One of the best ways for an NFL team to establish itself and have some success is to have a consistent output from it’s running backs. When there is constant turnover on a team, especially at a position like running back, it can make it very hard for the team to ever get into a groove or establish a rhythm. The New Orleans Saints came into the NFL in 1967, and for their first ten years in the league they amazingly had ten different leading rushers.
1967 – Jim Taylor
Jim Taylor had put up some great numbers over the course of his nine season in Green Bay where he teamed with players like Paul Hornung and Bart Starr, under the leadership of head coach Vince Lombardi, to win a number of NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. Taylor had graduated from Louisiana State University and returned home to play one final season for the expansion Saints. Though he led the team in rushing, he only amassed a total of 390 yards and two touchdowns. His yards per carry average of 3.0 was the lowest of his NFL career. He retired following the 1967 season.
1968 – Don McCall
1968 would be Don McCall’s second and final full season with the Saints. He carried the ball 155 times for 637 yards and four touchdowns on his way to leading the team in rushing. He would play the 1969 season as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers before returning to New Orleans in 1970, though he would only see action in two games in his final season in the NFL.
1969 – Andy Livingston
Andy Livingston saw time as a reserve running back for the Chicago Bears for four seasons before coming to New Orleans in 1969. He would lead the team in rushing with 181 carries for 761 yards and five touchdowns. Livingston would play just one game in the 1970 season and never be heard from again in the NFL.
1970 – Tony Baker
Tony Baker saw action in one game for the Saints in 1968, split time with Andy Livingston at running back in 1969, and would lead the Saints in rushing in 1970. He would lead the team in rushing that season with 337 yards on 82 attempts and one touchdown. Two other running backs would also see major action that season and run the ball for more than 200 yards each, Tom Barrington and Jim Otis. Baker would go on to split the 1971 season between the Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles, where he would also play the 1972 season, before ending his eight year career with two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and a final season with the San Diego Chargers.
1971 – Jim Strong
Jim Strong saw limited action, just two rushing attempts, with the San Francisco 49ers during his rookie year of 1970. He would lead the 1971 New Orleans Saints in rushing though with 404 yards and three touchdowns on 95 rushing attempts. Five other players would finish 1971 with over 100 yards total rushing for the Saints including Bob Gresham, James Ford, Hoyle Granger, Tony Baker, and quarterback Archie Manning. Strong would see time mostly as a backup for the Saints in 1972 and that would be the end of his three year NFL career.
1972 – Bob Gresham
Bob Gresham was a rookie in 1971, but in 1972 he would step into the starting running back role with the Saints. His 121 carries, 381 rushing yards, and three rushing touchdowns led the team in rushing that season. The second leading rusher on the team, with just 30 fewer total yards, was quarterback Archie Manning. Gresham would spend the 1973 and 1974 seasons with the Houston Oilers, and the 1975 and 1976 seasons with the New York Jets, before retiring from the NFL.
1973 – Jess Phillips
Jess Phillips was a veteran NFL running back by the time he came to the Saints in 1973. He had spent his first five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals (1968-72), even having the longest run from scrimmage in the entire league in 1969 (an 83 yarder). In 1973, he would rush 198 times for 663 yards and no touchdowns for the Saints. Other contributing rushers that season were Bill Butler, Joe Profit, Archie Manning, and Howard Stevens. Phillips would spend one more season with the Saints before finishing his career with a year with the Oakland Raiders and two final seasons with the New England Patriots.
1974 – Alvin Maxson
An 8th round draft pick by the New Orleans Saints in 1974, Alvin Maxson would go on to lead the team in rushing during his rookie season. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry while putting up 714 yards on 165 attempts, scoring touchdowns twice. Other contributing running backs that season were Jess Phillips, who had more attempts but less yards and a lower average, Howard Stevens, and Jack DeGrenier. Maxson would play two more seasons with the Saints before moving on to the Pittsburgh Steelers for part of the 1977 season. In 1978, his final year in the NFL, Maxson would appear on the active roster of four different teams during the season: Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Houston, and the New York Giants.
1975 – Mike Strachan
Drafted by the Saints out of Iowa State in 1975, Mike Strachan would go on to lead the team in rushing during his first season in the league. Despite only playing in 11 games, he would rush the ball 161 times for 668 yards and two touchdowns. Other players that would reach triple digits in rushing yards that year for the Saints included Alvin Maxson, Rod McNeill, Andrew Jones, and quarterback Archie Manning. Strachan would play five more seasons with the team before ending his six year NFL career following the 1980 season.
1976 – Chuck Muncie
In 1976, Chuck Muncie became the third straight rookie running back to lead the New Orleans Saints in rushing. Muncie had been drafted out of the University of California with the third pick in the first round, so this time expectations were a little higher. Muncie would carry the ball 149 times for 659 yards and two touchdowns that season. Other players contributing to the rushing offense that season were Tony Galbreath, Mike Strachan, and Alvin Maxson. Galbreath and Muncie were essentially sharing the running back duties though, with Muncie leading in yards and Galbreath leading in touchdowns. Muncie would lead the team in rushing again in 1977 and 1979, and would stay with the Saints for more than four seasons, even becoming the team’s first 1,000 yard rusher when he gained 1,198 yards in 1979, before being traded to San Diego after the fourth game of the 1980 season. Muncie would play four and a half years with the Chargers, even leading the league in rushing touchdowns with 19 in 1981, before retiring due to a number of issues including drug problems.
Going ten straight seasons with ten different leading rushers is no way to build a successful team. It is no wonder that during those years, the best record the New Orleans Saints put up was 5-9. The team would go on to experience some periods of success in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s though and they would also end up having more stability at the running back position. Among the running backs that would go on to see multiple years as the rushing leaders of the Saints were Chuck Muncie (1976-77, 1979), George Rogers (1980-84), Rueben Mayes (1986-87), Dalton Hilliard (1988-89), Mario Bates (1994-96), Ricky Williams (1999-01), and Deuce McAllister (2002-04, 2005).