The Dallas Cowboys have had a lot of amazing players over the years. As one of the most successful franchises of all time, a lot of talent has gone through Big D. Among that talent were two of the greatest running backs in NFL history. They also currently have the best rookie running back of the past few years. They also traded one of the best running backs of all time. The point is, the Dallas Cowboys have had some pretty good luck when it has come to running backs. But who really were the very best backs who ever played for the team. And on the other side of the coin, there had to be some relatively pathetic backs who wore the blue and silver star on their helmets, who were they? We scoured the rosters, analyzed the stats, and figured it out. Here are the Eight BEST and Seven WORST Dallas Cowboys running backs of all time.
15. Best: Don Perkins
After a college career at the University of New Mexico where he was a two way star, Don Perkins became a Dallas Cowboy before they even became an official NFL team. With the franchise being admitted to the league too late to participate in the 1960 NFL Draft the Cowboys ended up signing Perkins to a contract without drafting him. The weird start to his career continued as he sat out his first year with injuries but once he finally started playing for the team in 1961 he won NFL Rookie of the Year honors. Although he never rushed for over 1000 yards in a season he was in the top ten in rushing every year of his career and when he retired he was the fifth leading rusher in NFL history up to that point with 6,217 yards. He also remained third on the Cowboys all time list for rushing touchdowns behind Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett until Marion Barber surpassed him in the early 2000s.
14. Worst: Junior Tautalatasi
After two uneventful years playing for Washington State where he rushed for a total of 402 yards, Junior Tautalatasi was drafted in the 10th round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Tautalatasi played three seasons with the Eagles. He showed more effectiveness out of the backfield than running the ball and was used as a third down back. After he was waived by the Eagles he was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. He received more action as a receiver in Dallas as well, only managing 2.4 yards per carry for the Cowboys with 15 yards on six carries. His also had three fumbles with the Cowboys despite very few touches.
13. Best: Herschel Walker
Herschel Walker was the greatest running back to ever play for the Georgia Bulldogs. He was the greatest running back to play in the USFL. He was the greatest running back to ever be traded for 30 people (approximately). He was involved in the greatest trade ever engineered. But he was not the greatest Cowboy running back ever. Incidentally he was not the greatest Vikings back ever either (Adrian Peterson), but he may have been the greatest back to ever play for the Eagles. Needless to say, Herchel Walker was a great back. And certainly among the greatest backs to play for the Cowboys based on his stats as well as the value he brought to the team in “The Trade” which helped create the ’90s dynasty.
12. Worst: J.W. Lockett
Even though he averaged over 4.0 yards per carry as a fullback for the Cowboys, J.W. Lockett made his way onto the list of worst Cowboys running backs based on another problem with his game. In 26 appearances over two seasons with the Cowboys Lockett rushed the ball 74 times and managed over 300 yards. His big problem that earned him a spot here is because of his troubles with actually holding onto the ball when he did get his hands on it. Along with his 22 receptions out of the backfield, Lockett had 96 total touches in his time in Dallas. Somehow he managed to fumble the ball 11 times. With 96 total touches that means Lockett fumbled the ball about once every eight and a half times. As coach always said, you gotta hold onto the ball!
11. Best: DeMarco Murray
Following a record setting career with the Oklahoma Sooners which included a trip to the National Championship game DeMarco Murray was chosen in the third round by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2011 NFL Draft. Murray rushed for almost 900 yards his rookie year. His numbers fell to 663 yards his second year but he broke 1000 yards rushing during his third season. Hi bi breakout season however was 2014 when he lead the league in rushing with 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns behind the Cowboys highly touted offensive line. The Cowboys decided not to keep Murray however and he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 and ran for 700 yards that season. He has rushed for over 1200 yards in 2016 with the Tennessee Titans.
10. Worst: Chris Gronkowski
Although his brother will probably end up going down as one of the greatest tight ends of all time, Chris Gronkowski might be one of the worst Cowboys running backs of all time. Like his more well known Gronk brother, Chris played his college football at the University of Arizona. Even though he was listed as a running back for the Wildcats he did more receiving than anything else while there. He went undrafted at the 2010 NFL Draft but was signed by the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent the next day. During his only year in Dallas he gained 17 yards on five carries. But he really earned his spot on this list however with his poor blocking. In a game against the New York Giants in 2010 he missed a blitz pickup allowing a clean shot on Tony Romo by the Giants blitzer. That just happened to be the hit that broke Tony Romo’s collarbone ending his season and basically ending the Cowboys hope for the year as well.
9. Best: Calvin Hill
The best Cowboys running back before Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith came around was Calvin Hill. A rare NFL player to come from the Ivy League, Hill played his college football for Yale, where he lead the team to an undefeated 8-0-1 record in 1968 and finished his career at the school with over 1500 rushing yards, 850 receiving yards and almost 300 passing yards. Hill became the first player from the Ivy League selected in the first round when the Cowboys used the 24th overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft to chose him. Hill quickly established himself, winning rookie of the year honors while rushing for 942 yards and making the Pro-Bowl. Over his six season with the Cowboys Hill rushed for over 5000 yards with 39 touchdowns while surpassing 1000 yards in a season twice. He continued his career with the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns finishing up with a total of 6083 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns.
8. Worst: Mike Montgomery
While attending Kansas State University, Mike Montgomery played running back and wide receiver for the Wildcats. He gained over 1600 yards from scrimmage during his collegiate career, split almost perfectly between rushing and receiving with 825 yards on the ground and 830 through the air. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers with the 65th overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft. He spent one season with the team playing running back, receiver, and even a few snaps at quarterback before being traded to the Cowboys. He played two seasons in Dallas gaining 71 yards rushing and averaging 2.0 yards per carry and 3.4 yards per game. He was traded to the Houston Oilers in 1974 where he suffered a knee injury that ended his career.
7. Best: Ezekiel Elliott
Sure he has only played one season (well, 15 games as of this writing), but his performance thus far has given Cowboys fans visions of 22 and 33 running through their dreams. When the team chose Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft some fans were skeptical, but thanks to their fantastic offensive line and the rookie’s exceptional talent, the choice looks brilliant. Obviously the former Ohio State Buckeye, who won a national championship while running for almost 4000 career yards in college, does not have the career numbers anywhere near the greatest Cowboys backs (yet?) but he is already in the top 20 all time in yards and touchdowns for the Cowboys as a result of his historically good rookie year. Might it be a bit premature to add him to the list of best Cowboys backs ever? Maybe, but if all he does over the rest of his career is equal this year’s production then he will be among the 10 best Cowboys backs of all time, so maybe not. And from the looks of it he will do much more than that before he is done.
6. Worst: Cyril Pinder
Despite hanging around the NFL for a few years, Cyril Pinder’s time with the Dallas Cowboys earned him a spot as one of the worst Cowboys running backs ever. Pinder played college football at the University of Illinois but was declared ineligible after his junior year. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the 1968 NFL Draft. He lasted three years in Philadelphia, picking up just over 1000 yards and three touchdowns along the way. After a couple of years with the Bears, Pinder landed with the Cowboys in 1973. It was there where he played in five games and put up the unenviable stat-line of 12 carries for 15 yards for a 1.3 yard per carry.
5. Best: Daryl Johnston
One name that might look somewhat out of place on a list of best Cowboys running backs is Daryl “Moose” Johnston. The Syracuse star was selected by in the second round by the Cowboys in the 1989 NFL Draft. Although he only had 753 rushing yards and eight touchdowns over his 11 year career with the Cowboys, he did compile over 2200 yards receiving out of the backfield. But his true importance as a Cowboys running back was his job as the lead blocker, paving the way for Emmitt Smith during his time with the Cowboys. Smith himself singled out Johnston at his own Hall of Fame induction, acknowledging that without Johnston sacrificing himself, his record setting career would not have been possible.
4. Worst: Claxton Welch
Despite having one of the best names of any Cowboys running back of all time, Claxton Welch was not exactly one of the best actual running backs for the Cowboys and may have been among the worst. After playing for three seasons at the University of Oregon where he rushed for over 1100 yards for the Ducks, Welch was drafted in the ninth round of the 1969 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. Even though he was the fastest running back in training camp Welch did not initially make the regular roster until mid-November. He eventually played in six games before he was sent to the New Orleans Saints the following season. He did not last long in the Big Easy though and was back with the Cowboys that same season. He played one more year with the Cowboys before finishing up his career with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. He averaged 3.4 yards per carry with the Cowboys with 85 yards on 25 rushes which was two more yards than he finished with for his overall career because his only non-Cowboy carry in the NFL was a loss of two yards with the Patriots.
3. Best: Emmitt Smith
The “triplets” were a key element of the early ’90s Dallas Cowboys dynasty and Emmitt Smith was the “triplet” whose job it was to gain yards on the ground. Not only did he do it well, he actually did it better than any other running back in NFL history. Over 14 years Emmitt gained more yards than Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and even fellow Cowboy Tony Dorsett. It is hard to argue that Emmitt Smith was anything other than the greatest running back of all time. He is the all time leader in rushing yards, he won three Super Bowls, and was a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player. As a star at the University of Florida where he gained almost 4000 yards over three seasons, it looked like Smith could end up being a pretty good pro, and despite not being their top choice in the 1990 NFL Draft, the Cowboys did end up trading up to grab Smith when he slipped down the draft board over concerns about his size. It obviously ended up being an even better choice than they could have possibly imagined.
2. Worst: Alonzo Highsmith
As a star running back for the legendary Miami Hurricanes teams of the early ’80s, including the 1983 National Championship team, Alonzo Highsmith racked up over 1900 yards and 25 touchdowns during his time with the ‘Canes. He was drafted with the third overall pick in the 1987 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers. He played three years with the Oilers compiling 1100 rushing yards and seven touchdowns before he was traded to the Cowboys in 1990. Highsmith ended up playing in nine games for the Cowboys gaining 48 yards on 19 carries for a 2.5 yard per carry average. He did not manage any touchdowns but did have a fumble as well. He was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he played for two more seasons before retiring because of knee problems.
1. Best: Tony Dorsett
TD! As a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh Tony Dorsett became the first freshman to be named an All-American in almost three decades. As a sophomore at Pitt he began toppling the school’s all time rushing records including career yards. As a junior for the Panthers he broke his own school record with 303 rushing yards in a single game. As a senior Dorsett led the team to a national title, won a number of player of the year awards including the Heisman Trophy, lead the nation in rushing with 2015 yards and set the all time NCAA career rushing records with 6,082 yards which would last for over twenty years, and then… He became a Cowboy! Drafted with the second overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys, Dorsett rushed for over 1000 yards, won the rookie of the year award, and helped the Cowboys win Super Bowl XII over the Broncos. The Cowboys went to the Super Bowl the following year as well as Dorsett rushed for over 1300 yards, although they lost to the Steelers. Over his career Dorsett had a 99 yard touchdown run, a career high of 1646 rushing yards in 1981, and was a four time Pro-Bowler. At the time he retired after a year with the Denver Broncos he was the second all time leading rusher in the NFL behind Walter Payton. He remains ninth on the all time rushing list with the Adrian Peterson as the closest active player with any chance to catch him, just under 2000 yards away.