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Top 10 NFL Running Backs of the 1970s: O.J. or Walter at number one?

The best running backs of the 1970s!
Publish Date: 04/18/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Unlike today, the running game and running backs were still considered and valued. The 70s saw a ton of great running backs, and we will rank the top ten from that decade today! There have been many great running backs throughout history, and the 1970s were one of the greatest decades for running backs in NFL history. Check out our list of Greatest All-Time Running Backs in history!


The stats will be big, but also the eye test and what you see when you see one of these men run. What kind of impact did they have on the games they played in, and what effect did they have on the teams they played on? How many years did they play in the decade, and how many of those years were effective?

10) John Riggins, New York Jets, Washington Redskins

Riggins is most famous for his early 80s run with the Redskins, but the 70s version might have been even better as he rushed for close to seven thousand yards during the Decade, and most of those yards were with the Jets. In the Run and Pass game, he was a fantastic, rugged, gritty blocker. His impact didn’t always show up on the box score.

Riggins was on some bad Jets teams in the 1970s that lacked a quarterback and other skill positions, and the offensive lines were bad. It makes you wonder how many yards he would have ran for on a good team, behind a good line.



9) Lydell Mitchell, Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers

If you have never heard of Lydell Mitchell, look at his stats for the Decade: 6,518 Rushing Yards, 30 Rushing TDs, 314 Catches, 3,182 Receiving Yards, and 17 Receiving TDs. Mitchell was one of the biggest pass-catching threats in NFL history for a running back and never seemed to get the credit he deserved.

Mitchell was on a very good Colts team that made it to the playoffs in three consecutive years. Unfortunately, his prime was done when the Chargers hit their stride in the “Air Coryell” offense. He could have broke records in that offense.

Video: Top Lydell Mitchell Touchdowns | Lydell Mitchell Highlights

Top Lydell Mitchell Touchdowns | Lydell Mitchell Highlights

8) Lawrence McCutcheon, Los Angeles Rams

McCutcheon gets overlooked and was a unique runner and, for the Decade, gained well over six thousand yards. Lawrence was named to the Pro Bowl five times during the Decade and helped the Rams get to Super Bowl XIV.

McCutcheon was a great running back who, as I said before, often gets overlooked. He could be a bull on third and one, but he had the breakaway speed to keep defenses honest. The Rams were in the playoffs seemingly every year during the decade but tended to come up short.



7) Tony Dorsett, Dallas Cowboys

Dorsett only played three seasons during the Decade, but he had an immediate impact and may have been the main reason the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII. The Cowboys offense took off when Dorsett was given the starting spot early in his rookie season of 1977. For more football history and news click here!

Dorsett was an all-time great running back, and he is often overlooked because of the talent on that Cowboys team; he was as good as Emmit Smith, and Dorsett’s breakaway speed can not be questioned, and he could do it all on a football field. Is Tony considered one of the Top 20 Greatest Dallas Cowboys of all time.

Video: Tony Dorsett Highlights (Final Version)

Tony Dorsett Highlights (Final Version)

6) Chuck Foreman, Minnesota Vikings

Foreman is one of the most underrated running backs In NFL history; simply put, Foreman could do it all! If you don’t believe me, look at his stats for the Decade,Β  5,887 Rushing Yards, 52 Rushing TD, 336 Catches, 3,057 Receiving Yards, 23 Receiving TD.

Foreman was one of the greatest all-purpose running backs of all time.Β  He helped the Vikings make it to three Super Bowls, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame!

Video: Chuck Foreman - Super Bad

Chuck Foreman – Super Bad

5) Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers

Campbell makes this list at number five and only played two seasons in the Decade! In those two seasons, he rushed for over three thousand yards and 32 touchdowns and led the Oilers to the AFC Championship game both years.

Think Derrick Henry! Campbell was that good, and he was big, fast and one of the hardest running backs in history to tackle.

Video: Earl Campbell Highlights

Earl Campbell Highlights

4) Larry Csonka, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants

Csonka was one of the driving forces behind the Dolphins dynasty of the 70s. He was an integral factor in the two Dolphins Super Bowl Championships. Csonka ran for almost seven thousand yards in the Decade and was part of an all-time great backfield that included Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick.

Csonka moved on to the New York Giants but the talent around him was not great. Before retiring, Csonka returned to the Dolphins and helped lead them to the 1979 playoffs.

Video: Larry Csonka Highlights

Larry Csonka Highlights

3) Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

Harris was the 1972 NFL Rookie of the Year and won four Lombardi trophies during the Decade. He had iconic touchdowns like the immaculate reception and played his best in the biggest games. Harris dominated the Decade with seven 1000 Rushing Yard seasons out of eight total seasons played for the Decade.

Harris has an argument to be at the top of this list; he was that good. He was a do-it-all type of running back, and no running back was better in the clutch.

Video: Franco Harris Highlights

Franco Harris Highlights

2) Walter Payton, Chicago Bears

Payton played half the Decade and was a true force of nature as he took a bad Bears team to playoff berths in 1977 and 1979. He was the catalyst for turning the entire Chicago organization around. He was named the NFL MVP in 1977 as he had one of the greatest seasons a running back has ever had. Payton has a great case for number one. The deciding issue was how many years Payton played in the 70s compared to OJ Simpson.

Payton would go on to be dominant for the first half of the decade of the 1980s.

Video: Walter Payton Highlights (Final Version)

Walter Payton Highlights (Final Version)

1) O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills, San Fransisco 49ers

The Juice was on the loose for most of the 1970s and accumulated over ten thousand rushing yards. He helped lead the Bills to the playoffs in 1974, but the 70s were a challenging decade to compete in with the Dolphins, Steelers, and Raiders. Simpson put up three seasons of 1500 Rushing Yards or more for the Decade.

His career was over in 1979 because of knee injuries; he finished his career in San Fransisco as a 49er. OJ Simpson will also go down as one of the Greatest USC Trojans ever.

Video: OJ Simpson Highlights - The Juice

OJ Simpson Highlights – The Juice

Honorable Mentions

Terry Metcalf

Metcalf was a huge part of the Cardinal’s version of the “Air Coryell” offense that led the Cardinals to two playoff berths in the mid-1970s. Metcalf was one of four NFL players to account for touchdowns five different ways (rushing, receiving, passing, punt returns and kickoff returns) within one season – an unprecedented feat at that time. He set an all-purpose yardage record with 2462.

Larry Brown

He earned both first-team All-Pro honors, four Pro Bowl selections, the NFL MVP award and Offensive Player of the Year honors during his time in Washington. Furthermore, he became the first Washington running back to rush for 1,000 yards twice! Additionally, he finished in the top five for attempts five times, three yards rushing three times, yards from scrimmage three times and total touchdowns twice.

Mark Van Eegan

The Raiders selected the Colgate in the third round of the 1974 NFL Draft, and he went on to play 112 games (87 starts), amass 5,907 yards on 1,475 attempts with 35 touchdowns; additionally, he caught 162 passes for 1,467 yards and three scores. Robert was also instrumental in leading several playoff teams and contributing significantly towards their Super Bowl victories of 1976 and 1980, carrying 18 times for 73 yards during Super Bowl XI while totalling 80 on 19 carries in Super Bowl XV, respectively.


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