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A list not without flaws

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Mike Beacom
Contributing writer

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Posted Nov. 05, 2010 @ 10:41 a.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

I love lists, so I had no problem sitting through all 10 hours of The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players. Week after week I watched … and yelled, wondering how so many well-respected minds could mess the NFL Network's list up so badly. No Paul Hornung, Curtis Martin, Marvin Harrison, Frank Gifford or Terrell Owens? Had I missed an episode?

Of course, my opinion is only my own, but there is no debating that the framers of this list crisscrossed their criteria to come to the conclusions they have. Some players were judged on numbers, while others seem to have received special credit for the impact they had on the game. And while I'm happy with the balance of old and new, this list is quarterback-heavy and fails to show enough respect for the game's outstanding offensive and defensive linemen.

All that said, I do respect the attempt. Picking only the greatest players at one position is difficult enough when one considers how different the 1950s pro game was from today's NFL. But to rank players across different eras, from different positions, is nearly impossible, and an effort worthy of applause.

Some background: the list was voted on by 85 owners, NFL executives and retired execs, GMs, coaches, former coaches, broadcasters, media members and Hall of Fame voters. Each voter received a list of 260 players and was asked to grade each player from 1-to-10, with 10 being the highest. NFL Films then gathered the ballots, tallied the votes and ranked the 100 highest-rated players from 1-to-100.

Here is my analysis of the NFL Films list, in the order in which it was revealed on NFL Network these past few weeks. I've tried to praise where appropriate; mostly, however, I've offered my grievances:

100. Joe Namath

Even at No. 100, Namath is overrated. People credit him for being the game's first 4,000-yard passer, but beside that season he only eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark in two others, and he owns more than twice as many 20-interception seasons (five) as he does 20-touchdown seasons (two). One guarantee doesn't push him past Dan Fouts or Warren Moon in my book.

99. Michael Strahan

98. Lee Roy Selmon

97. Derrick Brooks

96. Mel Hein

95. Larry Allen

94. Lenny Moore

93. Sam Huff

92. Michael Irvin

Irvin already bumped Cris Carter in Canton, now he's doing it on this list. Why fans cannot appreciate how great Carter was is beyond me (third all-time in receptions, fourth in receiving touchdowns). Irvin is a worthy Hall of Famer, and a debatable addition to this list. But he's not in the same league as Carter — or Terrell Owens, for that matter.

91. Fran Tarkenton

90. Kurt Warner

I'm in Warner's corner when it comes to Canton, but I suspect his recent success has inflated his legacy as far as this list goes. Great quarterback. Overcame obstacles. A greater quarterback than Tarkenton? Nah, can't go that far.

89. Ernie Nevers

88. Ed Reed

87. Crazylegs Hirsch

86. Willie Davis

85. Marcus Allen

What I respect about Allen is how he resurrected his career in Kansas City. What I cannot respect is that he averaged fewer than four yards a carry in seven of 16 NFL seasons. That's not top 100 material.

84. Joe Schmidt

83. Norm Van Brocklin

82. Ted Hendricks

81. Steve Young

80. Troy Aikman

79. Emlen Tunnell

78. Bruce Matthews

77. Tony Dorsett

Sorry, but Dorsett is not even the best running back to come out of the University of Pittsburgh. Where on earth is Curtis Martin?

76. Art Shell

Ask legendary Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman how good Shell was. Good to see his name on this list. Wish it had been a tad higher.

75. Darrell Green

74. Marion Motley

73. Ozzie Newsome

72. Jonathan Ogden

71. Paul Warfield

70. Marshall Faulk

69. Bobby Bell

68. Mike Webster

67. Kellen Winslow

66. Willie Brown

65. Randy Moss

Say what you will about Moss; the guy is the most gifted wide receiver — maybe offensive player — ever to wear shoulder pads. No, he is not the workaholic that Jerry Rice was, and no he isn't a saint like Lance Alworth was. But Moss is a difference maker. He was in Minnesota and in New England, and I wouldn't bet against him after the recent storm settles. Like him or not, he's much greater than No. 65.

64. Herb Adderley

63. Jim Otto

62. Randy White

61. LaDainian Tomlinson

60. Jack Ham

59. Mike Ditka

58. Mike Singletary

57. Steve Van Buren

56. Gene Upshaw

55. Earl Campbell

A bright light that burned out too fast. Campbell brought a Bo Jackson-like "wow" factor to the game, but he didn't play long enough to warrant a ranking that's ahead of LaDainian Tomlinson or Curtis Martin (sorry, but I was compelled to mention Martin's snub again).

54. Forrest Gregg

53. Willie Lanier

52. Eric Dickerson

51. Bart Starr

OK, the gloves are off. I just do not understand this. What do we value most about the quarterback position? Winning. It's the reason Joe Montana and Tom Brady rank so high on this list, and it's often the primary criteria for why great passers either do or do not get into the Hall of Fame. Yet, in the case of Starr, there is this double standard. He owns the highest playoff winning percentage of any quarterback in the history of pro football. He won five titles (more than Terry Bradshaw, Montana and Brady). He was an outstanding game manager, and his opponents will tell you that Starr is both one of the game's greatest gentlemen (off the field) and fiercest competitors (on it). He is, simply, the most underrated player the game has known.

50. Terry Bradshaw

49. Mike Haynes

48. Red Grange

47. Ray Nitschke

46. Roger Staubach

45. Tony Gonzalez

Kind of a shame that Gonzalez did not score higher than John Mackey (No. 42). Yes, the eras are completely different, but Gonzalez is nonetheless a pioneer at his position, same as Ditka and Mackey were.

44. Mel Blount

43. Alan Page

42. John Mackey

41. Rod Woodson

40. O.J.Simpson

I suspect voter bias kept certain players off of this list and had others ranked lower than they should have been. Glad voter bias did not affect Simpson. Regardless of what he has made of his life since football, he did some remarkable things for some bad Bills teams.

39. Gino Marchetti

38. Lance Alworth

37. Jim Thorpe

Greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century? I'll buy that. But with regard to playing professional football, Thorpe does not belong here. He did not begin his pro career until he was 32 years old, and one could argue Ernie Nevers was a better early-era running back.

36. Raymond Berry

35. Chuck Bednarik

34. Deion Sanders

Sanders is unhappy with his place on this list and so am I. He did for the secondary what Lawrence Taylor did for the front seven. He was cocky, narcissistic, and the most dangerous cover corner the game has ever known.

33. Sid Luckman

32. Jim Parker

It would have been easy to forget Parker, but I'm glad voters did not. A dominant tackle before the position was paid the attention it is today.

31. Bruce Smith

30. Night Train Lane

29. Jack Lambert

28. Emmitt Smith

For years Smith has been dogged by the same things — he played on great teams, he ran behind a great line. Walter Payton had some very good linemen blocking for him in Chicago during the 1980s. Jerry Rice obviously played on some pretty good teams while with San Francisco. We don't handicap those players. The biggest misconception about Smith, though, is that his greatness is in the numbers. It's true, he is the most accomplished back of all-time. But his most admirable quality is his durability. He kept going and going. He didn't quit the game early, and he didn't wear down late into his career, like so many backs do. His tires held up, and he deserves better than No. 28.

27. Merlin Olsen

Funny, the clip highlighting Olsen spoke of how he did all the dirty work in the middle so that Deacon Jones was freed up on the outside to chase down quarterbacks, and yet voters still put Jones 12 spots higher. Typical of the lack of respect defensive tackles get.

26. Bob Lilly

25. Dan Marino

24. John Hannah

23. John Elway

22. Gale Sayers

Often, when Hall of Fame voters are asked why they will not vote for the all-time great special-teams players, they offer the same answer: They are not going to vote for someone who only plays a small portion of the game, regardless of how great they were at their respective position. So why, I wonder, does Sayers get a free pass on lists like this one when he is essentially guilty of the same crime? He only played in 68 games. He gained fewer than 5,000 yards, and only scored 48 offensive touchdowns. Yes, he was a wonder to the eye, and, yes, his early exit was unfair. But I sense voters and historians like to credit Sayers for all he could have done, rather than for what the numbers show.

21. Tom Brady

Some will say this is too high, but there is no denying that Brady is the Joe Montana of his era. He wins within the system he operates and he puts up respectable totals.

20. Brett Favre

19. Bronko Nagurski

18. Ray Lewis

17. Barry Sanders

16. Otto Graham

15. Deacon Jones

14. Sammy Baugh

13. Joe Greene

12. Anthony Munoz

11. Ronnie Lott

10. Dick Butkus

In my opinion, the legend is bigger than the reality. Butkus was an outstanding linebacker on some awful teams. One of the all-time great intimidators. But not better than Ray Lewis in my opinion, and not a top-10 player.

9. Don Hutson

8. Peyton Manning

I respect Manning. I agree he is a special player. But at this point in his career he does not belong ahead of Favre or Elway. Last I checked, he has the same Super Bowl record as Favre and a lot of catching up to do in the record books. Manning may earn this spot when it's all said and done, but he's not here yet.

7. Reggie White

6. Johnny Unitas

How sad this is. Outside of the top three? Behind Joe Montana? Sad indeed. Unitas is the quarterback, as Frank DeFord put it. Before the pass was an every-down option, Unitas was its master. He was tough, humble, won and put up big numbers. The quarterback is often referred to as the team's field general. I ask, of all the great quarterbacks, under whose command would you feel safest on a battleground?

5. Walter Payton

4. Joe Montana

3. Lawrence Taylor

What is most said about L.T. is that he could change a game from the defensive side of the football. And it's true. No problem whatsoever with him being the highest-ranking defender.

2. Jim Brown

1. Jerry Rice

In my heart, I want to have a problem with this pick. Everyone knows Jim Brown is the best player who ever lived. But in my head I know the voters got it right. Beside Brown, Rice is the only player who deserves consideration here, and the fact that he dominated the game in the modern era — with and without Joe Montana, in his 20s, 30s and at age 40 — is tough to overlook. Jerry Rice stayed healthy, hungry, and outworked everyone to get to the top of this mountain.


Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).

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