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SI weighs in on the NFL’s greatest

Posted Nov 6, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 10:04 PM

Arguing about who’s better or who’s best is a given in sports. And when fans gather to talk about the National Football League, figuring out the greatest players, teams and coaches of all time can spark some very spirited debates.

It’s time for more discussion. Sports Illustrated now weighs in with a marvelously large coffee-table sized book that is chock full of the great photography that has defined SI for 58 years. 

Football’s Greatest” (Sports Illustrated Books, $32.95, hardback, 288 pages) may settle some arguments, but it is bound to start many more.

The book is edited by Bill Syken, with contributions (past and present) from Sports Illustrated’s stable of writers and contributors. During the 2011 season, seven SI writers and editors who cover the NFL were polled to submit top 10 lists — and to defend their choices. The panel included senior writers Don Banks, Damon Hack, Peter King, Tim Layden and Jim Trotter; senior editor Mark Godich; and assistant managing editor Mark Mravic.

Sports Illustrated’s panel rated the top 10 in 14 different categories: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs. The top 10 coaches are also rated, along with the best games and best plays. The top single-season teams, best stadiums and best franchises also are ranked.

“The Top 10 List has never been more robust,” Rushin writes in the book’s introduction. “… This book sits at the intersection of three American obsessions. It is the T-junction joining football, lists of 10 and our abiding desire to know — at any given time, in any area of human endeavor — who’s No. 1.”

There it is, in a nutshell. So who do you like? Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas at quarterback? Or Unitas or Brett Favre? Or Favre or Peyton Manning? Or Manning or Tom Brady? Who is your top running back, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, or Emmitt Smith? Or someone else? The possibilities are delicious.

I enjoyed going to each chapter and guessing who might be the top-ranked player at every position. And in many cases, when I turned to the first page of the chapter and saw Sports Illustrated’s top-choice, I found myself nodding “yes.”

What fans will argue about will be the actual rankings, from No. 1 to 10, or wonder why a particular player, coach or event was omitted.

The choices were difficult, I am sure. I mean, Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, is ranked sixth among running backs. You would be hard-pressed to move Smith, a wonderful runner, ahead of the top-five choices — guys named Jim Brown. Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson and Gale Sayers.

King already has an answer for those who will clamor against Simpson being on any list due to crimes he was convicted of (and those he was acquitted for) after his career.

“Our job is not to be the judge and jury of whatever he did later in life, off the field,” King writes. “It’s to judge him as a player — and there aren’t three backs in NFL history who combined the electric moves and power of Simpson.”

There are some interesting choices that will spark plenty of debate. For example, including Terrell Owens among the top 10 wide receivers of all time and leaving out Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. Sentimentally, I would have liked to have seen 1972 Dolphins Larry Little and/or Jim Langer among the top 10 offensive linemen, but the competition was way too tough.

Bucs fans will be pleased to see Lee Roy Selmon and Warren Sapp ranked among the top 10 defensive linemen (at No. 9 and 10, respectively). They might not be so happy when they notice that the Jets’ Darrelle Revis made the top 10 among defensive backs, while John Lynch did not.

Looking at the top 10 coaches is like looking at the Mount Rushmore of the NFL sidelines. As with many other categories, a reader will stop and think, “Wow, what a group.”

More debates. The top 10 games include the Ice Bowl, the Giants-Colts 1958 overtime thriller, the Chargers-Dolphins playoff epic in January 1982 and Super Bowl III. But left out was the 1971 Christmas Day double-overtime game between Miami and Kansas City. Ouch.

See? I am starting to debate this stuff.

The No. 1 team of all time will surprise you. No, it’s not the ’72 Dolphins, but it’s not the 1978 Steelers, either (the team that beat Miami in the simulated tournament staged years ago by NFL Films). The 1962 Packers? No. The 1984 49ers? Nope. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

There are other fun sections, too, like top 10 trades, top 10 undrafted players and top 10 movies. And Sports Illustrated pats itself on the back a little bit by choosing its top 10 best NFL covers.

What’s also helpful are the charts at the end of the book that show total results for every category. Irvin came in at No. 12 for wide receivers, and the Dolphins-Chiefs game pulled up at No. 16. Lynch did not make the top 20. It’s interesting to note that former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy ranked 12th overall, ahead of John Madden, Don Coryell and Jimmy Johnson. Old Tampa Stadium ranked 22nd overall. The Bucs franchise did not rank among the top 20; the Dolphins were No. 11.

This book is thorough, with the type of writing and editing one has grown to expect from Sports Illustrated through the years. It goes without saying that the photography is equally impressive. It’s definitely a book any die-hard NFL fan would want. Especially the argumentative ones.

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