On Friday, the NFL lost a legend as Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown passed away at the age of 87. The Cleveland Brown star only spent nine years in the league, but he made the most of them compiling a total of 12,312 yards where he averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry. It was 60 years ago when Brown became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher eclipsing the 49ers Joe Perry in 1963. Brown held that record for 20 years until Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton passed him in 1983.
While Brown was the first player to reach 10,000 yards rushing and held the top spot for two decades, there have been many players since who have passed him up. In fact, Brown no longer resides in the top 10 in rushing yards, standing in 11th place at the moment. Over the years, several players have moved ahead of him including two Hall of Fame Cowboys running backs. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and identify the 10 running backs who are ahead of this late, great legend.
1983 - Walter Payton
As we mentioned already, Brown held the rushing title for 20 years before Walter Payton was the man of the year in 1983, rushing for 1,421 yards, surpassing Brown as the all-time NFL rushing leader. “Sweetness” played 13 seasons in the league, all with the Chicago Bears. When he hung things up in 1987, he had compiled a total of 16,726 rushing yards.
1987 - Tony Dorsett
The Cowboys pulled off a steal-of-a-deal trade with the Seattle Seahawks in 1977 to land Dorsett second overall in the draft. The Heisman winner hit the ground running, rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons in the league. And it would’ve been the first nine seasons had it not been for the strike-shortened 1982 season. Dorsett played 12 years in the league, 11 with Dallas before being traded to Denver in 1988. He finished with 12,739 career rushing yards, ranking him 10th all-time just ahead of Brown.
1990 - Eric Dickerson
If Dorsett hit the ground running, Dickerson hit the ground sprinting as he rushed for over 1,800 yards his rookie season and in three of his first four seasons, including over 2,100 yards in just his second year in the league. Dickerson rushed for over 1,200 yards in each of his first seven years in the league. He passed Brown in 1990. In total, he played 12 seasons in the NFL rushing for 13,259 yards securing the ninth spot on the all-time list.
1996 - Barry Sanders
The Detroit Lions’ Hall of Fame running back is often mentioned as the greatest running back of all time and for good reason. He was a model of greatness throughout his entire career. Sanders played 10 seasons in the league, rushing for over 1,100 yards in all of them. In fact, he had over 1,300 yards in all but one season. The super-explosive Sanders finished his career with 15,269 yards, good enough for fourth all time.
1998 - Emmitt Smith
Brown would again be passed two years later by a running back we are all familiar with. Smith played 13 years with the Cowboys, rushing for over 900 yards in all of them. He went a span of 11 straight years with over 1,000 yards, only falling short his first and last year in Dallas. In 2001, Smith passed Payton to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, a mark that still remains over 20 years later. Smith left Dallas in 2003 where he played a couple more seasons with Arizona to pad those stats a bit. When the dust settled and tumbleweeds passed, Smith finished his career with 18,355 total rushing yards.
2003 - Jerome Bettis
Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame back Franco Harris fell just a couple of hundred yards shy of catching Brown, but another Steelers’ back eventually got his chance. Bettis started his career with the Los Angeles Rams before they traded him to Pittsburgh where he proceeded to rush for over 1,000 yards in six-straight years. The Bus eventually stopped in 2005 where he finished with 13,662 total rushing yards securing the eighth spot on the all-time list.
2004 - Curtis Martin
It didn’t take long for another running back to pass Brown as the New York Jets Curtis Martin caught him shortly after Bettis. Similar to Sanders, Martin eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first ten years in the league. He started to wear down in year 11 only rushing for 3.3 yards per attempt, but it was still good enough for sixth place on the all-time list and a gold jacket.
2009 - LaDainian Tomlinson
If there ever was a running back who looked like they had a shot at breaking Emmitt Smith’s record, it was San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson. Not only did he start his career with eight-straight 1,000-yard seasons, but five of them went for over 1,400 yards. Additionally, LT was a touchdown machine, recording double-digit rushing touchdowns in all nine of his years with the Chargers. That includes a 28-touchdown season in 2006 where he broke Smith’s single-season rushing touchdown record. As with most backs, Tomlinson faded quickly after being on the north side of 30 years of age, but he finished his career with 13,684 rushing yards, ranking seventh all time.
2015 - Frank Gore
Durability is key to climbing the ranks which is a big reason why Smith’s 15-year career holds the top spot. But another resilient runner was able to make his mark with 16 years of grinding. Gore put together nine seasons where he rushed for over 1,000 yards, most of which were with San Francisco. He did slow down as he finished his career playing for four different AFC teams, but he didn’t stop. Well, that was until 2020 when he finished his career with an even 16,000 rushing, third all-time behind only Smith and Payton.
2017 - Adrian Peterson
The final running back to make us ponder if Smith’s record would be challenged was Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson. During his seventh year in the league, AD became the third-fastest player to reach 10,000 yards trailing only Dickerson and Brown. Unfortunately, Peterson would miss time in three of his next four years in the league. During his final five years in the league, he was a journeyman back playing for six different NFL teams. In the end, he played 17 seasons and finished with 14,918 rushing yards good enough for fifth all-time.
For a complete rundown of the rushing yards race, check out this nice timeline of events.