As the NFL’s 100th season is set to begin, we start the ultimate debate: Who would be a part of the all-time best starting lineup? That means a player for every position on the field and special teams.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Or nearly impossible.
To put the task another way, a longtime NFL coach I’ve known for more than 20 years said: “Are you f—ing nuts?”
Knowing there aren’t any totally right answers but separating 100 years of Hall of Famers and elevating the truly elite takes some work.
Honestly, this is a project more than 30 years in the making. 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? I asked those questions, evaluated the statistical data available, then did what longtime scout C.O. Brocato told me oh so long ago: I trusted my eyes.
Then I picked a team with a strongside and weakside presence on offense and defense.
So there is a left tackle and a right tackle, a weakside linebacker and a strongside linebacker, a free safety and a strong safety.
Although this team spans decades, lack of video and a statistical disadvantage limits players from the game’s formative years. I gave a shout out 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.
The arguments are coming, so have at it.
Here’s the team. It is filled with the best the game has ever seen and a ridiculously enormous list of those left off.
QB: Tom Brady
Career: New England Patriots, 2000-present
Stats that matter: 207 career regular-season wins; 517 career TD passes
This is, unsurprisingly, the most difficult position to pick just one player. But Brady is a 14-time Pro Bowl selection and a six-time Super Bowl winner on teams that will feature far fewer Hall of Famers than those of many of the other marquee quarterbacks. He threw for 4,355 yards and won a Super Bowl at age 41, played his best in the biggest moments and has been the driving on-field force for teams that have won at least 12 games 11 times.
Remember when? Sammy Baugh (Washington Redskins)
Start the argument with: Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts), John Elway (Denver Broncos), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos), Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs)
WR: Jerry Rice
Career: San Francisco 49ers, 1985-2000; Oakland Raiders, 2001-04; Seattle Seahawks, 2004
Hall of Fame class: 2010
Stats that matter: Eight Super Bowl touchdown catches
Rice was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection who led the league in receiving yards six times and receiving touchdowns six times. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and yards from scrimmage. He played in 29 playoffs games and had 22 touchdown receptions in those games.
Remember when? Tom Fears (Los Angeles Rams), Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch (Chicago Rockets, Los Angeles Rams)
Start the argument with: Nobody
WR: Don Hutson
Career: Green Bay Packers, 1935-45
Hall of Fame class: 1963
Stat that matters: Five consecutive seasons leading the league in receptions
In the context of history, no player might have outshone his contemporaries more than Hutson. He 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. He created much of what the modern receiver does on the field, including many routes that have been staples for decades. He also had 30 career interceptions at safety and kicked extra points.
Remember when? Raymond Berry (Baltimore Colts)
Start the argument with: Randy Moss (Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers), Lance Alworth (San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys)
RB: Jim Brown
Career: Cleveland Browns, 1957-65
Hall of Fame class: 1971
Stat that matters: Seven seasons averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game
Brown was the only universal selection among all of the people who were polled and offered a can’t-miss pick. He averaged more than five yards a carry in five of his seasons, including 5.9 yards a carry in 1958 and 6.4 yards a carry in 1963, and averaged 5.2 yards a carry in his career. He led the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons, was the league MVP three times and retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards. He scored three touchdowns in his final game — the 1966 Pro Bowl — and retired at age 30.
Remember when? John Henry Johnson (San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Oilers), Marion Motley (Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers)
Start the argument with: Nobody
RB: Walter Payton
Career: Chicago Bears, 1975-87
Hall of Fame class: 1993
Stat that matters: 10 seasons with more than 320 touches
Payton retired as the league’s all-time rushing leader. Payton had 321 carries, for 1,333 yards, at age 32. Payton’s on-field philosophy, given to him by a former coach, was “never die easy.” A nine-time Pro Bowl selection and a five-time first-team All-Pro, Payton had eight seasons of at least 1,390 yards rushing. He was the first back in league history with at least 10 1,000-yard rushing seasons in a career.
Remember when? Joe Perry (San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts), Ollie Matson (Chicago Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles)
Start the argument with: Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions), Emmitt Smith (Dallas Cowboys)
LT: Anthony Munoz
Career: Cincinnati Bengals, 1980-92
Hall of Fame class: 1998
Athleticism was his calling card — Munoz pitched for USC’s baseball team in college and finished his career with four touchdown receptions. He was an 11-time All-Pro and was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team and the All-Decade team for the 1980s, all after having three surgeries on his knees during his college career.
Remember when? Duke Slater (Milwaukee Badgers, Rock Island Independents, Chicago Cardinals)
Start the argument with: Jonathan Ogden (Baltimore Ravens), Walter Jones (Seattle Seahawks), Ron Yary (Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams), Willie Roaf (New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs)
G: John Hannah
Career: New England Patriots, 1973-85
Hall of Fame class: 1991
Hannah was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and seven-time All-Pro. Alabama coach Bear Bryant called Hannah the greatest lineman he ever coached. Former Patriots coach Ron Erhardt once said, “I used to see people all the time who just would dive to get out of his way.”
Remember when? Dick Stanfel (Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins)
Start the argument with: Gene Upshaw (Oakland Raiders), Bruce Matthews (Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans), Randall McDaniel (Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
C: Jim Otto
Career: Oakland Raiders, 1960-74
Hall Fame of class: 1990
Otto played 10 of his 15 seasons before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 but was a 10-time AFL All-Pro selection and a 12-time selection in either the AFL All-Star game or the Pro Bowl. Otto never missed a game in his career — 210 total in the regular season. His rare football durability came with a price. He has had an estimated 70 surgeries in his lifetime, including the amputation of his right leg.
Remember when? Mel Hein (New York Giants), Chuck Bednarik (Philadelphia Eagles)
Start the argument with: Dwight Stephenson (Miami Dolphins), Mike Webster (Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs)
G: Jim Parker
Career: Baltimore Colts 1957-67
Hall of Fame class: 1973
Parker, who was the first full-time offensive lineman to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, might be the only player in this storied group who could have been the pick at two positions. He split his career at guard and tackle for the Colts and earned multiple All-Pro designations at both positions. In 1962, when he was moved from tackle to guard during the season, he was named All-Pro at left tackle and left guard at season’s end. Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli once said, “He was just too strong, too good and too smart.”
Remember when? Dan Fortman (Chicago Bears)
Start the argument with: Tom Mack (Los Angeles Rams), Larry Allen (Dallas Cowboys), Mike Munchak (Houston Oilers)
RT: Forrest Gregg
Career: Green Bay Packers 1956, 1958-70; Dallas Cowboys, 1971
Hall of Fame class: 1977
Gregg was an All-NFL pick for eight consecutive seasons and was one of three tackles selected for the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team. A fixture at right tackle for Vince Lombardi’s Packers, he also filled in at left and right guard on occasion. He missed the 1957 season when he was in the Army and returned to the Packers in 1958.
Remember when? Joe Stydahar (Chicago Bears), Mike McCormack (Cleveland Browns)
Start the argument with: Rayfield Wright (Dallas Cowboys), Jackie Slater (Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams)
TE Tony Gonzalez
Career: Kansas City Chiefs, 1997-2008; Atlanta 2009-13
Hall of Fame class: 2019
Stat that matters: More career receptions than Hall of Fame receivers Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison
This was one of the closest decisions in a sea of close decisions. While John Mackey defined the position, he also played long before a tight end was targeted at least 100 times in the passing game a season — as Gonzalez was during 15 of his seasons. Gonzalez was a 14-time Pro Bowl selection and led the league in receptions (102) in 2004. He finished among the league’s top 10 in receptions five times and is No. 2 all time in receptions with 1,325.
Remember when? Mike Ditka (Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys)
Start the argument with: John Mackey (Baltimore Colts), Kellen Winslow (San Diego Chargers)
DE: Reggie White
Career: Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-92; Green Bay Packers, 1993-98; Carolina Panthers, 2000
Hall of Fame class: 2006
Stat that matters: Three sacks in Super Bowl XXXI
White was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection, eight-time first-team All-Pro and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. From 1986 to 1988, White had 57 sacks, and he had five seasons with at least 15 sacks. His offseason recruitment by several teams in 1993, including the Packers, largely opened modern free agency.
Remember when? Gino Marchetti (Dallas Texans, Baltimore Colts)
Start the argument with: Bruce Smith (Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins), J.J. Watt (Houston Texans)
DE: Deacon Jones
Career: Los Angeles Rams, 1961-71; San Diego Chargers, 1972-73; Washington Redskins, 1974
Hall of Fame class: 1980
Stat that matters: Unofficially credited with 21½ sacks in 1967
Jones was a 14th-round draft pick who was a member of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome and is generally given credit for inventing the term “sack.” Though he played long before the sack was an official statistic, he is generally believed to have had 173.5 for his career, 159.5 of those in his 11 seasons with the Rams. He was a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team, and as his former teammate Merlin Olsen once said: “There has never been a better football player than Deacon Jones.”
Remember when? Len Ford (Los Angeles Dons, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers)
Start the argument with: Lee Roy Selmon (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Jack Youngblood (Los Angeles Rams)
DT: Joe Greene
Career: Pittsburgh Steelers, 1969-81
Hall of Fame class: 1987
Stat that matters: Started 181 of 190 career games
The Steelers’ first-round pick in the 1969 draft was named the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and received the first of 10 Pro Bowl selections. He is the only Steelers player from the team’s run of four Super Bowl wins in six years to have his jersey number retired by the team. Many with the team, including the late owner Dan Rooney, called Greene’s arrival a pivotal moment for the franchise and the foundation for the winning that followed.
Remember when? Bill Willis (Cleveland Browns)
Start the argument with: Bob Lilly (Dallas Cowboys), Cortez Kennedy (Seattle Seahawks), Aaron Donald (Los Angeles Rams)
DT: Merlin Olsen
Career: Los Angeles Rams, 1962-76
Hall of Fame class: 1982
Stat that matters: Returned his lone interception for a TD
The 14-time Pro Bowl selection was named to the All-Decade teams for both the 1960s and 1970s and was a first-team All-Pro five times, second-team All-Pro five more times. Olsen didn’t miss a game in his final 14 years in the league. Like Jones, a member of the Fearsome Foursome, Olsen is credited by the Rams as their career leader in tackles.
Remember when? Arnie Weinmeister (New York Yanks, New York Giants)
Start the argument with: Randy White (Dallas Cowboys), Buck Buchanan (Kansas City Chiefs), Alan Page (Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears)
LB: Lawrence Taylor
Career: New York Giants, 1981-93
Hall of Fame class: 1999
Stat that matters: One of two defensive players to win league MVP
When you start a career with 133 tackles, 9.5 sacks, eight pass knockdowns, two forced fumbles and an interception to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, as Taylor did as rookie, it might be a preview of some amazing things to come. In many ways he changed what people thought of edge players and how they could be used in defenses. Taylor was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Super Bowl winner and member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team.
Remember when? Chuck Bednarik (Philadelphia Eagles)
Start the argument with: Derrick Thomas (Kansas City Chiefs)
LB: Dick Butkus
Career: Chicago Bears, 1965-73
Hall of Fame class: 1979
Stat that matters: 12 takeaways in his rookie season
Butkus, whose career was cut short by knee troubles, was a fierce presence in the middle of the field whose actual exploits in the game almost match the stories told about him. The Bears great was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and selected to the All-Decade team of the 1960s and 1970s. From a football perspective, his ability to get off blocks and take the correct angle to the ball rarely has been matched. He recovered a record 27 fumbles in his career.
Remember when? Les Richter (Los Angeles Rams)
Start the argument with: Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens), Joe Schmidt (Detroit Lions), Willie Lanier (Kansas City Chiefs), Jack Lambert (Pittsburgh Steelers)
LB: Bobby Bell
Career: Kansas City Chiefs, 1963-74
Hall of Fame class: 1983
Stat that matters: NFL record six interceptions for TDs by a linebacker
Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram once said Bell could have played any position on the field except for quarterback and was athletic enough to have scored on his only kickoff return — a 53-yard return of an onside kick. Bell is considered by many to simply be the best traditional strongside linebacker the game has had to offer. Had Bell played two decades later, he likely would have found himself in an edge-rushing mode. He was credited with 40 career sacks — long before it was an official statistic — and scored eight defensive touchdowns.
Remember when? Joe Fortunato (Chicago Bears)
Start the argument with: Jack Ham (Pittsburgh Steelers), Dave Robinson (Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins), Dave Wilcox (San Francisco 49ers)
CB: Deion Sanders
Career: Atlanta Falcons, 1989-93; San Francisco 49ers, 1994; Dallas Cowboys, 1995-99; Washington Redskins, 2000; Baltimore Ravens, 2004-05
Hall of Fame class: 2011
Stat that matters: Scored TDs on interception returns, on punt returns, as a receiver and rushing for a TD in a playoff game
Prime Time was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and six-time first-team All-Pro selection. Sanders scored career touchdowns by interception, fumble return, kickoff return, punt return and reception. Many quibbled about his willingness to tackle, but over and over again, those who faced him, played alongside him and simply watched him say he is the best ever at the position. He wasn’t consistently challenged by opposing quarterbacks but still finished his career with 53 interceptions, including two in his final season, at 38 years old — a total that would have been higher had he not retired for three seasons before signing with Baltimore in 2004.
Remember when? Abe Woodson (San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Cardinals)
Start the argument with: Dick “Night Train” Lane (Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions), Mike Haynes (New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders)
CB: Rod Woodson
Career: Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987-96; San Francisco 49ers, 1997; Baltimore Ravens, 1998-2003
Hall of Fame class: 2009
Stat that matters: NFL-record 12 interceptions returned for TDs
He started games at left cornerback, right cornerback and free safety over a career in which he finished with 71 interceptions and retired as the league’s all-time leader for interception return yardage. He was an All-Pro selection at cornerback, safety and kick returner. An 11-time Pro Bowl selection, Woodson had 14 seasons with at least three interceptions and six seasons of at least five interceptions. He led the league with eight in 2002 when he was 37 years old. When the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team was selected, Woodson was one of five active players named to that team (Rice, White, Lott and Montana were the others).
Remember when? Jack Butler (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Start the argument with: Mel Blount (Pittsburgh Steelers), Charles Woodson (Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers), Willie Brown (Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders), Champ Bailey (Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos)
S: Ken Houston
Career: Houston Oilers, 1967-72; Washington Redskins, 1973-80
Hall of Fame class: 1986
Stat that matters: 49 career interceptions
He was a starter by the third game of his rookie year, and in the fifth game of his professional football career, he scored two touchdowns — on a blocked field goal return and an interception return. Houston made either the AFL All-Star Game or the Pro Bowl in 12 consecutive seasons and was traded, for five players, from the Oilers to Washington in 1973. He had an expansive and versatile body of work as a high-impact tackler and ball hawk.
Remember when? Emlen Tunnell (New York Giants, Green Bay Packers)
Start the argument with: Tunnell, Kenny Easley (Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals)
S: Ronnie Lott
Career: San Francisco 49ers, 1981-90; Los Angeles Raiders, 1991-92; New York Jets, 1993-94
Hall of Fame class: 2000
Stat that matters: Nine playoff interceptions
Lott began his career as perhaps the hardest-hitting left cornerback to ever suit up before moving to safety, where he was a first-team All-Pro eight times, as well as a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team. He finished his career with four Super Bowl rings, 63 interceptions, more than 1,100 tackles and 16 forced fumbles.
Remember when? Jack Christiansen (Detroit Lions)
Start the argument with: Ed Reed (Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, New York Jets), Brian Dawkins (Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos), Willie Wood (Green Bay Packers)
K: Adam Vinatieri
Career: New England Patriots, 1996-2005; Indianapolis Colts, 2006-present
Stat that matters: Made 56 playoff field goals
Accuracy isn’t always a fair comparison through the eras for kickers because, long ago, they didn’t have dedicated long snappers, and they weren’t kicking off the glorified golf fairways they do now. But Vinatieri’s body of work — he’ll eventually retire as the league’s all-time scoring leader and was at his absolute, unshakable best in the biggest moments — kicking the game winner in two Super Bowls.
Remember when? Lou Groza (Cleveland Browns)
Start the argument with: Morten Andersen (New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings), Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens), Jan Stenerud (Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings)
P: Ray Guy
Career: Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, 1973-86
Hall of Fame class: 2014
Again, like the place-kickers, punters in pre-1980s NFL often dealt with more bad snaps in a quarter than many today deal with in a season. Guy was more than just a catch-it-and-bomb-it punter and was selected to the All-Decade team for the 1970s. He had just three of his 1,049 career punts blocked and led the league in punting three times.
Remember when? Yale Lary (Detroit Lions), Sammy Baugh (Washington Redskins)
Start the argument with: Jerrel Wilson (Kansas City Chiefs), Sean Landeta (New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles)
Special teamer/returner: Gail Sayers
Career: Chicago Bears, 1965-1971
Hall of Fame class: 1977
Sayers needed the medical procedures of today so his knee troubles wouldn’t have ended his remarkable career after 68 games. His six-touchdown game as a rookie against the 49ers included an 80-yard touchdown reception, a 77-yard punt return and a 93-yard kickoff return — and is still must-see video. 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.
Remember them? Ollie Matson (Chicago Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles)
Start the argument with: Devin Hester (Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks), Deion Sanders, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson (Houston Oilers, Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins)
Coach Bill Belichick
Career: Cleveland Browns, 1991-95; New England Patriots, 2000-present
There are others, such as Paul Brown, who defined and shaped how people have done the job for decades. And Don Shula, who has the most wins and oversaw the only undefeated season, is in the conversation. Yes, Belichick was fired from his first NFL head coaching job and has a losing record in games in which Tom Brady was not the starting quarterback, but in the end, six Super Bowl wins in nine Super Bowl trips trumps it all. He has amassed 31 postseason victories and did a ton of his tactical work as an assistant, long before he was a head coach. His ability to sustain success in the era of free agency and salary cap makes the Patriots’ dynasty more impressive.
Remember him? Clark Shaughnessy (Los Angeles Rams)
Start the argument with: Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals), Joe Gibbs (Washington Redskins), Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers), Don Shula (Baltimore Colts), Vince Lombardi (Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins)