2. O.J. Simpson (1969-79)
Before he became accused of more sinister actions, “The Juice” was an electrifying runner with unequaled explosiveness at the line of scrimmage that allowed him to use his world-class sprinter’s speed far downfield. His spectacular runs made the Buffalo Bills’ franchise so popular, the city built huge stadium in the suburb of Orchard Park. Simpson’s accomplishments – he retired No. 2 on the all-time list behind Jim Brown and has an NFL-best six 200-yard games – are more remarkable when you realize that he played mostly on poor teams. The Bills made the playoffs only once in his nine seasons and were 43-81-2.
Former NFL coach George Allen said Simpson “was the best late-game running back I ever saw, even better than Brown. No one ever took a beating better.” He was hardly touched, however, early when he was – incredulously – used as a receiver, kick returner and “decoy” in his first three seasons. Simpson didn’t have a 1,000-yard season until Lou Saban took over in 1972. He barely totaled 1,000 yards in his final two injury-riddled seasons in San Francisco.
Noteworthy stat: In 1973, “The Juice” gained an NFL record 2,003 yards in 14 games, including 200 yards in the snow at Shea Stadium against the Jets in the season finale.
3. Barry Sanders (1989-98)
Is there any doubt the elusive Detroit Lions’ star would’ve been the first to pass Walter Payton if he hadn’t abruptly retired before the start of the 1999 season, when he needed only 1,457 yards – about a season’s worth – to be No. 1? Trying to figure out why Sanders gave up a sport he dominated is as difficult as it was trying to tackle him. He frustrated many a defender with his slippery, back-and-forth elusiveness, probably causing more missed tackles than any runner in history. “Four times on one play!” linebacker Bryan Cox said. Sanders’ dazzling cuts, especially on the artificial turf at the Silverdome, were an annual Thanksgiving Day highlight reel.
He earned four league rushing titles and was a Pro Bowl selection in each of his 10 seasons, en route to piling up 15,269 yards by age 30. “Barry was the ultimate back,” said Jets Pro Bowl runner Curtis Martin. “His ability to change directions and make big plays was beyond Emmitt or anyone else. He’s the best by far. He’s a running back’s running back. He had all the moves the rest of us only dream about.”
Noteworthy stat: In 1997, Sanders became the third player ever to run for at least 2,000 yards when he gained 2,053, including a record 14 straight 100-yard games.
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