It might just be the greatest sports bar argument of all-time. Who is the greatest football player of all-time?
You Ronald “Mac” McDonald non-believers in evolution won’t subscribe to my theory that athletes get better as the generations move on, so this list will sting a little for the nostalgia-obsessed.
In addition to the era in which these players played; winning, individual statistics, position (QB is the most important position in all of sports) and the all-important eyeball test also factors into the formula.
Let the debate begin.
1. Tom Brady, QB
It has never been more difficult to win in the NFL. There are 32 teams in the league. In Joe Montana’s time, there were 28 teams. In Jim Brown’s era, there were just 14 teams. Oh, and now there is full blown free agency. It’s next to impossible to keep a great team intact.
Brady has started more Super Bowls than any QB in history and is tied with Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most titles.
Statistics? His 2007 season (4,806 passing yards, 50 TD passes, only eight interceptions) should be regarded as the greatest passing season of all-time (Peyton Manning had double-digit interceptions in each of his best passing seasons).
2. Joe Montana, QB
Montana never passed for over 4,000 yards in a season. He also played with another guy on this extremely elite list (Jerry Rice). Because of stats and because he had much more help, Montana is edged by Brady here. Yes, Joe Cool was a perfect 4-0 in Super Bowls, but Brady has a higher playoff winning percentage (.710 to .696).
3. Lawrence Taylor, LB
Comedian Artie Lange sums up LT’s greatness in a joke, saying that in the 1980s everything that late Giants public address announcer Bob Sheppard said ended in “… and Taylor.” LT was so good that he was seemingly in on each and every tackle during Giants games in that era. Taylor won the NFL MVP award in 1986. He is the last defensive player to win the award.
4. Jerry Rice, WR
Rice is the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. In 2010, NFL Network’s “Top 100: NFL’s greatest players” placed Rice at No. 1. But he also had the No. 2 guy on this list throwing to him.
5. Jim Brown, RB
Talk to any football fan over the age of 65 and they’ll think you’re nuts if you don’t put Brown at the top of your list. As mentioned before, however, Brown played in an era with just 14 teams in the entire league. He also played just nine seasons.
6. John Elway, QB
Elway had phenomenal numbers (300 TDs, 51,475 yards) and got his team to the Big Game five times. But his sub-.500 record in the Super Bowl (2-3), gets him pushed closer to No. 10 than No. 1.
7. Peyton Manning, QB
The nine “one-and-dones” Manning has on his playoff resume will forever hurt him on these type of lists. If he can capture Super Bowl title No. 2 on Sunday, however, expect him to vault a few spots.
8. Joe Greene, DT
The 1970s Steelers had to factor in on this list somehow, and Greene is regarded by most as the best player on those dominant teams. He was a 10 time Pro Bowler and won four Super Bowls.
9. Reggie White, DE
White led the league in sacks twice, during the era in which the aforementioned LT played in. His Super Bowl win with the Packers in 1996 helps his case to sneak into the top 10 here.
10. Barry Sanders, RB
If Sanders had that one Super Bowl title like White, he would be much higher on this list. But he’s without question the greatest “eyeball test” player of all-time. Like Brown, his early retirement hurts him on these lists.
What about Deion Sanders?
Give me Mel Blount over Deion in terms of all-time great corners. Blount was a much better tackler. And linebackers and players on the defensive line were much more valuable than defensive backs during the 1980s and 90s as running the football still mattered greatly. A guy like Ed Reed deserves some consideration giving the pass-happy era in which he played.
What about Johnny Unitas?
The era in which he played kills Unitas. Maybe he would have put up Brady and Manning-like numbers if he played in the 2000s, but his statistics are far from eye-popping.
What about Walter Payton?
He won more than Barry Sanders, but he was also backed by what is widely regarded as the greatest defense of all-time. Payton also no longer holds the distinction of being the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.