Friday, April 1, 2011

The HoG25: The Best 25 Running Backs of the Past 25 Years, Part II

Glad you could make it. Follow the link for the top of the top running backs. If you missed Part I, it's here.

9. Terrell Davis

Terrell Davis

8. Thurman Thomas

Thurman Thomas was a Cowboy. An Oklahoma State Cowboy. He finished school in 1987, and the Buffalo Bills scooped him up in the second round of the draft. He spent 12 years (one final, nine-game season in Miami) in that uniform, and amassed more than 16,000 yards from scrimmage. Thomas managed an impressive eight consecutive years where he rushed for 1000+ yards, and in total, he scored 65 rushing touchdowns. Fourteenth all-time in career rushing yards, Thurman Thomas finds himself just above John Riggins, O.J. Simpson, and a game or two’s worth of yardage behind Marcus Allen.

There wasn’t anything particularly impressive about Thomas’ running style. He wasn’t flashy, but he was your textbook, north/south, between-the-tackles, pound-it-down-your-throat kind of ball carrier. What was impressive about Thomas was that he could do that game after game, year after year, seldom missing a start, while, at the same time, putting together admirable receiving (an average of 47 catches a season during that eight-year stretch) numbers.

In total, Thomas found the end zone nearly 90 times in his career, he made Pro Football’s Hall of Fame in 2007 after being a finalist the previous season, and like so many of the Bills of that era, you have to give them credit for continuing to come out and compete in the 1994 season (1442 total yards and nine scores for Thomas), having lost four consecutive Super Bowls.

Thurman Thomas, gentleman, scholar, Hall of Famer, and one of the best tailbacks of the last two and-a-half decades.

7. LaDainian Tomlinson

Old No. 7:

6. Marcus Allen

Old No. 7:
Marcus Allen

5. Curtis Martin

The theme of Curtis Martin’s career started off being “well, he’s not as good as Terrell Davis.” If you’re an NFL running back and that’s the worst thing they say about you, you’re doing it right. Unlike Davis, Martin was no footballin’ comet illuminating the firmament briefly, wondrously, indelibly, before disappearing; he was a reassuring night-light that head coaches left plugged until it finally, wayyy past its expected lifespan, burned out. Not as memorable as the cosmic pyrotechnics, no. But more valuable? Undeniably.

Think about this: over the course of an 11-year career, Martin failed to rush for 1,000 yards exactly once, and that was his final season. You can argue -- I have, and will again -- that reaching a thousand rushing yards is a feat somewhat lessened by the 16-game season, but still. For a position as physically demanding and conducive to shortened careers as running back? The fact that he played 11 seasons by itself is kind of amazing, but to lead the league in rushing yards and attempts 10 years in, as Martin did, is, frankly, boggling. That stuff just doesn’t happen.

Yet he never really gets the respek afforded guys like Davis (a personal favorite of mine for obvious reasons) precisely because he was so workmanlike, so regular. Another 1,000 yard season, another 9 TDs, yawn. Lotta steak, but the sizzle was generally absent. Part of that had to do with his style: he was a grinder, not a gazelle. Part of it had to do with a general lack of postseason success: he left New England before their reign of dominance, and his one Super Bowl appearance there was mostly memorable because his team was on the beating end of a Brett Favre/Reggie White pummelthon.

But at the end of his career, the numbers fail to lie: 14,000+ yards, 100 TDs. Five time Pro Bowler, once a First Team All-Pro. Martin’s an undeniable Hall of Famer and one of the finest backs of his generation. Even if no one really remembers what he looks like.

4. Eric Dickerson

Eric Dickerson is the first NFL running back that I thought would threaten to take the throne from Walter Payton as the best I’d ever seen. Luckily for my wishes as a kid, his career only lasted 10 years, and the final four of those 10 tapered off massively. Dickerson attended Southern Methodist University, and was taken by the Rams with the second overall pick of the 1983 draft. He went to six Pro Bowls, rushed for 13, 259 yards, and, on 90 occasions, crossed the goal line while toting the rock.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note Dickerson’s 78 career fumbles, which has got to make Ricky Watters feel better about himself, but Dickerson had some pretty significant seasons. Thrice he led the league in rushing attempts, four times he earned the rushing title for most yards on the season, he had the most rushing TDs in 1984, and in five different seasons, the oddly bespectacled one led the league in rushing yards per game.

Like I mentioned, though, Dickerson’s career tapered off: After consecutive monster seasons with the Rams, then Indianapolis, he played 16 games in a Raider uniform, suited up four times with the Falcons, and then failed a physical with Green Bay, prompting his retirement. It, therefore, goes without saying that Dickerson was phenomenal for a stretch, but had said stretch been significantly shorter, phrases like “flash in the pan” may have been thrown around regarding his career. As it stands, you have to include him in conversations regarding rushing greats, but he will always remain a tier below the all-time best backs. Eric Dickerson, NFL Hall of Fame, class of 1999.

3. Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith

2. Marshall Faulk

Old No. 7:
Marshall Faulk

And the number-one rock toter in the last 25 years is...

(Editor's Note: Duh.)

1. Barry Sanders

I’ve said on several occasions throughout this series that one of my colleagues was likely more qualified to comment on a particular topic/person than I, and Barry Sanders is no exception. It’s not that I can’t copy/paste his stats here, or come up with something clever to say about him. It’s simply that I probably watched about seven seconds of live, Barry Sanders football. For reasons that are unnecessary to explain, there just wasn’t, and isn’t, a lot of Lions football on the tube, which leads us to the one thing all of us can say about Sanders: You have to wonder how much better his career could’ve been, had he not been drafted (third overall) by Detroit in 1989.

That said, Sanders backed up Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State for two years, which might be the first contributor to the reasons why Sanders was so incredible in the NFL; he didn’t get beat down for four consecutive college seasons. He absolutely went bat-sh** bananas, though, his junior year, won a Heisman, and bailed for the pros, where he has the insufferable Wayne Fontes to thank for making him a Lion.

They go-to move here is to talk about the numbers that Sanders put up across 10 professional years, to highlight the swelling tumor of suckitude Detroit has always embodied, but all of that would be injustice to our number-one guy.

So, I’ll say this: Has any NFL player ever gone to a Pro Bowl in every season in which they played? Has any running back ever averaged 1500+ yards a season? Or 1800 yards from scrimmage? I honestly don’t know, but I sincerely doubt it.

Barry Sanders is not first on the all-time list in either: rushing attempts, ground yards, or touchdowns. He’s close in all three, though. What matters is that watching Barry Sanders run the ball (Editor’s Note: gleaned via clips, highlights) was nothing shy of jaw-dropping. He was graced with some kind of athletic miracle, some droplet from some golden halo in the heavens that allowed him to simply make plays happen.

In sports, we often hear our coaches and our players say, Great players go out and make plays. I disagree with that sentiment. Good players go out and make plays. Great players go out and make great plays happen almost every time they touch the ball. Great players do not come along but perhaps every 50 years or so. Great players invent things on the fly. Great players have an impeccable focus, a sharp eye that sends lightning-speed messages to a lucid mind, ability to process that rapid-fire information, and produce something with the gift of talent they’ve been given.

Barry Sanders did that on nearly every snap for a straight decade. He missed seven games in that stretch, and I’d be willing to bet all seven were bad losses. This list includes a lot of incredibly talented athletes, and yes – some of them were great. But none of them, friends, was Barry Sanders great.

It’s been said that Sanders praises Fontes in his book, that he’s not bitter about the way things went down in terms of who drafted him, how his career developed, but it’s also been said that the losing absolutely took a toll on him, and he hung up the spikes quote/unquote early.

And that’s too bad in a sense. It’d be nice to see Sanders atop all of the career-totals lists, but, in the end, for him, that was likely not as important as getting Ws.