Walter Payton: The Best Running Back Ever

Walter Payton: The Best Running Back Ever
Originally published in August when the NFL placed Emmitt Smith in the Hall of Fame, I felt it appropriate to re-post these thoughts on the greatest running back of all-time on the 11th anniversary of his passing. He was the best running back ever to play the game, and was an even better man off the field. I will always consider it an honor to have watched him play.

As I watched the NFL's elite gather in Canton, Ohio on Saturday evening, which I do every year when they place the game's greatest players into the Hall of Fame, I was struck by the specific purpose with which Jerry Rice told current players to cherish their part in history.

And as Emmitt Smith thanked those around him, from high school to the professional level, I was again reminded that while he may have the record for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, but he'll never be the greatest running back to play the game.

That title still belongs to Walter Payton.

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Consider, for a moment, the players that Smith was surrounded by in Dallas. His quarterback, Troy Aikman, is in the Hall of Fame. Their number one receiver, Michael Irvin, is already in the Hall of Fame. And their offensive line could put a couple more players into the Hall in the next few years.

Now consider for a moment, the quarterbacks that played with Payton during his legendary career:

  • 1975: Gary Huff and Bob Avellini (9 touchdowns and 20 interceptions combined)
  • 1976: Avellini (8 TDs and 15 INTs)
  • 1977: Avellini (11 TDs and 18 INTs)
  • 1978: Avellini and Mike Phipps (7 TDs and 26 INTs combined)
  • 1979: Avellini, Phipps and Vince Evans (15 TDs and 16 INTs combined)
  • 1980: Phipps and Evans (13 TDs and 25 INTs combined)
  • 1981: Avellini, Phipps and Evans (14 TDs and 23 INTs combined)
  • 1982: Avellini, Evans and Jim McMahon (9 TDs and 11 INTs combined)
  • 1983: McMahon and Evans (17 TDs and 20 INTs combined)
  • 1984: five QBs started games (12 TDs and 14 INTs combined)
  • 1985: McMahon and Steve Fuller (17 TDs and 17 INTs combined)
  • 1986: McMahon, Fuller, Doug Flutie & Mike Tomczak (12 TDs and 24 INTs combined)
  • 1987: McMahon, Tomczak, Mike Hohensee & Steve Bradley (23 TDs and INTs combined)

None of the names on that list is going to get into the Hall of Fame without paying the price of admission, and it's even more telling to look back and see that even the famed 1985 team couldn't produce more touchdowns than interceptions. These aren't numbers that Troy Aikman was posting in Dallas while Smith was running wild.

Clearly, Payton was the best offensive player in the Bears' backfield. The same is not as decisive regarding Dallas' offense.

Indeed, looking deeper into the numbers proves that Payton meant more to a Bears organization that was mostly mediocre than Smith did to his exceptional Dallas teams. In his 13 years with the Bears, Payton accounted for 35.06 percent of the Bears' total offense as a franchise. In his 13 years with the Dallas Cowboys, Smith accounted for only 30.61 percent of the Cowboys' offense.


Also, if you will, examine the teams these two players performed for in their respective careers.

  • Payton's Bears ended his career 111-83 (a 57.22 winning percentage).
  • Smith's Cowboys finished his Dallas career 118-90 (56.73 win percentage).


  • Before the final four years of his career, in which (under coach Mike Ditka) the Bears went an amazing 50-13, Payton spent the prime of his career playing for a team with a sub-.500 record of 61-70.
  • Before the final three years of his career in Dallas, in which the Cowboys went a pedestrian 17-31, Smith enjoyed playing for a team that had a 63.13 winning percentage (101-59)


  • Payton played with only two offensive lineman that went to the Pro Bowl while they were together. Jimbo Covert and Jay Hilgenberg represented the Bears in five combined Pro Bowls, all at the tail end of Payton's career.
  • During Smith's career in Dallas, he played with the most dominant offensive line in the game. The group in front of him combined for 32 Pro Bowls, including two from tight end Jay Novacek. That is not, however, including the Pro Bowls for fullback Darryl Johnston.

The real impact of playing on exceptional teams early in a player's career, especially a running back, makes a world of difference on the overall career of each individual. The fact that Smith was running for annual Super Bowl contenders in Dallas while Payton spent nearly a decade getting his tail kicked on a mediocre team brings another dimension of depth to the perseverance of Sweetness.

He was good on bad teams; Payton was all the Bears' opponents needed to worry about most weeks, and he had nobody blocking for him.

paytonSmith was a great player on great teams; Cowboys' opponents could load up to stop Smith, but they would get killed by Aikman, Irvin, Novacek and others.

The supporting talent in the careers of these two players isn't even close.

Now step back and realize that, in 1982 when Payton was 28 years old, the NFL had a strike, limiting Payton to nine games in the heart of his prime. Smith didn't play in fewer than 14 games until he had left Dallas, well into the sunset of his career.

Payton averaged 112 yards per game of total offense in his career; Smith average only 95. On the NFL's all-time list of all-purpose yards (including kickoff and punt returns as well as rushing and receiving), Payton ranks third behind only Jerry Rice and Brian Mitchell. Smith is fourth, behind Payton by 224 yards.

Payton ranks third all-time in yards from scrimmage, behind only Rice and Smith. However, Smith only eclipsed Payton by 315 yards despite playing 36 games more than Sweetness. With Smith's all-star offensive lines and an extra 36 games, Payton could probably have come up with an extra 8.75 yards per game.

Add to the extra games Smith played the fact that he touched the ball 577 times in his career more than Payton did. This reality clearly illustrates that Payton was the more efficient back as well.

In a discussion between Payton and Smith, every statistical evaluation leads one to believe that Payton was the better of the two backs. Payton was also the superior blocker and passer; Sweetness threw for 331 yards and eight touchdowns in his career.

Also, let's not forget that Smith played for the only real team playing in Dallas in the 1990s. The NBA's Mavericks weren't much of a competitor, and the closest champions were in Houston and San Antonio; in a football crazy state, the Cowboys are it, and Smith was one of the big three stars on that team.

Meanwhile, Payton had to compete with names like Tony Esposito and Denis Savard on the Blackhawks, Carlton Fisk with the White Sox, and, at the end of Payton's career, Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs and Michael Jordan of the Bulls. Indeed, the 1985 Bears were overwhelmed with star power... just look at the "Super Bowl Shuffle." Payton was a big star, but there were others on the landscape that provided competition for fans' dollars unlike anything in the state of Texas, much less Dallas.

There are certainly more backs that should be considered in the discussion of best ever, too.

Barry Sanders had an incredible career in Detroit on mediocre teams very similar to those Payton played for early in his career. However, Sanders decided to walk away from the game and leave everyone to wonder "what if."

In fact, a deeper analysis reveals that the best running back in the 1990s was actually Sanders, not Smith.

There is also the argument for Jim Brown. He dominated professional football by such leaps and bounds, perhaps the only comparison in all professional sports is Babe Ruth. Brown did things the game had never seen, running over the biggest defenders with ease.

However, Brown left the game in his prime to pursue social activism and acting in Hollywood. Brown was only 29 when he walked away, leaving more "what if" questions surrounding his career than Sanders left with his.

Both Sanders and Brown left the game too soon, while Smith left the game three years too late.

Now that Smith is in the Hall of Fame, all four of these great running backs have that on their resume. However, a look back at their careers indicates that Payton is, still, the greatest running back of all time.

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Leave a comment
  • Great article and will always agree that Walter is indeed the best.

  • In reply to Cutsizzle:


  • I agree. No one could ever match up to the Sweetness. He put his whole heart into the game and it showed.

  • In reply to windycityangel:

    And anyone that tried to stop Sweetness with a half-a** effort regretted it!

  • Smith was a great back, and deserves to be in the Hall, but I agree. Sweetness is still the best ever. Remember the 1993 season when Smith held out and the Cowboys lost the first two games without him? Can you ever imagine Payton doing something like that? That is just one of the things that sets him above anyone else.

  • In reply to kbp54:

    Payton was a gentleman and a professional, and Smith showed in his speech that he is also both of those. However, the holdout showed the difference between the 1970s and today - Smith wanted to get his and made his team pay for it; Sweetness never went public to cry about how miserable the team was around him. He just worked harder to carry more of the load.

  • There have been some elite backs in the NFL: Tony Dorset, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, Billy Simms, Eric Dickerson...but Walter Payton is still THE BEST. Passing, running, receiving, blocking, even kicking...Walter did it all! That's why I believe that not only is he the greatest running back ever, but the greatest NFL football player ever. I still miss him.

  • In reply to caferide:

    You're right... there were some punishing runners, and some speed demons, and some waterbugs... but none was all three and conducted himself with the class that Payton did. Chicago was blessed to have him for as long as we did.

  • It certainly could've been Barry Sanders. But you're right; he left. Longevity matters, especially in the NFL, when determining ultimate greatness.

  • In reply to alexquigley:

    Credit Smith for milking it JUST long enough to pass Payton, but the reality of context makes Sweetness' numbers look that much... sweeter.

  • In reply to alexquigley:

    You should've trimmed the last 9 paragraphs off the column. The other sports teams in Dallas and Chicago have no bearing on the Walter vs. Emmitt comparison. Why not discuss the quality and type of cleats they wore too?

    Emmitt Smith was a great running back, but Walter Payton was a great football player.

  • In reply to TreeHateMe:

    You couldn't trimmed the first paragraph off your comment, and we all could have been happy about it.

  • In reply to TreeHateMe:

    There was a movie in the 70's called Billy Jack. In one of the scenes he tells another guy "I'm going to take my right foot and plant it on your left cheek and there is nothing you are going to do about it." The Bears only had one offensive threat, Payton, and yet defenses could do nothing about it.

  • In reply to TreeHateMe:

    I could not agree more. But I also think Payton left us with a little bit of "what if". His incredible, superior conditioning kept him injury free. I think he could have been an efective runner until age 36, and put another 3000 yards on the record.

    Frankly I think his consectutive game streeak is better than Favre's, considering RB's take much more punishment on EVERY play.

  • In reply to TreeHateMe:

    Great article, couldn't agree with you more! Payton was the best!

  • In reply to TreeHateMe:

    Emmit Smith's speech at Canton showed zero class. Walter was class the whole way through. Stats and numbers I could care less about - Bo Jackson was better than Emmit Smith - it was just a beautiful thing to watch Wally bump, bounce, jump, hammer and dance like a deer.

  • Another misinformed Fan.

    Jim Brown is head and shoulders the most dominant RB in league history and it’s not even close.

    1958 – Brown had 1527 yrds rushing. The #2 rusher, Alan Ameche, had 791. Brown nearly doubled the competition. That would be equivalent to Peyton rushing for 1852 and no other running getting over 1000 yards (that year, 8 rushers had over 1000 yds).

    Year after year this is the case with Brown.

    The only player to come close to Brown in those years – Jim Taylor – had a HOF OL and the greatest Running game offensive coach in the history of the NFL – Vince Lombardi. Still Taylor did not match Brown. Most of those seasons, other than Taylor, Brown continually dwarfed the competition in a way Payton never came close to doing.

    In Brown’s 1863 yd season (at that time shattering his own all-time record from ’58), Only one other player rushed for over 1000 yards – again, Taylor, and he had 1018. Brown out rushed him by 845 yards! The third place rusher, had 841 yards; more than doubling every other rusher in yds. Please. No RB in history has ever been that dominant. Yes, Brown had more carries relative to several backs; but that reduces the average, it does not increase it; and teams geared to stop him more than any other RB in the league in any era ..

    Again, in 1965, Brown nearly doubled the yards of the second place rusher.

    Walter Payton was not nearly as dominant relative to other backs in his own league as Brown was. Payton had great longevity and was a true HOF RB. But, in any given 2-3 yr period in his career, Payton would be hard pressed to even be considered the best RB in the NFL over any of those stretches. He led the league in rushing only once. But, looking at various eras:
    •when Walter first came in – OJ was better.
    * Then Earl Campbell was the best RB in Walter’s prime yrs in the late 70′s.
    * Then it was Tony Dorsett who was arguably the best over a 2-3 yr stretch.
    * Finally Dickerson was the best RB in the league from 83 onwards.

    None of those matched Payton’s longevity which was truly great. But, while a degree of longevity is a factor, it is not the core measuring stick for RB greatness. But Jim Brown was head and shoulders unmatched as the best RB in the NFL his entire nine-year career. Brown led the league in rushing in 8 of the 9 season he played – and not just barely but in a totally dominant fashion.

    To be considered the greatest one should have to both be among the all-time rushing leaders (as opposed to a 1-2-3 year wonder) but more than that, one has to have significant stretches as clearly the most dominant player at that position in his prime era. Payton did not. Brown did. Walter cared for his body and was fortunate to be injury free (unlike Campbell and Dorsett).

    In terms just truly great RB’s relative to their peers, Brown is at the top. By. A. Mile. I’d rank them:

    1. Brown
    2. Barry Sanders (distant second)
    3. Watler Payton

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    Wow ... you are truelly mis informed... while Jim brown was a great RB the size of the players he was running over dont even compare to the avaerge late 80s early 90s player Payton was crushing....


    Walter Was the greatest.... on and off the feild.

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