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The 10 Most Elusive Open-Field Runners in NFL History

Moves galore here
Publish Date: 05/25/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Return men are not included on this list. This list is from the line of scrimmage who were the most elusive QBs, RBs, of all-time. Current players are not eligible for this list. You will notice that the Chicago Bears have three men on this list at the running back position, which is impressive for a team that can never seem to find an elite quarterback.

Criteria

The eye test is the biggest criterion here, as when you see a great open-field runner, you know it immediately when watching one. Check out our list of the best running backs of all time!

10) Willie Galimore, Chicago Bears  

Galimore possessed incredible speed and lateral movement; many of the opposing players of the time stated that they believed Galimore could run side-to-side down the field just as fast as most men could in a straight line. Galimore tragically died in a motorcycle accident in 1964 at the young age of 29.

  • NFL Pro Bowl
  • World Champion
  • 100 Greatest Bears of All Time
Video: NFL - Special - Willie The Wisp - The Story Of Chicago Bears RB Willie Gallmore imasportsphile .com

NFL – Special – Willie The Wisp – The Story Of Chicago Bears RB Willie Gallmore imasportsphile .com

9) Tony Dorsett, Dallas Cowboys 

A lot of people forget how great of a running back Dorsett was because, being a Cowboy, other players seemed to garner more attention. But if Dorsett got to linebacker level, he would be almost unstoppable.

The addition of Dorsett in 1977 was the reason that the Cowboys were dominant and won the Super Bowl. The Cowboys kept coming up short because of a lack of a running game, which Dorsett solved.

  • Super Bowl Champion
  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year 1977
  • 4 Time Pro Bowl
  • Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor
Video: The prettiest running back ever - Tony Dorsett.flv

The prettiest running back ever – Tony Dorsett.flv

8) Walter Payton, Chicago Bears 

Walter Payton was one of the greatest running backs of all time and the reason he ranks towards the bottom of this list could be because a lot of times, instead of making a move, he would just try to run over a guy.

Payton was not just an all-around great player. He was also a leader and a great teammate. To this day, when somebody says Chicago Bears, Payton is the first person you think of. See where Payton ranks among the best running backs of the 1970s!

  • Super Bowl Champion
  • NFL MVP 1977
  • NFL Offensive Player of the Year 1977
  • NFL Man of the Year
  • Bert Bell Award
  • 9 Time Pro Bowler
Video: Walter Payton Highlights

Walter Payton Highlights

7) Joe Washington, Colts, Redskins 

His most memorable performance was on September 18, 1978, in Baltimore’s 34–27 victory over the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. He had a hand in three of the four touchdowns scored by the Colts in a fourth-quarter in which both teams combined for 41 points.

He helped lead off the scoring by throwing a 54-yard option pass to Roger Carr. Washington followed that up with a 23-yard touchdown catch from Bill Troup. Washington broke a 27–27 deadlock by scoring the game-winner on a 90-yard kickoff return in a driving rainstorm. It was scored in the final seconds of the game after the Patriots came back from 27–13. Washington had many other memorable games but when you watch the 4th quarter of this game you realize what a great player he was.

  • Super Bowl Champion
  • Pro Bowl 1979
  • NFL Receptions Leader 1979
Video: Joe Washington highlights 9-18-1978 Monday night football

Joe Washington highlights 9-18-1978 Monday night football

6) Red Grange, Chicago Bears 

When Grange joined the NFL in 1925, the NFL was, at best, struggling. Grange’s playing changed perceptions about the NFL. His presence at a Bears road game could put a struggling host team in the black for the season.

Fans came to see the most dynamic, elusive all-purpose weapon of that primitive era. Grange ran, passed and returned punts in an era when punt returns were much more integral to the game than they are now. I guess you could say that Halas and Grange may have had more to do with the eventual success of the NFL then maybe anybody else in the history of the game.

  • 2 Time World Champion
  • 1920s NFL All-Decade Team
  • 100 Greatest Bears
Video: Classic Tailback - Red Grange Illinois Highlights

Classic Tailback – Red Grange Illinois Highlights

5) Hugh McElhenny, San Francisco 49ers 

McElhenny was all jukes, weaves-on-the-freeway chaos. “The King” averaged 7.0 yards per carry on 98 carries as a rookie in 1952, and 8.0 yards per carry on 64 carries when the Million Dollar Backfield officially came together in 1954. Joe Perry was the other running back in the Million Dollar Backfield but McElhenny was the do-everything man in the Niners backfield.

  • 6 Time Pro Bowler
  • 1950s NFL All-Decade Team
  • 49ers Hall of Fame
Video: Hugh McElhenny Highlight Segment | NFL Highlights HD

Hugh McElhenny Highlight Segment | NFL Highlights HD

4) O.J. Simpson, Bills, 49ers

Simpson was a six-time Pro Bowler as a Buffalo Bill and ran for a career of 11,236 yards on the ground. His best season came in when he ran for 2,003 yards—one of a few backs to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark. 1974, he was dominant, leading the Bills to the playoffs for the only time during his career. The Bills had a big-time Offensive line but nothing else during Simpson’s year.

Simpson’s life after football has turned into a villain, where he used to be an American hero.

  • First Running back to rush for over 2k yards in a season
  • NFL MVP 1973
  • Offensive Player of the Year 1973
  • 5 Time Pro-Bowler
Video: OJ Simpson Highlights (Final Version)

OJ Simpson Highlights (Final Version)

3) Marshall Faulk, Colts, Rams 

There have been a handful of better open-field runners in history than Marshall Faulk. But no runner reached the open field as often or as consistently as Faulk. Faulk started out with the Indianapolis Colts and finished as part of the Greatest Show on Turf in St.Louis, where he helped lead the Rams to a Super Bowl Title.

  • Super Bowl Champion
  • NFL MVP 2000
  • 3 Time NFL Offensive Player of the Year
  • 7 Time Pro Bowler
  • 2 Time NFL Scoring Leader
Video: Marshall Faulk Highlights - High Quality from 'A Football Life'

Marshall Faulk Highlights – High Quality from ‘A Football Life’

2) Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions  

Sanders was stuck in Detroit with the run and shoot offense, which left a running back without a fullback or tight end. To see what might have been, look at the 1997 season when the Lions switched to a more conventional offense. That year, Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards and 6.1 yards per carry with 14 total touchdowns.

With a better team around him, it is hard to imagine the yards and records Sanders would have broken. Then again, that’s why he retired, as the Lions failed to put the required talent around him to win a Super Bowl. Sanders was apart of the legendary 1989 NFL Draft!

  • NFL MVP 1997
  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year 1989
  • 2 Time NFL Offensive Player of the Year
  • 10 Time Pro Bowler
  • 4 Time NFL Rushing Leader
  • 1990s All-Decade Team
Video: Barry Sanders - Untouchable

Barry Sanders – Untouchable

1) Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears 

 “Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need.” — Gale Sayers

He jump-cut, head-faked, hurdled and juked early ’60s defenders who had never seen the likes of the Kansas Comet before. It might be cheating to point to a highlight reel and say “watch this,” but of course we have included one.

  • NFL Comeback Player of the Year 1969
  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year 1965
  • 5 Time Pro Bowler
  • 2 Time NFL Rushing Yards Leader
Video: Gale Sayers - Classic

Gale Sayers – Classic

Honorable mentions

Floyd Little, Denver Broncos 

 During a 6-year period, 1968–1973, Little rushed for more yards and more yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) than any RB in the NFL.

Dickie Post, Chargers

Dickie Post was a little-known running back during a brief career with the Chargers, but he was an amazing open-field runner that was damn near impossible to tackle one on one in the open field.

Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles

Cunningham was the greatest running quarterback of all-time. He went later in his career to Minnesota and proved he was a prolific passer also but his running ability is what most people will remember.

Bobby Mitchell, Browns, Redskins 

Mitchell’s pure speed allowed him to both burn cornerbacks deep and beat defenders to the edge on sweeps. He was also nifty in the open field, with a devastating mix of dart-like quickness and vision. He was paired for a few years in the same backfield as the great Jim Brown and was used as a motion man. Brown and him were one of the deadliest backfields in NFL history.

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