Eighty years ago there was an NFL team named the St. Louis Gunners and their best player was Paul Moss. Doesn’t ring a bell? He probably doesn’t as the Gunners were not around too long and Moss never played in the NFL after 1934.
We know about Moss now thanks largely to Leatherhead Joe Williams who reached back into the black and white annals of America’s great game to remember the tall, talented player eight decades after his playing days and 15 years after his death.
The point is every great player is worth remembering, whether he played on the sandlots during the Great Depression or in the Super Bowl in front of billions. And so the following is a compilation of not every great player ever – we don’t have quite that much time – but the greatest player in the history of each NFL franchise, including some teams that, like the Gunners, have faded into history.
You might not agree with all of our choices, but we hope you enjoy remembering them.
Arizona Cardinals – Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver
The Arizona Cardinals just might win the Super Bowl this season, which would be the team’s first Lombardi Trophy and first NFL title since 1947 when they were based in Chicago.
The Cardinals have had a challenging history, to say the least, struggling for fans during their years in Chicago, putting together some solid but unspectacular teams in St. Louis and continuing to be an also-ran for most of the nearly 30 years since they moved to Arizona.
Despite their often lackluster finish in the standings, the Cards have had a lot of great players including Charley Trippi and Ollie Matson from the Chicago days and Larry Wilson, Jim Hart, Dan Dierdorf and Roy Green who played in St. Louis. But our pick for the toughest bird of the bunch is a player who has blossomed in the desert and, even if he doesn’t lead the Cardinals to a Super Bowl victory, will still end up in the Hall of Fame one day: Larry Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald seems as if he’s played for the Cardinals forever. He joined Arizona in 2003 after a stellar career at the University of Pittsburgh and has been one of the NFL’s elite receivers ever since. As of this writing, Fitzgerald has 12,025 career receiving yards and 89 touchdowns. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl eight times and, if the Cardinals had managed to get the ball to #11 a little earlier in Super Bowl XLIII, he caught two TD passes in the fourth including the (temporarily) go-ahead 64-yard score in the final minutes, the Cardinals probably would have beaten the Steelers, instead of losing a heartbreaker.
Larry Fitzgerald, the man with the long hair and sticky hands, left his heart on the field that day six years ago and he continues to do that every Sunday. He has excelled on good teams and bad, no matter who’s throwing him the ball. He’s the best player in Cardinals’ history.
Atlanta Falcons – Jessie Tuggle, Linebacker
Leatherhead Matt Haddad says in nearly 50 years of football, one Atlanta Falcon flies highest:
The Atlanta Falcons began play in 1966. They have had some good seasons, but they’ve never won a World Championship. “Not a great history,” says Falcon diehard Chris “Bulldog” Harper.
The Falcons entered the league the same season the first Super Bowl was played. They have made the Super Bowl one time: 1998, when they finished 14-2 and, for the NFC Championship, went to Minnesota and defeated a 15-1 Vikings teams that scored a then-NFL record 556 points in the regular season. “Jessie Tuggle was the heart and soul of that team,” said Harper.
Harper and his fellow Falcon diehard, Josh King, were asked separately: “Who’s the #1 Falcon of all time?” Both of them picked Jessie “The Hammer” Tuggle.
Tuggle grew up in Spalding County, Georgia, and went to college at Valdosta State. In his pursuit of professional football, the undrafted Tuggle never left home: In 1987, He signed as a free agent with the Falcons and played 14 seasons. He became a full-time starter halfway through his second season (1988). In the second-to-last game that season, the Falcons were down, 22-0, to the Rams in Los Angeles. In the 4th quarter, Tuggle kept his team from getting shut out by returning a Cliff Hicks fumble 2 yards for a touchdown. The Falcons lost, 22-7, on their way to a 5-11 season.
Tuggle made a similar play ten years later–in that unforgettable 1998 season. In a Week 11 showdown at home against their archrival San Francisco 49ers with the Falcons up, 17-6, in the 4th quarter, Tuggle returned a Steve Young fumble two yards for a touchdown and a 24-6 lead. The points proved valuable as the 49ers scored two touchdowns to pull within 24-19. As they did so many times that season, the Falcons prevailed, 31-19. The game was decisive in winning the NFC West over the 49ers, who finished two games behind the Falcons at 12-4.
Harper remembers Tuggle having success against Detroit Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders–or at least more success against Sanders than most players had. “I remember a game where Sanders faked out the camera man, and you couldn’t see where he was going,” Harper said. “Then you hear a BOOM ! ! ! And then you see Tuggle on top of Sanders.”
From 1987 to 2000, the 5′ 11″, 230-pound Tuggle played in 209 games, starting in 189 of them. The Hammer made 100-plus tackles in 12 straight seasons–his first and last seasons were the only ones he didn’t. He recorded a Falcons-record 2,130 career tackles, including an NFL high 1,293 from 1990-’99. Ever since the NFL began officially recording tackles on the late 1970s, Tuggle is the NFL’s all-time leader.
Tuggle recovered 10 fumbles and returned five of them for touchdowns. He intercepted five passes and returned one for a touchdown. He sacked the quarterback 21 times and deflected 37 passes.
Chris Harper recalls a game between the Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. In December 1995, the 7-6 Falcons were up, 19-14, in the Georgia Dome, but the Saints were threatening late in the game. Saints quarterback Jim Everett, needing to get a touchdown to win, threw the ball in endzone, but Tuggle intercepted and returned it 49 yards to preserve the victory. The win proved vital to the Falcons’ finishing 9-7 and making the playoffs.
“Memories like that are priceless,” Harper said.
Baltimore Ravens – Ray Lewis, Linebacker
It is nearly impossible to discuss Ray Lewis’ career on the field without mentioning his troubles off the field. At least, we feel it’s inappropriate to not mention his troubles, though we realize some might feel differently.
We’ll try to be brief. Ray Lewis was accused of murdering two men in Atlanta in 2000. The charges were dropped, two others were charged and they were not convicted, either. Lewis, that same year, had probably his best season ever and led the Ravens, who had perhaps the greatest defense in NFL history that year, to a Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants.
Lewis, who joined the Ravens in 1996, the first year they played in Baltimore after leaving Cleveland and changing their name from the Browns, eventually made 13 Pro Bowls at middle linebacker, was first team All-Pro seven times, was a Super Bowl MVP for that victory over the Giants, was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and, in storybook fashion, closed his career by leading the Ravens to another Super Bowl victory, when the Ravens defeated the 49ers after the 2012 season.
Ray Lewis is now a network TV analyst, is regarded as jovial and insightful and is remembered as being one of the most ferocious, intense and greatest defensive players in NFL history and will probably be a unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame.
We recognize his greatness as a football player.
Buffalo Bills – Bruce Smith, Defensive End
When Bruce Smith was taken with the top overall pick out of Virginia Tech in 1985, the Buffalo Bills were thought of mostly as the team that O.J. Simpson used to play for. A few years later, the Bills would be known as an AFC dynasty and Smith was the player most responsible for this remarkable turnaround.
Bruce Smith registered six and-a-half sacks his rookie year then went on to record double-digit sacks in 12 of his next 13 seasons with the Bills, with the lone exception being 1991 when he was limited to just five games because of injury. Smith retired with 200 career sacks, still the most in NFL history.
And as the better Bruce Smith got, the better the Bills became. In 1988 Smith played in his second straight Pro Bowl and Buffalo made the playoffs for the first time since 1981. Smith would go on to reach 11 Pro Bowls and the Bills, in 1990, made the Super Bowl for the first time in team history.
We all know what happened. They lost. And, yes, the Bills would go on to lose three more Super Bowls in a row.
It was freaky, it was weird, and it was bad luck. The Bills had great teams but, once the Roman numerals started showing up, they faded. It wasn’t Bruce Smith’s fault. He led a tenacious defense that included such stalwarts as Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley while on the other side of the ball the Bills, coached by the venerable Marv Levy, had quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and a handful of other stars.
When the 6-4 Bruce Smith entered the league he weighed about 300 pounds. He quickly learned that to be mean, and more effective, he had to be lean, and so he dropped about 30 pounds and in his most dominant days he weighed around 265. There’s a story that Smith was so disciplined about keeping his weight down that once, seated next to a reporter eating peanuts, he asked for one and then picked it up, held it close to his nose and inhaled deeply, and then set it down because peanuts, yes peanuts, were not in his diet.
Bruce Smith smelled the peanuts four times in his days with the Bills but never got to take a bite. Here, Bruce, is a bag of piping hot peanuts from all of us at Leatherheads. Indulge. You are a Hall-of Famer and the greatest Buffalo Bill of them all.
Carolina Panthers – Steve Smith, Wide Receiver
After the 2013 season the Carolina Panthers felt that Steve Smith was too old. He is, after all, 35, which, in fairness, is like 112 in receiver years.
Memo to the Panthers: Big Mistake. It’s not a big mistake, necessarily, to let the greatest player in team history go but it is a fatal error to part ways with a player who can still bring it, no matter what his age, and Steve Smith who, a bit like Michael Jordan and many other great athletes plays better with a chip on his shoulder, is still getting it done with the Ravens.
But let’s go back to Carolina. The Panthers chose the 5-9, 185-pound Smith in the third round out of Utah in 2001 and he was All-Pro as a kick returner his rookie year. Over the next decade Smith became one of the few players to ever make the transition from returner to top receiver, and had 1,000 yards or more receiving seven times, a tally that would have been more impressive if not for injuries.
In 2003, #89 led the Panthers on their amazing playoff run, racking up more than 100 yards receiving in two of Carolina’s postseason victories along with two TDs and was also clutch in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots with four catches for 89 yards and a score.
In the 2005 playoffs, Steve Smith singlehandedly destroyed the Bears with 12 catches from Jake Delhomme for 218 yards and two scores, while also carrying the ball three times for 26 yards.
Steve Smith is fast, tough, nasty, and can flat-out catch. And run. He’ll probably play forever, the most pugnacious and accomplished (former) Panther of them all.
Chicago Bears – Walter Payton, Running Back
Leatherhead Bob Lazzari says that Walter Payton was “maybe the best football player I ever saw, combining speed, mental toughness, and an unmatched physical running style. In addition, his modest nature, work ethic, and “team-first” approach may never be equaled by any NFL player. There will never be another “Sweetness”, for sure–a man tragically taken from this world way before his time. May he rest in peace.”
We agree with every word. But Bob’s words are as accurate as they are, for Bears fans, painful because, even 15 years later, it’s difficult for those of us who grew up watching Payton and loving the Bears to come to grips with the fact that Payton is gone.
But we are consoled with words describing another great Bears running back, Brian Piccolo. In the 1971 movie Brian’s Song, about Piccolo’s battle with cancer that would take his life at the age of 26, George Halas says Piccolo is remembered not for “how he died but how he lived. How he did live!”
When Payton broke Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record in 1984, he told reporters “the motivating factor for me has been the athletes who have tried for the record and failed and those who didn’t have an opportunity such as David Overstreet and Joe Delaney and Brian Piccolo…it’s a tribute to them and an honor for me to bestow this honor on them.”
That’s all we really need to know about Walter Payton. In the greatest moment of personal triumph in his career he did not glorify himself but rather reached out to those who died young and never got the chances he had.
Payton was an All-Pro, an MVP, a Super Bowl champ, the NFL’s all-time rushing champ at the time of his retirement and he also subbed at quarterback, was a team leader and a Chicago icon. Many football players were flashier, many won more titles. And maybe one or two were better.
But none had more class or grace.
Walter died young. He was just 46. He died with dignity. He played with courage and he lived with humor and kindness. He was, and always will be, the greatest Chicago Bear of all and those of us lucky enough to have seen him play are the better for it.
Cincinnati Bengals – Anthony Munoz, Offensive Tackle
Leatherhead Ronnie Foreman scores one for the “big uglies,” choosing an offensive lineman as the best player to ever wear Bengal stripes:
I will have to go off the glamour positions here as I select Anthony Munoz as the Bengals best player of all-time. Anthony played 13 dominating seasons for Cincinnati and was, in my mind and many others, the best offensive lineman ever in the NFL.
I remember watching him protect my second best player, Boomer Esiason’s backside on numerous occasions. And he is a template for younger players coming up to learn how to play the position from.
Cleveland Browns – Otto Graham, Quarterback
Ronnie Foreman wears Bengal stripes as well as Cleveland’s Brown in choosing the best player in Brownies history:
As much as it pains me to go against the greatest running back of all-time in Jim Brown, I must go with the Browns greatest quarterback of all-time as their best player ever. That would be the old-timer named Otto Everett Graham, Jr.
The Browns were 114-20 with Graham playing quarterback. They made the playoffs for 10 straight seasons. They also won the championship seven of those ten seasons. Although his stats may not be as good as some of today’s modern era quarterbacks he was one of the top statistical QBs in his era and he dominated it.
Dallas Cowboys – Roger Staubach, Quarterback
If you were a football fan growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and you did not sometimes wish you were Roger Staubach there was something seriously askew with your brain and soul.
Roger Staubach was not just the quarterback for “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys; he was “America’s Quarterback” as his resume reads like something out of a Gil Thorp storyline.
Staubach was a star QB at the Naval Academy and won the Heisman Trophy in 1963. He was drafted by the Cowboys but instead served in the Navy, including a tour of duty in the Vietnam War before finally joining the Cowboys in 1969.
He became Dallas’ regular starter in 1971 and the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl. Staubach eventually led Dallas to the playoffs eight times and reached four Super Bowls with him as a starter, winning two of them.
In 1979 Staubach was still one of the league’s best players and had, at that time, the second highest passer rating in league history, but chose to walk away and has gone on to be a success in business and is one of the most respected players in NFL history.
Many people hated the Cowboys, but everyone loved Roger Staubach.
And Staubach could play. He is credited with 15 career fourth quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives. Staubach’s 1975 “Hail Mary” TD pass to Drew Pearson to stun the Vikings in the playoffs is considered one of the most clutch throws in playoff history.
Roger Staubach was cool, he was tough, he was a warrior, he was a winner and he was a gentleman. He was a Cowboy.
Denver Broncos – John Elway, Quarterback
Leatherhead Tony Williams doesn’t buck conventional wisdom when it comes to the Broncos:
As if this selection shouldn’t be obvious enough, but Elway is the greatest Bronco ever — distancing himself from other fellow Hall-of-Famers Floyd Little and Shannon Sharpe.
When Elway retired following the 1998 season, he was Top-5 in every meaningful statistical passing category for QBs, including tops in all-time wins, game-winning drives, and Super Bowl starts.
His final game is what every pro athlete dreams of — to not only win the championship, but also be named as the game’s MVP.
Elway is also arguably in the Top-5 discussion of all-time QBs, and if that’s not enough, he’s on the ascension of carving out a niche as one of the game’s best talent evaluators and personnel people.
Detroit Lions – Barry Sanders, Running Back
The Dallas Cowboys owned the top pick in the 1989 NFL draft and selected quarterback Troy Aikman. The Green Bay Packers were next and the debate in Wisconsin was whether they should take running back Barry Sanders or Offensive Tackle Tony Mandarich.
The Pack chose Mandarich. Ouch for them.
Sanders, the Heisman winner from Oklahoma State, was taken with the next pick by the Detroit Lions and ran his way into the Hall of Fame.
Sanders ran for 1,470 yards his rookie year and had more than 1,000 yards in each of his ten seasons. The 5-8, 230-pound hyper-charged atom ran with a frenetic, pinball style that drove defenses crazy, bouncing one way, zipping another and sprinting for the endzone.
Barry Sanders was hell on fire in a blue jersey. He went on to win four rushing titles and a league MVP and was one of the most entertaining players in NFL history.
Unfortunately for #20, the Lions could never quite build around him and, despite making five playoff appearances with Barry, the Lions never made it to the Super Bowl.
Some athletes stagger to the finish line of their career. Barry Sanders sprinted to it…then took of his shoes and threw them out. Sanders ran for 1,491 yards in 1998 then, at the age of 30, called it quits. Had he kept playing Barry Sanders almost certainly would have set the NFL all-time rushing record and might have even put it out of the reach of mere mortals.
But the whirling dervish enigma that was Barry Sanders decided it was time to sit. And so he did.
We must take a moment to say that when many NFL fans think of #20 on the Lions they think of Barry Sanders, whose number is retired. Others first think of Billy Sims, a terrific Lions running back whose career was cut short after just five years in 1984 because of injuries. If Sims had stayed healthy the Lions might not have struggled for the rest of the 80s and perhaps Barry Sanders would have become an icon somewhere else.
Green Bay Packers – Bart Starr, Quarterback
Leatherhead Bob Swick says that when it comes to the greatest player ever from the land of long winters and many Super Bowls, you have to go with a true “Starr.”
Bart Starr was a classic American quarterback of the 1960s who represented the best in the Green Bay Packers. He was the MVP of the first two Super Bowls. He had four Pro Bowl selections in his career. He was the 1966 MVP award winner. He is a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Packers Hall of Fame.
Starr had a 9-1 playoff record playing for the Packers from 1956 to 1971 as a five time NFL Champion who came into his own under Coach Vince Lombardi. Starr was cool, calm and collected on the field, showing little emotion under some of the roughest defenses of that time period.
Bart Starr had it all and, in my opinion, out of all of the championship caliber players the Packers have produced since 1919, #15 is ranked #1.
Houston Texans – Andre Johnson, Wide Receiver
This year for the eighth consecutive year Andre Johnson has…made the Pro Bowl? No. Compiled 1,000 yards? No. Led the Texans to the playoffs? Wrong again.
For the eighth straight year Andre Johnson has treated at-risk children from child protective services in the Houston area to a Christmas toy shopping spree, letting these youngsters pluck whatever they would like off the shelves.
This year the spree cost “Santa” Johnson $16,266.16.
Andre Johnson is a good guy, and the best player in the Houston Texans’ brief history. He was selected by the Texans in the first round, third overall pick, in 2003, the second season of the Texans’ existence and he has been a shining light ever since.
Johnson, #80, has been voted to the Pro Bowl seven times, made All-Pro twice and has been one of the NFL’s most dependable targets even while often playing on dismal teams.
When Johnson retires someday his jersey should be retired immediately, not just for his outstanding play but his noble dedication to the franchise and service to the community. A few years from now the answer to the question of who the greatest player in Houston Texans history is the answer could very well be J.J. Watt.
But even if the Texans play another 100 years, it’s going to be tough to top Andre Johnson.
Baltimore Colts/Indianapolis Colts – Johnny Unitas, Quarterback, Peyton Manning, Quarterback
The man whom many think might be the best player in NFL history might not even be the best player in his own team’s history.
Are we talking about Johnny Unitas, or Peyton Manning?
But we are only supposed to pick one so we shall do so, in our own sneaky little way.
Johnny Unitas was the greatest player in the history of the Baltimore Colts. Unitas was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round in the 1955 draft but, for some reason, couldn’t catch on with his hometown team, which went with Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda instead.
So Johnny ended up with the Colts where he cracked the starting lineup in ’56 and then proceeded to become the definition of what it was to be an NFL quarterback for his generation and all generations.
Johnny Unitas (Even his name is cool. Maybe he should have been an astronaut) led the Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and ’59 and won Super Bowl V. He won three league MVPs and still ranks in the all-time top 20 in passing yards with 40,239. Just imagine if the crew cut, black hi-tops kid had played in today’s pass happy NFL.
Unitas’ last season with the Colts was 1972 and he played one season with the San Diego Chargers. (Think Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards) A decade after Unitas left the Colts, the team broke Baltimore’s heart by leaving for Indianapolis following the 1983 season.
In 1998 the Indianapolis Colts held the top pick in the NFL draft and had a tough time, or so we’re told, deciding whether to take Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.
They chose Manning.
Manning started every single game for the Colts for the next 13 seasons, they made the playoffs 11 teams, won Super Bowl XLI, Manning won four league MVPs, shattered virtually every meaningful NFL passing record and became the model of what a player, a sportsman and a citizen should be. He is the Cal Ripken/Julius Erving/Wayne Gretzky of the gridiron.
And he’s still going…for the Denver Broncos.
Johnny Unitas was the greatest Baltimore Colt ever, Peyton Manning was the best Indianapolis Colt ever. Andrew Luck had better hope the team moves again.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Jimmy Smith, Wide Receiver
It’s sometimes hard to remember, or even fathom, but there was a time when the Jacksonville Jaguars were good. And in their best days their best player was Jimmy Smith.
Smith joined the Jags in the team’s inaugural season of 1995 after being cast off from the Cowboys and made an immediate impact with three TD catches for a miserable 4-12 team.
Then, something weird happened. Things that aren’t supposed to happen. Jacksonville, and the Carolina Panthers, both became pretty good in 1996, the second year of both expansion teams’ existence, and Jimmy Smith helped lead the way for the Jags with 83 receptions for 1,244 yards and Jacksonville advanced all the way to the AFC title game, losing to the Patriots.
The Jaguars made the playoffs the next three years as well, including another conference championship loss after their 14-2 season of 1999 and Smith was the catalyst, averaging at least 78 receptions per season, peaking with 116 grabs in ’99.
Jimmy Smith remained Jacksonville’s top target for Mark Brunell and later Byron Leftwich every season until his retirement after the 2005 season, another playoff year for the Jags. He still holds virtually ever Jacksonville receiving record and is currently 19th on the league’s all-time receiving list.
Not bad for a kid from Jackson State who the Cowboys didn’t want.
Kansas City Chiefs – Otis Taylor, Wide Receiver
Our Matt Haddad says in more than 50 years of football there is certainly a “chief among Chiefs.”
The Kansas City Chiefs started playing in 1963, after getting established in 1960 as the Dallas Texans. Their owner was Lamar Hunt, the founder and creative mind of the American Football League. The Texans won the AFL Championship in 1962. However, it was clear that the competition for the fans and the bucks was hurting both the AFL Texans and the NFL Dallas Cowboys.
In 1965, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Cowboys in different battle: the race for a little-known wide receiver named Otis Taylor. The Chiefs drafted Taylor in the 4th round out of Prairie View A&M; the Cowboys wanted to sign him as a free agent. Taylor chose Kansas City.
O-Taylor’s breakout season came in 1966, when he caught 58 passes for 1,297 yards (22.4 yards per catch) and 8 touchdowns. The Chiefs won the AFL Championship, but they lost the first Super Bowl to the Green Bay Packers, 35-10. Three years later–in the last season before the AFL merged with the NFL–the Chiefs finished the deal.
In the first round of the 1969 AFL playoffs, the Chiefs beat the defending World Champion Jets in New York, 13-6. In the fourth quarter, Taylor set up the winning touchdown with a 61-yard catch to the 19-yard line–a play Taylor diagrammed on the sideline and urged Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson to call.
The Chiefs went on to Oakland, where they defeated the Raiders for the AFL Championship, 17-7. Taylor’s 35-yard catch on third-and-14 was a major play in a 98-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown.
Then came Super Bowl IV–a game seen as a victory for every player in the AFL, as an AFL team defeated the NFL’s best for the second year in a row. The Chiefs trounced the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, with Taylor’s 46-yard touchdown putting the game on ice. That 1969 season has, to this day, been the Kansas City Chiefs’ lone World Championship.
As a kid in the late ’70s, I knew Otis Taylor as a great wide receiver. I read about him in the books, and I had one of his football cards. In 2011, I was surprised to learn Taylor was not in The Pro Football Hall of Fame.
From 1965 to ’75, he caught 410 passes for 7,306 yards (17.8 yards per catch) and 57 touchdowns. He added three TDs on the ground, and he was a 4-time All-Pro. His numbers, however, tell only a fraction of the story.
Otis Taylor was the complete package. Taylor had size–6′ 3″, 215 pounds–and he had speed. He had fine moves, excellent hands, and the ability to catch the ball in traffic. Taylor was also a good blocker.
On the website “Tales from The American Football League,” Kansas City teammate and fellow wide receiver Chris Burford says Otis had “a zest for the game.” AFL historian Jeff Miller says in his book, “Going Long,” that after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win over the Vikings, “Otis Taylor cried for 15 minutes.”
Taylor spent his career in a run-first offense, and he played in the “bump and run” era–also known as the “bruise and batter” era. Before 1978, defensive backs were allowed tremendous freedom to do what it took to keep a receiver from catching the ball.
In 1975, Cleveland Browns defensive back Clarence Scott, whose football cards I used to have, talked about the best wide receivers he had to cover. Scott, who played 13 years in the NFL, said: “You’ve got the physical receivers, like Otis Taylor, who have great speed, but they’re also able to overpower defensive backs with their great size and strength.”
The ultimate accolade comes from Hall-of-Fame cornerback Herb Adderley, who won 6 NFL Championships with Green Bay and Dallas. After the Packers beat the Chiefs in the first Super Bowl, Adderley said about Otis: “Taylor is the greatest wide receiver I’ve ever played against.”
Do you think today’s generation of football fans would not appreciate O-Taylor? Think again. “Sounds like a Calvin Johnson from yesteryear, ” says 21-year-old Eric Butler. “Crazy to speculate how a guy like Taylor would perform in today’s NFL.”
Miami Dolphins – Dan Marino, Quarterback
Leatherhead Andrew Tuttle writes that when it comes to the history of South Florida football, one player stands tallest in the sunshine:
The best player in Miami Dolphins history is also one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
Dan Marino set the bar for a passing attack long before the current rules enabled today’s throwers to achieve prolific passing stats year after year.
In his 1984 season, Marino produced an unheard of 48 touchdown passes and more than 5,000 yards passing, records that stood the test of time for two decades and have now been passed by several players.
One can only imagine what a Marino-led team with Mark Clayton and Mark Duper would accomplish in the modern era of the NFL.
Minnesota Vikings – Alan Page, Defensive Tackle
When you scroll through the list of the NFL’s MVP winners two names jump out: Lawrence Taylor and Alan Page, as they are the only two defensive players to ever win the honor. (Will J.J. Watt be the third?) (Oh, and let’s not forget Mark Moseley, the Redskin who in 1982 became the first, and probably last, placekicker to ever win MVP.)
The Vikings drafted Page out of Notre Dame (where he helped the Fighting Irish win a National Championship) in the first round in 1967 and Minnesota’s glory years followed. Page, 6-4, 245 pounds (he’d probably be a cornerback today) helped Bud Grant’s “Purple People Eaters” to their first-ever playoff appearance in 1968 and the Vikings would go on to become a playoff staple throughout the 1970s including reaching four Super Bowls…and losing all of them.
Page made the Pro Bowl nine times and, in 1971, was so dominant he was voted NFL MVP. In 1978, Page was cut by the Vikings and was picked up by the Bears where he continued to be an excellent player until his retirement after the 1981 season.
In 1979, Page became the first active NFL player to run a marathon. In 1987 he ran a 62-mile race. That same year he became an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Minnesota. In 1993 he joined the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Alan Page grew up in Canton, Ohio. As a high school kid he worked on a crew that built the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the very place where he was enshrined in 1988.
Tell your kids to be like Alan Page, the most valuable Viking of them all.
New England Patriots – Tom Brady, Quarterback
Leatherhead Mike Lynch chooses Tom Brady as the greatest player in the history of the New England Patriots and Brady, perhaps more so than any other player we’re celebrating, doesn’t really need a lot of space to make his case. We are nearly inclined to simply say that Tom Brady’s credentials are: “He’s Tom Brady.”
OK, here’s a bit more. Tom Brady has led the Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning three. He is a two-time league MVP and one of the highest rated passers in NFL history. He led the Patriots to an undefeated regular season in 2007 has set numerous passing records (some of which have now been broken) and done all of this while playing most of his games in blustery Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Tom Brady is considered by many to not only be the best quarterback of his era but maybe the best ever. He is smooth, he is cool, he is precise, relentless and he looks like he’ll play forever.
In the next life don’t we all want to be Tom Brady?
New Orleans Saints – Archie Manning, Quarterback
Before Peyton, before Eli, there was Archie.
The New Orleans Saints drafted Archie Manning with the second overall pick in 1971 and he joined a team that had only been in existence since 1967 and never had a winning record. In Archie’s 11 seasons with the “Aints” they didn’t get much better, never finishing above .500 and never making the playoffs.
Don’t blame #8. Manning was tops in the NFL his rookie year in getting sacked 40 times. The next year Archie was again brought down more than any other NFL slinger, 43 times. He was tops (or bottom, you could say) again in ’75 with 49 sacks. In his decade with the Saints, Archie Manning was in the top ten in getting sacked nearly every year.
Despite constantly picking bits of turf from between his teeth, Manning still managed to have six seasons with a passer rating of better than 100 and he made the Pro Bowl in 1978 and ’79. For a decade, Archie Manning was the heart, soul and guts of a team that had no arms, legs or head.
Manning left the Saints for the Houston Oilers and finished his career with the Minnesota Vikings. We remember him at QB for the Vikes in his final season, 1984, when the Vikes went 3-13. It was a chilly October game against the Bears in Chicago and Manning, wearing a full facemask, was lucky to get out of Chicago alive as the Bears registered 11 sacks. Toward the end, Bears players were actually apologizing to the 35-year-old Manning.
Archie understood. To achieve true success in life you have to have talent, desire and luck. Archie had the first two. If he had the third maybe we would remember Peyton and Eli as Archie Manning’s kids, instead of Archie as their father.
New York Giants – Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker
Leatherhead Joe Williams tackled the challenge of deciding the biggest Giant of them all, and here’s what he concluded:
In 90 NFL seasons, the New York Giants have had many great players. However, it is easy to pick the greatest player in the team’s history. Without hesitation, it is Lawrence Taylor.
Yes, there are many other team legends, including Tiki Barber, Roosevelt Brown, Harry Carson, Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Mel Hein, Sam Huff, Eli Manning, Andy Robustelli, Phil Simms, Michael Strahan, Y.A. Tittle, Emlen Tunnell and many more.
Taylor stands out. He was one of the few players on defense in the history of the game who could take a game over. His combination of speed, power and ferociousness made him the most feared player during his playing days and possibly all-time. He revolutionized the linebacker position in terms of getting to the quarterback while teams created game plans to try to stop and avoid him.
L.T. made First-Team All-Pro in eight seasons, was selected to 10 Pro Bowls, was a three-time defensive player of the year and the 1986 MVP, the first defensive player to win it since 1971 when the Vikings’ Alan Page dominated. He sacked a quarterback 142 times.
I still remember his 97-yard interception return on Thanksgiving Day in 1982 like it was yesterday. He picked off a Gary Danielson pass in the fourth quarter to beat the Lions 13-6. Before he was done, the Giants became relevant again as a team to contend with which brought Giants fans their first two Super Bowl celebrations. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
Honorable mention: Mel Hein
New York Jets – Curtis Martin, Running Back
Leatherhead Andrew Tuttle revs up the J-E-T-S by choosing a quiet legend as Gang Green’s all-time best:
Joe Namath certainly deserves credit for bringing the New York Jets their first and to date only Super Bowl victory but Hall-of-Fame running back Curtis Martin is the franchise’s best player.
Martin left the New England Patriots after three stellar years to join the Jets continuing his dominance on the ground. He remained a Jet until his forced retirement after the 2005 season thanks to a bum knee but not before logging 10 straight years with more than 1,000 yards rushing.
In 2004, Martin became the oldest player, at 31, to win the rushing title and he finished his career with 14,101 rush yards, fourth in NFL history. A very reserved and highly respected player, New York retired Martin’s jersey in 2012.
Oakland Raiders – Kenny Stabler, Quarterback
Leatherhead David Boyce makes the case for quarterback Kenny Stabler as the greatest player to ever wear the fabled Silver and Black:
I decided to go with the player that made me become a Raider fan in the first place. That player is quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler. I grew up in New York and had never even paid much attention to the Raiders until 1974. The first time I saw them was in a playoff game against the Miami Dolphins. I was familiar with the Dolphins and knew their team very well. But there was something about that raucous crowd in Oakland. Those people were crazy! But what did it for me was the quarterback of the Raiders. He was a lefty. Being a lefty myself, I was instantly intrigued. That game came down to the wire and with precious time left on the clock, Stabler ran to his left and, just as he was about to get sacked, he lobbed up a pass to the endzone where it was caught by running back Clarence Davis for the winning touchdown. Despite the fact that there were several defenders in the area, Davis still managed to make the catch. That game later became known as the “Sea of hands.” It was just one of many games the Raiders played that were filled with drama.
Kenny Stabler was drafted in the second round of the 1968 draft out of Alabama. The Raiders were pretty much set at the quarterback position as they had Daryle “Mad Bomber” Lamonica. Stabler didn’t play a down in his first two years and was used sparingly until 1973. In that year, he became the starter and remained the starter through the 1979 season. In his seven years as a starter, Stabler threw for 18,234 yards, 145 touchdowns and 135 interceptions. The best thing about having him at the helm was that the Raiders started winning on a consistent basis. In his seven years as the starter, the Raiders compiled a record of 74-27. But with all those wins, they still couldn’t get to the Super Bowl. The team that usually stood in their way was the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 1976, the Raiders finished with a 13-1 record. They would squeak by the Patriots in the divisional playoffs and go on to defeat the Steelers in the conference title game, 24-7. That meant after all those years of frustrating losses; they would finally get back to the Super Bowl. Their opponent was the Minnesota Vikings and they were no match for the Raiders. The ground game was running on all cylinders as they racked up 266 yards rushing. Stabler had a good day as well, completing 12 of 19 for 180 yards and a touchdown. The Raiders came away with an easy 32-14 win.
What I liked the most about Stabler was his ability to improvise. He was always so calm and cool. During a dramatic playoff game against the Baltimore Colts, Stabler called timeout, strolled over to the sideline to speak with head coach John Madden and said “The people are really getting their money’s worth today.” Madden just rolled his eyes and told him to go back out there and get the win. Naturally, he did what he was told. He may not have had the strongest arm in the world, but he liked to throw deep as often as he could. In those days, if you didn’t go deep, Al Davis wouldn’t let you play for him. In addition to being accurate, he also had the ability to scramble out of trouble. That’s what earned him the nickname “The Snake.” As the pocket would collapse around him, he’d “slither” out of trouble and complete a pass.
Stabler said he read his playbook by the light of the jukebox. He played hard and partied hard as well. Another thing you have to wonder is how many games he played with a hangover. Simply put, he liked to hang at the bar, chase girls and have fun. He wasn’t going to let football run his life. One of his famous quotes is “Just stay in the fast lane and keep moving. You cannot predict your final day, so go hard for the good times while you can.”
In 1980, Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers and he looked like a shadow of his former self. In two years with the Oilers, he threw for 5,190 yards, 27 touchdowns and 46 interceptions. The Oilers made the playoffs in 1980 and Stabler came back to Oakland in a different uniform. He didn’t have a good day and the Raiders came away with a 27-7 win. After the 1981 season, Stabler was on the move again. This time, he was traded to the New Orleans Saints. He spent three years there and didn’t have much success. He played in 16 games and threw for 3,670 yards, 17 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. If you total up his career stats, he threw for 27,938 yards, 194 touchdowns and 222 interceptions. When asked about the interceptions, he said, “Well, most of those passes were tipped. There’s nothing I can do about that.”
Despite all those interceptions, lots of people are clamoring for Stabler to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame. I’d love to see it happen. He made the game exciting and no matter how intense it got, he always remained calm. All the great players that played with him said they were always confident that Stabler could get the job done. My favorite quote about Stabler comes from Madden who said, “the bigger the situation, the calmer he got. That was a great combination with me because I was just the opposite. I was intense. If everything were normal and we were ahead, he would get bored. He had to have his ass to the fire to get focused on something. That’s when he got really focused. Instead of getting excited and tight, he’d stay calm.”
That’s the main reason I picked Stabler. No matter how intense the situation was, he’d remain cool, calm and collected. It was kind of like having James Bond under center. He knew things were going to get intense, but he knew he had the ability to get the job done. After he got the job done, he’d go out and have fun with his teammates. Over the years, I have collected lots of Raider memorabilia and the centerpiece of it all is my autographed black #12 Stabler jersey.
Philadelphia Eagles – Reggie White, Defensive End
Reggie White won a Super Bowl with the Packers but he made his bones with the Eagles.
White was an All-American at the University of Tennessee and stayed in his home state to play two seasons with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL before joining the Eagles in 1985.
A 6-5, 291 pound lineman with the quickness of a linebacker, Reggie notched 13 sacks in 1985 and would go on to record double-digit sacks 12 times in his career and would retire as the league’s all-time sacks leader with 198 and is still second behind only Bruce Smith.
White anchored a dominant Eagles defense and made the first of his eight first team All-Pro teams and first of 13 Pro Bowls in 1986 and won his first of two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 1987. The Eagles, coached by Buddy Ryan and then Rich Kotite, were dynamic, tough and good. They had a winning record every year from 1988 to 1992 and reached the playoffs four times.
Alas, once in the postseason Reggie’s Eagles quickly got plucked, and were one-and-done every time. This is especially important to note because after the ’92 season White became a free agent when free agency was new to the NFL and White was the league’s top prize. He signed with the Packers for a then eye-popping four years and $17 million paving the way for other free agents. Today’s NFL millionaires have many people to thank; Reggie White is one of them.
White is considered one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever play. Some believe the very greatest. Imagine a line with him, Bruce Smith, Joe Greene and Alan Page on it.
Sadly, this is a tough time of year to remember Reggie White. It was ten years ago, December 26, 2004, that this dominant player and NFL pioneer died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 43.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Joe Greene, Defensive Tackle
Leatherhead Karon Cook pulls back the Steel Curtain to reveal Pittsburgh’s greatest player:
I’m a Cali girl and a drill Instructor’s daughter, but I “grew up” with the Steelers. Stay with me–my Dad’s from the ‘Burgh, he raised my brother and I exactly the same way: teaching us how to throw a perfect spiral, scoop up a grounder, as well as switch hit. I credit this early education to my choosing the Sports Journalism field and falling in love with the Steelers! Joe Greene is my pick for the best player in Steelers history.
Much has been written about Joe; here are ten facts, in random order, that you need to know:
- He was Chuck Noll’s first-ever draft choice in 1969 (that 1-13 Season gave no hint of what was to come).
- Joe Greene and Andy Russell were 2 of 5 players from that team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in SB IX.
- During the early ’70s, “Mean Joe” was one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL.
- He earned five first-team All-Pro selections.
- Joe won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
- He is a four-time Super Bowl champion (IX, X, XIII and XIV).
- I consider him to be one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever play the game.
- Joe Greene wore Black and Gold his entire career–from 1969 to 1981.
- “Mean Joe” was part of the famous “Steel Curtain” defense–along with L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.
- Greene was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
I realize these are just stats/facts about Joe, so I reached out to Andy Russell for this piece; I wanted something real, from a guy who “was there“. In Andy’s words: “Joe Greene was awesome–his strength, quickness, toughness and refusal to accept defeat were greater than I had ever seen. His first drill in training camp was the Oklahoma Drill (where an offensive lineman goes against a defensive lineman), trying to tackle a running back. It is a very difficult drill and usually the offensive player has the advantage because he knows the count, but Joe absolutely crushed his opponents (some of our best blockers–i.e. Ray Mansfield). He was clearly, in my opinion, the NFL Player of the Decade and certainly deserved the recent retirement of his jersey. I had the privilege to play with both players who have had their jerseys retired–Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene.”
People outside the Steeler Nation will remember Joe for his “Hey Kid, Catch!” spot for Coke. If you Google the best Super Bowl commercials of all time, it’s listed at #2. Also, Joe came up with the phrase “One For The Thumb in ’81” … which was accomplished in 2005. Now we’re looking at #7! I’ll wrap this up by sharing a tweet from Brett Keisel: Can’t get our 7th trophy without picking up that 7th regular season W #HereWeGo #Huntfor7
Keep the Faith, Steeler Nation, and thanks Andy!
San Diego Chargers – Junior Seau, Linebacker
For many years we thought we would never see another linebacker like Dick Butkus. Then, the football Gods gave us Junior Seau, a man whose very name (pronounced “Say-Ow”) meant he was born to hit people.
The Chargers drafted Seau with the fifth overall pick in 1990 and he spent the next 20 years pounding the opposition. Seau made the first of 12 straight Pro Bowls in 1991 and was first team All-Pro for the first of six teams in 1992.
Junior Seau combined ferocity with speed, strength and football IQ to become the league’s best linebacker of the 1990s and led the Chargers to new-found glory with playoff appearances in 1992, ’94 and ’95 and the franchise’s one and only Super Bowl appearance, a loss to the mighty 49ers, after that ’94 season.
The biggest reason the Chargers were in that Super Bowl was Seau’s heroics in the AFC Championship. Facing a formidable Steelers team on a cold January day in Pittsburgh, Seau went ballistic notching 16 tackles despite having a pinched nerve in his neck.
Over the years the Chargers have had Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, LaDainian Tomlinson and now Philip Rivers. But Junior Seau was the best. He left the Chargers after the 2002 season and played three solid years with the Dolphins before joining the Patriots for four seasons, including helping the legendary 2007 team go 16-0 before a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
Seau retired after the 2009 season and committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 43. Doctors later determined that Seau had suffered repeated head injuries as a player and was suffering from a degenerative brain disease that many NFL players have been afflicted with.
After Seau died more than 200 surfers paddled out into the Pacific Ocean near the linebacker’s home and joined a circle, chanted Seau’s name and slapped at the water for an hour. A peaceful tribute to a man who thrilled millions and left us far too soon.
San Francisco 49ers – Ronnie Lott, Cornerback/Safety
The San Francisco 49ers are known for offense and many say Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback to ever play (or was Steve Young maybe a little better?) and others say Jerry Rice was not only the best receiver in NFL history but might actually rate out as the very best player ever, regardless of position.
But we say that Montana was great, yes, but in a great system at the perfect time and we say the same of Young and yes, even Rice. They are all legitimate first ballot Hall-of-Famers but we say the greatest Niner of them all played on the other side of the ball.
Ronnie Lott was taken by the 49ers in the first round of the 1981 draft and started all 16 games at cornerback, intercepted 10 passes three of which he returned for touchdowns, helped the Niners to a 13-3 record and their first playoff appearance since 1972 and they went on to win their first Super Bowl. (Joe who?)
Lott made the first of ten Pro Bowls his rookie year and was also first team All-Pro for the first of six teams. Montana was the Golden Boy of those San Fran teams of the 80s, but Lott was its backbone. An adhesive cover man and a ferocious hitter, #42 made 49ers’ opponents know that while San Fran’s offense got the glory it was the defense that did the dirty work – and made the difference.
Lott was the defense’s heart at cornerback and also when he switched to safety in 1985, something that’s far tougher than it sounds. With Lott, the Niners won four Super Bowls in the 80s and became one of the league’s great dynasties. You can likely name a lot of offensive players from those teams but who stands out on defense? Ronnie Lott stood taller, hit harder, dug deeper and got it done more than anyone.
If Gary Fencik had been a bit faster he would have been Ronnie Lott. He wasn’t.
Joe Montana was cool, Jerry Rice was clutch, Ronnie Lott was tough. His left pinkie finger was crushed making a tackle in 1985. Surgery would have meant he would miss the start of the 1986 season. So Lott had the tip cut off. He led the NFL with 10 interceptions that year.
Seattle Seahawks – Steve Largent, Wide Receiver
Leatherhead Ronnie Foreman recalls the early days of the Seahawks and says while the team has gotten better, they’ve never had a better player:
Some may disagree with my pick here but having watched him play personally, to me he is far and above any of the other Seahawks players that have graced the Seattle sideline. Others may pick a defensive or offensive lineman as their top choice but I am selecting, from the University of Tulsa, Wide Receiver Steve Largent!
Largent, originally drafted by the Houston Oilers, before being traded to Seattle in the preseason of his rookie year, spent his entire playing career with the Seahawks. He was a great player to watch through the 1980s as he teamed first with another great Seattle player, QB Jim Zorn and then with QB Dave Krieg.
By the time his career was up, Steve Largent led almost all NFL receiving categories, including 819 receptions, 13,089 yards, 177 consecutive games with a catch and he was the first player to reach 100 career touchdown catches. HOF 1995.
Cleveland Rams/Los Angeles Rams/St. Louis Rams – Merlin Olsen, Defensive Tackle
Merlin Olsen was humble, sweet and loveable.
Off the field.
Olsen is known to many as an announcer who was in the TV booth for many years including several Super Bowls, as a pitchman for FTD Flowers and as an actor on Little House on the Prairie and Father Murphy.
But during a football game there was nothing little about this 6-5, 270-pound tornado from Utah State and the only thing fatherly about him was the way he put others in their place. And if Merlin Olsen handed you flowers on the gridiron it was to put them on your grave.
A first round pick in 1962, Olsen made the Pro Bowl his rookie year and then every single season through 1975, only being left off during his final season, 1976.
Olsen played on the legendary Rams front four along with Rosey Grier, Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy, the “Fearsome Foursome” which terrorized offenses every Sunday. The Rams were winners nearly every season with Olsen and enjoyed playoff appearances in 1967, ’69 and ’73 through ’76 including NFC title game losses in ’74, ’75 and ’76.
The Rams always fell short in the playoffs with Olsen, but imagine if they’d been able to break through and won a few Super Bowls. They were very close and if they’d made it, maybe Merlin Olsen would have some of those rings that now belong to Joe Greene and Randy White.
Merlin Olsen died in 2010.
He is in the Hall of Fame and his #74 jersey has been retired by the Rams and probably still gives quarterbacks nightmares.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Warren Sapp, Defensive Tackle
For much of their existence the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been a bust, but Leatherhead Ronnie Foreman says one Buc not only was not a bust, he actually has a bust…in Canton:
If there is any doubt as to who is the best player in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history you can just put that thought away. And, if you ask him, he will tell you that himself! Perhaps the best defensive lineman of all-time, Warren Sapp took his talents from the University of Miami (FL) across the state to Tampa as the 12th overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft.
Sapp would go on to have nine great years in Tampa Bay to establish his self as the greatest Buccaneer of all-time. He ended up with 77 sacks while there, just short of the 78.5 by early Bucs star, Lee Roy Selmon. HOF 2013.
Tennessee Titans – Eddie George, Running Back
The Tennessee Titans have been around since 1997, after moving from Houston where they were known for more than 30 years as the Oilers.
Eddie George played one season in Houston before moving north to become a Titan and remained a constant for nearly a decade. If you’re looking for consistency in a player you need look no further than Eddie George. A Heisman winner out of Ohio State, George’s yearly rushing totals his first five years in the NFL were 1,368; 1,399; 1,294; 1,304 and 1,509.
George was the size of a linebacker and bruised his way through the line week in and week out, finishing his career with an average of just 3.6 yards per carry but he was a rock, rarely fumbling and rarely getting caught for a loss.
He made the Pro Bowl in 1997, ’98, ’99 and 2000, the same year that he was first-team All-Pro.
The Titans were the best team in the NFL that 2000 season, playing a bruising style of football on both sides of the ball and going 13-3, only to lose a heartbreaking, freaky playoff game to the Baltimore Ravens. This, of course, was one year after the Titans came one yard short in the Super Bowl against the Rams.
Eddie George was almost a Super Bowl champ, almost a rushing champ, almost a legend. But he is second to none when it comes to remembering the Titans.
Washington Redskins – Sammy Baugh, Quarterback
Leatherhead Chip Greene says a “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh was the best Redskin of them all.
Baugh joined the Redskins out of TCU in 1937, the team’s first year in Washington after moving from Boston, and would be the backbone for Washington as a quarterback, defensive back, kick returner and kicker through 1952.
Baugh’s numbers are modest by today’s standards, finishing with 21,866 yards passing, 187 touchdowns and 203 interceptions. But, like most players from his era, he was versatile and Baugh was more versatile than most. He simply did it all: running, passing, kicking and defense and he was just about the best, earning first-team All-Pro honors four times.
And Baugh’s teams were nearly as good as him. He led Washington to the NFL championship game five times and they won it in 1937 and ’42.
“Slingin’” Sammy Baugh was a member of the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class in 1963 and lived to see the NFL grow and change quite a bit, passing away in 2008 at the age of 94.
And just for fun:
Brooklyn Lions – Rex Thomas, Running Back
Leatherhead Joe Williams remembers the days when Lions roamed the borough of Brooklyn and chooses Rex Thomas as the Brooklyn Lions’ all-time greatest.
The Lions, led by coach Punk Berryman, played just one season in the NFL, 1926, played their home games at Ebbets Field, and went 3-8 and merged during the season with the competing AFL Brooklyn Horsemen.
Thomas was the star of the team and the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing yards (137), touchdowns (4), and points (25), and with four interceptions on defense.
The St. John’s University star and Oklahoma native played five NFL seasons. He unfortunately passed away in a car-truck accident in 1955.
Honorable Mention: Herm Bagby.
St. Louis Gunners – Paul Moss, Receiver
Joe Williams remembers the St. Louis Gunners who played one season, 1934, and had one player who topped them all:
The semi-pro team purchased the 0-8 Cincinnati Reds during the 1934 season and replaced them to play the final three games that year. A handful of Reds players joined the Gunners. In their first game they beat the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers) before dropping their next two games.
The best player for the Gunners was Paul Moss. He led the team with six receptions for 131 yards, plus scoring one of the three touchdowns in franchise history. His touchdown reception was a team-best 56 yards.
Moss was an All-American at Purdue in 1932. He played the 1933 season with Pittsburgh and led the NFL in receiving yards with 283 while finishing tied for fifth with 13 receptions.
He didn’t play football after the 1934 season. In 1935, he played minor league baseball with the Terre Haute Tots in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League.
Paul Moss died in 1999 at the age of 90.
Honorable mention: Cy Casper.
Staten Island Stapletons/Stapes – Ken Strong, Halfback, Defensive Back, Kicker
Leatherhead Bob Swick recalls a memorable man on a forgotten team:
The Staten Island Stapletons/Stapes played in the NFL from 1929 to 1932. They did not do well, amassing a record of 14-22-9.
Their greatest player in my football opinion was Ken Strong. Strong was an all-NFL player in 1930 and ’31 for the Stapes. He was an incredible kicker at that time also.
Strong is obviously better known for his heroics on the Giants but he provided an anchor to the Stapes in their brief existence.
Houston Oilers – George Blanda, Quarterback
The Oilers are, technically, gone but they’re certainly not forgotten. Leatherhead Matt Haddad says the best Oiler of all time was a guy who nearly played for all of time:
George Blanda began his career with the Chicago Bears (1949-’58)–and was even a member of the old Baltimore Colts for one game in 1950, before rejoining the Bears. In his time with the Bears, Blanda had some great moments, and a lot of his teammates considered him a top-flight quarterback. However, his constant conflicts with Bears owner-coach and NFL founder George Halas sent him into football exile.
Blanda sat the 1959 season out, and he drove a truck. According to Jeff Davis in his Halas biography “Papa Bear,” Blanda promised sportswriter Cooper Rollow he’d play football again soon. Rollow didn’t know what on earth Blanda was talking about–and Blanda didn’t elaborate. Blanda simply said: “There’s something going on that you don’t know about.”
A new football league was in the works–and one of the charter franchises would be the Houston Oilers. The American Football League was launched in 1960, and Blanda was ready to play. Upon signing Blanda, Oilers general manager John Breen said, “He knows how to take a defense apart.” For the season opener, the Oilers flew to the Pacific Coast, and Blanda took the Oakland Raiders defense apart with four touchdown passes. The Oilers won, 37-22.
The 1960 Oilers went 10-4 and scored a league-high 379 points (27.5 points per game). Houston hosted the first AFL Championship Game against the Los Angeles Chargers. The seesaw battle saw Paul Lowe running wild for the Chargers and Blanda throwing 3 touchdowns for the Oilers. George also kicked three extra points and a field goal and was named Player of the Game as the Oilers prevailed, 24-16.
A number of former Oilers reflected back on those years in Jeff Miller’s book on the AFL, “Going Long.” Safety Jim Norton said, “George was brilliant at signal calling, audibling, one of the best signal callers of all time.” Offensive guard Hogan Wharton said, “This guy was a coach on the field.”
The 1961 season saw the Oilers go 10-3-1 and scored 513 points (36.6 ppg). That point total stood as a pro football record for 22 years. Throwing for 3,330 yards and 36 touchdowns, Blanda was named the AFL’S Most Valuable Player as he led the Oilers back to the Championship Game.
The Oilers invaded the home turf of the Chargers, who now played in San Diego. The contest was surprisingly low scoring, but for the second championship game in a row, Blanda accounted for all of the Oilers’ points. He kicked a field goal and an extra point, and he threw 35 yards to Billy Cannon for the game’s only touchdown. The Oilers were Champs again, 10-3.
In “Going Long, ” All-Pro offensive tackle Al Jamison said: “George Blanda was probably the single most important factor in our winning those two championships.”
1961 turned out to be the last championship for both Blanda and the Oilers. Together they lost the 1962 AFL Championship Game to the Dallas Texans. The 1967 Oakland Raiders, with Blanda as the kicker and backup quarterback, lost Super Bowl II to the Green Bay Packers. The Oilers fielded some interesting teams over the next three decades, but they never made it back to the final game.
After 37 seasons (1960-1996), the Oilers moved to Tennessee. They then played two transitory seasons as the Tennessee Oilers then began a new era in 1999 as the Tennessee Titans, with Nashville as their home base.
As for Blanda, he played his final 9 seasons (1967-1975) with the Oakland Raiders. Upon retiring, Blanda had thrown for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns. He scored 2,002 points. In 1981, Blanda was inducted into The Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I just missed watching George Blanda play. As a kid in 1977, I started following pro football. One of the first players I read about was George Blanda. I remember thinking, “He played from 1949 to 1975?????” It still astounds me today.
–Karon Cook, Ronnie Foreman, Chip Greene, Matt Haddad, Terry Keshner, Mike Lynch, Bob Lazzari, Bob Swick, Andrew Tuttle, Joe Williams, Tony Williams