The role and value of running backs in the modern NFL has become a very controversial subject.
Passing offenses and a committee approach to the running game have become the norm. Teams don’t want to commit long term even to the select few true workhorse backs as their time at the top tends to be relatively short.
Perhaps that’s why a look at the top five rushing performances in Super Bowl history is so telling. The top four individual efforts all happened in 1988 or earlier, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when considering how much the position has changed.
Four of the top five performances are from players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and those same four players were all named Super Bowl MVP for their efforts.
It may be awhile before this list changes, so let’s take a look at the top five individual rushing performances in Super Bowl history:
5. Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos (Super Bowl 32)
The most recent player to join the list of players to rush for 150 or more yards in the Super Bowl, Davis posted 157 yards in a 31-24 win over the Packers despite Green Bay entering the game as 11-point favorites. He also scored three rushing touchdowns and could have had an even bigger game had he not missed much of the second quarter with a migraine headache.
Davis, playing in his hometown of San Diego, scored the game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. He remains the last running back to win the Super Bowl MVP award.
4. Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (Super Bowl 9)
In a game that featured a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw and Minnesota’s Fran Tarkenton, it was Harris who ran for 158 yards to take home MVP honors in a 16-6 victory. The lone score of the first half was a safety for the Steelers, but Harris converted a Vikings turnover into a touchdown early in the third quarter to help stretch the lead.
3. John Riggins, Washington Redskins (Super Bowl 17)
Riggins broke free for a 43-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-1 play with 10 minutes remaining to put Washington ahead for good. It was part of a 166-yard effort for the MVP, who also set a record with 38 rushing attempts. Riggins became the first NFC player to run for 100 yards in a Super Bowl and added a 15-yard reception to give him more total yards than the entire Dolphins team.
2. Marcus Allen, Los Angeles Raiders (Super Bowl 18)
The Raiders’ legend ran for 191 yards and two touchdowns against the defending champion Redskins who allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league and finished the season 14-2.
Allen’s big day included a 74-yard run in the third quarter that was a Super Bowl record at the time and is memorable for the original run to the left being bottled up only to have Allen reverse field and find space down the middle of the field.
It’s the last time the Raiders won the Super Bowl.
1. Timmy Smith, Washington Redskins (Super Bowl 22)
The player in the top spot is the only one on this list to not win MVP in the game and not be inducted in the Hall of Fame. While he didn’t have the most illustrious career, he did have one magical day in a 42-10 win over the Broncos. Smith, a rookie making his first start in place of injured leading rusher George Rogers and ineffective backup Kelvin Bryant, racked up 204 yards.
Most of the damage was done with a big lead in the second half after Washington scored 35 points in the second quarter to blow the game open.
Between a contract dispute and difficulties staying in shape, Smith barely played after starring in the Super Bowl. He finished with just 602 yards and three touchdowns in regular-season action for his entire career.