LaDainian Tomlinson has retired. Although Jets’ fans did not see a healthy, in-his-prime Tomlinson carrying the ball the last two years, there were glimpses of his greatness every now and then. He still had the quick feet and made you think he could rip off a long run every now and then. Had the Jets relied on him more instead of using him as a part-time back he certainly looked like he could have kept grinding out 1,000-yard seasons. His durability was a concern though and the Jets were saving him for the playoffs.
In any case, where does Tomlinson, who was arguably the best back of the previous decade, rank among the all-time great running backs? Here are the top ten from the last fifty years according to this author:
10. Thurman Thomas (1988–2000): 12,074 rushing yards (14th all-time), 65 rushing TDs (34th all-time), 4.2 yards per carry, 5 Pro Bowls, 2 First-Team All-Pros, 1 MVP—There’s a lot of great backs that could have made this list but Thurman Thomas has to be on it. Not only was he a great rusher he was a great receiver, gaining more than 500 receiving yards four straight seasons (1989–1992) while leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage in each of those seasons. In addition Thomas ripped off eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls.
9. O.J. Simpson (1969–1979): 11,236 rushing yards (18th), 61 rushing TDs (40th), 4.7 yards per carry, 6 Pro Bowls, 5 First-Team All-Pros, 1 MVP—Ignoring his off-the-field problems for a second, Simpson’s on-the-field production from 1972–1976 was the best in football over those five seasons. “The Juice” led the league in rushing four of those seasons, including the Granddaddy of them all, the 1973 campaign where he became the first member of the 2,000-yard club. Thomas may have been better for a longer time, but Simpson had a higher ceiling.
8. Earl Campbell (1978–1985): 9,407 rushing yards (30th), 74 rushing TDs (23rd), 4.3 yards per carry, 5 Pro Bowls, 3 First-Team All-Pros, 1 MVP—Campbell doesn’t have quite the career totals that Simpson has, but that was because he only played eight seasons, and this list isn’t just about longevity (ask all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith at number five). Campbell was an All-Pro each of his first three seasons as he led the league in rushing in each of those years. The pounding he gave (and took) may have contributed to his early retirement.
7. LaDainian Tomlinson (2001–2011) : 13,684 rushing yards (5th), 145 rushing TDs (2nd), 4.3 yards per carry, 5 Pro Bowls, 3 First-Team All-Pros, 1 MVP—Eight straight 1,100-yard seasons to start his career and nine straight seasons of 10 or more rushing touchdowns, including an NFL single-season record 28 in 20006 highlight Tomlinson’s achievements. A very close call over Campbell; the height of each player’s career was similar, but Tomlinson lasted a little longer.
6. Eric Dickerson (1983–1993): 13,259 rushing yards (7th), 90 rushing TDs (12th), 4.4 yards per carry, 6 Pro Bowls, 5 First-Team All-Pros—Dickerson’s career may have gone downhill quicker than Tomlinson’s but for his first seven seasons he was on track to be the best ever, averaging more than 1,600 yards a year. His career highlight was the 1984 season when set the NFL record for most yards in a season with 2,105. Though he’s the only one on the list without an MVP Award to his credit, we’ll forgive him for having his biggest season at the same time Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards.
5. Emmitt Smith…