Putting Walter Payton’s accomplishments in perspective

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Earlier today, MDS posted an item based on recent comments from Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas.  Apart from remarks regarding the possibility that Falcons running back Michael Turner won’t be able to continue to absorb a pounding without help, Thomas suggested that he would have had a much better NFL career if he had played for the Cowboys, like Emmitt Smith, or the Lions, like Barry Sanders.

“I talk to Emmitt and Barry Sanders a lot too,” Thomas said.  “I said you know what, you guys have about two or three thousand yards more than I do, but come December I was playing in ice.  I was playing in snow.  If I was playing in Dallas or inside like Barry I’d probably would have another 3,000 yards.  I could have been the all-time leading rusher if I didn’t play on ice, sleet and snow.”  (As MDS noted, Thomas was more than two or three thousand behind Smith’s all-time career high-water mark.)

There’s a name that Thomas didn’t mention — and he arguably was the best of them all.

As Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com told us via e-mail, “Walter Payton didn’t exactly compile his 16,726 career yards in the tropics!”

Then there’s the quality of the blocking that the elite tailbacks enjoyed.  Mayer points out that, in the first 10 years of Payton’s career, none of his offensive linemen made it to the Pro Bowl.  In contrast, six different Cowboys offensive linemen made it to Hawaii during Smith’s first 10 seasons, qualifying for a combined 22 Pro Bowls.  And in Thomas’  first 10 seasons with the Bills, five different offensive linemen were voted to a combined 11 Pro Bowls.

That’s not to take anything away from Thomas, Smith, and/or Sanders.  But if we’re going to start considering the numbers the all-time greats could have generated under different circumstances, it’s fair to consider the fact that Payton played in the elements, and he didn’t have a lot of help for most of his years in the league.

61 responses to “Putting Walter Payton’s accomplishments in perspective

  1. Walter Payton was the best in running and receiving yards as a running back. Threw rain, snow, sleet, ice, fog, wind, and sun shine. Hell he did his job in more weather then the post office.

  2. Payton’s greatness wasn’t due to the O-line. It was the fact that he was smarter, and worked harder than anyone else. He wasn’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest. He just out worked everyone.

  3. Give me all the thumbs down you want on this one … But, having grown up watching Walter go about his business every Sunday there is absolutely no doubt in my mind he is the best of all time!

    Emmitt was overrated and played on great teams with a great QB and great offensive lines.

    Thurman played on good to great teams with a good to great QB and good to great offensive lines.

    Barry may have been the best pure runner of those mentioned. But, he wasn’t a great receiver or blocker like Walter was.

    Plus, I’ll take Walter on 4th and 1 over any of them, including Sanders.

  4. walter payton was the best pro football player who ever lived to me.wish he would have been a redskin instead of a bear.thurman thomas makes me sick! he has always tooted his own horn! what kind of guy misses the first offensive series in a superbowl because he misplaces his dam helment?i would put thurman’s hall of fame statue in the toilet at the hall of fame if i were running it!

  5. Payton was the man. THE man. Could run fluid like Sayers and flat out run you over like Brown. Crushing blocker. All that, and not a hint of ego or a single “look at me” or “me first” bone in his body.

    I love football.

    I miss Walter Payton.

  6. And Thomas had a HoF QB, and Smith had HoF at QB and WR. Playing ‘if only’ is best left to Uncle Rico.

  7. Thomas was a Hell of a back but he’s not on the Mt. Rushmore of running backs. Along with Jim Brown, Smith, Sanders, and Payton are. I don’t care where else he could’ve played, he ain’t crackin’ that list.

  8. Thurman Thomas? Are you kidding me? There is Walter Payton…and then there is everyone else. He was in a class by himself, played on some really, really, bad teams. I’ve never seen Jim Brown play but I’d take Sweetness over any others.

  9. Not to take anything away from Payton, but he was not & is not the best RB of all-time; neither is Emmit Smith. They have the numbers but there are 4 backs that were clearly better than them:

    1. Jim Brown
    2. Barry Sanders
    3. Bo Jackson
    4. OJ Simpson
    5. Walter Payton
    6. Emmit Smith

    Bo Jackson is a reach due to his short career, but he was better than the bottom 3 with only 50% focus on football.

  10. Payton’s QBs included Gary Huff, Mike Phipps and Bob Avellini. He amassed all of those yards even though defenses were never kept honest by Chicago’s offense. He accomplished everything he did even though he was the single offensive threat, week in, week out.

    Loved watching him play and I wasn’t any kind of Bears fan.

    Thomas was surrounded by great weapons that Payton could only wish he had.

  11. Kappy –

    Your list is fine with the exception of Bo Jackson. It’s arguable, as any top five list is – but Bo Jackson? That’s much, much more than a reach – it’s delusional.

    Bo was a great athlete and a fine back – but he’s just not on that list.

  12. @ kappy32

    Bo Jackson? Bo “Freaking” Jackson as the number 3 RB of all time? Please don’t try to drive or operate any heavy machinery until the drugs wear off. Four seasons at less than 700 yards average and only 4 TDs a season. Yes, that screams third best of all time. Delusional dude, completely delusional. Bo couldn’t carry Eric Dickerson’s jock and you have Bo in the top 3?

  13. You could argue that Mr. Jim Brown was better than Mr. Walter Payton. Don’t know that you could prove it but you could argue it. Payton was the best overall running back the game has ever seen – running, blocking, catching passes, whatever. You asked the man to do it and he did it. Only one who came close overall was the Edge – and he had more help than Walter did for most of his career. Was Walter the best pure runner – no. That accolade goes to another man who wore the Bears colors – the Kansas Comet, Mr. No. 40, Gale Sayers. But Mr. Payton was a heckuva football player and will always be remembered as being in the argument for the best overall running back ever.

  14. Good points 4ever19 (Unitas reference maybe?)

    I’d argue Brown is still no.1 for various reasons… HOWEVER – I know that Brown played behind three HOF linemen as well as others that were multiple pro-bowlers during his career. Payton never had that kind of line, which makes his accomplishments all the more stunning.

    Brown never played on a bad team. Payton suffered through some miserable Bears teams. Though I give it to Brown, it’s pretty darn close in my mind.

    As to Sayers – argument can be made for Sanders, but I’ve got no argument with choosing Sayers, either. Too close to call.

  15. Thurman could teach LeBron a thing or two about choking, fumble nuts. He should just shut up and go find his helmet.

  16. elvoid, nice pickup on Johnny U reference. I wouldn’t argue against Sanders as the best pure runner except for all the negative plays he had. That being said, he was an electrifying talent.

  17. I like Emmett Smith, but I almost yakked when he broke Payton’s rushing title. I can only imagine how many yards Walter Payton would have had if he had played with Emmett Smith’s O-line.

    If ifs and buts were candy and nuts. . .

  18. Those Cowboys offensive linemen didn’t start going to Pro Bowls until Emmitt got there in 1990. Larry Allen went to a bunch of them, but he didn’t get there until after Emmitt had won two Super Bowls and three consecutive rushing titles. Same with Ray Donaldson. Mark Tuinei and Nate Newton were with the Cowboys for a long time before they went to their first Pro Bowls. Tuinei was in his 12th season and Newton was in his 7th. So they all of a sudden got good enough or do you think that Emmitt’s ability may have helped a bit? Some of these guys also blocked for Herschel Walker, you know.

  19. I love football.

    I miss Walter Payton.


    I love Walter Payton.

    I miss football.

  20. Emmitt was overrated and played on great teams with a great QB and great offensive lines.


    If you listen to haters, none of “the triplets” were really that good.

    Aikman was overrated because he had a great RB and a great OL.

    Emmitt was overrated because he had a great OL and a great QB.

    Irvin was overrated because he was always coked up.

  21. I hate the Bears with every fiber of my being (I bleed green & gold), but they had one man on their team that I would have absolutely KILLED to see play for mine on Sundays…….and his name was Walter Payton. That guy was the best.

  22. Not to mention, Payton had to endure playing many seasons at the Met and of course, every season at Lambeau.

    As a Packer’s fan, he drove me nuts, but, I have always respected the Hell out of him and in my opinion he was the best all around running back of all time.

  23. I agree with all the positive things said and all the praise for Payton. Let me add one more great thing about him. If he were still alive he wouldn’t be whining about all these if’s and but’s and saying he was the best of all time.
    Emmitt had the heart of a champion too and he made the most of his opportunity. I was at the game in the meadowlands when he separated his shoulder and the Cowboys couldn’t move the ball without him. You can make the argument that Walter is the best of all time and I wont argue, but don’t take anything away from Emmitt.

  24. Barry Sanders’ Pro Bowl teammates: WR Herman Moore 4 (3AP), KR Mel Gray 4 (3AP), T Lomas Brown 5 (1AP), LB Chris Spielman 4 (1AP), DT Jerry Ball 3 (1AP), C Kevin Glover 3, DL Robert Porcher 1, K Jason Hanson 1, DB Bennie Blades 1, LB Pat Swilling 1.

    Emmitt Smith’s Pro Bowl teammates: G Larry Allen 7 (6AP), DB Darren Woodson 5 (3AP), DB Deion Sanders 4 (3AP), G Nate Newton 6 (2AP), T Erik Williams 4 (2AP), WR Michael Irvin 5 (1AP), TE Jay Novacek 5 (1AP), QB Troy Aikman 6 (0AP), DE Charles Haley 2 (1AP), DT LaRoi Glover 1, LB Dexter Coakley 2, OL Mark Stepnoski 3, C Ray Donaldson 2, FB Daryl Johnston 2, OL/DL Mark Tuinei 2, DL Leon Lett 2, LB Ken Norton 1, DE Tony Tolbert 1, LB Jim Schwantz 1, DT Russell Maryland 1, DB Thomas Everett 1.

    Offensive Line, Emmitt had Larry Allen, Nate Newton, Erik Williams, Mark Stepnoski, Ray Donaldson, and Mark Tuinei combine for a total of 24 Pro Bowl appearances, and 10 First Team AllPro honors. Not to mention Daryl Johnston and Jay Novacek’s combined 7 Pro Bowls and one AllPro.

    I’m sorry, but anyone who believes Emmitt Smith was better than Barry Sanders is delusional. Put it this way.. If Barry was drafted by Dallas, and Emmitt went to Detroit, how would the record books look? LOOK AT THE TALENT THAT SMITH HAD TO HELP HIM. Barry Sanders was a one-man offense.

    Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton. You can put those three in any order, long as those are the top three.

  25. I think we can all agree that Emmitt was probably the worst TV analyst of all of them. “Blowed out” and “escape goat” are two of my all-time favorites.

  26. Oh, the sock puppets and sports writers love the simplicity of a “one guy carrying the team” storyline. But once in a while, someone like Walter Payton comes along and the story is absolutely true. Plus he was always an excellent role model, and that’s even rarer.

  27. In defense of Bo: Someone mentioned the fact that he only averaged 700 yards and 4 TDs. The guy only played about half a season and on top of that he split carries with Marcus Allen when he was there for half the season. With Bo its a lot of projecting, but man do the math and you’ll see the guy may have averaged 1500 yards plus had he played full seasons. And that is WITH splitting carries with Allen. Bo was amazing.

    If you ever saw him play, you know he was one of the best pure running backs of all time. As close to a modern day Jim Brown as there ever will be. He was the fastest guy in the league, and at the same time he would run over people. Amazing. But I agree that he cannot be in this discussion, because fate didnt allow it. Oh well..

  28. barry was the most fun to watch. id rather watch someone break a 150 yard run in every direction then to watch someone chunk up 150 yards on 4 & 2’s.

    barry takes the cake.

  29. Barry Sanders was a one-man offense.


    Barry Sanders often played against 7 guys “in the box” because he played a big chunk of his career in a run and shoot offensive style. 4 WRs in patterns = 7 in the box.

    Also not one but TWO separate coaching regimes decided they had better options than Barry Sanders in short yardage situations. Short yardage situations are any RB’s bread-and-butter.

    Barry = too much time dancing around looking for the big run. Emmitt = take what’s there and try to make the first guy miss.

    “If Barry had Emmitt’s line” arguments are futile. We only know what is. And what is is that Emmitt Smith is the rushing champ, rushing TD champ, three-time Super Bowl winner and former Super Bowl MVP. If you’re looking for highlight reels, Barry was definitely the guy. But if you want championships it’s Emmitt every time.

  30. I think we can all agree that Emmitt was probably the worst TV analyst of all of them. “Blowed out” and “escape goat” are two of my all-time favorites.


    I agree, but if that’s the worst we can say about him he’s led a pretty good life.

  31. @swervinmervin

    Yes, Bo was splitting carries with Marcus Allen. That 640 yards a season that Allen averaged during Jackson’s career would have kept anyone on the bench, right.

    Bottom line, not nearly enough yards or TDs to be considered one of the all time greats. Less than 3,000 yards and 16 TDs total over four seasons does not equal greatness.

  32. Bo definitely deserves more credit, its hard to argue with his placing. He did average over 5 yards per carry every year he played, and in one of his seasons, playing only 8 games, and splitting time with Marcus Allen he did rush for over 950 yards that season. This is with minimal time with team, no training camps, no time to get up to “game speed”.. the man just showed up and played… if I remember correctly, he is also the only nfl running back in history to have TWO runs of 90+ yards IN THE SAME GAME.

  33. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders were great runners.

    Walter Payton was a great runner. . . and an outstanding receiver out of the backfield, an excellent blocker and a formidable threat as a passer.

    No contest!

  34. Walter is my favorite player of all time. Not only was he a great player, but he was also a great human being.

  35. Walter Payton is #1 to me because not only did he do it all, he did it all amazingly well.

    With all due respect to Jim Brown, the man couldn’t block and didn’t have WR hands, like Payton.

    Those who say Barry Sanders is the GOAT confuse most exciting runner with the GOAT.

  36. @ rangersleadtheway

    The season that Jackson gained 950 yards (1989), he played in 11 games. Allen only gained 293 yards that season. I’m not saying that Jackson wasn’t talented, however, 2792 yards and 16 TDs doesn’t make you one of the all time greats. For example, Marion Barber III had over 3,000 yards and 36 TDs in his first four seasons and he was splitting time with the likes of Julius Jones. Clearly MB3 ain’t one of the all time greats. Eric Dickerson had almost 7,000 yards and 55 TDs in his first four seasons. Those numbers dawrf Bo’s. Of course, you can pick any RB you want and cherry pick his best four years and it won’t come up to Dickerson’s first four years.
    All time greatness should be based on accomplishments, not unrealized potential. Bo was the epitome of unrealized potential. Lots of potential, but not nearly enough to show for it.

  37. Sanders was the best pure runner I have ever seen but Sweetness was the best all around running back IMHO. I didn’t see Jim Brown in his hay day so I can’t comment on his abilities.

  38. OK i’m sorry, love walter payton but come on now…watching both Payton and Sanders there is no doubt in my mind Sanders is the best running back of all time. Never saw Jim Brown but given the massive difference in the game itself its tough to even compare generations IMO.

    my first point is that everybody always tries to paint barry as “soft”. well he played at 5’8 203 lbs…payton at 5’11 200lbs. have any of you seen a 5’8 man over 200lbs?? the guy was STOUT just he played SMART and avoided hits with his insane agility and quicks. anyone who watched barry knows the guy ran between the tackles as much as anyone.

    next point is simple…”yards per carry”. little known fact barry sanders holds the all time nfl record for most carries for NEGATIVE yardage. 336 carries with a net -952 yards. THAT NEARLY 1000 additional yards off of his final numbers and he STILL averaged OVER 5.0 YPC for his career. half of his seasons (5 out of 10) in the NFL sanders averaged over 5.0 YPC on the year.

    Payton?? averaged 4.4 YPC for his career and only topping 5.0 YPC for a season ONCE IN 13 years.

    last point is barry played behind arguably some of the worst offensive lines in football for a bulk of his career. early on he had some solid pieces but the prime of his career to the end was terrible. Payton had some bad teams as well but IMO its barry then the rest.

    I just wish barry would have played 3 more seasons to match walters 13 so this wouldn’t even be a question. Guy was on pace to surpass 20,000 career yards and people still like to doubt and dismiss him because he was “small” or they try to say “wasn’t a complete back” –

    let me get this right…the “payton was a threat as a receiver and barry wasn’t argument” – payton averaged 37 rec/season….barry 35 rec/season? at the end of the day anyone who watched them both knows…barry then the rest of the bunch.

  39. I worked at Soldier Field and had the privilege of seeing Walter play in person many times.
    An even bigger privilege was getting to talk to him on occasion.
    Very humble, very positive and very honest.
    He was as down to Earth as it gets and he never carried himself like “I am the best in the league”
    He never called out his teammates or coaches while he was carrying the team week after week.
    Never whined to the media.
    Never stuck a finger in an opposing players face or acted like a clown after scoring a TD.
    Never went into some stupid over the top performance because he picked up a 1st down.

    A great player and a great person.
    He played the game like a man.

  40. I loved watching Sanders play but I wonder what Sayers could have done if he played in those conditions.
    Imagine Sayers playing on turf with a perfect 72° dry field.
    Far cry from Wrigley Field.

    Bo Jackson?
    Better than Dickerson and Thomlinson?

  41. @ smurfjuice,

    Exactly! I would say Barry was the best, but he said Brown and Payton was better. I assume he knows more than I. My argument for Barry has many fronts. However, they stopped a goddamn game at the behest of the defense to check Barry for silicon. Freaking silicon? Please also see Barry’s game against the Bears in September, 1992. As you know, I could continue. I rest my case.

    Emmitt Smiff is arguably the best ever? That is a patently ridiculous, intentionally provocative statement. Ridiculous.

  42. I hate, hate, hate hyperbole, but the combination or talent, football instincts and work ethic, Walter Payton may be the best football player I’ve seen in my 35 years alive. And he could/should be a role model for anyone whether they love football or not.

    P.S. Anyone attempting to slight Barry Sanders is crazy.

    P.P.S. Anyone trying to rate Bo Jackson in the top 3 running backs of all time played way too much Tecmo Bowl. Not that that’s a bad thing.

  43. A lot of you have said what I wanted to about Sweetness but I wanted to echo it since he is the single best player I ever saw (I love tough contact type runners more than fake and jukers anyway)and a true role model in every aspect of his life who also had a wonderful sense of humor. I hate that he died so young but if he had to go that early I love that he got a ring.
    There will never ever EVER be another one like him.

  44. Plenty of people have said it, but just watch some old film. Walter was running behind no name Olines for his entire career but the last 2 years. The greatest travesty in football was in a Superbowl (20) in which the Bears scored 40+ points, the drunk tub of lard that was known as the fridge got a touchdown in the Superbowl and Walter didn’t. I still despise Mike Ditka for that call and that call alone. I don’t care if he had to give Walter the ball 4 times in a row to try to get in, when they were that close, he should have done so. Watch some old film.. you will see that Walters legs were ALWAYS kicking forward… no matter who or how many people were tackling him. Sanders was more elusive, but he ate more yardage. Jim Brown was just bigger than anyone, and also had some pretty good lines to go with him. Anybody that watched the Bears through the 70’s knew the Bears offense was Payton left, Payton right, Payton up the middle, white boy punt. Let’s also not forget that he came from a little division II school.. much like Jerry Rice…. and not a powerhouse where he was expected to be what he eventually became.

    Waldo always was, and always will be, my favorite NFL player. And I’m not even a Bears fan.

  45. Obviously there have been a lot of great backs, and I don’t know who was the best. But I never saw anyone who seemed to be pure magic the way that Sayers was. The guy could make everyone on the other team miss twice. Praise for Bears comes grudgingly from me, but Sayers and Payton were both amazing.

  46. Gale Sayers was also a great back, and the reason I wore the #40 jersey when I played. But again, if we are to include Sayers’ short career, you must also recognize Bo Jackson’s numbers. The only guy that shows the break away speed that Bo had is Chris Johnson. But remember, [b]Bo was not a football player[/b].

    He showed up when he had nothing better to do, and dropped jaws. Ask Brian Bosworth if Bo was indeed overrated.. LOL

  47. @ SmurfJuice

    Yeah, you’re right. Bo and Sayers were exactly the same except that Bo’s four seasons of rushing produced exactly one more yard than Sayers did returning kickoffs. And while Jackson scored 16 rushing TDs during his career, Sayers scored that many TD’s combined during his rookie season. Sayers had over 9200 combined yards and 53 TDs during his short career to go along with 5 All Pro teams. Bo Jackson ran over Brian Bosworth, but what the hey, who didn’t run over Brian Bosworth?

  48. Gale Sayers:
    68 games
    991 carries, 4956 yards, 39 TDs, 5.0 per carry
    72.9 yards per game
    34 fumbles (one every two games, one every 29.147 carries)

    Bo Jackson:
    38 games
    515 carries, 2782 yards, 16 TDs, 5.4 per carry
    73.2 yards per game
    11 fumbles (one every 3.45 games, one every 46.818 carries)

    I’m not saying Bo is “top three” like that other guy. I’m just saying you cannot ignore those numbers for only 10 games per season as a part-time hobby. A fully dedicated and healthy Bo Jackson, the sky was the limit.

    Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.

  49. True, you add in the returning of kicks, and Gale Sayers was hands-down the better overall football player. Without question. But purely based on running the ball, he’s not that far above Bo Jackson.

  50. @ SmurfJuice

    You’re math is a bit off. When calculating fumbles, you need to include the additional 230 touches that Sayers had in receptions, punt returns and kick returns. And when a guy has over 3,000 yards in punt and kick returns alone (which surpassed Jackson’s rushing totals by themselves), it’s kind of hard to ignore.

  51. Okay, just my opinion, but I think when you argue best backs of all time, you have to consider the “oh SH1T” factor. That’s the look you see in the eyes of the defenders when they see a particular person with the ball in their hands in front of them. Payton had it. Sanders too. Bo did, Sayers did, and a handful of others. You could see in the posture of the defenders when they knew they were one-on-one with these backs. I don’t believe anyone who didn’t elicit a high “oh SH1T” should be considered at the top of the list.

    This is to take nothing away from Emmitt. He was a steady grinder who was remarkably productive for a long time, and longevity is something to be admired amongst RBs. But I don’t think he really caused a lot of fear amongst defenders.

    It’s the same argument that is used for Kevin Garnett. Remarkably productive and consistent, and sure to be a first-ballot HOFer, but when you really get down to it, what he is is the best supporting player of all time, not a star. He didn’t scare defenders the way MJ, Kobe, Magic, etc did.

    Here’s my question…. Where’s the love for Curtis Martin? Not really in the subject of best all time, but we’re talking about a guy who opened his career with 10 straight 1,000 yard seasons, 9 straight 40-catch seasons, fourth all-time in rushing yards, 100 career TDs in 11 years….. And he hasn’t made the Hall yet? That’s just wrong….

  52. @ brewdogg

    If you don’t think the thought of Emmitt Smith getting the ball time after time caused defensive players a pretty good level of fear, I’m not sure what game you have been watching. Emmitt gained a helluva alot of yards when everyone with an IQ equal to or greater than cabbage knew he was getting the ball. There are very few things scarier than a guy who can beat you consistently.

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