Over the last 30 years (debatable timeline), NFL offensive philosophies have changed significantly. To be exact, there has been a greater focus on passing among NFL teams and running is becoming less of the regular method of gaining yards. So, to an extent, the running backs and fullback combination has been replaced by wide receivers and tight ends on many teams as the quarterback’s main weapons for establishing dominance. This is not to say that running backs are less important than they used to be, but they have had to assume a new role in offensive schemes.
At the end of the day, running backs still have one of the most exciting jobs on the field. After receiving the hand-off, they have a fraction of a second to decide whether their assigned gap is good to go through, and if not, it’s time to go elsewhere. If they get through the defensive line, then on to the linebackers, who are usually significantly bigger. Once through the linebackers, it’s time to manhandle a couple of DB’s, which is quick work for some backs. But today the running isn’t even a full day for most NFL RBs. Blocking duties require diligently waiting behind the line of scrimmage with the quarterback and waiting for blitzing defenders. Finally, any running back worth his weight needs to be able to catch the ball, providing his quarterback a decent option for passing out of the backfield.
However, even the best running back in the NFL is not guaranteed consistent victories. Backs who can run, break tackles, catch like wideouts, block like an offensive linemen and even throw solid passes are extremely useful, but not always enough to get their team a ring. This list looks at the running backs who have the most rushing yards, but did not earn a Super Bowl ring.
10. Steven Jackson: 10,678 Yards
Steven Jackson has had a successful running career and holds the franchise record for most yards rushing for the St Louis Rams. Unfortunately, he spent much of his career with the Rams, and they were not a frequent Super Bowl contender in the 2000s. In 2013, he started playing for the Falcons, and it’s looking like his career may end in Atlanta. He had eight 1,000 yard rushing seasons between 2005 and 2012 with the Rams, but his most recent season in Atlanta saw him getting far fewer snaps than previous years and putting up numbers that are sub par compared to his time in St Louis. Given that Jackson is now 30 years old and has two more years on his Atlanta contract, it is looking unlikely that he will win a Super Bowl.
9. Warrick Dunn: 10,967 Yards
With three Pro Bowls under his belt and 1997’s Rookie of the Year award, Warrick Dunn had a solid career. His first several years with the league were spent in Tampa Bay, but after the 2001 season he went to play for Atlanta. He missed that Super Bowl by one year, as the Bucs won it in 2002. He played six successful seasons with the Falcons, but again, no Super Bowls. He produced good numbers on both teams he was a part of, but ultimately it was not enough and he retired after the 2008 season.
8. O.J. Simpson: 11,236 Yards
It’s too bad that people today only seem to know “Juice” for his trials or that pesky little robbery/kidnapping incident in Vegas. With regard to his football career, he had six Pro Bowl appearances and was the first and only player ever to rush for over 2,000 yards in a 14 game season. Still, in spite of his amazing stats, there was never to be a Super Bowl victory for O.J. Simpson.
7. Fred Taylor: 11,695 Yards
Fred Taylor had a very respectable thirteen year career and split those years with eleven in Jacksonville and two in New England. He had some truly amazing years with the Jaguars, but chronically suffered from injury trouble. Later on in his time in Jacksonville, his numbers started to slip after they acquired Maurice Jones-Drew, who began to gradually take snaps from Taylor and eventually became the team’s go to running back. After 2008, Taylor was released and was given a two year contract by the Patriots. His time in New England was largely unsuccessful and he spent most of his time riding the bench with injuries. In 2011, he signed a one day deal with the Jaguars so he could retire with that club, and sadly, Taylor retired without reaching the Super Bowl.
6. Thurman Thomas: 12,074 Yards
I truly feel for Thurman Thomas. If I had to write his NFL memoir I would entitle it: “If You Spend Your Career with the Buffalo Bills, You’re Gonna Have a Bad Time”. Thomas was a five time Pro Bowler and a four time AFC champion with the Bills. The Bills were great in the early 1990s, when they won the AFC Championship four times in a row between 1990 and 1993. Unfortunately, they lost each one of these Super Bowls. Yes, that’s four Super Bowl losses in as many years. It was the best of times and the worst of times. Thurman Thomas was there for all four games, and that must be difficuly to stomach as he was probably the closest of any runner on this list.
5. Edgerrin James: 12,246 Yards
Edge James is without any shadow of a doubt, one of the best running backs of the 2000s. After being drafted by the Colts, he won the league rushing title in his first two years and in 2004 and 2005, he cleared 1,500 yards rushing each year. He went on to play for Arizona in 2006 and missed the Colts’ Super Bowl year. In the 2008 season, he and the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl, but had their dreams crushed by the Steelers in a great game. He then played one very unsuccessful season for the Seahawks before retiring. It is interesting that the Colts organization gave James a Super Bowl ring after their victory in 2006, but I’m not counting that, because he wasn’t on the team for the win. However, it does show how valuable he was to the Colts organization while he was there.
4. Eric Dickerson: 13,259 Yards
This man had a seriously impressive career in the NFL. If I may throw down some impressive stats: he holds the record for most rushing yards ever attained by a rookie, with 1,808. He also holds the record for most rushing yards in a single season with 2,105. On top of those two records, he is the fastest player to have achieved 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000, 7,000, 8,000, 9,000, 10,000 and 11,000 yards in his career. Basically, Dickerson did not waste any time racking up rushing yards in his career. The majority of his career was spent with the L.A. Rams and Colts, with one unsuccessful season with the L.A. Raiders and one very unsuccessful season with Atlanta. In spite of his amazing running and overall dominance, a Super Bowl was not in the cards for Dickerson.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson: 13,684 Yards
LT is arguably the best running back of our generation, and I only say arguably because of Adrian Peterson, whose career is still going strong and who has several more solid years of play before we close the books on his career. Anyway, back to LaDainian. His accolades include five Pro Bowl selections, leading the league in rushing twice, one league MVP award, the record for both rushing touchdowns in a season (28) and combined touchdowns in a season (31), and that’s not to mention being the most difficult offensive player to deal with in several years of Madden football games. LT, however, never made it to the Super Bowl. This is something he’s okay with however, having stated that he did everything in his power to put the Chargers in the big game, but it just never happened. He’s comfortable with the knowledge that he will be in the Hall of Fame. He is eligible in 2017.
2. Curtis Martin: 14,101 Yards
This five time Pro Bowl participant was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012. He didn’t even play football until his senior year in high school, but was a determined natural athlete and was recruited to play college ball for Pittsburgh. His first three seasons in the NFL, he played for the Patriots, having a very successful rookie season and reaching the Super Bowl, but losing to Green Bay. The remaining eight seasons of Martin’s career would be spent with the Jets, where he had three more Pro Bowl years, seven more years with 1,000+ rushing yards but again, no Super Bowl ring. Again, you win some, lose some, Curtis Martin is still a Hall of Famer and the 4th all-time rushing yards leader.
1. Barry Sanders: 15,269 Yards
NFL Network hailed this man as both one of the top 10 most elusive running backs of all time and one of their greatest ever players not to make the Super Bowl. His 10 year career was unbelievable. His lowest total for rushing yards in a season was the 1993 season in which he totaled only 1,115 yards. During his years in the league he was also 10/10 in terms of Pro Bowl appearances. His retirement came as a surprise, given his 1998 season saw him rushing for a very healthy 1,491 yards. He attributed his early exit from football to the club with which he had spent his entire career. He explained years after his actual retirement that the poor leadership and management of the Detroit Lions had broken his spirit and that he was fed up with the inconsistency of the offensive schemes of the team. It was always the same story with Barry Sanders and the Lions, no matter how good he looked, the Lions could never pull it together in the post season. He still holds a few impressive records, among them most 1,500 yards seasons with five, and most consecutive games with 100+ yards, with fourteen. Oh yeah, and he became a Hall of Famer in 2004.