But it didn’t always used to be that way.
As recently as 15 years ago, many NFL teams would employ the "Tennessee Titans" approach to offense -- which is to say, hand the ball off 25-30 times a game to your best running back. This would allow for offenses to tire out the defense, and leave more dynamic passing offenses on the bench.
NFL teams are passing the ball more. And the ones that do lean a bit more toward the run, they don't often have that one go-to running back who dominates the carries; instead they employ a "running-back-by-committee" rotation in which a few backs split the carries. (Fantasy football owners hate this.)
Interestingly enough, two out of the top 5 career rushers in NFL history are still active today. But with the way the game is being played, it may be an extremely long time before the gentlemen on this list are passed by any modern-day running backs.
Let’s look at the achievements of the top 5 career rushing leaders in the history of the NFL.
5. Adrian Peterson
The Minnesota Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson 7th overall in the 2007 NFL Draft because they felt he could make an immediate impact. His talent was evident right away, as Peterson put on a show during his rookie year, scoring 12 rushing touchdowns, and running for 1,341 yards.
While Peterson literally hit the ground running from Day 1, his best season came in his sixth year, when most running backs are already starting to decline. He became just the seventh player in NFL history to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, and it may be a long time before anyone is able to do that again. He also came within a whisker of being the league’s all-time leading rusher in a season, finishing just 8 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s record set in 1984.
Peterson is still churning up yards in the Detroit Lions backfield, but when his career is said and done, everyone will play the “what-if” game and wonder what he could've done had he been available for more than just four games in the 2014 and 2016 seasons due to injury and NFL suspension. Even still, he’s got a staggering 14,587 rushing yards to his name, and counting.
4. Barry Sanders
Blink for too long, and you might have missed Barry Sanders. He was that fast, that quick, and his career was over well before anyone thought it should have been.
Sanders had every move in the book coming out of the Detroit Lions backfield, a place which he called home for his entire career, spanning from 1989 to 1998.
Remarkably, Sanders never rushed for less than 1,115 yards in a season, which is incredible to think that relatively high total was his absolute floor. That year, in 1993, he also played his career-low in games for a season, with 11. He ended up playing in all 16 games 7 times in his career, including his last 5 seasons, a remarkable feat considering his stature was comparable to the likes of Boston Scott, who no one would ever considering making a feature back in today’s NFL.
One of Sanders' trademark mannerisms was to hand the ball off to the referee every time he reached pay dirt. There was no hip swivel, or ferocious spike, or leap into the seats of the Pontiac Silverdome, where the Lions used to play their home games.
“I had my own style of the way I played the game. I took more of a business approach,” Sanders said via ESPN.com
Coming off of a 1,491 yard rushing season in 1998, the all-world running back decided to call it quits while at the peak of his powers, which was something he never regretted later in life. That left him with a career total of 15,269, and an explosive prime the likes we may never see again in the NFL.
3. Frank Gore
We all know Frank Gore today as the guy New York Jets head coach Adam Gase continues to funnel carries to at the expense of younger, perhaps more talented running backs (see LaMical Perine, and Kenyan Drake while he was with the Dolphins).
If he ever retires -- and that’s a big if considering he might hang on long enough to play with/against his son in the NFL -- we’ll know Gore as a gold jacket Hall of Famer.
Gore’s numbers kind of reflect the way he has always played, and continues to play for the New York Jets. He’s reliable, durable, and will never hurt you by choosing the wrong running lane or opting to run laterally in hopes of securing a larger play. The former University of Miami product is a straight ahead, downhill, no-nonsense runner.
In his second year in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, Gore ripped off his most impressive campaign, notching 1,695 yards rushing—but besides that, he doesn’t have many other years that jump off the page from a total yards perspective. He’s always hovered around 1,000 yards per season, sometimes accruing a bit more, sometimes a bit less, but you could pencil him in for at least that while he played for the 49ers and the Indianapolis Colts.
While Gore figures to get slowly phased out of the Jets offense down the stretch, he's only 993 yards shy of being the NFL's second-leading rusher of all time, so if he hangs on for a couple more seasons, he could improve his current total of 15,733 enough to get him to the penultimate position.
2. Walter Payton
No one has a cooler nickname on this list than the man whose game epitomized “Sweetness.”
Walter Payton’s running style and personality was about as smooth as it gets, which is interesting considering that he played on one of the loudest Super Bowl championship teams ever, the 1985 Chicago Bears.
After Walter Payton’s passing at the age of 45, former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, whose teams played against the 80’s Bears often, had this to say about Sweetness’ running ability.
“ He had a flair in his running style. He'd hit that straight-legged high step. He never carried the ball in the traditional sense, up close to this body. He always had it hanging out somewhere. But nobody ever knocked him down, let alone knocked the ball out of his hands. He was a symbol of power and grace.” Theismann said via ESPN.com
Payton finished up with 16,726 rushing yards, which is an amazing accomplishment, but perhaps more iconic was the fact the NFL's humanitarian award given to the player who shows the most effort in improving his community is named after him. He was a truly great player, and an even better man.
1. Emmitt Smith
At long last, we’ve reached the top of the mountain.
Not only is Emmitt Smith the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards, he has more Super Bowl championship rings than anyone else on this list combined.
Smith was taken 17th overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990 NFL Draft, as the team looked to bounce back from a lackluster 1-15 season in 1989. The University of Florida prospect didn’t disappoint, scoring 11 rushing touchdowns in his first professional season.
Hall Of Fame Cowboys QB and current FOX broadcaster Troy Aikman has been quick to point out that he played on a team that played ball control and great defense in the '90s with Dallas, and has mentioned Emmitt Smith and their offensive line as the key to that dynasty. From 1991-1996, Smith averaged over 22 carries a game, demonstrating that the team leaned on No. 22 to move the chains and setup the play action passing game.
In a game against the Seattle Seahawks in 2002, Smith eclipsed Walter Payton’s NFL-best career total on an 11-yard run, with former teammates and Cowboys royalty present.
“No one is more worthy to succeed Walter Payton as the all-time NFL rushing leader than Emmitt Smith. He kept a photo of Walter Payton in his high school locker, and then came to embody the qualities, both athletic and personal, that were so admired in Walter. Now, Emmitt takes Walter's place in the record book, and the NFL could not be more proud," said former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue via KCBD.com