In my opinion, despite the rushing yard king being Smith, it is in fact Detroit's former star Barry Sanders who holds the title as the NFL's best running back of all-time.
In 15 professional seasons, Smith put up 11 1,000 yard seasons, all in consecutive years (1991-2001) and ran for the most touchdowns in league history, with 164. There's no doubt he was a touchdown machine, and he surpassed the great Walter Payton for most rushing yards in a career (finished with 18,355).
But I personally believe that Smith's resume takes a hit when you look at his sub-par numbers at the end of his career--in his final three seasons he fails to reach 1,000 yards or double-digit touchdown totals. Consistency is key when looking at career numbers.
As for Sanders? He had a short-lived, 10-year career which was spent entirely with one team. And a losing team at that. He ran for 1,100 or more yards in all 10 of those seasons, and posted six double-digit touchdown seasons with 10 Pro Bowl appearances before he mysteriously walked away from the game unharmed.
While the exact reason he retired so early remained a mystery for several years, Sanders finally came out and admitted that it was the Lions' losing reputation that got the best of him. Sanders did, however, get a slight taste of playoff football, rushing for 386 yards and a touchdown in six career postseason games (Detroit's record in those games was 1-5).
The NFL Network named Sanders in the top 20 players of all-time in its The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players series at No. 17, with Smith following him at No. 28. The top-ranked back on the list was Jim Brown (fullback) as the second best player in history. But, because of different playing eras and primary positions I found it a little too difficult to compare Brown to either of the other three backs (Sanders, Smith, Peterson). Walter Payton was added to the mix as well, but he's so close to Smith and Sanders that Peterson may have a hard time beating them out for a spot, but he can surely try.
Because of this, the title may need a little fixing..."Top five running backs in the modern era" may fit the bill a little more smoothly, but I couldn't bring myself to making the amend.
Brown, Sanders, Payton and Smith are so tightly knit in terms of "best running back in history" that almost any of the four could sit atop the rest.
Then, in steps Peterson.
Tough to judge after the first four seasons of the 26-year old's career, but if he keeps up his pace we could easily find Adrian "All Day"/"AP" Peterson amongst the four by the time Canton calls his name.
Sanders is easily the most electrifying and exciting running back to watch play, and his highlight reels, which can be found on youtube, will keep you entertained for hours. But Peterson's nine-minute-long highlight reel (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=k-8FUIxIkvo) can be compared to that of Sanders' elongated highlights.
Peterson, who is virtually a larger version of Sanders (6'2''/217 pounds), has the elusiveness and 'turn-on-a-dime' juke moves as a cheetah, speed and gracefulness of a gazelle and power of a lion.
Sanders has the shifty moves, Smith has the jolt and explosiveness (especially for a little guy), Payton has the gracefulness, and Brown had the brute strength. But Peterson? He has the combination of all of the above, and his great size makes him surprisingly powerful.
If you watched the link I provided above, you would see with your own eyes that sometimes it takes the entire opposing defense to bring this man down.
What has held Peterson back from his full potential throughout his career? His knack for fumbling the ball. Now, one could argue against the fumbling, because Sanders, Smith, Brown and Payton all fumbled more through their first four seasons than Peterson has. But in my case, I think it's just the timing of the fumbling. He seems to cough up the ball when his team needs him to come through the most. This can be fixed, of course, and when he does fix it, Peterson's potentially and production will only rise.
Minnesota finally looks to have drafted a franchise quarterback in Florida State's Christian Ponder this year, meaning defenses may not be able to key in on just Peterson. They will have to stop work on stopping both the run and pass.
Even with defenses keying in on the run, Peterson put up just shy of 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. For his career, Peterson has averaged close to 5.0 yards per carry (4.8, to be exact), which is not far from Sanders' (5.0) and Brown's (5.2) averaged in their careers.
Smith and Payton racked up the yardage, but at the same time had low YPC averages--4.2 and 4.4 respectively. Fans like to argue that "stats don't tell the whole story" but that previous bit of information should tell you a whole lot. It's not hard for a guy to rack up 1,200 yards with 300+ carries year-in and year-out.
As a rookie Peterson put up over 1,300 on only 238 carries. Production, production, production.
That's what AP is all about when he hits the field, just ask his 25 100-yard games and four Pro Bowl appearances. They'll tell you just how much potential this guy has, without hesitation. A joy to watch each and every week.
All I am hoping for now, is a way to make the 2011 season happen.
Barry Sanders: borrowed from kevinantcliff.com
Adrian Peterson: borrowed from worldwidetweets.com