Power football brings to mind images of mammoth offensive linemen, violent collisions at the point of attack, and gladiator running backs that carry the load for 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Although the scheme is not always highlight reel-worthy, old school football fans recognize that the power attack is essential for a winning program. Behind a workhorse back, dominant teams can move the chains, eat up clock, and psychologically beat the opposition into submission.
Power football isn’t about trickery, gadget plays, or quarterbacks. Power football is about an intense matchup of wills, getting physical, and going mano a mano to out-muscle the competition. In football — and in life — there is a certain machismo behind telling somebody you are going to do something, doing it, and knowing that you cannot be stopped. This is lunch pail, John Madden, Bo Schembechler, autumn leaves, meat and potatoes, smash mouth football.
Here are the 10 greatest power running backs of all time.
10. Christian Okoye
An unlikely football star, Christian Okoye’s first loves were soccer and track and field in his native Nigeria. While attending college at Azusa Pacific in California, Okoye was to claim several titles in the hammer throw, discus, and shot put. After failing to make the Nigerian Olympic track and field team, Okoye turned his sights to playing football at the college level. Ironically, Okoye initially described the game of football as “boring, with bodies crashing about.” Of course, the game quickly become more exciting as the 6-foot-1, 260-pound Okoye realized his ability to maul hapless defenders and literally stomp his cleats into their respective necks.
Drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1987, the Nigerian Nightmare’s NFL career seemed to come and go in a flash. In six seasons, Okoye tallied 4,897 yards and 40 touchdowns on 1,246 carries, and performed as the perfect fit for Kansas City Marty Ball. At his peak, Okoye led the NFL in rushing with 1,480 yards during the 1989 season. As with many power runners, Okoye’s production collapsed after the age of 30, when knee injuries forced him into the role of short yardage back. Okoye retired from football at 31, after cementing his feared status as a power runner and Tecmo Football video game legend.
9. Mike Alstott
At fullback, Mike Alstott still possessed the nimble feet to cut back across the grain and just enough speed to kick it into that extra gear and outrun opposing linebackers. Alstott, of course, always finished off runs by dropping low and driving his garish shoulder pads into the chests of would-be tacklers. The last of a dying breed, Alstott evoked memories of Csonka and Riggins, who also starred as featured runners from the fullback position.
In 11 seasons, Alstott rumbled for 5,088 yards and 58 touchdowns. At fullback, Alstott also had the soft hands to catch passes in the flat and terrorize defensive backs that were forced to hold the edge and submarine this brute. As a Buccaneer, Alstott recorded six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances between 1997 and 2002, and took home the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XXXVII.
8. Larry Csonka
Larry Csonka’s power running and no-name defense sparked the Miami Dolphins 1970’s Dynasty before Dan Marino, Isotoner Gloves, and the phrase “taking your game to South Beach” became associated with sports lore. As a Dolphin, Csonka compiled three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (14-game regular seasons) between 1971 and 1973. During these seasons, Csonka posted averages of 5.4, 5.2, and 4.6 yards per carry, which was remarkable for a 6-foot-3, 240-pound power back. In Super Bowls VII and VIII, Zonk was at his best, as he grinded out 112 and 145 yards, respectively. In back-to-back Super Bowl victories, Csonka ran wild to shake tacklers, deliver forearm shivers, and accept MVP honors.
7. John Riggins
John Riggins was the good ‘ol boy next door who just happened to slap on a helmet to play professional football on Sundays. In Washington, Riggo was known just as well for his playboy lifestyle as he was for his hard charging touchdown runs for six. Vintage Riggins took the call on 4th and inches in Super Bowl XVII, before running roughshod over an outmatched Miami Dolphin defensive back, and barreling into space for a 43-yard touchdown romp.
Nicknamed The Diesel, Riggins trucked defenses for a grand total of 11,352 yards and 104 touchdowns on the ground with the New York Jets and Washington Redskins. By 2014, Riggins’s 104 rushing touchdowns were still good for sixth of all time. Interestingly, The Diesel did not run out of gas with age. In 1983, Riggins put together his best individual season. That year, Riggo powered the Redskins behind his 1,347 rushing yards and NFL-leading 24 touchdowns, at the age of 34.
6. Jim Taylor
Taken together, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung made up the thunder and lightning combination at Green Bay. Taylor and his running mate Hornung were directly responsible for Frozen Tundra lore, with Lombardi ordering up “a seal here and a seal there” to create alleyways on the Packers’ toss sweep. As a power runner, Taylor’s 1960s-era production was second only to the great Jim Brown. In 1962, Taylor racked up 1,474 rushing yards to lead the NFL. That season, Taylor starred as the only player to lead the League in rushing besides Jim Brown, during Brown’s career that spanned between 1957 and 1965. In all, Taylor racked up 8,597 rushing yards, 93 total touchdowns, three NFL championships, and one Super Bowl victory.
5. Bronko Nagurski
Bronko Nagurski was a beast. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 235 pounds, Nagurski went All-Pro at fullback, offensive tackle, and linebacker. For modern era fans, Nagurski may have been comparable to Jake Long, Larry Allen, or Tony Boselli motioning into the backfield to take handoffs before steamrolling defenders wearing leather helmets. As a Chicago Bear, Nagurski cleared a path of destruction for 2,778 rushing yards over the course of his nine-year career. By today’s standards, Nagurski’s statistical output may appear minimal. For the 1930s, however, Nagurski was a permanent fixture atop top 10 statistical lists for rushing yards, yards per carry, and touchdowns. Nagurski set the precedent for Csonka, Riggins, Motley, and every other big back that could carry the load.
4. Jerome Bettis
As a power runner, Jerome Bettis was blessed with the size of a nose tackle to go alongside the twinkle toes of Fred Astaire. A patient runner, Bettis combined his vision and pitter patter feet to dance behind the line of scrimmage, break tackles at the point of attack, and power his way deep into the opposing secondary. Once the No. 36 Bus broke loose, Bettis was an intimidating load for overmatched defensive backs to bring down. As a 250 pound Teddy Bear in shoulder pads, Bettis was at his best during cold weather games at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers. In 1997, Bettis rang the bell for 375 carries and 1,665 yards of power running, which further endeared himself to blue-collar Steeler Nation.
For a bruising back, the Bus was the model for longevity. In 13 seasons, Bettis rushed for 13,662 yards, 91 touchdowns, and one Super Bowl victory. Bettis’s 13,662 rushing yards are still good for sixth place of all time.
3. Earl Campbell
Earl Campbell was an unreal combination of size and speed. Campbell possessed sub 4.5/40-yard dash speed on a 5-foot-11, 240-pound frame. With his tree trunk legs and low center of gravity, Campbell was built for power running and could only be taken down through gang tackling. Earl Campbell led the NFL in rushing his first three seasons with totals of 1,450, 1,697, and 1,934 yards. As a virtual wrecking ball with breakaway speed, Campbell was the every down back who could muscle out the tough yards on 3rd and short, while also electrifying crowds with his potential to take the football to the house on any possession.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, for Oilers and Bum Phillips, Campbell was money in the bank as he tallied more than 300 carries for five out of the six full seasons he played in Houston. Unfortunately, the workload, pile-ups, and punishment steadily took its toll on Campbell’s legs and his career. By age 29, Campbell’s production collapsed, and he rushed for only 469 yards in spot duty between New Orleans and Houston. At 30, Campbell’s football career was finished. Unfortunately, the game’s one time most feared runner now needs assistance to walk up a flight of stairs as he has enters the twilight of old age.
2. Marion Motley
Wearing No. 76, Marion Motley put up unreal numbers for the Cleveland Browns of the 1940s and 1950s. His No. 76 jersey as a running back was unusual, but fitting. On the field, Motley ran with reckless abandon, as if he were a big kid playing football against peewee toddlers. An unstoppable force, Motley reeled off 4,720 yards on 828 carries for a career 5.7 yards per carry average. Motley’s totals include two rushing titles and an absurd 8.2-yard average during his rookie campaign. Motley was often hailed as the Jackie Robinson of football for integrating the sport, before he hung up his cleats with four AAFC championships and one NFL title for the Cleveland Browns.
1. Jim Brown
By any statistical measure, Jim Brown rivals Jerry Rice as the greatest football player of all time. Brown dominated the NFL for eight rushing titles during his nine-year career between 1957 and 1965. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Brown ran roughshod over the competition for a total of 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns on the ground. At 29, Brown retired from the game of NFL football, after having owned every significant rushing record on the books.
All data courtesy of Pro Football Reference.