the following two seasons as well. Despite injuries, he was able to amass 4,419 yards and 42 total touchdowns in only 52 games. In fact, he averaged over 100 total yards per game every single season he played. He was an incredibly exciting player to watch, with memorable plays such as the "Karate Kick." Sims ran a toss play to the right, and as he accelerated he tried to jump over a defender, using his back as leverage and kicking a second defender, Steve Brown, in the face. It's still one of the most memorable plays in Lions history.

One reason why Sims isn't higher on this list is due to the brevity of his career. Unfortunately, his career was cut short on Oct. 21, 1984, while playing against the Vikings. He was running the ball to the right and, with his right leg planted, a Vikings defender jumped on his back causing Sims's knee to blow out. Despite two years of rehabilitation, Sims never was never able to return to the league.

Sims finished his career as the leading rusher for the Lions in both yards and touchdowns, along with many other rushing records. He still ranks second in all of those categories, with 5,106 total rushing yards and 42 rushing touchdowns.

Jersey Number: 20

Franchise Stats

  • 5,106 rushing yards
  • 42 rushing touchdowns
  • 2,072 receiving yards
  • 5 receiving touchdowns

Accolades

  • 1980 Rookie of the Year
  • 1980 All-Rookie Team selection
  • 19801982 Pro Bowl selection
  • Jersey number retired by the Lions

Trivia: Sims's jersey number is retired as a trio of great players because both Barry Sanders and Lem Barney also wore the number.

2. Doak Walker (19501955)

Doak Walker joined the Lions via trade in 1950. Coming into the league at only 5'11" and 173 pounds, many NFL executives believed he was too small to be successful on the field, despite having won the Heisman Trophy in college. However, Walker instantly became the team's ultimate Swiss army knife. Not only did he run the ball, but he also was a receiver, kicker, punter and return man.

In his first season, Walker amassed 1,262 total yards, 11 total touchdowns and an additional 62 points between field goals and extra points. Of the team's 321 points scored on the season, Walker scored 128. He finished second overall in rushing and receiving yards but led the team in scoring. He even played defense and recorded an interception.

Walker went on to be an incredibly successful offensive weapon for the team. Over his six years with the franchise, he had over 1,000 all-purpose yards in three different seasons, and 978 in a fourth. Because of his vast range of abilities, none of his individual skills seems to dominate statistically, but his scoring was inarguably strong. He accumulated 534 points during his career along with two scoring titles. That means because he played 12-game seasons, he averaged 89 points per season and 7.9 points per game.

Walker also played a huge part in winning two NFL Championships with the Lions in 1952 and 1953. In 1952, he rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on only 10 attempts. He also had two receptions for 11 yards. In 1953, his yardage was slim, but he made up for his lackluster performance with his scoring ability. He scored the game's first touchdown and kicked the game-winning extra point. He had one rushing touchdown, a field goal and two extra points to score 11 of the team's 17 points.

Walker was selected to five Pro Bowls in his six-year career and was a First-Team All-Pro four times. He led the league in scoring twice. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

Jersey Number: 37

Franchise Stats

  • 61 career starts (played in a total of 67 games)
  • 1,520 rushing yards
  • 12 rushing touchdowns
  • 2,539 receiving yards
  • 21 receiving touchdowns
  • 284 punt return yards
  • 1 punt return touchdown
  • 968 kick return yards
  • 1,956 punt yards
  • 49 field goals made
  • 183 extra points made

Accolades

  • 19501951, 19531955 Pro Bowl selection
  • 19501951, 19531954 First-Team All-Pro selection
  • 1950, 1955 Scoring Champion
  • 19521953 NFL Champion
  • 1986 Hall of Fame inductee

Trivia: Walker is one of only three players in NFL history with at least 10 rushing touchdowns, 20 receiving touchdowns, an interception and a punt return touchdown.

the-best-running-backs-in-detroit-lions-team-history
Barry Sanders ranks third all-time in rushing yards, was named a Pro Bowler 10 times and was the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in his first 10 seasons.© H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY, USA TODAY via Imagn Content Services, LLC

1. Barry Sanders (19891998)

Barry Sanders was selected third overall in the 1989 NFL Draft. Coming off of a Heisman-winning season at Oklahoma State, Sanders' explosive career started three days after he signed his contract. His first play from scrimmage was an 18-yard run, finishing the game with 71 yards and a touchdown on only nine attempts. He ended his rookie season only 10 yards shy of leading the league in rushing, finishing with 1,470 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns and 282 receiving yards. He won the Rookie of the Year award for his incredible season.

In his 10 seasons in Detroit, Sanders' dominance was consistent and unwavering. He was selected to 10 Pro Bowls and was a First-Team All-Pro selection six times. He never rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards and only had fewer than 1,500 total yards from scrimmage once. He led the league in rushing four times and total scrimmage yards twice. When he retired he averaged 99.8 yards per game, good for second all-time in NFL history behind only Jim Brown.

Sanders retired at the prime of his career, after only his tenth season. The year prior he had rushed for nearly 1,500 yards, and the season before that he became only the third man in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards, earning him both the MVP award and the Offensive Player of the Year award in 1997. When he retired, Sanders was only 1,457 yards away from being the NFL rushing leader for a career. It was a decision that sent shock waves through the sports world. In his retirement letter, Sanders stated, "The reason I am retiring is very simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it."

Naturally, this shocking decision led many to wonder if his stated reasons were entirely truthful. Since his retirement, some have blamed the Lions organization for not surrounding Sanders with enough talent to make him want to stay. During his 10 seasons in Detroit, the team had a top 10 defense only once. The team finished with a winning record only five times and won their division only twice. Perhaps most disappointing of all, the Lions went to the playoffs five times during Sanders' careerbut won only one game. The world may never know the true reasons that led to his retirement. Some of his teammates even tried to convince him to stay, including Tracy Scroggins.

On the flight home from his final game, Sanders had told Scroggins that he planned to retire. Scroggins later said, "I tried my best to talk him out of retiring. I did everything in my power. I gave him the spiel about youre so close to breaking the record, youre only 1,400 and some change away from breaking Walter Paytons (all-time rushing) record. Stay one more year and break the record."

Unfortunately for the team, Sanders retired anyway. It was well known that records were of little interest to him. For example, at the end of his rookie season, Sanders was only 10 yards away from earning the rushing title for the year. With the game in hand, he told his coach to send in the backup. He said, "Coach, let's just win it and go home."

Sanders was always the best of the best when he stepped on the field. He was on pace to shatter almost every single rushing record to date until he retired early. He was a powerful back who was hard to bring down, but he was also incredibly shifty to the point of danger for defenders. In the regular-season opener of 1995, Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson of the Steelers attempted to tackle Sanders in the open field. Sanders juked past him and Woodson tore his ACL, ending his season. Sanders was an incredible athlete who was awe-inspiring to watch.

Jersey Number: 20

Franchise Stats

  • 153 career games
  • 15,269 rushing yards
  • 99 rushing touchdowns
  • 352 receptions
  • 2,921 receiving yards
  • 10 receiving touchdowns

Accolades

  • 1989 NFL Rookie of the Year
  • 19891998 Pro Bowl selection
  • 19891991, 19941995, 1997 First-Team All-Pro selection
  • 1994, 1997 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
  • 1997 MVP
  • 2004 Hall of Fame inductee
  • Hall of Fame 1990s All-Decade team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team

Trivia: Sanders didn't want to accept his Heisman Trophy award on national TV. He did so only after his linemen, who blocked for him that season, expressed how important it was to them.

Honorable Mentions

No top five list is complete without a set of honorable mentions, or those players who didn't quite make the cut. The list is arranged chronologically, from most recent to oldest.

Reggie Bush (20132014)

Like James Stewart, Reggie Bush went to Detroit after spending the majority of his career elsewhere. The former Saint joined the Lions in 2013 and started all 14 games that he played in. He rushed for 1,006 yards and four rushing touchdowns with a respectable 4.5 yards per carry. He also added a pass-catching ability, catching 54 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns. In addition, he led all offensive players, including Calvin Johnson, in all-purpose yards that season with 1,512.

Bush's playmaking ability helped lead the Lions to have the sixth-best offense in the NFL that year. His following season was not nearly as productive, however, as he had only 76 carries in 11 games. Despite his one-hit-wonder year with the Lions, he's still only one of six men to ever rush for 1,000 yards for the franchise.

Jersey Number: 21

Franchise Stats

  • 25 games
  • 299 carries
  • 1,303 rushing yards
  • 6 rushing touchdowns
  • 94 receptions
  • 759 receiving yards
  • 3 receiving touchdowns

Trivia: Bush was only the second player in Lions' history to ever record a season with both 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards. The other player was Billy Sims.

James Stewart (20002002)

James Stewart began his career as a perennial backup with the Jaguars, starting only 34 games in five years in Jacksonville. In 2000, Stewart joined the Lions and started all 16 games for the first time in his career. He had more carries that season than any other year, carrying the ball 339 times for 1,184 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. It was the best statistical season of his career.

Stewart played for the Lions for two more seasons, amassing a total of 713 carries for 2,890 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. He was one of the lone bright spots on a roster that consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in both offense and defense. During his time in Detroit, the team won only 14 games in three seasons.

Still, Stewart ranks in the top ten in franchise history for rushing yardage and is one of only six men to ever run for 1,000 yards in a season. He's also one of only three backs to rush for 1,000 yards more than once for the franchise (the others are Billy Sims and Barry Sanders).

Jersey Number: 34

Franchise Stats

  • 41 games
  • 713 carries
  • 2,890 rushing yards
  • 15 rushing touchdowns

Trivia: Stewart's career was ended when he shattered his shoulder during a preseason game in 2003. The hit was part of a bounty system implemented by Coach Greg Williams of the Bills that paid players to injure their opponents.

Nick Pietrosante (19591965)

Nick Pietrosante was selected by the Lions sixth overall in the 1959 NFL Draft. As a fullback, he started only five games that season, amassing 447 yards on 76 carries and three rushing touchdowns. His league-leading 5.9 yards per carry were enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year award. He followed that season up with two Pro Bowl seasons, rushing for 1,713 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns over that span.

Pietrosante played with the Lions for seven years in total. He accumulated over 5,000 all-purpose yards with the team and 30 total touchdowns. When he left the team, he had set a then-franchise record of 3,933 rushing yards.

Jersey Number: 33

Franchise Stats

  • 88 games
  • 938 carries
  • 3,933 rushing yards
  • 28 rushing touchdowns

Accolades

  • Rookie of the Year
  • 19601961 Pro Bowl selection

Trivia: Coach Vince Lombardi once said, "[Pietrosante] shall be a great one someday. He is very tough to bring down."

Lions 1,000 Yard Rushers

Player
Year
Yardage

Barry Sanders

1997

2,053

Barry Sanders

1994

1,883

Barry Sanders

1996

1,553

Barry Sanders

1991

1,548

Barry Sanders

1995

1,500

Barry Sanders

1998

1,491

Barry Sanders

1989

1,470

Billy Sims

1981

1,437

Barry Sanders

1992

1,352

Barry Sanders

1990

1,304

Billy Sims

1980

1,303

James Stewart

2000

1,184

Kevin Jones

2004

1,133

Barry Sanders

1993

1,115

Billy Sims

1983

1,040

Steve Owens

1971

1,035

James Stewart

2002

1,021

Reggie Bush

2013

1,006

Lions Career Rushing Leaders

Player
Games
Rushing Yards
Yards Per Attempt
Yards Per Game
Rushing Touchdowns

Barry Sanders

153

15,269

5.0

99.8

99

Billy Sims

60

5,106

4.5

85.1

42

Dexter Bussey

150

5,105

4.2

34.0

18

Altie Taylor

91

4,297

3.7

47.2

24

Nick Pietrosante

88

3.933

4.2

44.7

28

Is Barry Sanders the GOAT?

Barry Sanders is often in the conversation for the greatest running back of all time along with Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith. All four exhibited incredible skill throughout their careers and hold or have held franchise and NFL rushing records. While the argument may never be definitively settled, here are a few comparisons, as well as statistics, that may clarify the relevant points.

Which NFL Running Back Played Longest?

At first glance, it may appear that Smith is the greatest running back of all time. He leads the four backs in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and even receptions. However, Smith played 36 more games than the next leading rusher and nearly twice as many games as Brown. The saying goes, "The best ability is availability." Running backs are players who take more hits than most positions in football, making them more susceptible to injury and more likely to have much shorter careers on average than other positions. Below are the number of games missed by each of the four backs:

  • Emmitt Smith: Missed 14 games in his 15-year career. All of his seasons were 16-game seasons, which means that he missed only 5.8% of his career games. His longevity and health are what helped him lead in most categories, allowing him to play football until the age of 35.
  • Walter Payton: Missed four games during his career, with a strike-shortened nine-game season in 1982 and a strike-shortened 15-game season in 1987. Of his 194 possible career games, he played in 190, meaning he missed only 2.0% of his career games. Payton played until the age of 33.
  • Barry Sanders: Missed seven games in his NFL career. Of his 160 possible games, he only missed 4.3% of his total games. Sanders' career only lasted 10 years however, as noted above. With 73 fewer games than Smith and 37 fewer than Payton, it's incredible to see he was only a mere 3,086 yards from the all-time rushing yardage title.
  • Jim Brown: Never missed a single game or start in his entire career, with a total of 118 games. Brown was the epitome of durability and health; he was a workhorse back who was always available and ready to play. Despite averaging 262 carries over 13.1 games a season, Brown never had to sit out of a game due to injury. His career lasted only nine seasons, and he left the game in his prime, just like Sanders. Brown had just capped off his best statistical season and earned the MVP award before he retired. Had his career continued, who knows what could have been?

It's clear that all four players were incredibly durable, and the shortened length of both Sanders' and Brown's careers were due to personal reasons, not injury or diminished skill. Both Sanders and Brown have better averages than Payton and Smith on yards per carry and yards per game, as shown below, so it's easy to argue they could have surpassed the other two in their totals had their careers lasted longer.

Who Are the Best Running Backs of All Time?

Comparing Running Backs Across Different Eras

The four backs played in three separate eras of football, with Smith and Sanders in the 1990s, Payton in the '70s and '80s, and Brown in the '50s and '60s. All three eras boasted different styles of play, and many will argue that this either strengthens or diminishes each player's claim to the GOAT status. Below are the average yards passing versus rushing during each players' career, as well as accolades they earned throughout their career:

  • Jim Brown played in a time when running the ball dominated the league. During his career, the league averaged 176.8 passing yards to 131.8 rushing yards. The league also averaged 26.6 pass attempts to 32.3 carries. This means the league ran an average of 58.9 offensive plays during Brown's career, running the ball 54.8% of the time, accounting for 42.7% of the league's total offense. During his nine-year career, he led the league in rushing yards eight times, rushing touchdowns five times, carries six times and all-purpose yards six times. Brown also led the league in yards per attempt twice.
  • Walter Payton entered the league as the offense began running more plays. During his career, teams averaged 186.2 passing yards versus 131.8 rushing yards and 29.8 pass attempts versus 33.1 rushing attempts. This means the NFL ran an average of 62.9 offensive plays during Payton's career, running the ball 52.6% of the time, accounting for 40.2% of the league's total offense. During Payton's 13-year career, he led the league in attempts four times, rushing yardage once, rushing touchdowns once and total yardage twice.
  • Barry Sanders played in the '90s when offenses became even more passer-friendly. During his career, the NFL averaged 32.2 pass attempts versus 28.0 rushing attempts, with rushing accounting for only 46.5% of the total play calls. The NFL also averaged 204.1 passing yards versus 110.4 rushing yards, with rushing only accounting for a mere 35.1% of all yardage. The Lions followed this trend. Despite Sanders never leading the league in attempts or total touches, he led the league in rushing yards four times, rushing touchdowns once, total scrimmage yards twice and total touchdowns twice.
  • Emmitt Smith played in the same era as Sanders, continuing on into the early 2000s. During his career, the NFL averaged 32.4 pass attempts versus 24.0 rush attempts, with rushing accounting for 42.4% of all play calls. The NFL also averaged 205.2 passing yards versus 111.3 rushing yards, with rushing accounting for only 35.1% of all yardage. In Smith's 15-year career, he led the league in attempts three times, rushing yardage four times, rushing touchdowns three times, total touches four times, total scrimmage yards twice and total touchdowns three times.

Comparing Smith, Payton, Sanders and Brown

Name
Team
Games
Carries
Yards
Yards Per Carry
Yards Per Game
Rushing Touchdowns
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Yards Per Reception
Receiving Yards Per Game
Receiving Touchdowns
Fumbles

Emmitt Smith

Cowboys/Cardinals

226

4,409

18,355

4.2

81.2

164

515

3,224

6.3

14.3

11

61

Walter Payton

Bears

190

3,838

16,726

4.4

88.0

110

492

4,538

9.2

23.9

15

86

Barry Sanders

Lions

153

3,062

15,269

5.0

99.8

99

352

2,921

8.3

19.1

10

41

Jim Brown

Browns

118

2,359

12,312

5.2

104.3

106

262

2,499

9.5

21.2

20

57

It's clear that as the years went by, the NFL has turned more and more into a passing league. Brown played in a day when rushing accounted for over half the play calls and 42.7% of the league's total offense. The NFL during Payton's era saw an identical breakdown of run calls, but the rushing efficiency dipped slightly, with only 40.2% of total yards coming from running plays. Both Sanders and Smith saw the league turn to pass as a first option, but both saw exactly 35.1% of all yards coming from runs during their careers. However, Sanders averaged 4.1% more run calls during his time, meaning the league was less effective rushing the ball than during Smith's entire career.

Regardless of the era in which each player played, no one dominated the league like Brown did. Despite each player setting and holding records, Brown led the league in every major statistical category for more than half of his career. In fact, Brown led the league in yardage eight times and rushing touchdowns five times, equalling the total of the other three backs combined in both categories. With the league running the ball more than half the time and throwing for less yardage than any other era, it's safe to say that defenses knew Brown was going to get the ball, making his efforts even more impressive.

Who Has the Most NFL Accolades?

Each of the four backs had Hall of Fameworthy careers, setting records and winning plenty of games along the way. Their dominance led to them all receiving great honors and accolades during their careers. Below is a list of each player's accolades and NFL career records:

Emmitt Smith (15 seasons):

  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
  • 8x Pro Bowler
  • 4x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 1x NFL MVP
  • 3x Super Bowl Champion
  • 1x Super Bowl MVP
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1990s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • NFL Record: 18,355 career rushing yards
  • NFL Record: 4,409 career rushing attempts
  • NFL Record: 164 career rushing touchdowns

Walter Payton (13 seasons):

  • 9x Pro Bowler
  • 5x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Walter Payton Man of the Year
  • 1x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 1x Offensive Player of the Year
  • 1x NFL MVP
  • 1x Super Bowl Champion
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1970s Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1980s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team

Barry Sanders (10 seasons):

  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
  • 10x Pro Bowler
  • 6x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 2x Offensive Player of the Year
  • 1x NFL MVP
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1990s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team

Jim Brown (9 seasons):

  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
  • 9x Pro Bowler
  • 8x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x Bert Bell Award recipient
  • 3x NFL MVP
  • 1x NFL Champion
  • Hall of Fame
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame First-Team All-1960s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • NFL Record: 104.3 yards per game

Who Is the Greatest Running Back of All Time?

While longevity aided both Smith and Payton's records, no player did more with the ball than Sanders and Brown. Brown slightly edges out Sanders in yardage and scoring ability, but it could be argued that since Sanders played two decades later, he faced larger, stronger and more athletic players. Brown dominated the league like no other and earned accolades as a top player for nearly every single season he ever played. He also has as many MVPs as the other three backs combined. While the debate will continue to rage on, I think it's safe to say that Brown is the greatest, with Sanders trailing ever so slightly behind. Regardless, these four backs will remain legends in the history of football forever.

Comments (5)
No. 1-2
DetroitsFinest1
DetroitsFinest1

This is a quality read. I still marvel at what Barry did in his career. What if he played for the Dallas Cowboys? I am surprised Detroit hasn’t found any quality RBs since #20. The only hope now rests with D’Andre Swift

TheFilmFreak
TheFilmFreak

I forgot that Walker was a Lion. He’s a great two, but I think Sims is my choice. As for the article, full of statistics and unorthodox angles that I never even consider on these Sportscenter debates, which only cement why you’re my favorite sports writer going today. I love when you take on a non-Cleveland article because bias can’t play into it even remotely, and even in an article that was obviously Barry’s for the taking, you still managed to raise enough uncertainty to make the debate a momentarily skeptical one. Loved your last paragraph summarizing Brown vs Sanders. I think if Barry played longer, he would’ve surpassed Jim, but playing for the Lions is like a bad slot machine that never pays off. Spectacular work, Jesse. Can’t wait to see what team you tackle next


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