Top 10 NFL Running Backs of the 1970s

Younger NFL fans can’t imagine how many great running backs played in the 1970s. Some teams had two, even three, outstanding runners on the same team. Here’s my list of some forgotten greats.

Whatever happened to the running game? Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the days when offenses would pound away at defenses with a solid running game.

I suppose some people see that as boring. They call it ‘Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust.” But in my opinion, today’s game is boring: pass after pass after pass…penalty after penalty after penalty.

How I miss 1970s football! It was the decade of the running back. And there were so many great running back combinations, too. Consider these combos.

The Cowboys had Walt Garrison, 1969 Rookie of the Year Calvin Hill, and 1970 ROY Duane Thomas. In Super Bowl VI those three ran for a combined 252 yards on 48 attempts. QB Roger Staubach threw just 19 times.

The Packers had 1971 ROY John Brockington and MacArthur Lane. In 1972 those two ran for a combined 1,848 yards.

The Cardinals had speedy Terry Metcalf, along with bruising fullback, Jim Otis. In 1975 they ran for a combined 1,892 yards.

The Rams had Lawrence McCutcheon alongside another bruising fullback, Jim Burleson. Together they combined for 1,951 yards in 1973.

The Steelers had Hall of Famer Franco Harris and Vietnam vet Rocky Blier. In Super Bowl IX against the Vikings–the famed “Purple People Eaters”–Harris ran for 158 yards on 34 carries and Terry Bradshaw threw only 14 passes. The following season Harris and Blier combined for a staggering 2,164 yards.

The Dolphins had possibly the best combination of running backs ever: Hall of Famer Larry Csonka, speedy Eugene “Mercury” Morris, and reliable Jim Kiick. In 1972 the Dolphins became the first and only undefeated team in NFL history. They also were the first team to have two running backs gain at least 1,000 yards in a season: Csonka had 1,117 yards and Morris had an even 1,000 yards. Add Kiick’s 521 yards and the trio had a combined 2,638 yards! The running game was so dominant that QB Bob Griese threw only 18 passes, combined, in two Super Bowl victories. (Compare that to today’s game. In 2015 quarterbacks threw an average of 36 times per game.)

But the sad reality, too, is that many great backs of the 70s had careers cut short by injuries, especially knee injuries. There was no arthroscopic surgery in those days and rehab and physical therapy were nowhere near what they are today.

Let’s take a look back at some of those great backs–runners who might have gone onto the HOF if it were not for injuries that shortened their careers. This list is in no particular order.

You can learn more about each of the running backs below from a book by Joe Zagorski (host of Pigskin Past).  His book, The NFL in the 1970s, is an in-depth look at everything revolving around this decade of NFL football.

Ron Johnson (1969 - 1975)

He started his career with the Browns but had a lackluster rookie season playing in the same backfield as HOF’er, Leroy Kelly. In 1970 he was traded to the Giants and became the first player in Giants’ history to gain over 1,000 yards in a season. In 1971 he injured his thigh playing basketball in the off-season. The injury required surgery and he missed the first six games of the season.

He suffered ligament damage in his knee early in the season and missed the rest of the year. He came back strong in 1972 to go over the 1,000-yard mark again. He had another fine season in 1973, gaining 902 yards, but injuries were taking their toll. He had disappointing seasons in 1974 and 1975 and retired before the 1976 season. From 1964 to 1980 the Giants had only two winning seasons–in 1970 and 1972. It’s no coincidence that Ron Johnson gained over 1,000 yards in each of those years.

Larry Brown (1969 - 1976)

He started his career with the Redskins under Coach Vince Lombardi and gained 888 yards, which set the all-time team record. The following season he was the first Redskins player to gain over 1,000 yards in a season. He gained over 900 yards in 1971 and went over the 1,000-yard mark again in 1972.

He was named the 1972 NFL MVP and led the Redskins to their first Super Bowl appearance. He was selected to four Pro Bowl teams and was voted as one of the 70 greatest Redskins players of all time. Despite his smaller size (5’11” 195 lbs.) Brown was a tough man to tackle, largely because he played with reckless abandon. But that approach led to numerous injuries and a shortened career. Brown says he has no regrets.

Here is my post covering the great rivalry between the Redskins and the Cowboys during the 1970s and the 1980s.

John Brockington (1971 - 1977)

The Packers selected Brockington as their first draft choice in 1971 and he didn’t disappoint. He was voted ROY and became the first running back in NFL history to gain over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. One of the first running backs to combine brute force and speed, Brockington was selected to three straight Pro Bowls and led the Packers to the playoffs in 1972. His rushing total fell to 883 yards in 1974 and, after disappointing seasons in 1975 and 1976, he was traded to the Chiefs. Injuries had taken their toll by then and he retired following the 1977 season.

Steve Owens (1970 - 1974)

The Heisman Trophy winner in 1969, Owens was the Lions’ first draft pick in 1970. He then missed the first half of the season because of a severely separated shoulder. He showed great promise in 1971, though, becoming the first Lions player ever to gain over 1,000 yards and was selected to play in the Pro Bowl. Plagued by injuries in 1972 and 1973, he seemed to be rid of the injury bug in 1974.

On his way to a great game on Thanksgiving Day–gaining 46 yards on his first four carries–he then tore a ligament in his left knee. Unable to play at all in 1975, Owens was forced to retire before the start of the 1976 season. One can only speculate how good Steve Owens would have become if he had not been injury-plagued.

    Lawrence McCutcheon (1972 - 1981)

    The Rams made the NFL Playoffs seven times during McCutcheon’s eight seasons with the Rams, including one Super Bowl appearance. In a 1975 playoff game vs. the Cardinals, he set a then-NFL playoff record by rushing for 202 yards on 37 carries. He led the Rams in rushing yardage five years in a row, rushing for over 1,000 yards four times and being selected to five straight Pro Bowls (1973–1977).

    Then, plagued with injuries, his rushing yardage dropped to 420 yards in 1978. After another injury-plagued season in 1979, he considered retirement but played for another two seasons for three teams (Broncos, Seahawks, and Bills). Had he been able to stay healthy, McCutcheon would surely be in the Hall of Fame today.

    Marv Hubbard (1969 - 1977)

    Hubbard was cut by the Raiders before the start of the 1968 season, but he rebounded to make the team the following year. He saw limited playing time in 1969 and 1970 but led the team with 867 rushing yards in 1971. In 1972 he rushed for 1,100 yards, setting the all-time team record, and then led the team in rushing four years in a row (1971–1974), totaling 3,755 rushing yards during that four-year span.

    He was selected to three Pro Bowls and his career mark of 4.82 yards-per-carry ranks fourth all-time for NFL fullbacks. Hubbard relished running over would-be tacklers, but his aggressive style of play led to a series of shoulder injuries. He was placed on injured reserve in 1976 but did receive a Super Bowl ring after the team’s victory in Super Bowl XI. He played one more season (with the Lions in 1977), but saw limited playing time. He retired at season’s end.

    Otis Armstrong (1973 - 1980)

    Armstrong saw limited playing time with the Broncos his rookie year but led the entire NFL in his second season–exploding for 1,407 yards and a 5.3 avg in a 14-game season. He was plagued by injuries in 1975 but bounced back the following season to go over the 1,000-yard mark again. In 1977 he was plagued by injuries again but still helped the Broncos reach their first Super Bowl. He played for three more seasons but was never able to fully recover from his injuries. He was forced to retire after eight seasons.

    Don Woods (1974 - 1980)

    Woods, a Packers’ 6th round pick in 1974, was released before the start of the season. The Chargers picked him up, but he didn’t suit up for the first two games of the season. In the next twelve games, though, he gained 1,162 yards, setting a then-NFL record for a rookie. He also set another record for a rookie by rushing for over 100 yards seven times in a season. Not surprisingly, Woods was named ROY. He injured his knee the following season. Even though he played six more seasons Woods never matched what he had accomplished during that magical rookie season.

    Chuck Foreman (1973 - 1980)

    The 1973 ROY was selected to five straight pro bowls. He gained over 1,000 yards three years in a row (1975–1977) and was named NFC player of the year in 1974 and again in 1976. In 1975 he scored 22 touchdowns, a record for running backs. That same year he caught 73 passes for 691 yards–also a record for running backs. His rushing yardage dropped below 1,000 yards in 1978, although he still caught 61 passes.

    He was plagued by injuries in 1979 and played one more injury-plagued season (in 1980 with the Patriots) before retiring at season’s end. Like McCutcheon, Foreman would surely be in the HOF if he had been able to stay healthy for one or two more years.

    Lydell Mitchell (1972 - 1980)

    Lydell played in 3 straight pro bowls, 1975-77. He gained over 1,000 yards in all three of those seasons (14 game schedule). He led the NFL in receptions in 1974 & 1977. It’s no coincidence that the Colts combined regular-season record was 31–11 from 1975–1977.

    They also reached the playoffs in each of those seasons. It’s also no coincidence that once Lydell left the Colts they suffered through nine consecutive losing seasons. In 1978 Mitchell joined the SD Chargers. With Mitchell gaining 1,320 yds (receiving & rushing) the Chargers had their first winning season in nine years. But the injuries started to mount and Mitchell retired after limited play in 1979 & 1980.

    Bonus: Billy Simms (1980 - 1984)

    Okay, Simms didn’t play in the 1970s, but I didn’t think this list would be complete without this all-time Lions great. The first player picked in the 1980 NFL draft, Simms gained 1,303 yards in his rookie season and was named ROY. He followed that with 1,437 yards in 1981. His rushing yardage dropped off in 1982 but, in 1983, he again rushed for over 1,000 yards.

    He was selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls and led the Lions to the playoffs in 1982 and 1983–after a 12-year drought. He was on his way to possibly his best season yet in 1984–gaining 687 yards in eight games–but suffered a devastating knee injury. He tried to make a comeback over the next two seasons but was finally forced to retire.

    Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.  He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training.

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