For decades, the National Football League relied on the run game to propel offenses. Often a team’s fortunes rose and fell on having a bell-cow back.
While the Eagles often excelled the years they could pass effectively, having an elite running back has been a part of team history – at times. This article will go through some of the greatest Eagles running backs all time.
Ranking The Greatest Eagles Running Backs All Time
We’ll go through some names of yesteryear and try to compare them to more recent stars. Of course, this is not an exact science and we hope this will spur conversation on our @IgglesNews Twitter Page.
Normally these greatest Philadelphia Eagles of all time lists focus on players who have made significant contributions over multiple seasons to the Philadelphia Eagles.
To start this list, I’d like to highlight a back who played just one season but made it count at the right time, and in the opinion of our Philadelphia Eagles blog writers, that one season was enough to put him on the greatest Eagles running backs all time list.
Philadelphia acquired LeGarrette Blount in the 2017 offseason from New England. He fit the need for an experienced power back that would complement the developing Carson Wentz. It was almost a flier signing and the Eagles got more than their dime’s worth.
Blount had come off a league-leading 18 TD season for the world champion New England Patriots. Some thought he would be a short-yardage specialist. Instead, he started 11 games and brought a physical element to a high-flying offense that swept the NFL.
While Blount provided some big plays (and big blows), he didn’t score as much as expected. Well, at least until the postseason. He found paydirt in every playoff win, notably his violent run against Minnesota that probably took what little wind was left out of the Vikings’ sails.
Football teams, as much as they rely on finesse and skill, need at least one back who legitimately punishes opponents. Blount did that for the world champion Eagles. Unfortunately, his one year in Philadelphia would be his only, as he signed with Detroit for 2018, the last year of his NFL career.
First of all, might be one of the best names in franchise history. Swede Hanson was one of the original Eagles when the franchise started play in 1933. He knew the area, having gone to Temple for college.
For five seasons, Hanson tried to lead the Eagles to victory as a back. These were simpler times, with leather helmets and rudimentary formations. No shoe contracts or beer vendors (that went on for a while thanks to the city’s Blue Laws).
1934 may have been his best season, as he led the NFL with 146 rushing attempts, gaining 805 yards and scoring 7 touchdowns. His productivity fell after that and he was out of football by 1938 after a year in Pittsburgh. However, he never registered a fumble (which may not have been a thing back then).
It’s hard to find footing as a running back when he shared a backfield with Ramblin’ Randall Cunningham. To pair with the lanky quarterback, the Eagles selected a big back from Ohio State in Keith Byars in 1986, who played at 6’1, 245.
Keith Byars played seven seasons in Philadelphia, five of which he amassed more receiving yards than running. His top year was 1988, when he accumulated 1,222 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns.
In 1990, Byars gained 819 yards receiving, the most of any single-season amount, rushing or receiving. He also became an ace at the halfback option, throwing four TDs on four attempts that year.
Byars became a moveable piece on the board. He spent the 1991 season as a fullback before moving to tight end in 1992. When free agency hit, he was one of multiple Eagles who left town for sunny Miami. While he made Super Bowl XXXI with New England in 1997, he never reached the same productivity levels as he did in Philadelphia.
Say the name Ricky Watters to Eagles fans of a certain age and they will likely give you four words:
After signing in Philadelphia in 1995, following winning a Super Bowl with San Francisco, Watters came up with alligator arms in the opener against Tampa Bay. That was his infamous answer to reporters asking about the play. Not a great way to endear yourself to Philly fans.
Despite the dubious start, Watters played well in his three seasons as an Eagle. He started all 48 games and eclipsed 1,000 each season. Two years saw him make the Pro Bowl, including 1996, when he led the league in rush attempts (353), total touches (404), and yards for scrimmage (1,855).
Watters scored 32 TDs in his career and still has the franchise’s best yards per game average (79.0). He left after the 1997 season for Seattle.
Timmy Brown joined the Eagles in 1960 after he did literally nothing in his first pro year with the Packers. On the world championship team, he got some playing time, scoring two TDs on 18 touches in 12 games.
Brown became a force on the team when he stood back for kicks and punts. In 1961, he led the league in kick returns and yardage, including a 105-yard TD return. 1962 was the first of three Pro Bowl years, where he led the NFL in 2,306 all-purpose yards.
He did the same the following year with a career-high 2,428 yards. That season, he ran for 841 yards, caught for 487, and had over 1,097 return yards. Imagine having over 200 touches on offense and being the league’s top return guy. That’s toughness.
Following his third Pro Bowl year in 1965, his productivity started to drop. After an injury-shortened campaign in 1967, he left for Baltimore and was part of the NFL champs that lost Super Bowl III.
This article will not delve into whether or not Duce Staley should be the Eagles’ head coach for the 2021 season. Staley was a very good running back when he played in Philadelphia.
Staley joined the Eagles as a rookie in 1997 and became the replacement for Ricky Watters. Fans flocked to the little powerhouse (5’11, 242 lbs) who pushed through the lines and caught out of the backfield. In the four seasons he played 13 or more games he eclipsed 1,200 yards from scrimmage. Three of those seasons he went over 1,000 rushing yards.
Despite being with Donovan McNabb and the West Coast offense, Staley was a run-first back. His size worked well coming through the line and keeping the sticks moving. However, he did have three seasons with over 50 catches.
The Eagles’ last season at the Vet was also Duce’s last in town. People were sad to see him leave but he left his mark on the franchise. He finished his career with the Steelers.
For all the lambasting and second-guessing the Eagles take in drafting (much of it valid), there was a pick made in the early-2000s that was not only a gutsy call but an inspired and valuable one.
In the third round, the team selected the NCAA all-time leader in all-purpose yardage: Brian Westbrook from nearby Villanova.
FCS-level guys don’t often get picked in the front half of the draft. While under consideration, the question was could the Swiss Army knife go from the Main Line and the CAA to the big show and big-college standouts. Turns out that was a resounding yes.
When the Eagles moved into the Linc, Westbrook took over as lead back for Duce Staley. He was lighter than Staley (still played over 200 lbs) and while he wasn’t as much of a downhill power rusher, he was elusive and dangerous.
In his second season, he won a game at the Meadowlands with a fourth-quarter punt return. As the Eagles finally won the NFC in 2004, Westbrook made the Pro Bowl with his first of six straight seasons of over 1,200 yards from scrimmage. That season saw him transition away from a returner to mostly damaging teams after the snap.
In 2007, Westbrook led the league with 2,104 yards from scrimmage, including a career-high 1,333 rushing yards.
He showed some major awareness in the season finale, sliding down before the goalline at Texas Stadium to secure a victory against Dallas, even though it didn’t help the Eagles go back to the playoffs.
While the West Coast offense prefers the slow burn and clock control, Westbrook was the catalyst. Every time he touched the ball, fans felt a buzz. He could juke defenders or take it to the house with his speed. Teams always had to account for 36 when he was on the field. With nearly 1,900 touches (rushes and receptions), he only fumbled 12 times.
The one knock against BWest was he never played 16 games in a season. He always missed at least one game in his eight years in Philly. As his QB Donovan McNabb left town after 2009, Westbrook headed west to San Francisco.
He returned to the Northeast and has provided commentary on the Eagles in his retirement. His 10,275 yards from scrimmage is the most in franchise history.
I don’t think it’s possible for fans under 40 can truly understand how important the success of the Eagles under Dick Vermeil is to the current status of the franchise. Those teams brought Philly out of the doldrums and made them contenders.
While many associate offensive success with Ron Jaworski, his backfield partner Wilbert Montgomery was a major catalyst. After being drafted in the sixth round in 1977, he made consecutive Pro Bowls in 1978 and 79. In his first 16-game season, he set the franchise record with 1,512 rushing yards and led the NFL with 2,006 yards from scrimmage.
Montgomery missed four games in the 1980 regular season but was ready for the playoffs. His punishing run to open the title game set the tone as Philly made the Super Bowl by defeating the Cowboys on a bitter cold afternoon at the Vet.
Playing all but one game in 81, Montgomery finished with 1,412 yards rushing and just missed 2K from scrimmage. In his last season with the Eagles, he accumulated over 1,200 yards from scrimmage in 1984.
Montgomery was a consistent threat in green and white. However, he put the ball on the ground a lot. With the Eagles, he had 57 touchdowns and 42 fumbles in over 1,700 career touches.
Quick, name the Eagles’ single-season rushing record holder.
If you guess LeSean McCoy, you’re right. Now tell me the season.
The same season Nick Foles took the league by storm, McCoy gained 1,607 yards. Imagine how far the 2013 team would’ve gone if Foles wasn’t hurt against the Giants and Cowboys, both losses, at the Linc.
Shady McCoy is the franchise’s career leader in rushing yards. He was a tremendous threat anytime he touched the ball. He also got himself in trouble with the ladies at times (remember the NYE bus brouhaha?)
After getting drafted in 2009 from Pittsburgh, McCoy took the load and ran with it. He earned his first 1,000 yard season in 2010 then led the NFL with 17 TDs the following year, earning his first of two All-Pro selections.
The 2012 season saw him play only 12 games and the team struggled. A strong start in September led to the NFL rushing and yards from scrimmage titles in 2013. Despite a third Pro Bowl in four years and over 1,300 yards on the ground, Chip Kelly traded McCoy away in 2014 to Buffalo for Kiko Alonso.
There’s no doubt that McCoy is one of the greatest Eagles running backs all time. However, had McCoy stayed in Philly, he likely becomes the franchise’s best.
He still has the team’s most career rushing yards at 6,972. He’s gone on to make three more Pro Bowls in Buffalo and won the last two Super Bowls. Like Brian Westbrook, he also kept the ball secure, with 14 fumbles in over 1,750 touches.
Steve Van Buren
There’s no argument that Steve Van Buren is one of the greatest Eagles running backs all time. But was he the actual GOAT? We think so.
He was a beast in the post-war NFL.
In eight pro seasons, he led the NFL four times in rushing attempts, yards, TDs, yards per game, and overall touches. Twice he led the league in yards from scrimmage and total TDs. Twice he eclipsed 1,000 yards – in 12 game seasons.
For all the franchise’s shortcomings in the postseason, Van Buren had two excellent NFL title games. In back-to-back wins, he scored the only points in a driving snow against Chicago at Shibe Park. The next year, he scorched the LA Rams for 196 yards in a downpour.
Using contemporary comparisons on Van Buren is unfair. He had modern size (6’, 200 lbs) but played in a league where the action was a grind and yards came at a premium. He had speed, durability, and was a five-time All-Pro. His spot in Canton is well deserved.
Top 10 Greatest Eagles Running Back All-Time – Recap
- Steve Van Buren
- LeSean McCoy
- Wilbert Montgomery
- Brian Westbrook
- Duce Staley
- Timmy Brown
- Ricky Watter
- Keith Bryars
- Swede Hanson
- LeGarrette Blount