Thursday, March 10, 2005

The best ever

As I deal with the debilitating symptoms of football withdraw I thought I could get my fix and have some fun listing the greatest players in NFL history. So here’s a lament’s view on the best players of all time position by position. Over the next week I’ll argue the merits of football’s all-time greats. We’ll start with the two most glamorous positions in the sport.

QB-This debate begins and ends with three names; Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and John Elway. A compelling argument could be made for all three. Unitas had an air about him where you just knew he was going to win. Montana was the smartest and most accurate passer ever and his four Super Bowl rings don’t hurt. Elway is probably the most physically gifted quarterback to ever play. He could run, throw, throw on the run, run on the throw, you name it he could do it.

When you put this debate into context the picture still remains fuzzy.

Unitas had Hell-of-Famer Raymond Berry to throw to and was the first QB to throw for over 40,000 yards. Unitas owns what may be the most unbreakable record in football and maybe all of sports (DiMaggio’s 56 game consecutive hit streak and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a game rank up there); 47 straight games in which he threw a touchdown pass. Only Brett Favre at 36 and Dan Marino at 30 have even come close. Unitas led the Colts to a pair of NFL Championships in ’58 & ’59 and was easily the best quarterback ever until…

Montana won four Super Bowls playing for one of the best coaches ever. Bill Walsh put Montana into a perfect system for his talents. Montana never made bad decisions, was arguably the most accurate passer ever, and ran a difficult offense like Beethoven on a piano. He also had the best receiver ever to throw at and had a vastly underrated Roger Craig as a running back. Montana threw for 40,000 yards and led his team to the playoffs eleven times. Montana was an eight time Pro Bowler and three time MVP. His toss to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship game known simply as “The Catch” may be the most famous play in NFL history.

Elway is one of only two QB’s to ever throw for 50,000+ yards and is only the third ever to toss 300 TD passes. He remains the only quarterback to start five Super Bowls winning two. Elway has the most fourth quarter game-winning or game-tying drives of any QB ever (47), a stat that was literally inspired by his mythical comebacks. Elway’s 334 career TD’s (300 throwing, 33 rushing, 1 receiving) accounted for 82.2% of the broncos’ scoring during his sixteen year tenure. Elway accomplished all this despite not having a single Pro Bowl receiver prior to ’95. In fact, Ed McCaffrey is only the second Pro Bowl receiver Elway ever had. However, Elway did have maybe the best TE ever in Shannon Sharpe and never came close to winning the Super Bowl prior to the arrival of Terrell Davis.

The verdict-because of the numbers he put up, the two Championship rings, and the fact that he won 148 games in his career, another record, John Elway, in my estimation and with as much impartiality as I can muster, is the best QB ever. If this were just a statistical competition Dan Marino would be the best ever and Warren Moon would be in the top five. But you have to take championships into account. Admittedly, if Elway had never won a Super Bowl his name would never enter this discussion but neither would Montana nor Unitas.

Honorable mention: Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, and Dan Fouts.

RB-There are literally half a dozen different guys you could make a legit case for. Emmitt Smith has the career yards and rushing TD’s records in his pocket. Walter Payton broke the career rushing yards record and held it until Smith broke it several years ago and is still number two all time. Gale Sayers was the most electrifying and explosive runner perhaps the game has ever seen. Eric Dickerson hit the hole harder and faster than anyone I’ve ever seen and his stride looked like a gazelle’s. The list could go on…but for the sake of argument and so that I don’t have to profile umpteen different backs this debate boils down to two; Barry Sanders and Jim Brown.

Barry Sanders redefined the term play maker. He made cuts that would have resulted in compound fractures of the leg for mere mortals. His career per carry average is second all-time and Sanders is one of only two backs with more than 750 carries to average 5+ yards per touch. His retirement in 2000 derailed what should have been an all-out assault on the record books. In ten years he rushed for over 15,000 yards and had 99 touchdowns. Had he played four or five more years he could have put the career rushing mark over 20,000. His 1,500 yard per season average is the best in NFL history and he was never held below 1,000 yards in his entire career. Only Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin have as many consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. All this on top of the fact he may be the classiest player ever to set foot in a stadium and Sanders’ legacy is complete.

Jim Brown owned nearly every rushing record in the book for over twenty years. Brown has been retired for forty years but is still the only back in history to average over one hundred yards per game and his 5.2 yard per carry career average is still the best ever. Brown rushed for 106 touchdowns in 118 games. He is still number eight on the all-time list despite having over 500 FEWER career carries than anyone else in the top ten. Brown led the league in rushing eight times (the next best is four seasons held by five different backs), including five straight years, both are still records. He led the league in rushing TD’s five times, yet another record. Brown is also generally regarded as the best lacrosse player Syracuse ever had and maybe the best in the history of the NCAA. At 6’2” and 232 pounds Brown had blinding speed and a ferocious running style. He ran over, around, past, and through defenders and even by today’s standards would be considered a big back.

The verdict-Both are worthy of the title best ever and both retired in their primes and far too soon. If you project out there numbers another four or five years and give Brown sixteen game seasons throughout his career both would have put up mind boggling numbers. Had both played for fifteen seasons with an equal number of games Sanders could have rushed for 21,600 yards and Brown for 22,500. No one could have touched those marks. When you consider that Sanders NEVER had a good offensive line or a run oriented offense the numbers he put up are doubly amazing. But Brown is still the only back to average 100+ yards a game and 5.2 yards per carry. For his first four years the NFL had a twelve game season and a fourteen game slate for Brown’s final five. Brown owns records that have been on the books for forty years and may never be touched. Both left the game far too early and both were as good as they get but the ever-so-slight nod goes to Jim Brown.