The 30 Greatest Modern-Era Running Backs – Intro

Just picking the 30 greatest modern-era running backs, let alone ranking them, isn’t as easy as it used to be. In the 44 years since O.J. Simpson became the first RB to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season, way back in 1973 and just 3 years into what I consider the Modern Era – the merged, Monday Night Football era – dozens of running backs have posted careers that could stake compelling, if arguable, claims to a spot on this list.

But what is running back “greatness” anyway? It’s hardly a specific term, and even after years of exhaustive writing, research, and discussion, it can be a bitch to define. Yet every writer, analyst and fan seems to have at least some notion of what it is, and for many, those notions are deeply, passionately held opinions that can be intensely personal and zealously defended. From clueless amateurs to grizzled reporters who’ve covered the NFL for decades, everyone seems to eventually chime in with their roll call of GOATs, and I’ve got my list, too.

But who are the greatest running backs? The smash-mouth brawlers or the elusive speedsters? Who’s greater? A back that had a short but incandescent career, or a durable workhorse who delivered steady, reliable gains for years and defied age and injury? Who’s greater? The yards-per-carry leaders, the yards-per-game leaders, or the yards-from-scrimmage leaders? The ground churning rushing specialists or the balanced rushing-receivers? The short answer is that all of those things can add up to greatness, and I looked exhaustively at all of them.

Here’s a brief overview of what I think makes a running back a great running back.

Rushing Is King

A lot of RBs have done a lot of things well, some extraordinarily well. Think Faulk or Tomlinson receiving, Payton or Smith blocking, Sayers returning. You get the idea. But for a running back to be a truly great running back, what he needs above everything else is great rushing. Ground is righteously and primarily the truest, most organic, most fundamental measure of a running back. Always has been, always will be. Without great rushing, a running back isn’t a great running back.

I looked exhaustively at more than 100 Modern-Era running backs, and where I saw great receiving and great returning I gave them due and appropriate weight. But solid receiving and returning, even excellent receiving and returning, wouldn’t get a back on my list if his rushing wasn’t anything special. Conversely, if an RB posted incredible, historic, legendary rushing but was light on other duties it didn’t weigh as heavily against him. In other words, I don’t have any problem with running backs who specialize in running, but don’t recognize multi-faceted backs as great running backs if their rushing isn’t special. RBs like that might be good running backs, very good running backs, and great football players. For sure, dozens, maybe even hundreds of players over the years have fit that description. But that description doesn’t describe great running backs. The position’s name says it all. Running backs run. Pounding the rock isn’t the only thing that matters – but it matters more than anything else.

Impact and Dominance

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