The best backfields in NFL history

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April 14th, 2020

It was difficult enough for defenses to stop a legend like Barry Sanders, but imagine having to game-plan against more than one ferocious back on the same team.

In the NFL’s 100-year history, there have been many great running back duos to dominate the league and carry their team to prominence. Some played back in the early ‘60s, when football primarily relied on the run, while others excelled after the NFL became much more pass-happy.  

If we ranked the greatest rushing tandems over the past century, the likes of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris with the 1972 Miami Dolphins would certainly make this list, as would Jim Brown and his various running mates in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or the sturdy Steelers duo of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier.

Instead, let’s focus in on the game as it’s currently played in the modern era of the league (starting around the 1980s and leading into today) and rank the five best backfields in NFL history. 

5. Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson

This running back duo may have landed at the top of the list, had Bo Jackson not suffered a hip injury that cut his career short in 1991.

Jackson, a Heisman Trophy-winning back and professional baseball player, split time with the Los Angeles Raiders and Kansas City Royals from 1987-1990. His teammate Allen had already experienced enormous success in his football career, as the only player to collect a Heisman Trophy, an NCAA national championship, a Super Bowl ring, and to be named NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP.

Combining the two in one backfield almost seemed unfair. In his first season, Jackson exploded for 221 yards on the ground against the Seattle Seahawks in a Monday Night Football matchup and rushed for 554 yards on 81 carries (6.8 YPC) through seven games.  

From 1987-1990, Jackson totaled 2,782 yards, 352 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. Allen racked up 2,560 yards, 1,093 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns.

In their fourth year together on the Raiders, the team finished 12-4 and reached the conference championship game. Jackson dislocated his hip against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Raiders’ 20-10 Divisional Round win, and the Raiders were crushed by the Bills the following game, 51-3.  

4. LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles

Five-time Pro Bowler LaDainian Tomlinson did the brunt of the ground work for the San Diego Chargers from 2001-09 and made history at the running back position. He didn’t need much help in the backfield, but from 2005-07, he was joined by two stellar athletes in Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.

Sproles didn’t play a huge factor in the beginning, as he spent all of 2005 as the third-string running back and mainly served as a return specialist. Then in 2006, he sat out the entire season with a broken ankle.

That same year, Tomlinson scored 28 rushing TDs, the most by any player in a season, and put up a record 31 touchdowns from scrimmage. He also piled up 1,815 rushing yards and 508 receiving on the way to earning NFL Offensive Player of the Year and NFL MVP. Turner complemented him in the backfield with 502 rushing yards on 80 carries and a pair of scores.

In 2007, Tomlinson, Turner and Sproles were all back in action. Tomlinson accumulated 1,949 yards from scrimmage, Turner rushed for 316 yards on 71 carries, and Sproles added 164 yards on 37 carries, while continuing to shine in the return game. The Chargers achieved an 11-5 record and fell to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

In 2008, Turner joined the Atlanta Falcons, while Sproles emerged as the second-string back. Tomlinson still remained the lead back until 2010, when he signed with the New York Jets. Sproles went on to enjoy record-setting success with the Saints and Eagles, while Turner was selected to two Pro Bowls and made four playoff appearances with the Falcons from 2008 to 2012.

Tomlinson owned the spotlight on the Chargers, but Turner or Sproles could have easily made just as much of an impact on the team, if given the opportunity. The fact each of them prospered after they branched off to other franchises proves just how much talent belonged to this running back trio.

3. Fred Taylor and Maurice-Jones Drew

Before Fred Taylor wrapped up his illustrious pro career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, a young Maurice Jones-Drew united with him in the backfield.

In 2006, the Jaguars selected the UCLA product in the second round to create a lethal running back combo with Taylor. At first, Jones-Drew was used mostly on kickoff returns, but he eventually became the team’s third-down back and set a franchise record, with 166 rushing yards and 303 all-purpose yards (including a 93-yard kickoff return touchdown) in a December contest against the Indianapolis Colts.

He finished 2006 with 941 rushing yards, 436 receiving yards, and 15 total TDs. Taylor amassed 1,146 yards on the ground and ran into the end zone five times.

The team posted an 8-8 mark, then improved to 11-5 and a playoff berth in 2007. Taylor again led the team in rushing (1,202 yards), while Maurice Jones-Drew compiled 1,175 yards from scrimmage and added nine rushing scores.

In Taylor’s final year in Jacksonville, the Jags struggled through a 5-11 season, as injuries plagued the offensive line. Taylor started the first 13 games but suffered a thumb injury in December and was placed on injured reserve. Jones-Drew became the lead back from there and ended up with a team-high 824 rushing yards and 12 TDs on 197 carries.

Taylor accumulated just 556 yards on the ground, but he surpassed the 11,000-yard career rushing mark and 13,000 career all-purpose yards.

In their three-year stint together at the Jags, Taylor and Jones-Drew combined for more than 7,000 total yards and 50 touchdowns.

2. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart

In 2006, the Carolina Panthers selected DeAngelo Williams with the No. 27 overall pick. Then in 2008, the team grabbed another running back off the board in the first round, when they drafted Jonathan Stewart.

The move paid off quickly, as Stewart and Williams formed an unstoppable force in the backfield that rewrote history along the way.  

Their first season together, Williams rushed for 1,515 yards and 18 TDs, while Stewart contributed 836 yards and 10 scores. The Panthers went 12-4 and reached the postseason, one year after going 7-9 and placing second in the NFC South.

Carolina’s record dipped back to 8-8 in 2009, but the tandem of Williams and Stewart soared to uncharted heights. On nearly equal carries, Stewart totaled 1,133 rushing yards and Williams added 1,117. That made them just the sixth pair to each record at least 1,000 rushing yards in one season, and the first to both surpass 1,100 yards.

In 2010, Williams injured his foot six games into the season, and the dominance of the Panthers backfield briefly came to an end. Neither Williams nor Stewart broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark again in their career, but part of that had to do with the addition of dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton.

The Auburn standout became a Panther in 2011 and ranked third in carries (126) and ground yardage (706) on the team, while Williams and Stewart combined for 2,145 yards from scrimmage.

From 2012-2014, Williams and Stewart each dealt with injuries that prevented them from playing a full 16-game season together, but when they both were healthy, they obliterated defenses unlike any running back duo before them.

1. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara

Both active in the league today, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are no longer teammates, but in their two-year run in New Orleans, they accomplished something no other running back duo has.

In 2017, Kamara entered the league as a third-round draft pick for the Saints. He played second fiddle to six-year veteran Ingram in the ground game but earned Drew Brees’ trust as a reliable passing target.

Kamara ranked second both in rushing (728 yards) and receiving (826 yards) for the Saints that season. Meanwhile, Ingram tallied a career-high 1,124 rushing yards, plus 12 touchdowns, and 416 receiving yards.  

Both Ingram and Kamara ended up with more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage, a feat that no other running back tandem had accomplished in NFL history.

On top of that, they became the first running back teammates selected to the Pro Bowl in 42 years.

Their versatility on the field helped the Saints go 11-5 and surge to the Divisional Round of the playoffs, where they narrowly lost to the Vikings. New Orleans nearly made the Super Bowl the following season, but a controversial call cost them the win in the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams.

In 2019, Ingram signed with the Baltimore Ravens, where he and quarterback Lamar Jackson made history as the seventh pair of teammates to rush for 1,000 yards each in a season, and the first to do so since Stewart and Williams in 2009. Kamara is still on the Saints and now shares the backfield with Pro Bowler Latavius Murray.

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