The Green Bay Packers are one of the most storied franchises in NFL history. Countless legendary players have called the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field home. When asked to think of those icons, most fans recall quarterbacks. Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers – even Lynn Dickey or Majik Man. The backfield, however, has often lagged far behind quarterback performance.
The last Packers running backs to make the Hall of Fame retired in the 1960’s. The most recent time the organization had a running back win league MVP occurred before the NFL/AFL merger, 1962. It was also the last season a Packer led the league in rushing. Between the Hall of Fame Jim Taylor/Paul Hornung running back duo and the present day, Green Bay has employed a cornucopia of good but not great backs.
Nothing displays the Packers’ complicated relationship with the position better than the 2016 season. After reportedly losing weight and recommitting himself to the game, Eddie Lacy went on IR with an ankle injury in mid-October. James Starks began showing his age and failed to make an impact. The Packers made a rare trade for Kansas City’s Knile Davis, gave him five carries, and cut him after two weeks. They played the rest of the season using a converted wide receiver (Ty Montgomery), a Seattle reject (Christine Michael) and a bruising fullback (Aaron Ripkowski). As a result, Green Bay didn’t score a rushing touchdown with a running back until week 11, and their leading rusher amassed less than 500 yards.
There are still gems in the rough to be found. Eight running backs truly stand out among the pack. With that said, Green Bay haters can rest easy knowing that Titletown has also blown its share of running back selections. For both the good and the bad, keep reading below. Feel free to share your opinion in the comments.
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15 Best: Ryan Grant (2007-2011, 2012)
A backup at Notre Dame and an undrafted free agent, Ryan Grant spent 2005 on the Giants’ practice squad. During the 2006 offseason, the running back severed an artery, a tendon and the ulnar nerve in his left arm during a night out. A clubgoer accidentally knocked him off balance. When Grant attempted to brace himself, he sent his arm through several champagne glasses on a nearby table. The injury required emergency surgery and doctors expressed doubts Grant would recover the use of his left hand. He persevered nonetheless. Green Bay sent a sixth round pick to New York for Grant at the start of the 2007 season. Team injuries allowed Grant to breakout after beginning the year as a third stringer. He soon put a stranglehold on the starting job by rushing for 201 yards in a playoff game, a Green Bay postseason record. Grant amassed two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009. Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued the rags to riches back for the next two years, and the team did not re-sign him. Following an unsuccessful stint with the 2012 Redskins, Grant rejoined the Packers when James Starks suffered a season-ending injury. It was his last season in the NFL. Ryan Grant retired with 4,148 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns.
14 Worst: Howie Ferguson (1953-1958)
Green Bay signed Howie Ferguson as a free agent in 1953. He had never played college football. A Los Angeles Rams scout actually discovered him in the Navy. In six years with the Packers, he ran for 2,120 yards on 544 carries and scored six rushing touchdowns. Ferguson also added 1,079 yards for Green Bay as a receiver. The organization inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 1974. Unfortunately, the honor does not save him from one glaring flaw – ball security. Ferguson had 29 career fumbles. He coughed the ball up eight times in two different years. Ryan Grant had nine in his entire career. In fact, Ferguson failed to total more touchdowns than fumbles in all seven of his professional seasons.
13 Best: Clarke Hinkle (1932-1941)
Clarke Hinkle is one of four NFL Hall of Famers on the list, and one of five backs from Green Bay with a bust in Canton. The only rusher in the Hall not included is Johnny “Blood” McNally, who played with Hinkle for several years. Hinkle saw action in all three phases of the game, lining up at fullback, linebacker and kicker. The all around athlete was perhaps best known for his battles with Chicago’s two-way threat, Bronco Nagurski. Hinkle won two NFL Championships with Green Bay and earned All-Pro honors four times. When he retired in 1941, he held the all-time rushing record with 3,860 yards. He also scored 35 rushing and nine receiving touchdowns for the Packers. The NFL named Hinkle to the 1930s All-Decade team and the 75th Anniversary All-Two-Way Team.
12 Worst: Willard Harrell (1975-1977)
Willard Harrell went to Green Bay as a third round returner/running back in Bart Starr’s first year as head coach. He quickly made an impression in the team’s preseason opener, taking a punt return 68 yards for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills. The good times did not last. Green Bay never won more than five games during Harrell’s three-year stay. Compared to Willard Harrell’s turnover woes, Howie Ferguson guarded the pigskin like it was the actual nuclear football. Harrell scored 10 touchdowns as a Packer – five rushing, four receiving and one return. He fumbled the ball an absurd 23 times. Harrell’s rookie year proved to be the worst with 11. He only reduced it to nine in 1976, which explains why Green Bay halved Harrell’s attempts in his final season. Harrell was let go with 934 total rushing yards on 311 carries, a 3.0 yards per rush average. He lasted seven more seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and added 444 more yards to his career total.
11 Best: Tony Canadeo (1941-1944, 1946-1952)
Much like Hinkle, Tony Canadeo did everything for Green Bay. He logged time as a passer, running back, punter, defensive back and return man. Canadeo worked his way up from a ninth rounder to replace the aforementioned Hinkle in the backfield. He led the team in both passing (875 yards, nine touchdowns) and rushing 489 yards, three touchdowns) in 1943, his only year as an All-Pro. Canadeo missed parts of 1944 and all of 1945 serving in World War II. He returned to the Packers and picked up where he left off. In 1949, Canadeo became the third player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards. He did so with a 5.1 Y/A. Green Bay retired Canadeo’s #3 jersey the same year he called it quits. “The Gray Ghost of Gonzaga” finished his career with 4,197 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground.
10 Worst: Brandon Jackson (2007-2010)
The best thing Brandon Jackson ever did for cheeseheads came to fruition six years after he stopped wearing green and gold. He gave them a reason to look back and be optimistic. The Packers selected Jackson out of Nebraska at the tail end of the 2007 draft. The versatile back spent three seasons as Ryan Grant’s backup before assuming the starting role due to injury in 2010. Jackson failed to live up to the hype. Despite being solid in passing situations with 43 catches for 342 yards, Jackson found slow treading on the ground. He rushed for only 703 yards and three touchdowns. The Packers struggled throughout the season and snuck into the playoffs as a six seed. Then, rookie James Starks replaced Jackson. Rodgers and company caught fire and won their first Super Bowl in over a decade. The 2016 season felt eerily similar. Green Bay never had balance. Their starting back went down and the replacement, the former hero, Starks, struggled. Enter Ty Montgomery. The Packers offense woke up. History seemed destined to repeat itself. Sadly, Green Bay ran into a buzzsaw in the NFC Championship Game. The season ended in disappointment, much like Jackson’s career. He did not return to Green Bay following their championship season. He carried the ball eight times for Cleveland in 2012 before going jobless with 1,383 career rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
9 Best: Dorsey Levens (1994-2001)
Green Bay struck unexpected gold with their 1994 fifth round pick. Mel Kiper Jr. actually labeled Dorsey Levens as the most overrated player on the board. Luckily, what Kiper rants about behind a desk has next nothing to do with what happens on the field. Early in his career, Levens served as a back up and complement to Edgar Bennett. He rose to stardom in 1997 with 1,435 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He also added 53 receptions for 370 yards and five scores. Levens injured his knee in 1998 and lost part of his dynamic playmaking ability, but he did amass over 1,000 rushing yards upon his 1999 return. He played sparingly during two more seasons for Green Bay before his release. He totaled 3,937 rushing yards as a Packer. Levens retired in 2004 after stints with the Eagles and Giants. Although the previous two “best” players have been immortalized by the Hall of Fame, Levens deserves his elevated ranking as a modern day, all-purpose back. The eras were vastly different, but I’ll take Dorsey. Look at the career receiving stats of Canadeo and Hinkle versus just one Levens season.
Canadeo: 69 receptions, 579 yards
Hinkle: 49 receptions, 537 yards
Levens (1999): 71 receptions, 573 yards
8 Worst: Darrell Thompson (1990-1994)
Darrell Thompson begins a string of several first round blunders by Green Bay. The organization selected him with the 19th pick in the 1990 Draft. The intention was clearly to prep him as a feature back, but Thompson proved unable to adjust to the pro game. Thompson enjoyed his best season in 1993. He had 169 carries for 654 yards and three touchdowns. All of those numbers are career highs. Thompson failed to make an impact as a receiver. He posted a high of 129 receiving yards in two seasons and never caught more than 18 balls. The Packers parted ways with the former first rounder after the 1994 season. His NFL career ended abruptly due to teams’ lack of interest. Thompson retired with 1,971 all-purpose yards, seven rushing touchdowns and one touchdown reception. Aaron Rodgers currently has 903 more rushing yards than Thompson with only 37 more attempts.
7 Best: John Brockington (1971-1977)
John Brockington came to the Packers just after their Lombardi-led glory days of the 1960s. Unlike Thompson, Brockington lived up to his first round status. The ninth overall pick became the first rusher in NFL history to start his career with three straight 1,000-yard seasons. He was named to the Pro Bowl in all three campaigns. Brockington was a bruiser through and through. He claimed to “never run under control.” The exciting style took its toll on his body. His fourth year production dropped to 883 yards, and he fell under 500 for the next two seasons. Green Bay released their star fullback during the early stages of the 1977 season. He signed on with Kansas City and retired after one year. His 5,024 rushing yards place him third on Green Bay’s all-time rushing list. He became a member of the Packers Hall of Fame in 1984.
6 Worst: Jim Grabowski (1966-1970)
Green Bay flopped on a different ninth overall pick five years prior to selecting Jim Brockington. The AFL’s Miami Dolphins actually selected Grabowski first overall, but the Fighting Illini product chose the NFL. After Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung departed, Grabowski and Donny Anderson were meant to form a new dynamic duo known as the “Gold Dust Twins.” Knee ailments stifled Grabowski’s career instead. He eclipsed 500 rushing yards only once in his career, the same season he managed his career high of three rushing touchdowns. His injury-plagued tenure with the Packers ended after five years. He had run for 1,582 yards and eight touchdowns. Grabowski returned to his home state in 1971 and spent a forgettable year with the Chicago Bears.
5 Best: Paul Hornung (1957-1966)
Those who think Paul Hornung should be ranked even higher do have worthy ammo in their arsenal. He set a then-NFL record with 176 points in 1960 and was the league MVP in 1961. Hornung sits third in Packers history with 50 rushing touchdowns. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, won four NFL Championships and captured one Super Bowl. He was an excellent short yardage back and averaged a tremendous 11.4 yards per reception for his career. Still, Hornung shared a backfield with Jim Taylor and rightfully lost carries to him. It resulted in a career season high of only 681 yards. In the present day, Hornung may have driven Jim Taylor fantasy owners insane with his vulture-like nose for the endzone. Hornung also missed the 1963 season due to a gambling suspension. If it’s enough to keep Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame, it’s enough to prevent Hornung from reaching the list’s top two. Hornung retired with 3,711 rushing yards, 1,480 receiving yards and 62 total touchdowns.
4 Worst: Brent Fullwood (1987-1990)
The Packers wasted their fourth overall pick in 1987 by selecting Brent Fullwood out of Auburn. One particular play that stands out from his first NFL game serves as a microcosm for Fullwood’s career. He returned a kickoff 98 yards and then fumbled out of the endzone for a touchback. It was a flash of potential ruined by lack of focus. Fullwood did score at least five touchdowns in each of his first three seasons, but he struggled to maintain a spot in the starting lineup as anything beyond a kick returner. Fullwood earned a Pro Bowl trip with 821 rushing yards in 1989. He fell back to Earth the following season. He rushed for 124 yards (2.8 Y/A) in Green Bay’s first five games. They traded him to Cleveland, where he returned six kicks. His NFL dream shortly after. With 1,702 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns, Fullwood could not find an interested organization.
3 Best: Ahman Green (2000-2006, 2009)
When Seattle traded Ahman Green to Green Bay, the Milwaukee Journal reported it as a move to improve special teams and offensive backfield depth. It was so much more than that. Green wasted no time in beginning his assault on the Packers’ record book. He rushed for five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons between 2000 and 2004. He joined Bo Jackson as the second player in NFL history to have two touchdown runs of 90+ yards. Here is a list of his notable franchise records: most career rushing yards (8,322), most 1,000-yard seasons (6), most rushing yards in a season (1,883), most yards in a game (218) and most career games with 100 or more rushing yards (33). Injuries slowed his career, and Green Bay let him sign with Houston in 2007. Green returned to the Packers halfway through the 2009 season, his final year in the NFL.
2 Worst: Michael Haddix (1989-1990)
For once, this player was originally another team’s mistake. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Michael Haddix with the eighth pick in the 1983 Draft. Perhaps accustomed to mediocrity, they stayed patient and committed for far longer than most. The Eagles employed Haddix for six years despite the fact that he never rushed for more than 276 yards in a season. His work in the passing game was marginally better. Haddix posted 330 receiving yards in 1985 but failed to score a touchdown through the air as an Eagle. The Packers banked on his potential and signed Haddix in 1989. Although he posted a new career high of 311 rushing yards in 1990, his performance on the field was more of the same. When Haddix retired, he hadn’t scored a rushing touchdown since 1984. He holds the worst Y/A of any running back in NFL history with at least 500 carries (3.01). Trent Richardson places second on that list with 3.33.
1 Best: Jim Taylor (1958-1966)
So much is made of Green Bay’s quarterback legacy, starting with Bart Starr, that people often pass over the two-headed beast that was Taylor and Hornung. Jim Taylor went to the Packers in the second round of the 1958 NFL Draft. His streak of five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons began in 1960. His pinnacle season came in 1962. Taylor rushed for 19 touchdowns, a record at the time, and averaged 105.3 yards per game on his way to a 1,474-yard season. His MVP year culminated in a gutsy Championship Game performance against the New York Giants. Taylor bit a gash in his tongue, required six stitches on his arm at halftime and scored the game’s only offensive touchdown. It was one of four NFL Championships and one Super Bowl that Taylor won with Green Bay. Taylor spent 1967 with the expansion Saints and finished the year with 390 yards. He retired the following year. As a Packer, he remains second all-time in rushing yards (8,207) and first in touchdowns (81). That’s 27 more than Ahman Green, who stands in second.
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