The master list: pro football's greatest home run hitters

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 25, 2010



(Pictured: October 7, 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated, featuring Ollie Matson, then with the Chicago Cardinals, and arguably the most explosive big-play threat running back in pro football history.)
 
The big-strike passing game sends thrills and chills up the spine of most football fans and even pigskin "pundits."
 
For our money, if we had feelings, there's no play more exciting than a running back's long jaunt through, over and around 11 angry defenders.
 
Sure, receivers are far more likely to produce long scoring plays. Jerry Rice, the all-time leader in TD catches, hauled in 36 scoring strikes of 50 yards or more. Emmitt Smith, the all-time leader in TD runs, produced just six scores of 50 yards or more. But a pass catcher can rip off a 50-yard score merely by beating a single man in coverage. A ball carrier has to navigate the entire defense, or nearly all of it anyway, to produce a long scoring play.
 
An explosive scoring run, in other words, is both more difficult and therefore more rare than a long passing score –two reasons why we find the former far more exciting. 
 
Last week we touched on Chris Johnson's status as pro football's current home-run king – the running back most likely to gash unsuspecting opponents with explosive long scores. In just two short years, Johnson has produced nine touchdowns of 50-plus yards, including seven on the ground.
 
The numbers may not sound great to untrained ears. But Johnson's seven 50-plus scoring strikes on the ground  already stand among the most in history, just two short years into his career.
 
Johnson's numbers jumped out last week when we compared him anecdotally to some of the great TD producing running backs in history.
 
Smith, for example, is the most prolific ball carrier in history. He's the all-time leader in rushing attempts (4,409), yards (18,355) and touchdowns (164). He's easily the most rugged running back in history. But an explosive big-play threat he was not. The Cowboys icon produced just six 50-plus scores in his entire career (all runs).
 
Consider this anecdote, too: Marcus Allen scored 123 rushing TDs, third most in history. And his brilliant 74-yard TD run against the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII -- Marcus Allen, "running with the night" -- is one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL annals. But in the regular season, he produced just two scoring jaunts of 50 yards or better.
 
His Super Bowl score is memorable not just because it was such a gorgeous piece of football execution, but because 74-yard touchdown runs are so extraordinarily rare.
 
(By the way, Marcus Allen's  "running with the night" is not to be confused with Lionel Ritchie's "Running with the Night." We know: both were unleashed upon the world in 1984, so it gets confusing.)
 
Anecdotes and Cold, Hard Football Facts, however, are not one and the same. So, while you were doing cool stuff this weekend – you know, going the beach, drinking beer, cooking out, sleeping with your buddy's wife – we were locked in our troll cave crunching all the data to size up history's greatest home-run-king running backs.
 
Johnson's feat – his seven explosive TD runs of 50-plus yards – is truly historic considering he's played just two seasons of pro ball.
 
Just eight running backs in the history of the game have produced more than seven 50-plus TDs on the ground. They read like a who's who of history's greatest ball carriers, too: Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Lenny Moore, Joe Perry, Ollie Matson, O.J. Simpson, Robert Smith and Fred Taylor. All but Smith and Taylor, who had a cup of coffee with the Patriots last year, are in the Hall of Fame.
 
So Johnson is in rare company indeed.
 
Here's a look at the 2s ball carriers who have produced six or more 50-plus touchdown runs in their careers. Fantasy football fans take note: Johnson is one of several active ball carriers, with the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson, who stand among the great producers of long-range scoring runs in pro football history.
 
RBs with the Most TD Runs of 50-plus Yards
Running Back
Rush TD
50+
Barry Sanders
99
15
Jim Brown
106
12
Lenny Moore
63
9
Joe Perry
71
9
Ollie Matson
40
8
OJ Simpson
61
8
Fred Taylor
66
8
Robert Smith
32
8
Tony Dorsett
77
7
Chris Johnson
23
7
Paul Lowe
38
7
Ahman Green
60
7
 
 
Now here's how the list looks if we rank running backs by total 50-plus TDs (rush, receiving, returns, and other). Again, Johnson is on already on the short list of most prolific home-run hitters in the history of the game.
 
RBs with Most TDs of 50-Plus from Scrimmage
Running Back
Total 50+
run
catch
Lenny Moore
25
9
16
Jim Brown
17
12
5
Ollie Matson
17
8
9
Barry Sanders
16
15
1
Joe Perry
12
9
3
OJ Simpson
12
8
4
Abner Hayes
12
4
8
Fred Taylor
11
8
3
Tony Dorsett
11
7
4
Robert Smith
10
8
2
LaDainian Tomlinson
10
6
4
Chris Johnson
9
7
2
Warrick Dunn
9
6
3
Gale Sayers
9
5
4
Walter Payton
9
4
5
Marshall Faulk
9
4
5
 
 
A couple players clearly leap off the list: Johnson, of course, by virtue of his productivity in such a short period. But, sh*t, we wish we got to see Lenny Moore and Ollie Matson play.
 
Matson scored 63 rushing and receiving touchdowns in his 14-year career – a rather humble number by today's standards. He never rushed for 1,000 yards and, in his best year, the two-way threat caught just 34 passes.
 
But he was one of pro football's home run hitters:  17 of his 63 touchdowns from scrimmage went for 50 or more yards. He added nine more 50-plus scores in the return game.
 
And look at Lenny Moore, perhaps the greatest pass-run threat in the history of the game. He produced a tremendous average of 4.8 yards per attempt on the ground, an incredible number. But Moore often lined up as Johnny Unitas's battery mate at flanker in Baltimore's offense, putting him on the receiving end of 48 touchdowns passes. 
 
Moore totaled 111 touchdowns from scrimmage in his career: 25 of those 111 touchdowns, better than 20 percent, were explosive scores of 50-plus yards. Twenty-five scoring plays from scrimmage that covered better than half the field. Truly phenomenal.
 
Finally, there is Barry Sanders, with 15 scoring runs of 50 or more yards. An incredible number and three more than the next closest ball carrier, the great Jim Brown himself.
 
(Note: The player touchdown logs at ProFootballReference.com were the primary resource used to build these lists.)

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