When it comes to individual performances in the NFL, people only seem to talk about quarterbacks when it comes to championships that define their careers. Quarterbacks have missed out on being elected to the Hall of Fame due to their lack of rings, but running backs have not gotten the same treatment over the years.
Running back is still a glamorous position, with a lot of media attention going toward the position, but yet rings don’t get discussed as much. There have been some great running backs that haven’t won the Super Bowl, with much of the all-time leading rushers missing out on that elusive ring. The media and fans don’t tend to place as much blame on a running back’s shoulders for a team’s failure to win a Super Bowl. This is due to quarterbacks having the ball in their hands the most, hence the outcome of the game weighs on them more than others. Another reason is that the roles of running backs today are not what they once were. We’re seeing more and more teams operating with “running backs by committee” or teams simply simply throwing the ball more and more. Even when they’re on the one-yard line with less than a minute left and the most bruising running back in football just needing that one yard to win his team a Super Bowl. But at least Marshawn Lynch does indeed have a Super Bowl.
Which ones were the best to ever play without a championship? Here are the 15 best without a Super Bowl championship, and most of them have never made an appearance in the big game. We’re only looking at running backs that played their entire careers in the Super Bowl era, so Jim Brown doesn’t make this list, because he never had a chance. He did help Cleveland win their last NFL Championship, in 1964.
15. Thomas Jones
There is virtually no chance that Thomas Jones ever gets into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a very strong career. Jones was was considered a bust at one point as the seventh overall pick from Virginia in 2000, when the Cardinals were only able to get 511 yards out of him in his ‘best’ season. Jones would end up having solid years with the Bears and Jets before wrapping up his career in Kansas City. All in all, Jones had 10,591 rushing yards, good for 24th all time.
14. Warrick Dunn
Warrick Dunn is another first round pick from the ACC, as the 12th overall selection in 1997 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Florida State. Dunn was known for his gashing speed and strong receiving abilities, making him a threat for three downs despite his smaller size. Dunn made three Pro Bowls with the Buccaneers and Falcons, and his best season came in 2005 when he had 1,416 rushing yards for Atlanta. Dunn finished his career with 10,967 rushing yards, which is 21st in the record books.
13. Fred Taylor
The longtime Jaguar (and short-time Patriot) only played two full seasons in his career, earning him the nickname “Fragile Fred”. Had he been healthier, Taylor may be considered among the all-time greats. Taylor was on the Jacksonville roster from 1998-2008, where he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and scored 62 touchdowns. Taylor’s best season came in 2003, rushing for 1,572 yards, and was one of those healthy seasons. Taylor ranks 15th of all time in rushing yards with 11,695 yards on the ground.
12. Clinton Portis
Many thought Portis was just a product of the Denver Broncos rushing system when the 2002 second round draft pick was traded to the Redskins after seasons of 1,508 and 1,591 rushing yards. Portis would prove the doubters wrong with more than 2,800 rushing yards in his first two seasons with Washington before playing just five more seasons, only two of them without injuries. When Portis was healthy, he was tough to take down and a touchdown machine. Portis may only be 30th in all-time rushing yards with 9,923, but he also didn’t play into his 30s like the others on the list.
11. Steven Jackson
After “The Greatest Show on Turf” era came to an end for St. Louis, the franchise became one of the worst over the next several years. The one constant on the team was running back Steven Jackson, a first round pick in 2004 from Oregon State. Jackson is one of the few active players, currently a free agent after two struggling seasons with Atlanta. Still, Jackson ran for over 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons from 2005-2012 with the Rams. Jackson is 16th all-time in rushing with 11,388 yards.
10. Edgerrin James
The Indianapolis Colts already had their quarterback in Peyton Manning, and drafted their running back the next year in the first round, nabbing Edgerrin James with the fourth overall pick out of Miami in 1999. James got off to a hot start with seasons of 1,553 and 1,709 rushing yards, and would have just one season with less than 989 yards with the Colts, and that came when he played just six games. James moved onto the Cardinals in 2006, where he was still putting up solid numbers before injuries took their toll and he retired as a Seahawk. The Colts won a Super Bowl in their first year without James, leaving him without a ring, but he’s 11th all-time in rushing with 12,246 yards and was a Hall of Fame semifinalist in 2015.
9. Frank Gore
Unlike Edgerrin James, Frank Gore is a running back from Miami that is ending his career (presumably) with Indianapolis instead of starting it there. Gore was drafted in the third round in 2005 by San Francisco, and stayed through last season, rushing for at least 1,036 yards in eight of those seasons. Gore had to play on some pretty bad 49ers teams, but finally had some solid teams around him at the end of his run. Gore would reach Super Bowl XLVII, but the 49ers lost to the Ravens. Gore has another shot at a Super Bowl with Indy, but time is running out for the 20th leading rusher of all time, who should bump up a few spots on that list this year.
8. Thurman Thomas
Thurman Thomas was taken in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma State by the Buffalo Bills, where he would remain through the 1999 season before ending his career in 2000 with the Miami Dolphins. Thomas was part of all of the Buffalo teams that reached the Super Bowl between 1990-1993, but the Bills lost all four of those games. Thomas was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2007, and is 14th on the all-time rushing list with 12,074 yards.
7. Curtis Martin
Even some of the younger fans out there might not even remember Curtis Martin being a great player, but he had a very long and successful career with the Patriots and Jets. Martin played just three seasons with New England, who drafted him in the third round in 1995 out of Pitt. Martin was a beacon of consistency, rushing for at least 1,094 yards in his first 10 seasons and retired after his final season that saw just 735 yards (while he was 32 years old). Martin was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012, and is fourth all-time in rushing with 14,101 yards, and lost in the only Super Bowl that he played in (Super Bowl XXXI).
6. Earl Campbell
Earl Campbell is the lowest player to appear on this list in terms of all-time rushing yards, with 9,407. However, Campbell played for just seven seasons with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. Campbell was the first overall pick in 1978 out of Texas, and rushed for 1,450 in his rookie season, and his best year came in 1980 when he collected 1,934 yards on the ground in 15 games. Campbell only played in six career playoff games, never making the Super Bowl, but was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.
5. O.J. Simpson
While those that are under the age of 50 or 60 might think of O.J. Simpson only as the guy that was part of the biggest murder trial of the 1990s, he certainly had a great football career. Simpson was drafted first overall by the Bills in 1969 out of USC, and became a star in his fourth season with 1,251 yards. The next season, Simpson would join the 2,000 yard club, going three yards over the landmark number. Simpson wrapped up his 11-year career with two seasons in San Francisco, finishing with 11,236 rushing yards (19th of all time) and just one playoff appearance in his Hall of Fame career.
4. Adrian Peterson
Another player that has been tarnished with his off-the-field problems, Peterson is also the highest active player on this list, with a chance to move even higher. Peterson was drafted seventh overall in 2007 by Minnesota, and has had six seasons of at least 1,200 yards in just eight seasons. Peterson is also a member of the 2,000 yard club with 2,097 in 2012, helping the Vikings get into the playoffs. Unfortunately for the VIkings, Peterson has only made three playoff appearances, none of which have produced a Super Bowl appearance. Peterson is currently 28th in rushing yards all-time with 10,190 already.
3. Eric Dickerson
A product of the 1980s scandalous SMU team, Eric Dickerson was drafted second overall in 1983 by the Rams, and won the Rookie of the Year award. Dickerson had seasons of 1,808, 2,105 and 1,821 rushing yards in three of his first four seasons, and was nearly impossible to tackle. Dickerson played for the Rams, Colts, Raiders and Falcons in his 12 year career, racking up 13,259 rushing yards (seventh all-time). Dickerson played in seven career playoff games, and never reached the Super Bowl, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999.
2. LaDainian Tomlinson
TCU’s renaissance started at the beginning of the millennium with LaDainian Tomlinson at running back, and the Chargers selected him fifth overall in 2001. Tomlinson rushed for at least 1,110 yards in his first eight seasons, including an incredible 2006 season where he rushed for 1,815 yards and a record 28 touchdowns. Tomlinson was also a threat as a receiver, and finished his career with two seasons as a member of the Jets. Tomlinson played 10 playoff games without reaching a Super Bowl, but finished fifth all-time in rushing with 13,684 yards and a likely Hall of Fame nod when he’s eligible.
1. Barry Sanders
Without a doubt, the best running back to not win a Super Bowl is Barry Sanders, who played all 10 of his NFL seasons with the Detroit Lions. Sanders never rushed for fewer than 1,115 yards in any of those seasons, and his second to last season was his best, with 2,053 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Sanders unexpectedly retired after a 1,491 yard season, seemingly having plenty of gas left in the tank. Sanders had a shot at the all-time rushing record, but sits at third with 15,269. Sanders only reached one NFC Championship Game with Detroit, and the man who was an All-Pro in every one of his seasons became a Hall of Fame member in 2004.
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