NFL football is the epitome of all things American. We love the sportâ€”because of the grit, intensity, teamwork, force, and speed of the game. To win as a team, each individual player must know his assignment, execute, and sacrifice himself at the point of attack. Football is a chess matchâ€”where personnel are ordered to shift positions, read, react, and dominate smaller battles to help the larger group prevail.
To the uninitiated, the game of football may simply showcase two walls of humanity regularly crashing into each other, and moving three yards ahead behind a seal here and a seal there into a cloud of dust. Beyond the military terminology, color-coded play sheets, third down audibles, and zone blocking schemesâ€”the ultimate goal in football remains to advance the ball to the other side of the field for six points.
The greatest NFL football players of all time dismiss the conventional wisdom and time-honored clichÃ©s of football diehards, while also converting casual spectators into Game Day fanatics. Indeed, no defense exists for the perfect pass, speed does kill, and team defense can be your best offense. On the gridiron, the greats demand an eyewitness account at all time, because supreme ability can barely be described in words.
The greatest NFL football players of all time redefine what is possible.
#10 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Reggie White
The Minister of Defense dominated the line of scrimmage throughout a 15-year career and well into his late thirties. At left defensive end, Reggie White terrorized opposed right tackles with his patented hump and club moves. From a three-point stance, White would anticipate the snap count, explode upfield, and shrug his shoulders before tossing aside yet another 300-pound lineman as a hapless rag doll and moving inside to take a shot at the quarterback.
Against the running game, White was a force who possessed both the strength to shed blockers at the point of attack and the speed to chase down ball carriers from the weak side to make plays. This skill set translated into two consecutive AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1987 and 1988â€”when White led the League with 21 and 18 sacks. Before retirement, Reggie White went on to compile a then NFL record 198 sacks, thirteen consecutive Pro Bowl appearances (1986-1998), and one Super Bowl championship with the Green Bay Packers.
At quarterback, Tom Brady is one of the greatest rags to riches stories of all time. After entering the NFL as a doughy sixth round pick out of Michigan, Tom Brady has emerged as front-page fodder for both the sporting and celebrity gossip magazines, alike. At the age of 33, Tom Brady has already taken home three Lombardi trophies, two Super Bowl MVP awards, and one supermodel wife. As an icon, Tom Brady combines Joe Montana’s winning gamesmanship alongside the playboy lifestyle of Broadway Joe Namath. In addition to the comparisons to Montana’s legacy, any mention of Brady amongst the all-time greats is inevitably benchmarked against the here and now career of rival Peyton Manning(notes).
Although Manning has wowed crowds with his precision passing and gaudy regular season statistics, he has often fallen short in the clutch beneath the bright lights. Vintage Manning threw for 333 yards and one touchdown on 31-45 passing in Super Bowl XLIV. Peyton Manning’s statistical brilliance, however, will forever be overshadowed by his fourth quarter misread and pick-six to a streaking Tracy Porter(notes). Manning’s mistake put the game away for the opposing Saints, who went on to claim their first Super Bowl with a 31 – 17 win.
At this point, Brady and his three Super Bowl titles hold the edge over Manning and his lone championship. Statistically, Brady has been equally as impressive as any quarterback to play pro ball. In 2007, Brady teamed up with Randy Moss(notes) and Wes Welker(notes) to put together one of the impressive displays of offensive firepower in NFL history. Brady completed the regular season with 4,806 yards and a record 50 touchdowns on 69 percent passing.
The 2007 run, however, ended with a Super Bowl loss, 18-1, and a disheveled Tom Brady throwing a tantrum. Joe Montana never lost in the Super Bowl. Joe Montana never lost his cool.
#8 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Don Hutson
Don Hutson dominated his position like no other man in sport. At wide receiver for the 1935-1945 Green Bay Packers Hutson helped introduce the game of football to slant, rub, deep out, and cross routes, alongside timing complexities of the forward pass. As the game’s first big time wide receiver, several of Don Hutson’s records stood for decades, before finally being broken by the likes of Steve Largent and Jerry Rice.
Today, Hutson still holds records for his total number of, and consecutive seasons leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and scoring. On several occasions, Hutson’s production actually doubled the statistics of his next best competitor. In 1942, Hutson caught a League leading 74 balls for 1,211 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. These numbers were unreal for Hutson’s era, as evidenced by Pop Ivy’s 27 receptions, which were good for the NFL’s second best.
#7 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Dick Butkus
With his dark #51 jersey, garish shoulder pads, and blood curdling shrieks, Dick Butkus is the most feared tackler of all time. Butkus, at 6’3 and 250 pounds, represents the ringleader for the Monsters of the Midway and their Black and Blue style of punishment. Behind Butkus, Chicago Bears lore remains steeped in the tradition of defenseâ€”with a fiery middle linebacker directing traffic as the ultimate focal point. The unforgiving stare of Mike Singletary and pure athleticism of Brian Urlacher(notes), however, can never match the devastation wrought by one Dick Butkus on the Soldier Field gridiron.
In the box, Butkus ran downhill to blow up pulling guards at the line of scrimmage and fold up pesky running backs into the turf. In space, Butkus patrolled the middle of the field as an enforcer, who didn’t mind laying down the law upon any wayward receiver who dared cross his path. Contrary to Butkus’ reputation as a total goon, the man was a student of the game at heart. Through anticipation, Butkus could flow to the football from sideline to sideline, make tackles, strip the ball carrier, corral interceptions, and wreak complete havoc.
Dick Butkus was the complete linebacker.
#6 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Johnny Unitas
With his first-generation heritage, crew cut hairstyle, and black high tops, Johnny Unitas is as American as apple pie. At quarterback, Johnny U. is credited for authoring the two-minute drill and fourth quarter comeback. As a virtual coach on the field, Unitas called his own plays to pick apart defenses throughout his 18-year career. Of course, Johnny Unitas will forever be immortalized as a Baltimore Coltâ€”where he led the NFL in passing on four separate occasions and was hailed as a three-time League MVP. Unitas was to finish his career with 40,239 passing yards, which is still good for 11th place on the all-time list. Johnny U’s statistics are even more impressiveâ€”when you consider the fact that he quarterbacked during the 1950s and 60s, prior to the advent of five-wide sets, the shotgun spread, and all other pass-happy gimmicks.
Johnny Unitas put his full talents on display in The Greatest Game Ever Played, which ushered professional football into the television era. The Greatest Game Ever Played pitted 17 future Hall of Famers between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants for the 1958 National Championship grudge match. Late in the game, Unitas engineered two separate 80-yard drives to send the contest into overtime on a short field goal, and claim the title for Baltimore on a one-yard touchdown dive by Alan Ameche. As the winning quarterback, Johnny Unitas went 26 for 40â€”for 349 passing yards and one touchdown. In doing so, the Comeback Kid laid the groundwork for the likes of John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Joe Montana.
#5 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Walter Payton
Walter Payton simply outworked everybody else. At 5’10 and 200 pounds, Payton was neither a physically imposing, bruising back, nor was he blessed with track star speed. On the playing field, the man they called Sweetness was known for his iron will to finish off runs in the image of his lunch pail work ethic and madman fitness program. As a testament to his durability, Walter Payton owned the rushing record books at the end of his 13-year career with the Chicago Bears. At retirement, Payton had tallied 16,726 rushing yards and 125 total touchdowns. As a true workhorse back, Walter Payton led the NFL in carries for four consecutive seasons between 1976 and 1979. In 1977, toted the rock 339 times to run roughshod for 1,852 yards and a 5.5 yards-per-carry average.
Vintage Walter Payton would take the inside handoff and juke a flailing defensive lineman with a quick spin move, before slamming his knee into the chest of a stunned linebacker in the hole. After breaking that tackle, Payton keeps helpless defensive backs at bay with a stiff arm, bounce to the outside, and be off to the races. Refusing to run out of bounds, Payton drops his pads and lowers the boom at the goal line to drive his last opponent into the end zone for six.
#4 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Lawrence Taylor
At linebacker, Lawrence Taylor was the maddest of all mad men.
As the leader of a pack of wild dogs, L.T. was built to inflict pain and break the collective will of an opposing offense. Because of his pure explosiveness, Taylor was the game’s foremost defensive weapon of all time. In the 3-4 scheme, Taylor lined up all over the field to sell out his body, force turnovers, and destroy careers. Classic Lawrence Taylor was too fast for plodding tackles and too powerful for blocking backs to contain coming off the edge at the line of scrimmage. Within two counts, the quarterback would get decked and stripped of the football in one fell swoop. As a sack artist, Taylor compiled 132 Â½ quarterback takedowns over his 13-year career, which is good for eighth of all time.
In coverage, Lawrence Taylor could also drop back as a good cover against running backs into the flat. In 1982, Taylor picked off a flare pass at his goal line and simply took off. L.T.’s athleticism was on full display, as his long strides carried him for 97 yards to paydirt – in front of a stunned Detroit Lions crowd.
Playing with reckless abandon, Lawrence Taylor appeared to hate all comers that wore opposing jerseys. Through pure intensity, L.T. altered entire offensive schemes. Today, we can actually credit a linebacker for the evolution of the H-Back, single-back formations, double tight ends, and unbalanced lines. These packages trace their roots back to gimmick formations designed to cope with #56.
Lawrence Taylor, of course, could never be stopped and the opposing offense’s game plan was always thrown in the garbage by halftime.
#3 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Joe Montana
In football, Joe Montana is the greatest winner of all-time who can lay claim to four Lombardi trophies and three Super Bowl MVP awards. Known for his quiet confidence, Joe Cool pointed out John Candy in the Super Bowl XXIII stands, while his teammates huddled up. After breaking the ice, Montana had his 49’ers on the march before he flicked the game-winning toss to John Taylor on a slant route into the end zone.
Joe Montana was not your classic Golden Boy quarterback. Out of Notre Dame, Montana’s draft stock plummeted, as NFL scouts questioned his size, arm strength, and general toughness. Joe Montana slid all the way down to the third round – before Bill Walsh got his man with the 82nd overall pick in the 1979 NFL Draft. Montana, because of his ability to deliver the football with precision and touch, was a perfect fit for the precise timing of the West Coast offense.
In the prolific West Coast offense, Montana could dump off short passes to the likes of Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Roger Craig, and Tom Rathman, and let his receivers go to work with runs after the catch. Although Montana and his 49’ers are historically regarded as a finesse bunch, this group showed its moxie in countless comeback victories and cold weather playoff bloodbaths. Before the Super Bowl trophies, Montana proved his mettle to the world with both “The Catch” and his 34-9 beat down over the 1988 Chicago Bears against the backdrop of single-digit temperatures and the swirling winds of Soldier Field.
Joe Montana is a winner.
#2 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Jim Brown
Jim Brown dominated everybody.
Over the course of nine seasons, Jim Brown ran over, through, and around people for 12,312 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns on the ground. At 29, Jim Brown shocked the world and retired from the game of football in his prime. Brown simply had nothing else left to prove, having already qualified as the record holder of every significant rushing mark in the books. Although Jim Brown has since been surpassed by Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton in the record books, neither back can touch his remarkable 5.2-yard per carry average.
As the perfect complement of size and speed, Jim Brown put up video game-like numbers in the era of the phonograph and turntable. With the exception of 1962, Jim Brown led the NFL in rushing every year between 1957 and 1965. In 1963, Jim Brown torched defenses for 1,863 rushing yards on only 291 carries, which translated into a 6.4 yards per carry average.
Jim Brown was poetry in motion.
#1 Greatest NFL Football Player of All Time: Jerry Rice
By every qualification, Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all time. Jerry Rice had the best hands, ran the most precise routes, and starred as the premier game changer after the catch. Rice, the San Francisco Treat, may even hail as the greatest blocking wide receiver of all time. Jerry Rice, as yet another NFL bootstrapper, is a monument to hard work.
Jerry Rice has rewritten the NFL record books for 1,549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards, and 208 total touchdowns. Rice’s career and statistical record are breathtaking, as the man proved to be a lock for 80 catches, 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns, and one Pro Bowl ticket to Hawaii each season. A threat to score on every play, only Jerry Rice could make a one-hand grab on a five-yard out, shake a corner out of his square, and weave his way through the secondary for a 70-yard touchdown gallop.
To a man, Jerry Rice earned his position. In the offseason, Jerry Rice would jog the rugged hills of Northern California, lift weights twice a day, and run wind sprints until he had nothing leftâ€”for fun. Before he had even stepped on the field, Jerry Rice and his will to work had already destroyed many an opponent.
Jerry Rice is the greatest NFL football player of all time.
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