For a franchise that has been in business since 1946, the Cleveland Browns have certainly had their share of exceptional running backs. And there have been many players that have been a one-hit wonder for a lone game or even a single season. But, who are the greatest of all-time? What players would you place on a list of the 10 best? Who would be left off? Spoiler alert: Jim Brown is number one. Duh. The rest of the list? And in what order would each be placed?
We here at DBN have done all the research and the dirty work for you. So, here goes: The Top 10 Browns Best Running Backs of All-Time.
10) Eric Metcalf
Metcalf was a celebrated college athlete at Texas. He was named All-Southwest Conference an unheard of three consecutive years and was the Southwest Player of the Year. Even today he holds every Texas school record for receptions from the running back position. He was also a two-time long jump national champion. So, it did not surprise anyone when the Browns took Metcalf with the 13th pick in the first round of the 1989 draft.
He became his Browns career mainly as a kickoff and punt return specialist. In only his second season he led the NFL in kickoff return yards and kickoff TDs. At the same time he was used sparingly at running back, and even then more for his receiving skills than his running abilities. In the next three seasons his receiving yards were almost two-to-one versus rushing yards.
He played for the Browns from 1989 to 1994 and then played WR in the Atlanta Falcons’ run-and-shoot offense. He would play for five other NFL clubs before he retired in 2002.
While with the Browns, Metcalf gained 2,229 rushing yards, 2,732 receiving yards, 11 rushing TDs, and 15 receiving TDs. He led the league in punt return TDs in four different seasons. For his NFL career he gained 17,230 all-purpose yards. No other player in the history of the NFL has had over 7,000 return yards coupled with over 7,000 yards on offense. Metcalf was voted to three Pro Bowls (two with Cleveland).
9) Earnest Byner
Drafted in the 10th round of the 1984 draft, Byner is most remembered by having the ball stripped out on the eight-yard line with just over one minute to play in the 1987 AFC Championship Game and only behind 38-31. This one event eclipsed an otherwise valiant effort scoring two touchdowns and 187 all-purpose yards in this one game.
But Byner was a brute force in the backfield. He was mostly a reliable RB who knew how to block blitzing linebackers and had nice hands. In 1985 both he and Leroy Kelly gained over 1,000 yards rushing each in the same backfield. From 1985 to 1989 Cleveland was one of the AFC’s premier clubs with four division championships and three trips to the AFC Championship Game.
He was traded to the Washington Redskins for RB Mike Oliphant. In 1992, Byner was part of the Redskins Super Bowl XXVI victory. When Byner retired in 1997, he was 16th on the NFL’s All-Time rushing list.
While with Cleveland, Byner netted 2,903 rushing yards, 2,630 receiving yards, 37 total TDs and 14 fumbles. He also played for the Baltimore Ravens and came back to the Browns and played the 1994 and 1995 seasons. For his career, he rushed for 8,261 yards, 4,605 receiving yards and 71 TDs. He went to two Pro Bowls, was named to the “80 Greatest Redskins” list and is enshrined in the Ravens Ring of Honor. But he was a Cleveland Brown first.
8) Dub Jones
As a compliment to FB Marion Motley, Jones came to the Browns in a trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). He was a lanky back with great hands and good speed. His first two seasons he was used primarily as a receiver out of the backfield and had a 38.3 average per catch. He played eight seasons with Cleveland on five different championship squads: two in the AAFC and another three in the NFL. For his career he scored 41 TDs. Jones made the Pro Bowl two times and was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
7) Kevin Mack
In 1984, the NFL held a very unusual draft called the “NFL Supplemental Draft of USFL and CFL Players.” The purpose of this 3-round draft was that valuable college players were being signed by both the United States Football League and Canadian Football League before the NFL even had its annual draft. Basically, there was nothing the NFL could do about it, but had an idea that all of those player’s rights could be attached to clubs in the NFL. Both of the rival leagues began their seasons early. With this special draft, each NFL club would retain the rights to those players if they ever became available without a timetable affixed.
Prior to this special draft, the Browns made a trade with the Chicago Bears and received all three of the Bears’ picks in the special draft in exchange for the Browns final four picks in the regular NFL draft. This meant the Browns had their three picks plus the Bears three picks. With the first of their six slots (via the Bears), the Browns selected RB Kevin Mack of the Los Angeles Express (USFL).
After only one season in the USFL, “Mack Truck” then signed with the Browns. In his first season with Cleveland he rushed for 1,104 yards and scored 10 TDs rushing and receiving combined. He played nine seasons total with the Browns totaling 5,123 rushing yards, 1,692 receiving yards, 54 aggregate TDs, and finished with a 4.0 rushing average per carry plus an 8.1 yard average per reception. He was elected to two Pro Bowls.
6) Ernie Green
On the surface, Green’s statistics would prevent him from garnering a list of the best running backs. He only spent seven seasons in Cleveland and played the fullback role, which usually don’t garner much in the statistical category. His totals were 3,204 rushing yards and 15 TDs. That is about 458 yards a season and a mere 2.14 TDs a year. But yet he is registered on a list of the greatest Browns running backs of all time.
Ernie Green blocked for two of the greatest Browns ever: Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. Without Green’s expertise at opening holes, perhaps the history of the Cleveland Browns would be much different.
The Green Bay Packers actually drafted Green in 1962 and then traded him to the Browns during his rookie training camp. Brown had established himself as the league’s best with help from halfback Bobby Mitchell. But Mitchell was not much of a blocker and was traded to the Washington Redskins. Green became the starter in 1963 with his bruising style. What Jim Brown did was respond by gaining 1,863 rushing yards in a 14-game season. In the next two years with Green’s assistance, Brown led the league in rushing until his unexpected retirement in 1965.
The Browns replaced Brown with Kelly and Green became his lead blocking back. For the next three seasons Kelly was one of the NFL’s best. When Green retired after the 1968 season, Kelly’s numbers dropped by 400-600 yards a season.
Green was selected to two Pro Bowls and played in 89 games.
5) Mike Pruitt
Primarily used in the fullback position, Pruitt was taken in the first round with the seventh overall pick in the 1976 draft. He had a very good career at Purdue and was known for his deceptive speed with strength. He was clocked at 4.4 in the 40 for his 6’0”, 228 pound frame.
The Browns used him sparingly on the offense for the first two-and-a-half seasons then he became a starter midway into 1978 blowing holes for teammate Greg Pruitt. The following season Greg Pruitt went down with a knee injury and Mike Pruitt was suddenly thrown into the mix as the main rushing threat. He responded by gaining 1,294 rushing yards, 375 receiving yards, 11 TDs, plus a 4.9 yards per rush attempt average and a Pro Bowl nod. Almost instantly he became known as one of the NFL’s premier running backs. Except for the strike-shortened season of 1982, from 1980-1983 Pruitt was a 1,000-yard rusher in each season.
In 1984, Greg Pruitt was gone and RB Boyce Green took his place. For whatever reasons, Mike’s carries decreased and he started only 10 games. The following season he was waived on the final cut day of training camp. He played for the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs before retiring in 1986.
Pruitt was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
4) Greg Pruitt
Pruitt was selected in the second round of the 1973 draft as the eventual replacement to an aging Leroy Kelly. After Kelly signed with Chicago of the newly-formed World Football League before the 1974 season, Pruitt took over as the starter just as planned. He was paired with FB Hugh McKinnis and the two of them combined for over 1,000 yards. The next four seasons the fullback position was used like it was designed featuring a bulky blocking back making holes for the running back. During this span Pruitt gained 4,113 rushing yards plus 1,493 receiving yards and 23 total TDs.
Even though Pruitt had success the franchise only had one winning season during this stretch and zero playoff appearances. In 1979 the Browns signed RB Calvin Hill which regulated Pruitt to a backup role in the next three seasons as he gained just 474 rushing yards combined. He later signed with the Oakland Raiders and was used primarily as a kickoff and punt returner.
Only three players ran for more yards in Browns history than the elusive Pruitt. He even has an NFL rule named after him. “The Greg Pruitt Rule” states that no player can wear a jersey designed to be ripped easily off the player. Pruitt wore 100% cotton jerseys that when pulled during a tackle would rip off into the defender’s hand and then Pruitt would be gone. In 1979 the NFL had enough of copycats and outlawed them for good. The only tearaway jersey that remains is in a glass frame inside Pruitt’s home.
3) Leroy Kelly
With Kelly, the word “workhorse” would be an adequate description. He had backed up Jim Brown for several seasons after being taken in the eighth round of the NFL draft. When Brown retired in 1965, this placed Kelly as the starting RB. His first three years as the starter he gained 1,141, 1,205 and 1,239 yards all in a 14-game season. He also averaged an astounding 5.2 yards per carry during this span and netted 49 TDs.
His quick-starting ability, along with a sense of balance and knack of evading direct hits by tacklers, kept him relatively injury-free. He missed only four games in 10 years. His rushing totals tailed off in the next four years although his rushing attempts were almost the same. In 1973 he gained a meager 389 yards with three TDs before he signed a lucrative contract with Chicago of the World Football League (WFL) for one season before becoming a coach for the Philadelphia WFL franchise.
For his career he amassed 7,274 rushing yards on 1,727 carries, another 2,281 passing yards on 190 receptions, averages of 4.2 (rushing) and 12.0 (receiving), plus added 90 TDs in his 10-year career. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, an NFL Champion his rookie season, two-time rushing leader and three-time rushing TD leader, named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, a Bert Bell Award winner (1968) and finally was inducted into the charter year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
2) Marion Motley
Motley came to the Browns in an unorthodox manner. Coach Paul Brown had signed the AAFC’s first black player in defensive tackle Bill Willis and needed a roommate for him since there weren’t any other black players on the team. Back then, different races didn’t room together. At the time Motley was working in a steel mill, was married and with four kids. Assistant coach Blanton Collier urged Coach Brown to bring in Motley for a look whom Brown had coached at Great Lakes during World War II. What ensued became magic.
Motley was inked to a one-year $4,500 contract. He was given the number 76 as he was expected to become a linebacker – a position in which he excelled - or a defensive lineman. Instead, he soon became the featured back in a very potent offense led by QB Otto Graham, and WRs Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie. He led the league in rushing that first year and when the AAFC merged with the NFL, he was the AAFC’s All-Time rushing leader.
With his crashing running style and his extreme blocking abilities, in 1951 he started having knee issues. The next few seasons were not productive years for Motley as his knee issues continued to get worse for the 33-year old. Reluctantly, he retired prior to the 1954 season. After a year off he returned to play LB for the Pittsburgh Steelers for a single season.
In his eight seasons in Cleveland he rushed for 4,720 yards on 828 attempts, 1,107 receiving yards, scored 38 TDs and averaged an amazing 5.7 yards per carry and 13.0 yards per reception. He won five championships, was rushing leader in both the AAFC and the NFL, and was named to both the NFL “1940s All-Decade Team” plus the NFL “75th Anniversary Team.” In 1968, he was inducted into the charter group of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
1) Jim Brown
No surprise here. In fact, on any list of the best pro football running backs of all-time Jim Brown would top that list too beating out Emmitt Smith, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Gale Sayers and Tony Dorsett. The only wretched part regarding Jim Brown is how his career became so abbreviated in Cleveland’s backfield.
The end result of the first round of the 1957 draft netted four Hall of Famers plus seven Pro Bowlers. Oddly, Jim Brown was not the first-overall pick in this draft as he was actually the 6th pick. The Los Angeles Rams had the 2nd overall pick and were in need of a running back. Their scouting department had the best grades on Brown, however, the Rams’ co-owner wanted local boy Jon Arnett from USC and so the Rams took him. Coach Paul Brown wanted one of the two highly-touted QBs in that year’s draft with either John Brodie or Len Dawson, but both were selected before the Browns picked. So, they settled on the fullback Brown.
His rookie season is one of only two that he did not gain over 1,000 yards, but he scored nine TDs in a 12-game schedule and was an immediate and powerful impact. His best two seasons were 1963 (1,863 yards) and his final year of 1965 (1,544 yards). Jim Brown was a man among boys and a holy terror coming around the outside with either lead blocker Lou Groza or Mike McCormack plowing the way.
With Jim Brown, Coach Brown had one of the greatest forces of bruteness he could have ever imagined, but his personality was one that dictated patience and endurance. He was a total team player but also understood his value to the club. And he didn’t any crap from anyone regardless of their position, religion, race or status. Coach Brown did not tolerate racial bias in any form - which pleased his fullback - but at the same time the coach was a shrewd disciplinarian who had little bend with rules and procedures. But he had to watch how he handled Jim Brown.
Often, Coach Brown would chew a player out for being late when in essence his anger was aimed at his celebrated fullback; who would be standing right there and usually the one that was late. Simply put, Jim Brown was not the sort of man you hollered at. So, the coach had to resort to a sideways method of messages.
This often caused a rift between the league’s star player and the league’s star coach. All during Jim Brown’s years the franchise was successful and he led the league in rushing in 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1965.
Jim Brown ended his career in a dispute with owner Art Modell. After the 1965 season Brown was named NFL MVP and led the league in rushing. He had a 5.3 yards per carry average. He was the cover of the November issue of “Time” magazine.
Jim Brown had the opportunity to be in his second movie during the off-season and was on location in London for the war picture “The Dirty Dozen.” He was supposed to be finished before the veterans were to report to training camp in Hiram, Ohio but production ran over. When he communicated this to Modell that he would be several weeks late, Modell informed him that a daily fine of $100 would be imposed for every day he was not in camp. Plus, Modell reiterated to Brown that if the club waited for him, this would set a precedent with other players down the line. Since Brown had only one year left on a $60,000 a year contract, he called his friend guard John Wooten and told him that he was going to announce his retirement.
At the age of 30. From a game in which nobody could stop him. As the league’s leading rusher. Sports editor Hal Lebowitz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer then contacted Brown in London who then broke the story. From 1964-1982 Brown would play the lead in 21 movies and has appeared in 46 including 2014’s “Draft Day” (which featured the Browns).
Jim Brown went to nine Pro Bowls (every year during his tenure), was named NFL MVP three times, 1957 Rookie of the Year, won one NFL Championship, five-time rushing TD leader, eight-time rushing leader, was named to the NFL “1960s All-Decade Team”, the NFL “75th Anniversary Team”, had his number 32 retired by the Browns, and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. In the end he had amassed 12,312 rushing yards, 2,499 receiving yards with 100 combined TDs.
Even today, Jim Brown is the standard by which any running back’s greatness is measured.