Elite company

October 25, 2002|By Ken Murray

Emmitt Smith could become the NFL's all-time leading rusher on Sunday. Here's a look at the top running backs in history and what made them great.

1. Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns - Powerful, punishing and fast, Brown could run over defenders or simply run away from them. He dominated the league like no other back has ever done, winning the league rushing title eight times in nine seasons and retired with 12,312 yards.

2. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears - A strong, physical runner who was in superb condition and acted like a battering ram between the tackles. He was great even when the Bears were bad. He broke Brown's record in 1984 and finished with 16,726 yards.

3. Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys - Neither fast nor big, Smith is Payton-like with his powerful, inside running style. In his prime, he was as consistent as he was good in the clutch.

4. Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears - A magnificent runner who was tough and elusive. Who knows what numbers he might have been able to put up if not for a bad knee injury in 1970? Still, in seven seasons, he had 4,956 rushing yards and 9,435 all-purpose yards.

5. Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints - Relying on raw power, Campbell bull-dozed his way to 9,407 rushing yards in eight seasons. He burst onto the NFL scene with 5,081 yards in his first three seasons.

6. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions - Smallish and able to turn on a dime, Sanders was an electric runner who turned bad plays into big plays. But he also got stopped behind the line quite a bit. He retired suddenly before the 1999 season, with 15,269 yards and Payton in sight.

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