Did we just witness a miracle up in Bristol, Connecticut (you know, the birthplace of sports in America)?
Bristol’s ESPN typically treats any debate or discussion about sports achievements and accomplishments as if nothing happened before the network was born in 1979.
But Jeff Legwold, an ESPN reporter who has covered the NFL for more than 30 years, has put together a list of the greatest players in NFL history that, remarkably, pays homage to players who were on the field 40, 50 years ago — or more.
Which makes a lot of sense, because the NFL, after all, is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“Honestly, this is a project more than 30 years in the making,” Legwold writes. “The research includes surveying more than 250 people through those years, including players, coaches, scouts, general managers, Hall of Famers and Hall of Fame voters.
“Who’s the best they ever saw, best they ever played with, best they ever faced, best they ever heard about?” he writes.
“Although this team spans decades, lack of video and a statistical disadvantage limits players from the game’s formative years. I gave a shoutout to those players, who were great in an era without the benefit of groundskeepers, trainers, medical staffs, personal chefs or, in many cases, anything resembling equipment that would provide much more protection than the average jersey.”
Bless you, Jeff.
Actually, it is amazing how much deference and recognition he has given to so many players who are little more than a fading memory on grainy film. His list includes so many players from bygone eras — especially the 1970s — that it raises an intriguing question.
Where have all the great players gone?
Tom Brady, with his six Super Bowl rings and 520 career touchdowns, does top the list at quarterback, and even though he is 42, he is still slinging it for New England. He and kicker Adam Vinatieri are the only two active players who make the list.
Legwold acknowledges debate with a section after each pick that says, “Start the argument with …” Counterpoints to Brady, he writes, might include Johnny Unitas and John Elway.
In other cases, there is no debate.
Which brings us to wide receiver Jerry Rice, who led the league in receiving yards six times and receiving touchdowns six times. “Start the argument with no one,” says Legwold.
The other receiver? Green Bay Packers great Don Hutson, who held 18 NFL records when he retired and had 200 more receptions than his nearest competitor. Hutson’s record of 99 career touchdown receptions stood for almost 40 years after his last game.
That was in 1945.
Running back starts and ends with the great Jim Brown, a three-time league MVP who averaged 5.2 yards per carry. He hasn’t played since 1965.
Walter Payton is the other back, and you can start the argument with Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, Legwold writes. Payton hasn’t played since 1987.
On the offensive line, once you get past Cincinnati’s Anthony Munoz at left tackle, who retired in 1992, the rest of the line consists of players who haven’t seen action since 1985 — New England’s John Hannah (1985) at guard, Raiders center Jim Otto (1974), Baltimore Colts great Jim Parker (1967) at right tackle and Packers seven-time All-Pro Forrest Gregg (1971).
We get back in the 21st century at tight end with Tony Gonzalez, who retired in 2013 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month. Legwold wrote that you start the argument with John Mackey, who retired in 1972. Personally, I would flip this. Mackey defined the tight end position and averaged a remarkable 15.8 yards per catch in his career.
On defense, after Reggie White, who stopped playing in 2000, the rest are mostly golden oldies — Deacon Jones (1974) at the other end, Rams teammate Merlin Olsen (1976) at tackle and next to him is Mean Joe Greene (1981).
The linebacking crew consists of Lawrence Taylor (1993) and middle linebacker Dick Butkus (1973). The other corner linebacker is something special — former Kansas City Chiefs great Bobby Bell. I’ve had a lot of conversations with players from that era, and they speak about Bell in reverential tones, some insisting he was the greatest athlete they’ve ever seen on a football field. He still holds the NFL record for linebacker touchdown interceptions with six. He is a forgotten man.
All-time cornerbacks are a nod to a more recent era, with Deion Sanders (2005) and Rod Woodson (2003) getting recognition. For safeties, he reverts back to a different time, with Redskins great Ken Houston, who stopped playing in 1980, and Ronnie Lott, who retired in 1994.
Special teamers include Vinatieri as the kicker and Oakland’s Ray Guy, who stopped playing in 1986, as the punter. Gale Sayers, the great Bears running back whose career was cut short in 1971 because of a knee injury is the returner. He averaged more than 31 yards per kickoff return in each of his first three years in the league, and in five seasons topped 14 yards per punt return three times.
The coach? New England’s Bill Belichick, of course. But the argument does include Redskins’ three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Joe Gibbs.
So according to this list, 17 of the 24 greatest players in league history haven’t worn an NFL uniform in at least 25 years, many longer. The largest group of players is from the 1970s, with six greats ranked as the best to ever play their positions.
Maybe the best of the NFL is in the rearview mirror.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
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