The Hall of Fame in any sport tends to be a source of controversy. The concept of a Hall of Fame means different things to different people, with their own unique biases and values. No set of beliefs is necessarily right or wrong, as they’re just opinions without prescriptive power. I have often lamented that the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t match my personal vision. For most of my life, my grievances were met with puzzled looks from disinterested humanoids. However, thanks to the proliferation of social media, it has become incredibly easy to find other people passionate about the things you love. I joined forces with some of those people to form our own Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame Basics
The GrideFe Hall of Fame Committee comprises analytics maven Ben Baldwin, research guru Topher Doll, standard human Bryan Frye, actual genius Adam Harstad, enigmatic fount of knowledge Raider Joe, and quarterback aficionado Adam Steele.1
For the inaugural Hall of Fame class, we decided to keep it simple and only induct players and coaches. Also, we determined that it would be best to separate modern and pre-modern players. We consider modern players those who played the majority of their careers after 1950 and modern coaches those who coached for a significant period of time after 1950. We did not discuss pre-modern players for our debut class. Instead, we opted to include them in the Legends Wing, which highlights the players who shined while the game was still in its relative infancy. There will be plenty of time next year to discuss contributors and legends.
In a move that may be obscene to purists, we don’t have a five year waiting period for eligibility. The waiting period for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is to allow voters to have time to step back and reassess a player’s career after some of his hype has died down. We decided that we will allow our voters to use their judgment to put player careers in historical context, and we believe some players are so obviously worthy that a waiting period is unnecessary. For instance, I didn’t vote for some recent or active players because I wanted to take more time to reflect on their careers. But I don’t need to wait five years to put Tom Brady in the Hall of Fame.
Voters can take a holistic view of every candidate’s contribution to the NFL. That means, for example, we can look at John Madden’s career as a coach, his time as an influential broadcaster, and his role in enhancing football’s popularity through his video game franchise. Moreover, it is the voters’ prerogative to consider or ignore off-field issues. That means if I think O.J. Simpson doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because of his criminal history, or Terrell Owens shouldn’t be inducted because of his famous locker room distractions, I don’t have to vote for them.2
Voting consists of three rounds. At the end of the final round, all players with at least five votes are officially in the GridFe Hall of Fame. For the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this type of format would be absurd. The Canton institution is a brick and mortar museum that hosts an elaborate ceremony for each of its inductees every year. In our little corner of the internet, we needn’t worry about such logistics. Here, if we think people belong, we enshrine them.
Essentially, our fundamental philosophy is: Thoughtful, trustworthy voters trusted to vote thoughtfully.
Round One of Voting
The first found is what we dubbed the “slam dunks” round. Here, everyone on the committee made their own, separate list of every player and coach they considered absolute-without-a-doubt-no-brainers. Some of the lists were fairly short (Steele’s had just 95 names), while others started to get out of hand (mine contained 192 names). After comparing our ballots, we ended up with 45 unanimous selections and 39 more with five votes, giving us 84 total inductees after one round.
Round Two of Voting
The second round consisted of up/down votes, where we had the opportunity to vote yes or no to the players and coaches on other ballots. Ben and the Adams were generous, up-voting at least 50 names apiece. I was a bit more stubborn, only giving up-votes to four additional players. Once we finished our ups and downs, we had 157 total players and coaches in our Hall of Fame.
Round Three of Voting
The third, and final, round gave us the opportunity to “bang the table” for players who didn’t make the cut after the first two rounds. We’re a full disclosure committee, so it makes sense to tell you how how that went down. There were eight players with four votes, and they automatically went up for argument. Those players were Tony Dorsett, Tim Brown, Bob Brown, Nick Mangold, Jason Taylor, John Randle, and Darrell Green. Additionally, Harstad brought three-vote players Bobby Mitchell, Jim Tyrer, and DeMarcus Ware to the table for debate.3
Joe and I lobbied on behalf of Dorsett, but we did not convince anyone to change his vote. Harstad and I successfully argued for Tim Brown, Mangold, and Green. I managed to turn one voter to get Boomer Brown in. Harstad and Topher convinced me to vote yes to Taylor. Harstad also swayed Ben and Steele to give the thumbs up to Ware. I stated my case against Randle, and either because of that or independently, Harstad changed his vote to no. Harstad did talk me into changing my vote on Mitchell, but my vote wasn’t enough to push him over the threshold. The most thorough discussion concerned Tyrer. Harstad made a thoughtful and compelling case, but we were hesitant to include the controversial figure.
After we all had the chance to consider each other’s arguments and cast our final votes, we ended up with 132 candidates with six votes and 31 more with five votes, giving us 163 members in our inaugural Hall of Fame class.
Hall of Fame Pioneers
While we decided to separate modern players from older players, we felt it was important to pay tribute to three men who were ahead of their time with Pioneer selections to our Hall of Fame proper. Those men are the first superstar quarterback, the original workhorse running back, and the father of the modern wide receiver position. Sammy Baugh, Steve Van Buren, and Don Hutson did not go through the normal voting process but were, instead, unanimously approved as Pioneers. Because they are groundbreakers, it only makes sense to start out with them (I’ll cover the rest of the inductees in subsequent posts).
Sammy Baugh (1937-1952)
2 MVPs; 7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 4 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 3 GridFe Slinger Awards; 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award4
Entering the league in 1937, Slingin’ Sammy made an immediate impact, earning first team All NFL honors and guiding Washington to an upset victory over the mighty Chicago Bears in the championship game. Accounting for era, he is the most accurate passer of all time. When he completed 70.33% of his passes in 1945, his mark was 24.67 percentage points higher than the rest of the league and stood as a record for 37 years. Baugh’s amazing accuracy enabled him to avoid interceptions far more successfully than his contemporaries. A cursory glance at his stats will show 187 touchdowns to 203 picks, but a cursory glance is seldom sufficient to tell the tale. In the context of his playing environment, Baugh was just as careful with the ball as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Adjusting for era, he threw about 107 fewer interceptions than expected, and his touchdown-interception differential jumps from -16 to +149.5
It wasn’t just Baugh’s preternatural accuracy that stands out in history. His usage rate as a passer revolutionized the game, changing the expectations we have of those manning the position. Packers legend Arnie Herber retired in 1940 as the NFL’s passing leader with 6749 yards. Baugh broke that record in his sixth season and ultimately pushed it to a then astronomical 21886 yards. He also finished his career with 187 touchdown passes, shattering Herber’s prior record of 66. Baugh held onto those record for 16 and 19 years, respectively.6 In addition to his prodigious passing prowess, Baugh was also a celebrated defensive back and accomplished punter. He held the career interceptions record from 1943-1949, bolstered by a league-high 11 in 1943, and his 51.4 yard punting average in 1940 remains the single season record.7
Steve Van Buren (1944-1951)
1 MVP; 6 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 2 GridFe World Awards; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award8
Some have expressed distaste for the recent shift from the feature back to the running back by committee approach. However, for a significant portion of NFL history, committee backfields were the norm; the workhorse era didn’t begin until the 1980s. Van Buren entered a league that commonly saw a team’s rushing leader change from year to year, with a different member of the platoon leading the way each time. Supersonic Steve was the first great bellcow running back. Van Buren led the league in attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns four times apiece. He led in rushing yards per game five times, trailing leader Bill Dudley by 75 yards in 1946, despite playing in two fewer games. Gaining the vast majority of his production on the ground, Van Buren led the NFL in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns twice apiece. We don’t have reliable yardage numbers prior to 1932, but we do have official records for touchdowns. Ernie Nevers held the rushing touchdowns record until Van Buren usurped him in 1947. He wore the touchdown crown for 15 years, until Jim Brown rewrote the record books.
The Honduran superstar also held the career rushing yards record for nine years before losing the title to Joe Perry. However, it is noteworthy that Van Buren did it playing most of his career in the 10-game era, and his body was broken down by the time the league transitions to 13- and 12-game seasons. Perry, on the other hand, played 12 and 14 game seasons in the AAFC and NFL. Van Buren’s usage and output on a per-game basis were revolutionary.9 The legendary back wasn’t just a masterful rusher; he was also among the game’s finest return men. As a rookie, he led the league in both punt and kick return average. His career kick return average of 26.7 still ranks 13th in history, and his 13.9 yard punt return average would easily rank first if he met the 75 return minimum to qualify for career rankings.
Don Hutson (1935-1945)
Green Bay Packers
2 MVPs; 10 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 2 GridFe World Awards; 3 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 7 GridFe Bambi Awards; 1 GridFe Toe Award10
The Alabama Antelope, Don Hutson, brought refined route-running concepts to the NFL and forever changed the way the game was played. Prior to his arrival, passing concepts were unsophisticated and easily defended. Hutson started playing chess while others were playing checker, and, at least for a while, he really was playing a different position from anyone else in the game. Hutson’s career featured enough black ink to pen a novel: he led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards per game eight times, receiving yards and total touchdowns seven times, receiving touchdowns nine times, and scrimmage yards thrice. In the wake of the modern game’s obscene passing inflation, his numbers don’t impress the untrained observer. However, when he retired in 1945, his 488 catches dwarfed second-place Jim Benton‘s 190. His 7991 yards towered over Benton’s 3309. His 99 touchdowns eclipsed runner-up Johnny Blood McNally’s 37. In all three stats, the gap between Hutson and the next guy was enough to itself rank second in history.
Because the NFL didn’t track official stats until 1932, the official yardage record prior to Hutson’s arrival paints an incomplete picture. Chicago Bears legend Luke Johnsos played three seasons prior to the stat era, so he officially retired after setting the receiving yardage record at 985 yards. Hutson surpassed that mark in his third season and didn’t relinquish the record to Billy Howton for 18 years. In his fifth season, Hutson broke McNall’s touchdown record and held onto it for an astonishing 50 seasons, until Steve Largent took the crown with the last scoring catch of his career. Hutson was also a solid defensive back and a capable kicker. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1940 and in interception return yards in 1943, and he even (briefly) held the career record with 14 picks. As a placekicker, he converted 94.0% of his extra points and led the league in made PATs three times. In 1943, Hutson made all of his 36 PAT attempts and led all players in made field goals.
Hall of Fame Quarterbacks
The aim of the GridFe Hall of Fame is to recognize the greatest and most important names in NFL history. When it comes to identifying greatness, some positions stand out more than others. The quarterback is the most important player in football and, arguably, the most important single position in major team sports. The value of the position is such that they are the only ones on the field who are assigned wins for their efforts. It should be no surprise, then, that of the 151 players in the inaugural GridFe Hall of Fame class, twenty are field generals.
There have been many greats to man the position over the years, and omission from the GridFe Hall of Fame is not an indictment of anyone’s ability or legacy. Rather, it just means our voting committee didn’t get five people to agree on his induction. There are champions, MVPs, and beloved icons who didn’t make the final cut. Below are the nineteen who did.11
Otto Graham (1946-1955)
6 MVPs (3 AAFC/3 NFL); 9 First Team All Pros (4 AAFC/5 NFL); 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls; 7 Title Wins (4 AAFC/3 NFL); 3 Title Losses; 5 GridFe Automatic Awards (3 AAFC/2 NFL); 1 GrideFe World Award (AAFC); 3 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 7 GridFe Slinger Awards (4 AAFC/3 NFL)12
Automatic Otto played in his league’s championship game in each of his ten seasons, picking up seven victories along the way. Graham was an incredibly accurate passer and efficiently distributed the ball to a bevy of receivers in Paul Brown’s advanced passing offense. He retired with 23584 passing yards, which was the most by any professional quarterback, and 174 touchdowns, which trailed only Sammy Baugh‘s 187. He remains the all-time leader in yards per pass (9.0), and he held the QB rushing touchdowns record until Cam Newton broke it in 2016.
Bobby Layne (1948-1962)
Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Bulldogs, Chicago Bears
2 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss
Layne retired as the career leader in passing yards, but his passing wasn’t what earned him the adoration of fans and teammates alike. He played recklessly, putting his body on the line in order to win. Layne was the unquestioned leader of his team, and listening to teammates discuss him gives the idea that they would have fallen on a grenade for him. As the father of the two minute drill, he struck fear into the hearts of defenses with his ability to go over the top or pick up first downs with his legs.
Norm Van Brocklin (1949-1960)
Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles
2 MVPs; 2 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 Titles Losses; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 2 GridFe Slinger Awards
Van Brocklin started his career in a quarterback timeshare that would seem foreign to a modern viewer, but he outplayed his celebrated teammate Bob Waterfield and ultimately became the main man. The Dutchman threw one of the most beautiful deep balls in history, but he also possessed an understanding of defenses that is typically more closely associated with modern quarterbacks. His quick release and quicker mind enabled him to lead his offenses to consistent success, and he is one of just two quarterbacks to lead two different teams to a championship victory.
Johnny Unitas (1956-1973)
Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers
5 MVPs; 6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 4 GridFe Slinger Awards
The original Johnny Football was a quarterback who played with a linebacker’s mentality. He was tough as nails and relished contact, but there was more to it than that. Unitas had the confidence to make any throw into any coverage, and he also had the deft touch to place the ball exactly where he wanted it. While Layne pioneered the two minute drill, Unitas was the man who perfected it. He retired as the career leader in passing yards and touchdowns, demolishing the previous records. Unitas remains the archetype for the classic, dropback passer.
Bart Starr (1956-1971)
Green Bay Packers
1 MVP; 1 First Team All Pro; 3 Second team All Pros; 4 Pro Bowls; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss
Starr was the steady hand guiding the Lombardi Packers dynasty. He led with remarkable efficiency, but his volume was relatively low, even for his era. The false impression is one of a system QB, but the film shows a precise passer who helped his teams build early leads and rely on its power running game to maintain them. Rather than being the product of a system, he was a vital component that kept the system working optimally. When it mattered most, Starr was at his best. His 104.8 postseason passer rating is still the top mark in history.
Sonny Jurgensen (1957-1974)
Philadelphia Eagles, Washington
2 MVPs; 1 First Team All Pro; 3 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 3 GridFe Slinger Awards
Jurgensen was the greatest pure passer of his era and one of the best of all time. His approach was unorthodox, but he was a natural thrower who could hit his mark from a variety of angles. Jurgensen used that beautiful ball of his to lead the NFL in passing five times and set the single season yardage record on two occasions, on two different teams. He rarely had the support afforded to many of the all-time greats, and he lacked team success, but when you watched him play, it was clear he was as good as anyone who’s ever done it.
Fran Tarkenton (1961-1978)
Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants
2 MVPs; 2 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Losses; 2 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe Slinger Award
Tarkenton was thought of as a scrambler who was too small to be a great QB. It’s true that he was a scrambler; he retired as career leader in rushing yards by a quarterback. However, he also retired as the leader in passing yards and touchdowns, holding both records for an incredible 19 years. No passer has ever held either record for longer, and Tarkenton set it playing primarily in the dead ball era. He helped turn around the fortunes of both the Vikings and the Giants during his storied career.
Roger Staubach (1969-1979)
2 MVPs; 1 Second Team All Pro; 6 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 3 GridFe Slinger Awards
Captain Comeback was the finest quarterback of his generation. Commitments to the US Navy postponed the start of his career till age 27, robbing him of five seasons in his physical prime (not that you’d ever hear him complain). However, it also meant that he came into the league as the rare rookie who had the immediate respect and adulation of his veteran teammates. The brevity of Staubach’s career means he didn’t post big volume numbers, but he did retire as the career passer rating king. He was a precision passer and superb athlete who commanded respect on and off the field.
Dan Fouts (1973-1987)
San Diego Chargers
2 MVPs; 3 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Slinger Award
Fouts was the perfect trigger man for Don Coryell’s aerial assault. He was big-armed and confident, with uncanny deep ball accuracy. Fouts also possessed the smarts and soundness of technique to back up the braggadocio. His passes generated yardage in torrents, evidenced by the fact that he set the single season passing yards record three years in a row and was on pace to decimate the mark during the strike-shortened 1982 season.13 Fouts was the unquestioned leader and driving force behind one of the game’s most important and influential offenses.
Joe Montana (1979-1994)
San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs
2 MVPs; 3 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 1 GridFe Slinger Award
Joe Cool was lanky and unassuming, often so laid back that he came off as aloof. In fact, one of the reasons he slipped in the draft is that some coaches were concerned that he didn’t even care about football. However, with the game on the line, Montana was an assassin. He was cooly efficient and one of the best regular season QBs the game has ever seen, but the postseason is where he cemented his legacy. Montana’s teams went 4-0 in the Super Bowl, with the legend going 68% with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, and two rushing scores for good measure.14
John Elway (1983-1998)
1 MVP; 1 First Team All Pro; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Automatic Award
Coming out of college, Elway was among the most highly touted prospects in history. He had legendary arm strength, remarkable athleticism, and natural leadership. A large part of his story is his role as is the posterboy for the importance of coaching in a QB’s development. He started off his career as a one man gang, making lemonade out of a roster full of lemons. He wasn’t refined, and his arm seemed to be stuck with the fastball switch in the on position, but he was the soul of the team. When paired with a creative coach and talented castmates, Elway posted staggering numbers for his age and picked up two championships as he rode into the sunset.
Dan Marino (1983-1999)
1 MVP; 3 First Team All Pros; 5 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 4 GridFe Slinger Awards
Perhaps the greatest pure thrower ever to grace the sport, Marino boasted a release reminiscent of a whipcrack and the ability to make any throw a coach could dream up. He didn’t have the arm strength to throw a deep ball from his knees, but he had perhaps the greatest functional throwing power of any man to grace the position. Marino is probably the best in history at avoiding sacks, once going 19 straight games without a sack.15 Poor defensive support has caused hindsight analysts to try to besmirch Marino’s legacy, but this is pure applesauce. One doesn’t hold the yardage and touchdown records for 12 years without possessing immense talent.
Warren Moon (1984-2000)
Houston Oilers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs
1 MVP; 1 First Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 1 GridFe Slinger Award
Moon’s career stands as a triumph in a face of pervasive racism. Kept out of the NFL coming out of college, he dominated the CFL so completely and thoroughly for six seasons that the bigger league could no longer justify preventing him from playing quarterback. In fact, Moon went from not being allowed to play quarterback in the NFL to having his team lean heavily on his arm. He helped turn around a moribund Oilers franchise, and he scoffed at entanglement, posting consecutive 4000 yard seasons with two different teams and making the Pro Bowl with three different teams.
Steve Young (1985-1999)
San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2 MVPs; 4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Slinger Awards
Young was a highly regarded prospect out of college and opted to join the upstart USFL instead of the established NFL. After the lesser league folded, he spent two lackluster years in Tampa Bay before Bill Walsh saw his promise and brought him to the 49ers. Young had to wait a long time to become the starter in San Francisco, but it was worth the wait. Accounting for era, he was the most efficient passer in history, leading the NFL in passer rating six times. He had the best combination of passing and running prowess of anyone the league has ever seen. In addition to earning the completion rate crown five times and the touchdown crown four times, his 51 combined regular and postseason rushing touchdowns rank behind only Cam Newton‘s 56.
Brett Favre (1991-2010)
Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons
3 MVPs; 3 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 3 GridFe Slinger Awards
When Favre took the field, it was must-see theater. As the cold robe of winter blanketed Green Bay, the gunslinger worked his magic. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was always exciting. Favre retired as the career leader in passing yards and touchdowns, and his 297 consecutive starts are 87 more than the next most at the position. That he also holds the record for career interceptions and fumbles is illustrative of the highs and lows he hit during his two decades under center. Favre was as tough as they come and played the game with irreverence and incandescent joy.
Peyton Manning (1998-2015)
Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos
6 MVPs; 7 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 14 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses; 6 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 5 GridFe Slinger Awards
From a purely statistical standpoint, Manning is the most dominant quarterback in history. Many passers excel at picking up yards, avoiding turnovers, staying upright in the pocket, getting the ball in the endzone, or engineering drives. Manning excelled at everything. He won MVP awards and made Super Bowls with two different teams and four different head coaches. Demanding of his teammates, he didn’t just help them produce better numbers – he helped them become better players.16 Beyond that, he changed the position with his pre-snap diagnoses and gesticulations, bringing an increased cerebral element to the game’s most important position.
Tom Brady (2000-present)
New England Patriots
4 MVPs; 5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 13 Pro Bowls; 5 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 2 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Slinger Awards
It has become popular to call Brady a system quarterback as a pejorative. In fact, it is high praise to bestow upon him that honor. Brady has played for one coach, but he has been through several schematic shifts to fit leaguewide trends and team personnel. He has proven to be a chameleon, fitting into every new design with aplomb and defying age along the way. Brady has led the league in passing yards thrice and touchdowns four times, while maintaining one of the lowest interception rates ever. Few have ever had as much success with the quarterback sneak, and none has matched his subtle artistry within the pocket. There’s also the matter of the rings, but it’s, frankly, reductive to define Brady by his jewelry.
Drew Brees (2001-present)
New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers
1 MVP; 3 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 1 GridFe Slinger Award
Brees may be the greatest player in football history who was never widely considered the best at his own position when he played. After suffering a career-threatening injury, he got a fresh start in a city starved for a hero. He delivered in a big way, boasting some of the most impressive passing displays of recent vintage. There have been nine 5000 yard passing seasons in history. Brees owns five of them. There have also been nine 70% seasons in history. Brees authored four of them. Few passers in history have ever been asked to shoulder such a prolific load. The undersized QB has carried the team on his back while posting outlandish volume numbers and the highest completion rate of all time.
Aaron Rodgers (2005-present)
Green Bay Packers
2 MVPs; 2 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Slinger Awards
Filling in for a beloved franchise legend isn’t easy, but Rodgers proved up to the challenge. He may be the most fundamentally gifted player ever to hold the position. His ability to process defenses quickly and can throw with uncanny accuracy to all levels of the field, from any angle you could ever want, is unparalleled. He excels when plays break down and he has to escape the pocket, as he may be the best in history when it comes to throwing with precision while on the run. His play is at once beautiful and intricate, like watching Mozart amongst a crowd of Salieris.
Hall of Fame Running Backs
When voting for the GrideFe Hall of Fame, it was important that we looked at players through the prism of their era and didn’t try to put modern restrictions on players operating in a different context than today’s. With rule changes and schematic shifts designed to increase the impact of the passing game, the role and impact of running backs has diminished in recent years. However, for much of NFL history, great backs have played pivotal roles on great offenses and championship teams. Whether they were pure runners, receiving or blocking specialists, or a combination thereof, they were celebrated for their achievements and for their parts in shaping their teams. Because of the importance of the position for so much of the league’s history, as well as the mystique surrounding the role, an impressive 22 running backs received votes for the GridFe Hall of Fame. Seven didn’t make the cut. These are the fifteen who did.17
Lenny Moore (1956-1967)
1 MVP; 5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award
Spats Moore was an efficient rusher and a gifted receiver. He led the leaue in yards per carry four times, including three seasons over 7.0. A dynamic receiving option, he actually retired with more yards through the air than on the ground. These weren’t just checkdowns – he had six seasons with at least 15 yards per catch. Moore was also a prolific scorer, once finding the endzone in 18 straight games and trailing only Jim Brown in career touchdowns at the time of his retirement.
Jim Brown (1957-1965)
4 MVPs; 8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 2 Title Losses; 2 GridFe Automatic Awards; 4 GridFe World Awards; 5 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 7 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Brown was a feature back in an era of platoons, leading the NFL in carries six times. His workload was justified, as he dominated the position like no one before or since. He led the league in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons, and he led in total touchdowns five times. He retired as career leader in yards and touchdowns and held onto those records for over twenty years apiece. The question isn’t whether Brown is the greatest running back of all time, but whether he is the greatest player of all time.
Jim Taylor (1958-1967)
Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints
1 MVP; 2 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award; 1 GridFe Motley Award
The hard-nosed Taylor was the perfect back for the Lombardi Packers. He was a tough runner who excelled in the mud and the frigid Green Bay winters. Taylor had the quickness to get outside on the sweep and the raw power to demolish defenders, and he used those to boast terrific production in the murderer’s row of the NFL West. He refused to be tackled and insisted on punishing anyone who tried. On top of that, he was a ferocious blocker who didn’t mind sacrificing his body for his teammates.
Gale Sayers (1965-1971)
5 First Team All Pros; 4 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award; 2 GridFe Gray and White Awards
The Kansas Comet is perhaps the smoothest runner ever to don a pair of cleats. He could make sharp cuts but was even more impressive in his ability to use subtle jukes without losing speed. A severe injury robbed him of that part of his game, but he modified his playing style and was able to return and earn a second rushing title before further injuries ended his career for good. Sayers was a dynamic playmaker who was always a threat with the ball in his hands. He still owns the career record for kick return average (30.6).18
O.J. Simpson (1969-1979)
Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers
2 MVPs; 5 First Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards
The Juice carried the Bills on his back in the early 70s, leading the league in rushing four times. During his five-year peak, Simpson averaged 2021 yards and 12 touchdowns per 16 games. This includes two of the greatest seasons in history. His 2003 yard season19 was legendary, but 1975 was perhaps even better. Playing a 14-game schedule in the depths of the dead ball era, he averaged 160.2 scrimmage yards per game and scored 23 touchdowns.20 His time at the top was short, but his peak was a high as anyone’s in history.
Walter Payton (1975-1987)
2 MVPs; 7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Sweetness is among the most versatile backs the game has ever seen. His rushing prowess is legendary. He possessed a potent combination of speed, power, balance, and determination, using them to become all-time leading rusher and touchdown scorer. Payton was a dedicated and fierce blocker, a stellar receiver, and even capably filled at at quarterback when called upon. He was universally respected and beloved by his teammates. There have been thousands of players to grace the field throughout the league’s history. Only Payton has a namesake media award given to the NFL’s Man of the Year.21
Earl Campbell (1978-1985)
Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints
3 MVPs; 3 First Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards
The Tyler Rose dominated his opponents with raw power and sheer tyranny of will. His runs were at once violent and poetic, leaving a trail of bodies strewn in his wake. Few have ever brought such savagery to the position. He was the first, second, and third option for his offenses. Defenses knew he was getting the ball, and he ran through them anyway. He began his career with three straight rushing crowns, averaging 110.5 rushing yards per game. His reckless style ultimately contributed to an abbreviated career, but at his peak he may have been the most feared runner ever to carry a football.
Marcus Allen (1982-1997)
Los Angeles Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs
1 MVP; 2 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards; 1 GridFe Motley Award
Marcus Allen started off his career with a bang, leading the league in yards and touchdowns as a rookie. The following year, he authored one of the great Super Bowl performances in history, gaining 209 yards and scoring twice en route to the game’s MVP award. Over the course of his first four seasons, Allen averaged 1949 yards and 16 scores per 16 games. He was a versatile dual threat who ended up spending a large part of his prime sacrificing his body as a lead blocker for a part time player. He got a fresh start in Kansas City, scoring 47 touchdowns in the new city and becoming the only back to score in 16 NFL seasons. His late career resurgence saw him retire with the career touchdown record.
Eric Dickerson (1983-1993)
Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Raiders, Atlanta Falcons
1 MVP; 5 First Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 4 GridFe Supersonic Awards
In terms of pure rushing ability, Dickerson may have been the best there ever was. He was fast, powerful, and sleek, with an unorthodox upright running style. With his large frame and long gate, he was reminiscent of Secretariat in football pads. The bespectacled virtuoso led the NFL in yards in three of his first four seasons, and once again after being traded to Indianapolis. This includes his masterful sophomore campaign that saw him set the single season rushing record at 2105 yards.
Thurman Thomas (1988-2000)
Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
1 MVP; 3 First Team All Pros; 2 Second team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Award
The Little Cyclone was a dynamic playmaker who served as the engine that made the explosive K-Gun Bills offenses run. He led the league in yards from scrimmage every season from 1989-92, adding at least a dozen touchdowns each year. Thomas was the most versatile back in a league full of all-time greats, and he actually improved in the postseason. From 1989-95, he averaged 120 scrimmage yards and 1.1 touchdowns in 16 playoff games.
Barry Sanders (1989-1998)
3 MVPs; 8 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 4 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Maybe the most exciting runner of all time, Sanders was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. He averaged an astonishing 1819 yards from scrimmage over the course of his decade in the NFL, never falling below 1320 in a given season. Sanders looked like a sure thing to break the carer rushing record, but he abruptly called it a career after a 1500 yard season. He stands apart from many other great backs in that his offenses would take the field in obvious passing formations, and defenses would still focus on him. Despite all the attention paid to him, tacklers were usually left grasping at air.
Emmitt Smith (1990-2004)
Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals
2 MVPs; 4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Smith wasn’t the fastest, strongest, or quickest back. His greatest strengths were ones that didn’t jump off the screen: balance, vision, pad level, and the ability to be like water. He always seemed to find yards and elevate his offensive lines, he fell forward far more often than not, and he rarely absorbed hits. This combination of skills, on concert with legendary mental toughness, afforded Smith the opportunity to become the all-time leader in rush yards and touchdowns, posting 14 seasons over 1000 yards from scrimmage along the way. He is also one of the game’s most prolific playoff performers, for what it’s worth.
Marshall Faulk (1994-2005)
St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis Colts
2 MVPs; 3 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 2 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Faulk is very likely the greatest chess piece ever to play the position. He was an elusive runner, a smart blocker, and the best receiving back in history. With the ability to run a full route tree, Faulk had the skill to be an all pro receiver if he wanted to be. His prowess as a pass catcher has caused some to forget about his rushing contributions. Take note: there are eight seasons in history in which a player gained 80 rushing yards per game and 50 receiving yards per game. Faulk owns half of them, for two different teams, four years in a row.
LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-2011)
San Diego Chargers, New York Jets
1 MVP; 4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Tomlinson made playing football look easy. He possessed a rare combination of speed and strength and was the greatest of the early-2000s feature back era. His devastating stiff arm is the stuff of legends. He was a dangerous three down back with solid receiving skills and capable pass protection. Incredibly, Tomlinson Started his career with eight straight seasons over 1500 scrimmage yards. It was his nose for the end zone, however, that was his calling card. He began his career with nine seasons of double digit touchdowns, including a record 31 in 2006.
Adrian Peterson (2007-present)
Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints
2 MVPs; 5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 1 GridFe Supersonic Awards
Peterson is as great a runner as there ever has been, with the speed to break off huge chunks of yardage and the power to demoralize would-be tacklers. Perhaps his most important characteristic as a runner is his balance through contact. Whether he is taking or initiating a collision, he consistently rolls off tackles to pick up more yards. He has produced eight double-digit rushing touchdown seasons in an era when that doesn’t happen much for stud running backs. Peterson is a throwback to a bygone era, when a superhuman rusher could serve as an offense’s primary point of attack.
Hall of Fame Wide Receivers
Wide receiver was possibly the most vexing position for GridFe Hall of Fame voters. With the explosion of the passing game, modern players boast numbers that tower over those of players even as recently as the 1990s. Context is key, and it seems we may have been particularly cautious when considering receiving credentials. The committee ended up electing only twelve men at the position. Given the number of receivers on the field at a given time, and given the importance of passing to winning games, it may be that the relative dearth of players on this list speaks to an unconscious bias among voters. Below are the dozen who made the cut.22
Raymond Berry (1955-1967)
3 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Bambi Awards
One of the greatest technicians the game has ever seen, Berry is credited with perfecting the timing route, forming an unstoppable tandem with quarterback Johnny Unitas. He possessed near unrivaled work ethic and developed a vast arsenal of moves to win on routes. Berry elevated his already stellar play in the big moments, most notably in his masterpiece in 1958 Championship Game, in which he hauled in 12 passes for 178 yards. He retired as the career leader in catches and yards.
Lance Alworth (1962-1972)
San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys
4 MVPs (AFL); 7 First Team All Pros (AFL); 7 Pro Bowls (AFL); 2 Title Wins (1 AFL/1 NFL); 1 Title Loss (AFL); 1 GridFe World Award (AFL); 1 GridFe Sweetness Award (AFL); 4 GridFe Bambi Awards (AFL)
Bambi was the most feared offensive weapon in the AFL. He had arguably the most dominant peak of any receiver in history, with five straight seasons of at least 91.8 receiving yards per game.23 Alworth was the fastest of his era, played with poetic grace, and displayed rare economy of motion. Lost in his narrative is that he was also greedy and relished jumping over defensive backs to make contested catches. Despite his reputation as a pure speed burner, Alworth had the toughness and soft hands to be a possession receiver.
Paul Warfield (1964-1977)
Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins
6 First Team All Pros; 1 Second team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Bambi Awards
Warfield is probably the greatest pure deep threat in history. He posted even consecutive seasons with over 20 yards per catch, and his 20.1 career average is the fifth highest in history.24 His raw receiving stats may not impress the modern observer, but he played for notoriously run-heavy teams and garnered an outrageous share of his teams’ overall passing output. Few receivers have ever had the overall impact on opposing defenses that Warfield did in his heyday, and his Miami teammates credit him with providing the dynamic contrast to their power run game that enabled them to win two consecutive Super Bowls.
Steve Largent (1976-1989)
3 First Team All Pros; 4 Second team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Bambi Award
Largent was an undersized receiver with a linebacker’s mentality. He was a vicious and dedicated blocker and a fearless receiver over the middle. His toughness and hands are equally legendary and contributed to him being arguably the greatest possession receiver ever. Largent also happened to be a strong perimeter player capable of stretching the field deep. He used his well-rounded game to become the career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (he was the first to reach 100 scores through the air).
Jerry Rice (1985-2004)
San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks
2 MVPs; 11 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 13 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 7 GridFe Bambi Awards
His nickname is the GOAT, and it’s hard to dispute his place atop the football mountain. He’s inarguably the best receiver of all time, and he is probably greatest football player of all time. Rice is the career leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and by an astronomical margin.25 He hauled in double digit touchdowns in ten different seasons, including 22 in 12 games in 1987. If scoring isn’t your thing, he also had 14 seasons over 1000 yards, including 1211 at age 40. Rice led NFL in receiving yards and scores six times apiece. He ability to run after the catch has achieved mythic status, but he was also a dominant deep threat early in his career.26 He had 33 catches for 589 yards and 8 touchdowns in four Super Bowls, taking home the game’s MVP trophy in 1988. His work ethic and attention to detail are legendary and resulted in a game with no weaknesses and unrivaled longevity.27
Cris Carter (1987-2002)
Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins
2 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls
Perhaps no receiver in history has been so defined by what he was not. With the Eagles, he was not willing to do the dirty work required of an offense’s top weapon; many forget that the famous epithet that “all he does is catch touchdowns” was issued by coach Buddy Ryan as a justification for cutting him. He was often outshined by brighter stars within his conference through the early nineties, and a brighter star across the field in the late nineties. He wasn’t especially flashy or fast, he didn’t have a reputation for keeping defensive coordinators awake at night. This portrait is unfair to Carter, who wasn’t just the negative space surrounding his more-heralded peers; Carter’s grace, body control, soft hands, reliability, and durability saw him retire after the 2001 season with the 2nd-most catches and 3rd-most yards in history. He overcame early-career problems with alcohol and drugs to twice win league awards for character. And, oh yeah, he also caught some touchdowns.28
Michael Irvin (1988-1999)
1 First Team All Pro; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 GridFe Bambi Award
The Playmaker was a violent route-runner who initiated contact with defensive backs and thrived on physical confrontation. He had some of the strongest hands in the history of the position, enabling him to snatch jump balls away from defenders seemingly at will. Irvin was a reliable deep threat in his first few seasons before becoming an intimidating chain-mover. He often gets knocked for his relatively low touchdowns numbers (65 for his career), but he played for a team that was content to let their automatic running back carry the ball behind a stacked line near the endzone. Irvin saved his best for the biggest moments, gaining at least 80 yards in ten of his sixteen career playoff games.
Tim Brown (1988-2004)
Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Bambi Award; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award
Brown proved to be a weapon from the word go. After becoming the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy, he entered the NFL and scored on his very first career play. Early in his career, he was deployed primarily as a third down specialist who would consistently pick up first downs despite defenses knowing he was the first option. Ultimately, his talent was to great to limit only to third downs, and he became a reliable every down receiver. Once given the chance to shine, he averaged 88 receptions, 1221 yards and 8 touchdowns per season from ages 27-35. It is a testament to Brown’s character that he consistently maintained high effort and production on mostly middling teams.
Terrell Owens (1996-2010)
San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills
5 First team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Bambi Awards
T.O. was an imposing figure, built like a weakside linebacker with sprinter speed. He possessed the requisite skills to beat defenses deep, but he was best generating yardage after the catch. Owens was a monster with the ball in his hands, often opting to run through defenders rather than around them. Despite his (deserved) diva reputation, he was fearless and tough, with several memorable catches in traffic and a legendary Super Bowl performance on an injured leg. Maybe the most notable aspect of his career is the way he was able to laugh in the face of entanglement. He produced at a high level for a long time, for five different teams, with twelve different quarterbacks throwing him touchdown passes.29
Marvin Harrison (1996-2008)
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Bambi Awards
For the eight seasons of his prime, Harrison was a machine. From 1999-2006, he had at least 80 catches, 1113 yards, and 10 touchdowns every year. That includes 1400 yards in four consecutive seasons and an NFL record 143 receptions in 2002. The diminutive Harrison ran quick, precise routes that allowed him to gain separation on any route a coach could imagine. His ability to make sideline catches was near flawless, effectively widening the field for his offenses. He possessed uncommon savvy, and his chemistry with quarterback Peyton Manning is the stuff of legend.
Randy Moss (1998-2012)
Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans
4 First Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 3 GridFe Bambi Awards
They call him The Freak because he’s the most physically gifted receiver ever. He had blazing speed, lightning quickness, and spectacular leaping ability. He combined those traits with incredible body control and the ability to track the ball in the air like a centerfielder and snatch it with his vice-like hands. According to Bill Belichick, Moss also owned one of the brightest football minds of any player he ever coached. Put it all together, and you get a nightmare who led the league in receiving touchdowns five times, including a record 23 in 2007. His mere presence elevated the production of his quarterbacks and necessitated extra defensive attention. As a rookie, he helped the Vikings break the record for points in a season. Nine years later, he helped the Patriots break the same record. A few have matched his production, but none has so effortlessly made defenders reconsider their line of work.
Larry Fitzgerald (2004-present)
4 First Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Bambi Award
Fitzgerald boasts perhaps the greatest hands of any receiver in history. He has used those hands to great effect, often pulling in errant passes from inaccurate passers. His mastery of routes and strength to disengage defenders allow him to get open at will, and his positional awareness and nearly peerless catch radius mean he’s still a good option when blanketed. Fitzgerald is a truly complete receiver who found the fountain of youth as a slot artist and excels as a run blocker. He is among the great playoff performers ever at the position, putting on a legendary display in Arizona’s Wild Card Super Bowl run in 2008.30
Hall of Fame Tight Ends
With just eight inductees, tight end is by far the most underrepresented fantasy position in the initial class of the GridFe Hall of Fame. Of those eight, one played primarily in the 1960s, two in the 80s, one in the 90s, four since the turn of the century, and none in the dead ball era of the 70s. It may reflect some recency bias in our committee that we could only agree upon one tight end who started his career prior to the Mel Blount Rule.31
Mike Ditka (1961-1972)
Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 4 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Iron Mike Ditka made his impact on the league right away, topping a thousand yards and scoring twelve times on his way to changing the tight end position forever.32 He was a dangerous receiving threat, giving nightmares to the typically run-first linebackers of his era. However, Ditka maintained the requisite blocking skill incumbent upon the position. He was hardnosed and tough and didn’t just want to win games – he wanted to win every play. When he became a coach, he brought that passion to the sideline and helped guide the legendary ’85 Bears to one of the most dominant seasons in NFL history.
Ozzie Newsome (1978-1990)
2 First Team All Pros; 4 Second team All Pros; 3 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Gonzo Award
The Wizard of Oz was a well-rounded, classic tight end who was an aerial threat as well as a solid blocker. He was remarkably consistent, with high effort and production regardless of the man throwing him the ball. In his prime, he averaged 83 catches and 1012 yards per 16 games (1981-84). As an older player, Newsome put his toughness and cunning to good use, enabling him to play in 198 consecutive games with a 150-game catch streak. By the time he retired, Newsome was the all-time leader in catches and yards by a tight end. He also proved to be a successful executive. Since taking over as general manager of the Ravens in 2002, he has seen the team reach the playoffs eight times and win one Super Bowl, while suffering only four losing seasons.
Kellen Winslow (1979-1987)
San Diego Chargers
3 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Under Don Coryell, Winslow revolutionized the tight end position. The original Joker tight end, he could line up tight, in the slot, or even split out wide and create mismatches with his unfair combination of size, speed, and athleticism. Essentially, he was a chess piece for an innovative head coach and legendary quarterback. A knee injury cut his rookie campaign to seven games, but he rebounded with a five-year run of modern receiving numbers.33 Unfortunately, that included a nine-game strike season and another season cut to just seven games due to injuries. The cumulative effects of those knee injuries ultimately cut his career short, but Winslow was as dominant as any receiver in history for the first half of the 1980s.
Shannon Sharpe (1990-2003)
Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 4 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Sharpe was the next step in the evolution of the tight end position. Seemingly undersized at just 228 pounds, he wasn’t the prototypical inline blocker who happened to catch passes. Instead, Sharpe was a receiver first, capable of overpowering defensive backs and speeding by linebackers. With his receiving prowess, keeping him in to block was a waste of the team’s best receiver. That’s not hyperbole; Sharpe led his teams in receiving yards in seven different seasons. By the time he called it quits, he had helped two different franchises win their first Super Bowl and set the positional record for receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
Tony Gonzalez (1997-2013)
Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons
7 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 14 Pro Bowls; 6 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Gonzo is another in a storied line of evolutionary tight ends. He was a successful collegiate basketball player and used many of those skills to thrive in the NFL. In particular, Gonzalez was adept at boxing out defenders in order to make easier catches. He also put his rebounding skills to work, using his excellent body control and concentration to high point the ball and snatch it out of the air, often in heavy traffic. Despite heavy usage as his team’s primary receiving threat for most of his career, Gonzalez’s impeccable conditioning provided him with unrivaled longevity. By the time he retired, he ranked second in receptions, sixth in receiving yards, and seventh in receiving touchdowns. Those numbers would cement a player’s legacy as a wide receiver. To do it as a tight end is a remarkable achievement.
Antonio Gates (2003-present)
San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Antonio Gates isn’t thought of as an evolutionary player at the tight end position, but perhaps he should be. From the merger in 1970 through Gates’s arrival in 2003, there were 12 double-digit touchdown seasons from 9 different tight ends. Nobody in history had more than two such seasons, a total Gates managed to match in 2004 and 2005 alone. The copycat league took note, and teams scrambled to find their own large, powerful, agile tight ends to create favorable matchups in the red zone; from 2007 to 2017, the position accounted for 22 double-digit touchdown seasons by 11 different players, (including two more from Gates). While other tight ends were reaching the end zone, Gates remained a standout, developing a preternatural rapport with his quarterbacks and anchoring the Chargers’ passing game amid a rotating cast of wide receivers and running backs.34
Jason Witten (2003-present)
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 11 Pro Bowls; 3 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Witten’s success hardly makes sense. He’s not particularly fast, quick, strong, or athletic in the traditional sense. But he has incredible spacial awareness, allowing him to run near-perfect routes and get open seemingly at will against man coverage or find any hole in zone coverage. Those skills don’t wow viewers as much as speed and vertical leaping, but they have enabled Witten to pull in at least 60 catches in fourteen straight seasons.35 He’s a throwback at the position, playing tough and angry, and supplementing his receiving skill with proficient blocking.
Rob Gronkowski (2010-present)
New England Patriots
5 First Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 4 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Gronk is a terrific blocker, in the mold of Dave Casper and Mark Bavaro before him. His ability to control the edge of the line makes one believe he could be a backup right tackle if he really wanted to. However, blocking didn’t get him in the Hall of Fame. He has been an utterly dominant receiver, even though he came into the league with back problems and has never been close 100%. Despite missing 26 regular season games in his eight seasons, he ranks third among all players in receiving touchdowns through age 28.36 No tight end in history has more seasons with over 1000 yards or 10 touchdowns. He has a higher yards per catch average than many speedy deep threat receivers of his era, and he is an animal after the catch. Gronk has a measurable impact on his offense’s productivity and is already the greatest postseason performer in the history of the position.37 He may lack the longevity to be called the greatest of all time, but he is almost certainly the best.
Hall of Fame Offensive Tackles
The ability to protect the quarterback is paramount in the modern game, but it is a mistake to assume it wasn’t always important. While a Sandra Bullock voiceover may proclaim a sea change occurred in 1985, keeping legendary passers like Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr upright was just as important to the Colts and Packers title teams as clearing lanes for their versatile ball carriers. In reality, the infamous Joe Theismann injury only elevated the esteem and paycheck of the position. It seems the GridFe Hall of Fame voting committee holds tackles in relatively high regard, as we gave votes to 22 different tackles and ultimately enshrined 14 of them. That we only inducted 16 interior offensive linemen demonstrates the value we place on tackles relative to their linemates.38
Groza used to say he considered himself a lineman who just happened to have the ability to kick, and he spent a dozen years as Cleveland’s primary tackle. He played in an incredible 13 championship games in his 21 seasons, spanning both the Otto Graham and Jim Brown eras. Although Groza was among the finest tackles of his era, he earned the most notoriety as a kicker. Appropriately nicknamed The Toe because he is the most dominant kicker in history, relative to his peers, he became the all-time leading scorer in 1957 and held the title until George Blanda took it in 1971.
Lou Creekmur (1950-1959)
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Guardian Awards
Creekmur had a relatively short career, playing in just 116 regular season games, but he was simply dominant during his peak. He earned all pro honors in eight of his ten seasons. Creekmur began as a guard before moving to tackle, and he did both at an all star level. He had a toughness to match quarterback Bobby Layne‘s, and his tremendous power proved especially useful to the Lions when they used him as a defensive lineman in short yardage and goal line situations.
Rosey Brown (1953-1965)
New York Giants
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 5 Title Losses; 4 GridFe Guardian Awards
Roosevelt Brown was an athletic marvel, often noted for the sleek 29 inch waist on his 255 pound frame. He possessed uncanny raw power to move defensive linemen off their spots as a drive blocker. In an era when running the football still mattered, Brown was a devastating force who had the rare athleticism to pull around the edge and eliminate linebackers in space as a lead blocker on sweeps. He was no slouch in pass protection either, as he was able to use his nimble feet and balance to help shut down pass rushers and keep beloved passers Charlie Conerly and Y.A. Tittle clean in the pocket.
Forrest Gregg (1956-1971)
Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 4 GridFe Guardian Awards
Vince Lombardi presided over a team full of legends, but it was of his exalted tackle that he said: “Forrest Gregg is the finest player I ever coached.” Gregg was relatively small and unathletic for a football player, but he more than made up for his physical shortcomings by honing his craft and beating defenders with technique and preparation. He earned the nickname Iron Man for starting a then-record 188 consecutive games, and he did it at a high level even when playing out of position. In 1965, injuries along the line necessitated a move from RT to LG. Gregg responded by earning all pro honors there too. After retirement, he went into coaching and helped guide the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance.
Ron Mix (1960-1971)
San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders
9 First Team All Pros (AFL); 8 Pro Bowls (AFL); 1 Title Win; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award (AFL); 5 GridFe Guardian Awards (AFL)
Mix picked up the nickname the Intellectual Assassin on account of his studious approach to the game and the fact that he pursued a degree in law during his playing career. He maintained a unique pass set that saw him feign a run block before dropping into protection, which often befuddled pass rushers. Mix also had an unusual habit on rushes of cut blocking in the trenches before quickly springing up to obscure defensive backs at the next level. This technique required a level of quickness you wouldn’t expect from a man of his stature.
Bob Brown (1964-1973)
Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Rams
7 First team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Guardian Award
Boomer Brown made an immediate impact in the league, becoming the rare offensive lineman to earn rookie of the year honors. While he was technically proficient, it wasn’t purity of technique that made him a nightmare for defenders. He was a hulking behemoth who happened to own one of the game’s nastiest mean streaks. Brown would smother oncoming pass rushers and maul outmatched defenders in the run game. Raiders coach John Madden referred to him as the most aggressive offensive lineman who ever played and intimated that he brought an attitude to the team that rubbed off on fellow linemen Jim Otto, Gene Upshaw, and Art Shell.
Art Shell (1968-1982)
Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 GridFe Guardian Awards
Shell was an adept pass blocker, but it was the run game where he cemented his legacy. Quite simply, he is arguably the most destructive drive blocker ever to hold the position. He formed a dominant left side with fellow legend Gene Upshaw, which served as the preferred side for the Raiders to run their offense. His ability to neutralize Fred Dean led to the Chargers moving the pass rusher around the line – a move that is common today but was innovative at the time. Shell’s dominant performance against Jim Marshall in Super Bowl XI was a masterclass in line play. In addition to his fantastic play, he also became the first African American head coach in the NFL when famously progressive owner Al Davis hired him in 1989.
Ron Yary (1968-1982)
Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 4 Title Losses; 3 GridFe Guardian Awards
Yary wasn’t the strongest, fastest, quickest, or most aggressive tackle, but he possessed one of the best combinations of power, athleticism, and toughness of anyone of his era. He was dedicated to his craft, putting in extra time to learn how to protect the occasionally frenetic Fran Tarkenton. Interestingly, Yary was selected with the pick the Vikings obtained by trading away Tarkenton, but a subsequent trade saw him blocking for the scrambler in Minnesota anyway. After missing the first three games of his sophomore season to military obligations, he played at a high level without missing a game till he broke his ankle in his thirteenth season.
Anthony Munoz (1980-1992)
11 First Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 5 GridFe Guardian Awards
Munoz is arguably the greatest offensive lineman in history, and it’s fair to put him on the shortlist of greatest players the game has ever seen. Coming out of college, there were concerns about his injury history. He put those to bed by missing only three games in his storied career. Scouts bemoaned his unorthodox stance, but he silenced them with results, making eleven all pro teams and anchoring two Super Bowl offenses. He was incredibly athletic, graceful and efficient in motion, and has the footwork of a ballerina. Munoz used his rare physical skills to dominate the line of scrimmage as well as catch touchdown passes when called upon.40 He was powerful and intelligent, but his hallmark may have been his tireless work ethic and relentless commitment to conditioning. As one of the few offensive linemen who did extensive distance running and cardio training, Munoz was perfect for Sam Wyche‘s innovative uptempo offense.
Willie Roaf (1993-2005)
New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs
7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe Guardian Awards
Roaf is remarkable in that he was noted for his stellar line work despite playing on mediocre or bad offenses on forgettable teams for his first nine seasons in the league. He earned all rookie honors at right tackle before becoming a perennial Pro Bowler on the left side. After an injury ended his tenure in New Orleans, Roaf joined Will Shields and Brian Waters in Kansas City to form the nucleus of an offensive line that was the driving force behind one of the greatest sustained offenses in modern NFL history.41
Jonathan Ogden (1996-2007)
6 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe World Award; 4 GridFe Guardian Awards
At 6’9″ and 340 pounds, Ogden is among the most imposing figures in the game’s history. He possessed tremendous power to match his frame, but he had the balance and quickness or a much smaller man. His movement was fluid, and his feet were nimble, allowing him to match speed rushers with the same aplomb that he matched power rushers. As the first-ever draft pick for the Ravens, Ogden helped lead the offense to consecutive 5000 yard seasons. He also paved the way for Jamal Lewis to break 2000 yards in a season, including a then-record 295 in a single game. Giants great Michael Strahan, known for his legendary bull rush, described playing the dominant Ogden as disheartening.
Walter Jones (1997-2008)
6 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Guardian Awards
Big Walt may be the best all-around lineman since Anthony Munoz. He was a dominant force in the run game, and his pass protection was otherworldly. During his tenure in Seattle, Jones surrendered just 23 sacks and committed a scant nine holding penalties on 5703 passing blocking snaps, helping Matt Hasselbeck become an all star thrice over. He also cleared big holes for an aging Ricky Watters and helped turn Shaun Alexander into the second coming of Emmitt Smith.42 He was known for his finesse, but he more than enough tenacity to finish blocks. Mike Holmgren coached Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Brett Favre, but he called Jones the best player he ever coached.
Orlando Pace (1997-2009)
St. Louis Rams, Chicago Bears
5 First Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss
Pace was a vital component the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, as his proficiency in pass protection allowed the deep passing patterns and quarterback drops to develop. From 1999-2001, the GSOT scored more than 500 points each season and ranked at the top of the league in both points and yards. A force of nature at the collegiate level, Pace popularized the term “pancake” for his ability to put opposing linemen flat on their backs in a form resembling that of the breakfast staple.
Joe Thomas (2007-present)
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 10 Pro Bowls; 4 GridFe Guardian Awards
Myriad incredible players have held the tackle position in the NFL. Some had Herculean strength. Others had elite athleticism. Others still had exceptional grace and footwork. Joe Thomas certainly had enough of those to merit mention, but it is technique that has always been his calling card. Without exaggeration, Thomas is the most refined technician the position has ever seen. His footwork and hand placement were perfect, and his body positioning was nigh always correct. That he was recognized for his greatness despite playing on generally inept offensive squads is a testament to his prodigious skill. Thomas is among the great pass blockers in history, consistently saving oblivious passers from themselves.43
Hall of Fame Offensive Guards
When it came to selecting guards for the GridFe Hall of Fame, voters tended to go with mauling run blockers who also happened to have the ability to protect quarterbacks. This makes sense, as for most of football history coaches have devoted more attention to power in the middle and finesse on the edges. However, it is clear that guards of the future will have to be able to prioritize mitigating interior pressure while also providing a push in the rushing attack. With the continuing evolution of the game, the increasing emphasis on passing will necessitate this. As it stands, the GridFe voting committee selected ten guards for the inaugural Hall of Fame class. Overall, we gave votes to 17 individual guards. Below are the ones who made the cut.44
Jim Parker (1957-1967)
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Guardian Awards; 4 GridFe Hog Awards
Nicknamed the Guardian for the pride he took in protecting quarterback Johnny Unitas (and the aplomb with which he did it), Parker is one of the few linemen in history for whom the title of Greatest of All Time wouldn’t be hyperbole. He began his career as a left tackle and effectively kept smaller, quicker ends out of the backfield, earning all pro honors in four of his five seasons at the position. Then he moved to the inside and earned four more all pro selections at guard, neutralizing powerful defenders with seeming ease. Parker was so superb against legendary end Andy Robustelli in the 1959 Championship Game that broadcasters actually isolated his performance in real time and in replays, marking the first time such attention was given to the trenches.
Tom Mack (1966-1978)
Los Angeles Rams
5 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls
Mack was noted for his toughness, having never missed a game in his thirteen-year career. This is especially impressive when you consider that he managed to play a full season as a rookie for George Allen, whose notoriously veteran-heavy rosters have achieved a nearly mythic status among historians. Mack rewarded the Rams’ faith in him with eight seasons of all pro caliber play, helping the team win eight division titles, including six in a row from 1973-78. He kept Roman Gabriel clean in the pocket and, later, paved the way for Lawrence McCutcheon‘s tremendous early-career production.
Gene Upshaw (1967-1981)
7 First Team All Pros (3 AFL/4 NFL); 4 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls (1 AFL/6 NFL); 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Hog Awards (1 AFL/1 NFL)
The massive Upshaw was brought to the Raiders to combat the monstrous rival defenders within their division, such as Buck Buchanan and Ernie Ladd. While he cut a hulking figure, he was surprisingly fast and quick. Upshaw put that athleticism to great use on his favorite play, the sweep, on which he could get out in front of runners and annihilate defensive backs in space. He maintained a high level of play for a long time and became the first player in history to see action in a Super Bowl in three different decades. On a line filled with legends, Upshaw was the one named captain eight times. His leadership was later recognized when he was elected as the executive director of the NFL Players’ Association.
Larry Little (1967-1980)
Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers
6 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls (1 AFL/4 NFL); 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Hog Awards
After beginning his career in relative obscurity as an undrafted free agent in San Diego, Little saw his career and legacy turn around when he was traded to Miami. The arrival of Don Shula the following year brought increased team success, which drew attention to the outstanding play of Little and other previously overlooked Dolphins. Little was a fantastic run blocker who had the power to clear a path for Larry Csonka up the middle and the finesse to lead the way for Mercury Morris on outside runs. During his prime, the Dolphins boasted a dominant ground and pound attack that was a major part of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances, including two victories.
John Hannah (1973-1985)
New England Patriots
10 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 6 GridFe Hog Awards
The Hog is often referred to as the greatest offensive lineman ever to live. If he’s not, he’s certainly on Rushmore. The great Dr. Z, who pioneered extensive film study in sports journalism, didn’t give preference to big names and often highlighted unheralded players over established ones; he named Hannah his first team all pro guard seven times. Hannah was strong, but his incredible combination of leverage and balance gave him nearly unparalleled functional power. His pass set was solid, and it was rare to see him give up easy pressure. However, it was the run game where he was a force of nature. Finding their greatest success running behind Hannah, the 1978 Patriots set a still-standing NFL record with 3165 rushing yards.45 They did this without a single rusher topping 768 yards.
Bruce Matthews (1983-2001)
Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans
9 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 14 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Hog Awards
Throughout his 19-season career, Matthews proved to be incredibly versatile and remarkably durable. He played all five positions on the offensive line and started 39 games at tackle, 87 at center, and 167 at guard. Proving he was more than just a guy who could fill in at a position, Matthews earned Pro Bowl and all pro honors at all three positions on the offensive interior. At the time he retired, he had started more games than any player in history, and his 292 mark currently trails only Brett Favre‘s 298. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Matthews’s long and distinguished career is that it took place during the most significant explosion in defensive line size in modern history. He began his career against 260 pounders and continued to play at a high level till he was 40 and his average opponent weighed closer to 290 pounds.
Randall McDaniel (1988-2001)
Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9 First Team All Pros; 12 Pro Bowls; 4 GridFe Hog Awards
A successful high school sprinter, McDaniel possessed rare athleticism for an offensive lineman. It’s common to see a running back with his hand on the back of a pulling guard, pushing the big man to lead the way. Running behind McDaniels allowed ball carriers to play at full speed, because he was usually just as fast as they were. Over the course of his celebrated career, he cleared a path for six different thousand yard rushers and proved to be skilled at keeping his quarterbacks off the ground. A big part of the Vikings 1998 scoring explosion, in which the team broke the record for points scored in a season, McDaniel allowed just 1.5 sacks while aiding in Randall Cunningham‘s renaissance. On top of his incredible talent, he also carried with him an unbridled love of the game that simply made him a joy to watch.
Will Shields (1993-2006)
Kansas City Chiefs
3 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 12 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Hog Award
Shields didn’t have the wow factor of linemen whose blocks end up on highlight reels, but he was exceptional in his ability to consistently battle defenders to stalemates. Along the line, this is an underrated skill. When fellow legend Willie Roaf came along, they anchored a line that was the fulcrum of one of the great sustained offenses in modern history. Shields helped Priest Holmes score a then-record 27 rushing touchdowns in 2003. The following season, he had among his most notable games in a dominating victory over the Falcons, when Shields and co paved the way for Holmes and Derrick Blaylock to score four rushing touchdowns apiece.
Larry Allen (1994-2007)
Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers
7 First Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 5 GridFe Hog Awards
On a list of the most intimidating players in modern history, Larry Allen‘s name won’t be too far from the top. He earned the moniker of the Strongest Man in the NFL not for his ability in the gym by for his ability to impose his will upon opposing linemen. As a young player, Allen would reportedly announce when a run was coming behind him because he felt there was nothing the defense could do about it, even if they knew in advance. He was also surprisingly mobile, capable of chasing down interceptions linebackers from a standstill. As an elder statesmen, he used his veteran savvy to make up for any decline in physical skill and was able to use leverage instead of raw power to demoralize defenders.
Alan Faneca (1998-2010)
Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 3 GridFe Hog Awards
Faneca was a standout performer early in his career for Pittsburgh. His superb run blocking helped rushers such as Amos Zereoue, Najeh Davenport, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala break the century mark on the ground and helped the great Jerome Bettis cement his legacy. Faneca’s commitment to conditioning paid dividends, as he was usually at his best in the playoffs, when the wear of the season took its toll on the men in the trenches. He suffered a noticeable decline when he moved to New York, but he continued his trend of saving his best play for the biggest moments, showing up big time in the postseason.
Hall of Fame Centers
Today’s GridFe Hall of Fame post focuses on arguably the most dangerous position in football, the center. The man in the middle: he touches the ball on every play, usually directs the line, protects against inside penetration, and serves as the pivot man in the run game. He also takes repetitive head shots on every down and doesn’t just put his body on the line; he literally puts his mind on the line for the team. We honor those men for their sacrifice on the field and celebrate their achievements. Ultimately, we inducted six centers and gave votes to four others.46
Jim Ringo (1953-1967)
Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles
7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 6 GridFe Iron Awards
Unlike many legends on the Packers dynasty, Ringo was already a decorated player before the arrival of Vince Lombardi. The coach valued his center’s great speed and quickness and designed his potent rushing attack with Ringo as its fulcrum. The deadly Green Bay sweeps required athletic linemen to execute pulls, and the innovative “do-dad” blocks necessitated an intelligent center to get everyone in position.47 Ringo was more than capable in those respects, and his ability to keep Bart Starr upright was an important part of the team’s offensive dominance.
Jim Otto (1960-1974)
12 First Team All Pros (10 AFL/2 NFL); 1 Second Team All Pro; 12 Pro Bowls (9 AFL/3 NFL); 1 Title Loss; 8 GridFe Iron Awards (AFL)
Double 0 began his professional career at a meager 205 pounds and was overlooked by the NFL and most AFL teams. The Raiders, with their legacy of taking chances on players, obtained Otto’s draft rights and got a member of Center Rushmore for their risk. He added enough weight and power to his stellar technique and outrageous toughness to play in 308 straight games and earn a first team all pro selection in each of his first twelve seasons. As a young player, he was successful in the wide open attacks of the early AFL. As a grizzled veteran, he held his own against established NFL defenders.
Mike Webster (1974-1990)
Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs
7 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 5 GridFe Iron Awards
Iron Mike is best known for his fifteen seasons in the Steel City, capturing four titles as part of the Steelers dynasty. Webster paved the way for a dominant ground attack from Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, and he kept big-armed Terry Bradshaw clean while he set up for his legendary deep throws. Brawdshaw has said on many occasions that the team’s offense wouldn’t have functioned without his center. Perhaps on the small side for the position, Webster more than made up for it with incredible power and quickness. Often, he would brave the cold Pittsburgh winter and play with bare arms to keep defenders from grabbing his jersey. Anything to get an edge on an opponent.
Dwight Stephenson (1980-1987)
5 First Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 5 GridFe Iron Awards
Stephenson’s career was abbreviated by injury, but at his peak, he was the most dominant player in the history of the position. One doesn’t become a legend on the offensive line without power and technical acumen, but what set Stephenson apart was his unbridled explosiveness. Opponents likened taking a block from him to getting hit with a bolt of electricity. The great Howie Long said the Raiders actually crafted a defensive line gameplan around neutralizing the Miami center, which he claimed was unprecedented in his career. We can lament the career that might have been, but right now we choose to celebrate the career that was.
Dermontti Dawson (1988-2000)
6 First Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 5 GridFe Iron Awards
Dirt Dawson combined uncanny athleticism with the gritty, blue collar mentality of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a true technician who could use perfect hand placement to mitigate the bull rush of larger defenders. Dawson possessed the power to handle nose tackles one on one, while most centers require a double team or a rub. He also had the quickness and agility to pull, which was rare for the position when he played. His unique talents in the run game helped establish the hard-nosed ground and pound attack on which the Steelers prided themselves. His combination of talent and relentless determination set the tone for the entire organization.
Nick Mangold (2006-2016)
New York Jets
4 First Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 4 GridFe Iron Awards
Mangold was a consistently dominant blocker who often went unappreciated as he toiled on lackluster offenses. He excelled at creating lanes for run-oriented coaches with outdated schemes, and he also executed his assignments superbly in pass protection. Despite playing in front of a bevy of passers who were bereft of pocket awareness, Mangold rarely allowed sacks or even pressures. He was by far the best center of his generation, and his relative obscurity highlights the problem faced by great linemen on bad offenses. Had he played his career just a few hours up I-95, he’d be a legend.
Hall of Fame Defensive Ends
The ideal defensive ends are immovable objects against the run and unstoppable forces against the pass. In reality, the best ends tend to be great at one or the other, or good at both, with a few extraordinary exceptions. As a committee, we strove to recognize those defenders who had few holes in their game, and we had an implicit preference for the guys who excelled in both areas. However, we recognize the importance of the pass relative to the run, and we honor those who excelled in that area more willingly than we honor pure run stuffers. Ultimately, the committee voted in eleven defensive ends, with eight others receiving votes.48 This is a much wider range of disagreement than any other position and demonstrates, perhaps, a wider array of philosophical preferences among voters. Moving forward I suspect the emphasis on pass rushers will be even greater.
Len Ford (1948-1958)
Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Dons, Green Bay Packers
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 4 Pro Bowls49; 3 Title Wins; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 6 GridFe Deacon Awards (2 AAFC/4 NFL)
An athletic marvel among contemporaries, Ford excelled on both offense and defense for the Los Angeles Dons in the AAFC. He went to Cleveland after the merger, where Paul Brown had him focus solely on defense. Ford quickly became the best player on one of the great defensive dynasties in history.50 Many speculate that Brown created an early version of the 4-3 defense specifically to get the lightning fast lineman closer to the line of scrimmage and take advantage of his ability to devastate passing attacks.
Gino Marchetti (1952-1966)
Baltimore Colts, Dallas Texans
1 MVP; 9 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 11 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards
Marchetti was the first superstar pass rusher to fit the archetype of a modern defensive end. He was a technical marvel who employed a host of or moves and counter moves designed to beat offensive linemen and take down opposing quarterbacks. Researcher John Turney estimates Marchetti had between 110 and 120 sacks in 161 career games, which is especially excellent considering the relative paucity of passing plays teams ran during his career. The Colts star was also so stout against the run that legendary coach Sid Gillman opined that running in the direction of Marchetti was a wasted play.
Willie Davis (1958-1969)
Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns
5 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards
Davis was a devastating pass rusher and a cornerstone of the dynasty Green Bay defense that earned coach Vince Lombardi five NFL championships. At age 33 and well past his physical prime, Davis turned in perhaps his most notable performance: against a formidable Oakland Raiders offensive line in Super Bowl II, Davis made his way into the backfield to sack quarterback Daryle Lamonica three times.51 Turney estimates that, during his decade in Green Bay, Davis may have topped 120 sacks, including averaging a sack per game from 1963-65.
Deacon Jones (1961-1974)
Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, Washington
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe World Awards; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 2 GridFe Deacon Awards
David “Deacon” Jones may be the most feared defender in the long history of professional football. His infamous head slap maneuver rattled the heads of pass protectors and allowed Jones to collect quarterbacks like trophies. The Deacon had little regard for quarterbacks and coined the term “sack” in reference to the idea of putting them in a bag and beating it with a baseball bat. Although he played his entire career before the stats that he named became official, he unofficially recorded 173.5 sacks in his career – a mark that would rank third all time.52 That includes a five-year stretch (1964-68) in which Jones notched 102.5 sacks in 70 games.
Carl Eller (1964-1979)
Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 2 GridFe Deacon Awards
Moose Eller made his mark as a stalwart on the left side of the famed Purple People Eaters defensive line that served as the engine for one of the greatest defensive dynasties in NFL history. With long arms and considerable power, he served as an anchor against the run, holding ground against even the mightiest right tackles of the day. Eller was also an elite pass rusher, posting 133 sacks53 in 225 regular season games, as well as an incredible 10.5 sacks in 19 postseason appearances.
Jack Youngblood (1971-1984)
Los Angeles Rams
5 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Deacon Awards
Youngblood was never the fastest, the quickest, or the strongest lineman. However, he was intelligent and crafty enough to compensate, and he was durable enough to play as hard at the end of games as he did at the beginning of games. His legendary toughness was on display in the 1979 playoffs when he played all three games, as well as the Pro Bowl, on a fractured left fibula. Youngblood played at a high level for a dozen years, picking up at least eight sacks every full season from 1973-84. He retired with 151.5 sacks, which ranked second in history at the time and remains good enough for sixth on the career list.54
Reggie White (1985-2000)
Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers
10 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 13 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 4 GridFe Deacon Awards; 1 GridFe Mean Award
The greatest defensive end in history, and arguably the greatest defender ever to play, the Minister of Defense possessed an uncanny combination of physical skill and mental savvy. White was an imposing figure, with rare power and even more impressive functional strength. Despite weighing roughly 280 pounds, he reportedly ran the 40 yard dash in 4.6 seconds; and despite being 6 feet 5 inches tall, he could turn the corner like a speed rusher. His legendary hump move embarrassed countless tackles and enabled him to rack up gaudy sack totals and impressive run stops. He retired with 198 sacks in the NFL, and his 23.5 in the USFL suggest he would own the career record had he taken less money to play in the bigger league. In addition to his well-known prowess as a pass rusher, White was a terror against the run; his 1048 tackles as a defensive lineman are a testament to that.
Bruce Smith (1985-2003)
Buffalo Bills, Washington
9 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Deacon Awards
Smith retired after an illustrious career that saw him post a record 13 seasons with double-digit sacks on his way to becoming the NFL’s career sack leader. With the exception of Reggie White, no other player has come within 26 sacks of his gaudy total of 200.55 He crafted one of the finest spin moves the game has ever seen, and his prowess as a pass rusher is especially remarkable given the amount of time he played as a 3-4 one gap end. Smith was famously adept against opposing rushing attacks as well, posting well over one thousand tackles in his career.
Michael Strahan (1993-2007)
New York Giants
5 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Deacon Awards
Strahan is the rare modern defensive end who boasts impressive sack totals while also playing the run at an elite level. It is no exaggeration to say he is the most well-rounded end of his era, and he is arguably a top five 4-3 end in history. Strahan was a relentless penetrator on the strong side of the line, taking down quarterbacks 141.5 times, including an official record of 22.5 in 2001. While the bulk of contemporary pass rushers relied on the speed rush, he stood out as a sack artist who got the job done with raw power as a young player, before slimming down late in his career and adding speed to his repertoire.
Jason Taylor (1997-2011)
Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Washington
3 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards
Taylor was a terrific athlete with an uncommonly slender frame and long, accurate arms that allowed him to maintain separation from blockers. His ability to disengage blockers to attack quarterbacks, combined with his uncanny quickness, allowed him to rack up 139.5 sacks in his career. In addition to playing with his hand in the dirt, Taylor also possessed fluid movement in space and could aptly serve in coverage when called upon. To his sack total, he added eight interceptions, including three touchdown returns.
J.J. Watt (2011-present)
1 MVP; 4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 4 Pro Bowls; 3 GridFe World Awards; 3 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards; 1 GridFe Mean Award
Few defenders can claim that they were ever the very best in the league when they played. From 2012 to 2014, Watt wasn’t just the best defender in the league; he was the most outstanding player at any position. He has been an effective edge rusher as a defensive end, but he is a truly magnificent interior penetrator when he sinks to play defensive tackle in nickel situations. He joins Deacon Jones as the only players with multiple seasons of at least 20 sacks, and his ability to understand when to stop rushing and, instead, focus on batting passes at the line is the stuff of legend. Watt set himself apart as a pass rusher while also making his mark as arguably the best run-stopping defensive end in football, an oft-overlooked aspect of his game.
Hall of Fame Defensive Tackles
Manning the interior line, defensive tackles tend to be the biggest and strongest players on the field. Their lower bodies must simultaneously be powerful enough to anchor against the run and quick enough to bypass blockers. Their arms must be both mighty and precise, in order to disengage linemen to make plays (or occupy linemen to allow others to make the plays). More so than their line mates on the outside, defensive tackles tend to have higher expectations to shut down rushing attacks and lower expectations to disrupt the passing game. Our voters brought their own sets of expectations to the table and, ultimately, settled on nine tackles, with eight more receiving votes.56 As with ends, there was a wide range of disagreement among voters. This is likely on account of both differences in philosophy and scarcity of statistics for the position, especially historically.
Leo Nomellini (1950-1963)
San Francisco 49ers
6 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Leo “The Lion” Nomellini, an Italian immigrant and the San Francisco 49ers’ first-ever draft choice, was a formidable force in the trenches – on either side of the line. He earned four first team all pro selections as one of the finest defensive tackles of his generation, while the other two came as an offensive tackle. Nomellini possessed uncanny natural strength that enabled him to exert his will on opponents through sheer physical domination.
Bob Lilly (1961-1974)
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Affectionately called Mr. Cowboy, Lilly was the first draft pick in Dallas Cowboys history. He didn’t cut an impressive figure or particularly look like a dominant athlete, but his performance on the field was about as good as it gets from an interior lineman. Lilly had the power, quickness, and savvy to beat blockers in a number of ways, and footage shows a man who took up residence in opposing backfields. In the regular season and playoffs combined, the legend racked up 99.5 career sacks and countless other plays for a loss or no gain.
Merlin Olsen (1962-1976)
Los Angeles Rams
1 MVP; 6 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 14 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Merlin Olsen was a gentle giant off the field and a force of nature on it. With a hulking frame and rare balance, he was incredibly stout against the run. His nimble feet and shocking punch provided him the ability to get quick penetration and leave blocker reeling. At the same time, Olsen was an unselfish player who was willing to sacrifice in the box score for the benefit of the team. He was adept at taking on double teams to allow other members of the famed Fearsome Foursome to make plays.57
Buck Buchanan (1963-1975)
Kansas City Chiefs
4 First Team All Pros (AFL); 3 Second Team All Pros (2 AFL/1 NFL); 8 Pro Bowls (6 AFL/2 NFL); 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Mean Awards (AFL)
Standing 6’7″ and topping 270 pounds, Junious “Buck” Buchanan carried a monstrous stature for his era. On top of that, he had speed on par with many linebackers of the day. His exceptional blend of size and athleticism gave coach Hank Stram the force he needed in the middle for his innovative defense to thrive. Along with teammate Curley Culp, Buchanan laid siege to the offensive line of the dominant Vikings in Super Bowl IV and helped usher in a new breed of giant defensive tackles.
Alan Page (1967-1981)
Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears
1 MVP; 5 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 4 GridFe Mean Awards
The honorable Alan Page is very likely the greatest interior pass rusher ever to play football. He finished his career with 148.5 sacks, while playing most of his career in the era of 14-game schedules and low volume passing.58 Page was undersized, even for his era, but he possessed uncanny quickness and intelligence and an innate ability to find the football. He is one of just two defensive players to earn the AP’s MVP award,59 and he was able to play at an all star level while earning his law degree from the University of Minnesota.
Mean Joe Greene is arguably the best defensive tackle of all time. Brought in by legendary coach Chuck Noll, Greene helped change the losing culture in the Steel City and became the cornerstone of a juggernaut. With incredible raw power, unbridled aggression, and a unique approach to attacking offensive lines, Mean Joe was the primary focus of opposing gameplans and the fulcrum on which the Steel Curtain dynasty pivoted. He lived up to his nickname through his tenacious play between the whistles and his added touch of violence in between plays.
Randy White (1975-1988)
9 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Mean Awards
Randy White was fairly small for a defensive tackle, but he was nonetheless incredibly athletic for his size. He began his career as a linebacker before transitioning to tackle, and he brought the requisite mobility of a linebacker to the interior line. White played with controlled fury, with every play resembling a bareknuckle brawl that usually left offensive linemen down for the count. He found his way into the backfield for 111 career sacks,61 regularly ran down backs sideline to sideline, and occasionally even ran down receivers. Along with teammate Harvey Martin, White was named the MVP of Super Bowl XII, and he is still the only defensive tackle ever to claim the award.
Cortez Kennedy (1990-2000)
3 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Cortez Kennedy, or Tez to Seahawks fans, was a dynamo in the middle of the Seattle defense. He possessed a rare combination of balance, understanding of leverage, explosiveness at the snap, and lower body strength. Tez is among the great run stuffers in history, using his incredible ability to anchor, diagnose, and disengage to ruin opposing rushing attacks. It is a testament to his production that he was named defensive player of the year in 1992, despite playing for a team that finished the season 2-14. He became the third player ever to win the AP’s award for a team with a losing record.62
Warren Sapp (1995-2007)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 1 GridFe Mean Award
Sapp was an excellent pass rusher from the 3-technique position, and his ability to consistently generate interior pressure helped the incredible Tampa defenses work. Despite his large carriage, he had excellent speed63 and a legendary first step that he often used to embarrass guards. He had elite production to match his boorish bravado, knifing through the line to bring down quarterbacks 102 times in the regular and postseason combined.
Hall of Fame Middle Linebackers
For a large portion of NFL history, middle linebackers have been referred to as quarterbacks of the defense, and they are expected to possess the football intelligence to match the title. Mike backers must have the ability to do a little bit of everything: make tackles sideline to sideline, stop runs up the gut, maintain coverage (usually on backs and tight ends), run and pass blitz, and get personnel into position and make necessary adjustments.64 With the wide array of skills needed to play at an elite level – and do so for a long time – few men stood out as no brainers for induction. In the end, we agreed on nine middle linebackers to make the inaugural GridFe Hall of Fame class, with three others receiving votes.65
Chuck Bednarik (1949-1962)
9 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Enforcer Award; 3 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Concrete Charlie could have gone into the Hall of Fame as a linebacker or as a center, given his prowess at both positions. Ultimately, his play on defense stood out more than did his blocking. Bednarik was fast and powerful, and he possessed incredible endurance required of the NFL’s last 60 minute man in an era of specialization and free substitution. On offense, he was an especially talented run blocker66 who also held his own in pass protection. On defense, he quickly diagnosed plays and delivered brutal hits; his 1960 tackle of Frank Gifford nearly ended the back’s career and may be the most famous tackle in the history of the sport.
Bill George (1952-1966)
Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams
8 First Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Chicago legend Bill George is often recognized as the first player to star as a pure middle linebacker, as well as an inspiration for the 4-3 defense that would eventually dominate the league. While he began his career as a middle guard, a position akin to a modern nose tackle, his cunning and athleticism allowed him to back off the line of scrimmage and become a disruptive presence against opposing passing attacks. George was arguably the best in the NFL at his position for nearly a decade, and he was probably the best defender in football in 1956.
Joe Schmidt (1953-1965)
1 MVP; 10 First Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 6 GridFe Enforcer Awards
On a Detroit Lions defensive dynasty full of defensive stars, Schmidt was the man they considered their leader. He earned a first-team all pro selection every season from 1954-63, and he was the defensive captain for nine years. On top of that, players voted him the league’s most valuable defensive player in 1960. While Bill George may have been first to star at MLB, Schmidt took the position to another level. He countered quarterback calls with his own adjustments, saw plays coming with the acumen of a chess master, and is among the finest cover linebackers in history.
Ray Nitschke (1958-1972)
Green Bay Packers
3 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 1 Pro Bowl; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Ray Nitschke has a unique profile among legendary linebackers: he’s a top ten middle linebacker who only made one Pro Bowl in his career. Powerful and rugged, Nitschke was a superb run stopper who could also hold his own in coverage when called upon. He picked up a respectable 25 interceptions in his career, and he had several key plays in his five championship victories.67 Nitschke was a natural leader and was, thus, the heart and soul of the great defensive dynasty in Green Bay.
Nick Buoniconti (1962-1976)
Miami Dolphins, Boston Patriots
7 First Team All Pros (AFL); 2 Second Team All Pros (1 AFL/1 NFL); 8 Pro Bowls (6 AFL/2 NFL); 2 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses (1 AFL/1 NFL); 1 GridFe Godzilla Award (AFL); 4 GridFe Enforcer Awards (AFL)
Standing just 5’11” and weighing a meager 220 pounds, what Buoniconti lacked in size, he more than made up for in talent and tenacity. He was the centerpiece of the formidable No-Name Defense that led the Miami Dolphins to three consecutive Super Bowls and the NFL’s only undefeated and untied season. On a roster full of legends, Buoniconti was the one named team MVP three times. He was a terror against the run, and his 32 career interceptions are the most of any middle linebacker in history. Perhaps his most important interception occurred in Super Bowl VII, when his pick and 32 yard return set up Jim Kiick‘s deciding touchdown run.
Dick Butkus (1965-1973)
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 5 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Butkus is often called the greatest middle linebacker of all time, and a few minutes of watching any Bears game during his prime is all one needs to know why. He possessed the preternatural diagnostic ability to sniff out plays and be where he needed to be, when he needed to be there. Throwing his body around with reckless abandon, he earned nicknames like “The Animal” and “The Enforcer.” Every tackle was a trainwreck that made running backs contemplate early retirement. Highlight reels of his knockout hits have led to the revisionist idea that he wasn’t strong in coverage, but that notion is outlandish. Butkus was among the finest cover backers of his era.
Jack Lambert (1974-1984)
8 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 5 GridFe Enforcer Awards
The fierce Lambert was an imposing figure who loved lining up right in front of quarterbacks prior to the snap in order to strike fear into their hearts. Despite his legacy of intimidation, it was his ability to both gracefully navigate traffic to make plays on ball carriers and swiftly drop into coverage that stand out on tape. He is among the greatest cover men ever to play middle linebacker, and he changed the way the position is played, manning the hole between the two deep zones in Bud Carson’s Cover-2 defense. With his ability to stymie opposing passing attacks, Lambert was a key cog in the Steel Curtain’s defensive destruction machine that brought four Super Bowl titles to Pittsburgh.
Mike Singletary (1981-1992)
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 10 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Earning the nickname Samurai for his singular focus and fervor, Singletary’s career is defined by nearly unrivaled intensity and commitment to destroying the opposition. Named Associated Press defensive player of the year in both 1985 and 1988, he tackled runners with fury and was capable in limited coverage responsibilities. Singletary was the heartbeat of the famed and feared 46 defense that led the 1985 Bears to a 15-1 season and one of the most astounding runs in postseason history on their way to the franchise’s only Super Bowl win.68
Ray Lewis (1996-2012)
9 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 13 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 6 GridFe Enforcer Awards
Ray Lewis is one of the few middle linebackers with a claim to the title of greatest of all time. Simply put, he had no holes in his game. He was fast and powerful, with peerless sideline to sideline range. Few could match his technical ability to shed blockers and stuff runs up the middle. His football intelligence is legendary, and it allowed him to excel at a demanding position long after his physical peak. Lewis is in the upper echelon of coverage linebackers in history as well. He played with contagious passion, commanded universal respect and praise, and was the unquestioned leader of Baltimore defenses that were almost always great.
Hall of Fame Outside Linebackers
Even among contemporaries, outside linebackers are difficult to compare with one another. Those who excel in coverage tend to be overlooked for postseason honors in favor of pass rushers, and both (perhaps rightfully) overshadow the pure run pluggers. This problem is exacerbated when trying to assess the relative accomplishments of outside linebackers across different eras. How do you evaluate Dave Wilcox, a run stopping maven from the 1960s, against Seth Joyner, a hypertalented cover backer from the 1980s? And how do you measure either against Von Miller, a destructive pass rusher still in his prime?69 We pooled our collective knowledge to make the most informed decisions possible and came up with eight players for the GridFe Hall of Fame’s inaugural group of outside linebackers.70
Bobby Bell (1963-1974)
Kansas City Chiefs
8 First Team All Pros (6 AFL/2 NFL); 9 Pro Bowls (6 AFL/3 NFL); 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award (AFL); 1 GridFe Godzilla Award (AFL); 4 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards (3 AFL/1 NFL)
Bell is one of the greatest athletes ever to play in the NFL. His rare blend of strength, speed, agility, and ability allowed him to do whatever he wanted on the field. Bell was a star high school quarterback, a rare college interior lineman to become a Heisman finalist, and a versatile weapon in Hank Stram’s defense. He could rush the passer, and had solid sack numbers despite playing on the side of the line generally not reserved for pass rushing. His ability to set the edge against the run all but ruled out attacking his side of the line. Bell also excelled in coverage and still maintains a linebacker record six interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Ted Hendricks (1969-1983)
Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Baltimore Colts, Green Bay Packers
3 First Team All Pros; 6 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 2 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Cerebral and eccentric, the Mad Stork possessed spectacular intelligence, spatial awareness, and on-field recall. Legendary teammate Howie Long recalled Hendricks sniffing out a play and then telling the offense he knew it was coming because it was the same play they used three years prior. Kick-’em-in-the-Head-Ted didn’t have the build of a typical NFL linebacker. Standing 6’7″ and weighing around 220 pounds, he was lanky and had to pay careful attention to technique to avoid giving up leverage against blockers (and to save his knees). He used his height and instincts to block a record 25 kicks during his career, and he put his big play ability on display with his NFL record four safeties.
Jack Ham (1971-1982)
6 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 4 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Affectionately called Dobre Shunka, or Good Ham, the Steelers legend is among the brightest players ever to grace the linebacker position. He diagnosed plays seemingly with ease and had the athletic capacity to follow up on the diagnoses. Linebackers in Bud Carson’s defense had significant coverage responsibilities, and Ham’s ability to eliminate receivers – especially tight ends – was a vital component of the Steel Curtain dynasty. It isn’t unrealistic to call him the greatest coverage linebacker of all time.
Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993)
New York Giants
1 MVP; 9 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 10 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 2 GridFe World Awards; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 6 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Few men can honestly say they were ever the most feared player in the league. Some defenders win with skill or power, and some use intimidation to rattle opponents, but rare is the defenseman who can do both with regularity. Taylor is one of those men. He was fast – too fast to be a linebacker. His speed and acceleration didn’t make sense, and they baffled blockers. He was powerful. Despite being the same size as any other linebacker, he seemed to possess the strength of a defensive tackle. He had an uncanny ability to generate force to deliver devastating hits, even in tight spaces. LT was ferocious and terrifying. He seemed to gain strength from pain – his own or his enemy’s. Taylor is a rare defender to earn an MVP award, and he may be the greatest defensive player ever to stride the field.
Derrick Thomas (1989-1999)
Kansas City Chiefs
3 First Team All Pros; 3 Seconds Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Dobre Shunka Award
Kansas City icon Derrick Thomas was a tremendous pass rusher with one of the greatest first steps the game has ever seen. Although his career was abbreviated by his tragic early death, he nonetheless was able to amass 126.5 in 169 regular season games. Thomas holds the official NFL record with seven sacks in one game, and he is tied for second with six sacks in another game. That these games were eight years apart speaks to his sustained dominance as a pass rusher. Exhibiting adequate run defense, and almost nonexistent coverage ability, he has been described as a one dimensional player. However, when that dimension is the most important thing a player at his position can do, and a player is among the best the game has ever seen at that dimension, that player goes into the Hall of Fame.
Junior Seau (1990-2009)
San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins
8 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 12 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards; 1 GridFe Dobre Shunka Award
Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, 22 out of 25 linebackers with multiple AP All-Pro berths either played inside or rushed the passer. Derrick Brooks was one notable exception. Junior Seau was the other, one of the league’s greatest run-stoppers whose career coincided with the last great heyday of the running game, (for now at least). Seau was in many ways a contradiction. He played forever at a position not known for its longevity; his 20 seasons played leads all linebackers, and he’s one of two linebackers to log a snap after his 40th birthday, (joining Clay Matthews). He made twelve Pro Bowls and was named first-team All Pro in eight different seasons despite playing mostly on mediocre teams and lacking highlight-reel appeal. He retired only to sign and play four more one-year contracts. A charismatic presence who played with joy only to fall prey to depression in retirement.71
Derrick Brooks (1995-2008)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
In the official sack era, about 25 players have been named a first-team All-Pro at linebacker multiple times by the Associated Press (the count is complicated by tweeners who switched between DE and LB). Of those 25 players, 10 were middle or inside linebackers and 12 were full-time edge rushers. Another was Wilber Marshall, an outside linebacker for those ’80s Bears defense where everyone was a part-time pass-rusher at a minimum. And then there’s Derrick Brooks, whose 5 All Pro nods are the 5th-most in that sample despite Brooks playing on the outside and never tallying more than three sacks in a season. Brooks was famous for his coverage abilities at a position celebrated for tackling running backs and quarterbacks. He was the consensus best player on a defense with four potential Hall of Famers. He is one of the rare once-in-a-generation players who managed to be exceptional even among the cohort of the exceptional.72
DeMarcus Ware (2005-2016)
Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 2 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Ware was an elite pass rusher who twice led the league in sacks. He spent much of his career toiling on mismanaged teams before a second act with the Broncos saw him win the league title that for so long eluded him. The 33 year old wasn’t just along for the ride; he recorded 3.5 sacks during Denver’s Super Bowl run, in which he had at least half a sack in each game and picked up two in the big game. Although he was best-known for terrorizing quarterbacks, as his 138.5 career sacks illustrates, Ware was also a capable coverage defender when called upon. He also didn’t ignore his run game responsibilities as the expense of chasing sacks. Ware was the complete package in an era of increased specialization.
Hall of Fame Cornerbacks
Cornerbacks have one of the toughest jobs in football. Usually playing in a reactionary posture, they have to rely on technique and savvy to keep some of the most athletic people in the world from catching the ball. They have to do this on every play of every game. Okay, not every play. On running plays, they have to first respect the pass and then react to much larger men coming their way to clear a path for the runner. When they do their job to perfection, few people notice. If they screw up just once, it could result in a long touchdown reception. No other position requires near perfection on every play to avoid disaster. Because of this, cornerbacks must be not only incredibly athletic, but also astoundingly mentally resilient. This often results in careers marked by hills and valleys, with inconsistent play from year to year. That makes the dominance of these men all the more impressive. Among all positions, cornerbacks seemed to generate the most agreement among voters. Of the 16 players receiving votes, 15 made it into the GridFe Hall of Fame.73 Thirteen of those players were unanimous picks, and even the odd man out received three out of six possible up votes.
Night Train Lane (1952-1965)
Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Rams
6 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 4 GridFe Prime Time Awards
An unheralded player out of high school, Dick “Night Train” Lane played for Western Nebraska Community College for one season before enlisting in the military. After four years in the Army, Lane walked on to the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent. He made an immediate impression, producing perhaps the greatest-ever rookie season of any NFL player. That year, Night Train hauled in a still-standing record 14 interceptions and made his name as a feared tackler. Infamous for bringing down opponents by the facemask or by pummeling ball carriers with clothesline tackles, he inspired rule changes to remove the activities from the game.
Jimmy Johnson (1961-1976)
San Francisco 49ers
4 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Prime Time Awards
While Night Train was the original superstar cornerback, it was San Francisco’s Jimmy Johnson who was the first true shutdown corner, as we think of one today. Rather than beat receivers into submission, Johnson used his incredible speed and length, in concert with refined technique and field vision, to erase opposing receivers. All but the most brazen quarterbacks avoided his side of the field entirely. Perhaps most notable about Johnson is that he spent considerable time studying tape of opponents to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. This studious approach to the game was rare for the cornerback position during his time in the league.
Herb Adderley (1961-1972)
Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 6 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Adderley was a vital piece in the 1960s Packers defense that suffocated opposing passing attacks and led the way for the team to enjoy five title wins. He excelled primarily in man coverage and was especially effective at creating big plays off of turnovers. Playing behind a star-studded front seven and in front of safety net Willie Wood, Adderley was able to take chances, and he flipped heads more often than not. In his first eleven seasons, he recorded 48 interceptions, which he returned for an incredible 1046 yards and 7 touchdowns. He also returned five picks for 97 yards and a score in 15 playoff games.
Willie Brown (1963-1978)
Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos
7 First Team All Pros (3 AFL/4 NFL); 3 Second Team All Pros (AFL); 9 Pro Bowls (5 AFL/4 NFL); 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Prime Time Awards (1 AFL/1 NFL)
Whether he was playing on the downtrodden Denver Broncos or the powerhouse Oakland Raiders, Willie Brown displayed the ability to overpower wide receivers and create turnovers if anyone was foolish enough to test him. He was ahead of his time as a bump and run coverage defender, using his physicality to redirect routes and trusting in his speed to recover in the rare even he was beaten off the line. Despite scaring passers away, Brown finished his career with 54 interceptions in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs.74 He returned those picks for five touchdowns, most notably to put the nail in the coffin in Oakland’s blowout victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Lem Barney (1967-1977)
2 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Barney was a relatively obscure second round pick out of Jackson State, but he made his presence in the NFL known quickly: in his first game, facing legendary quarterback Bart Starr, the rookie intercepted the very first pass that came his way and returned it for a touchdown. That was just the beginning of his defensive rookie of the year campaign, as he finished the season with 10 interceptions, which he returned for 232 yards and three touchdowns. Barney possessed great ball skills and was a fierce fighter for the ball once it was in the air. He used those skills to pick off 56 passes, and he used his talents as a return man to take those interceptions back for a total of 1077 yards and seven touchdowns.75
Roger Wehrli (1969-1982)
St. Louis Cardinals
5 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 7 Pro Bowls
Wehrli never intercepted more than six passes in a single season, and his 40 career interceptions are lower than one might expect from a legendary cornerback from the dead ball era. However, a cursory glance at his box score stats don’t tell the whole story. While earlier cornerbacks intimidated passers and scared them away, it was Wehrli who was the first to receive the moniker of “shutdown corner.” He didn’t haul in gaudy interception totals because quarterbacks smartly avoided him and, instead, challenged his teammate Norm Thompson. Speed was Wehrli’s hallmark, but he wasn’t a pure finesse defender. He had strong hands, excelled with aggressive play at the line of scrimmage, and possessed a terrific instinct for where the ball was going on a play.76
Mel Blount (1970-1983)
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award
Most players don’t have significant rules named after them. Mel Blount isn’t most players. With a huge frame, blazing speed, and street fighting mentality, Blount mauled receivers all throughout their routes. His ability to eliminate top receiving threats was a vital part of the Steel Curtain dynasty. The violent manner in which he did it inspired the Mel Blount Rule, which significantly limited the amount of contact defenders could have with receivers on passing plays. A lesser player may have become ineffective after the passing of a rule to mitigate the effect of his style of play. Rather than become ineffective, Blount responded with three more Pro Bowls and all pro selections.
Mike Haynes (1976-1989)
Los Angeles Raiders, New England Patriots
5 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award
Haynes was a standout punt returner and respected cover man in New England for the first seven years of his career, but it wasn’t until he went to a Raiders team that allowed him to flourish by playing his own way that he really cemented his legacy as one of the greats. Fast, graceful, and technically proficient, he was built to succeed in the post-Mel Blount Rule NFL against receivers who had more freedom than ever. In Los Angeles, Haynes was able to completely obscure receivers and force passer to test Lester Hayes, the playmaking ballhawk on the other side of the field. Their complementary strengths formed arguably the greatest cornerback tandem the league has ever seen.
Darrell Green (1983-2002)
4 First Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss
Green’s career stands out as odd because, despite being an all-time great coverage specialist, he is better-known for being the NFL’s fastest man and playing for a long time than for his ability to play cornerback. It is true that Green was in a league of his own when it came to running in pads, and it is also true that he had remarkable staying power; his 20 seasons and 298 games are easily the most of anyone ever to play the position. But focusing solely on those points does his career a disservice. Green was phenomenal in man coverage and was ahead of his time with his use of athleticism and technique rather than brute force intimidation. He was a contemporary of several high-peek peers who often overshadowed his quiet brilliance, but his ability to maintain that brilliance for at least fifteen of his years in the league is a testament to his talent.77
Rod Woodson (1987-2003)
Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 2 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Rod Woodson is among the most versatile cornerbacks in NFL history. He was solid in both man and zone coverage, and he could play outside or in the slot. Woodson was an excellent tackler and adept blitzer, finishing his career with over 1000 tackles and 13.5 sacks. After a legendary run at cornerback, he spent the last five years of his career at safety, where he earned four Pro Bowl selections and twice led the league in interceptions. He sometimes gambled in hopes of forcing a turnover, which allowed a few more completions than one may expect from an esteemed cornerback. However, his 71 career interceptions indicate that he guessed correctly far more often than not. And once he had the ball in his hands, he was dangerous. He used the same skills that earned him two kickoff and punt return touchdowns apiece to score an NFL record 13 defensive touchdowns.
Deion Sanders (1989-2002)
Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Washington
9 First Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Prime Time may be the best pure cover corner in history. He had a reputation for refusing to make tackles, but that knock on his career is largely overblown. Besides, teams didn’t pay him outrageous sums of money to tackle running backs on sweeps; the paid him to remove the other team’s best receiver from the face of the earth. Sanders did that better than any other man ever to play. While critics often bemoaned his concurrent career in professional baseball, it speaks volumes of Neon’s ability that he was able to devote the time and energy it takes to be a successful MLB player and still maintain his place as the premier cover corner in the NFL. His speed was the thing that always jumped off the screen. He used it to bait quarterbacks into making bad choices and to return ball without being touched by potential tacklers.78 Sanders’s braggadocio was arguably as important as his legendary pace. Not only did he get into the heads of opponents, but he also drew attention to a position he redefined and made it attractive for generations of young athletes.
Aeneas Williams (1991-2004)
Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award
Aeneas Williams spent the first decade of his career playing for a talent-starved Cardinals franchise.79 Despite toiling in a desert wasteland, Williams managed to make six Pro Bowls and four all pro teams from 1991-2000.80 He was an excellent force defender, adept at shedding blocks and stopping rushers for minimal gains. While some elite cover men were prime targets for rushing attacks, Williams wasn’t a guy you’d attack on a sweep. He tracked number one receivers and held his own, even without a strong pass rush. Perhaps the brightest feather in his cap is his postseason play. Williams didn’t make the playoffs often, but when he did he was among the best postseason performers in history. He hauled in three interceptions in two separate playoff runs, returning two for touchdowns.81
Charles Woodson (1998-2015)
Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers
4 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award
As a fourth-overall draft choice and the only primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, Woodson had sky-high expectations entering the league. He more than lived up to the challenge over an 18-year, 271 game career that saw him intercept 66 passes and recover 34 fumbles.82 Woodson was a gifted athlete, but he honed his technique to such perfection that he was able to excel in a variety of roles well after he’d lost a step physically. He was rarely beaten in man coverage, and he was equally adept as a zone defender. His ability to cover both outside and in the slot is well-known. As a tackler, he was so effective that he was able to, in effect, serve as a de facto outside linebacker.83 Woodson had the range and instincts to play safety as well, which he did with aplomb during the latter part of his career. He was the consummate playmaker84 and may be the most well-rounded of all cornerbacks ever to grace the field.
Champ Bailey (1999-2013)
Denver Broncos, Washington
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 12 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Bailey was a strong man-to-man coverage cornerback in Washington, but also a bit of a gambler who could be beat. A move to Denver saw him start lining him up off the receiver so he could not only cover his man but also help if the play went elsewhere. He thrived in the new scheme, leading to his remarkable 2006 season where he was targeted just 65 times on the team that saw the 5th-most pass attempts.85 Bailey was also phenomenal in run support and tape of his play was popular for teaching fundamental form tackling.86 He played forever at a position that is known for high peaks and short primes,87 and he achieved near universal respect from opponents.8889
Darrelle Revis (2007-present)
New York Jets, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs
5 First Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Perhaps the most glowing review one can give of Darrelle Revis is that he managed to become a shutdown cornerback during the post-2004 era passing explosion. With the current rules in place to enhance player safety (and stifle defenses), a shutdown coverage defender shouldn’t even be a possibility. Yet Revis exists. Revis Island was an unpopular destination for number one receivers, and it allowed his coaches the freedom to install defensive schemes that other teams couldn’t possibly run, with the knowledge that offenses were effectively playing 10-on-10 rather than 11-on-11. His 2009 campaign is, perhaps, the greatest performance from a cornerback in recent history.90
Hall of Fame Safeties
Expectations for safeties have evolved as offensive trends philosophies have evolved. The earliest pure safeties lived up to their names, acting as safety nets deep behind the rest of their defense, combating the long ball tendencies of the day. As offenses became more sophisticated, roles on defense became more complex. Safeties now had to be able to cover most all areas of the field, as well as run and pass blitz, as well as their requisite support against the rush. The position has seen several talented – and vastly different – players over the years. From the rangy Nolan Cromwell to the thumping Steve Atwater, from the understated brilliance Eric Weddle to the flashy phenom Adrian Wilson, the position offers something for everyone. Because of that, people with different opinions on what safeties should look like will have widely different ideas of who were the best or who most deserve Hall of Fame recognition. Surprisingly, the voting committee, for better or worse, had seemingly homogeneous views regarding enshrinement. The final list included twelve safeties, listed below.91
Emlen Tunnell (1948-1961)
New York Giants, Green Bay Packers
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award
Tunnell was the league’s first great pure safetyman, whose stellar play inspired generations of rangy defenders. He was a key cog in Steve Owens‘s feared Umbrella Defense and patrolled deep to disrupt the long distance passing attacks of the era. Tunnell possessed incredible range, which he used to intercept an astounding 79 passes in his career.92 In addition to his work in coverage, he was also a fierce tackler, capable of jarring ball-carriers. His innate ability to know just where to be on both passing and rushing plays exalted the New York defense and stymied the opposition. Tunnell was also among the best kick and punt returners in the league. His 1951 season was a masterpiece: in 12 games, he intercepted nine passes and scored touchdowns on three punt returns and one kick return.
Jack Christiansen (1951-1958)
6 First Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award
The leader of Chris’s Crew, Christiansen was a heady player with tremendous speed in coverage. In his short career, he led the league in interceptions twice and was a dominant ballhawk at his peak. Between 1953 and 1957, he picked off 41 throws in 56 games while setting the tone for Detroit’s dominant secondary. Christiansen was also a premier punt returner, leading the NFL in return touchdowns four times and finishing his career with eight – one for each season of his brief tenure. His prowess as a punt returner forced opponents to rethink the way they approached punt coverage, prompting them to significantly widen their cover units to account for his speed.
Yale Lary (1952-1964)
5 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award
d Lary was a versatile player whose ability to excel on both defense and special teams provided great value to the dynasty Lions. As a safety, he hauled in 50 career interceptions. With fellow stud defensive back Jack Christiansen patrolling behind the cerebral Joe Schmidt, Lary formed the nucleus of one of the greatest defensive dynasties in the sport. As a punter, he led the NFL in punting average in three separate seasons. He was an all star early in his career, but he missed what would have been his fourth and fifth seasons (1954-55) to military service. Despite missing time, he came back and continued to play at a high level until his 1964 retirement.
Willie Wood (1960-1971)
Green Bay Packers
7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Green Bay legend Willie Wood was the model of consistent excellence, earning selections to an all-NFL team every season from 1962 to 1970. His respect among peers was universal. On a defense full of legends, Wood was the most revered – even the feared Ray Nitschke admitted he didn’t want to disappoint Wood on the field. He led the league in interceptions in 1962 but didn’t otherwise pick off many passes; his career total of 48 is rather low for a safety of his caliber. However, Wood made his mark by dissuading passes in his coverage rather than baiting passers into making mistakes. Despite his lack of picks, his defining career moment occurred on an interception of the normally careful Len Dawson in Super Bowl I. A Packers blitz saw Dawson hurry his throw, and instead of a completion to Fred Arbanas into Green bay terrotiry, the result was Wood snatching the ball and returning it to the Kansas City five. His return set up the Elijah Pitts score that opened the floodgates and drowned the Chiefs.
Larry Wilson (1960-1972)
St. Louis Cardinals
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Cardinals virtuoso Larry Wilson probably had the most defensive versatility of any safety in history. He was excellent in coverage, finishing his storied career with 52 interceptions despite not being a traditional deep coverage specialist. His ability to stop ball-carriers in their tracks is the stuff of legend, and he is rightly regarded as a pioneer of the safety blitz (he didn’t invent it, but he did perfect it). Despite being in coverage more often than not, Wilson finished his career with an unofficial count of 22-25 sacks, which was unheard of for contemporary safeties.93 His 1966 campaign is among the finest a safety has ever produced: he intercepted a pass in seven consecutive games and finished with ten overall. Journalists at the time were so impressed they voted him as the runner up for the Associated Press’s MVP award.
Paul Krause (1964-1979)
Minnesota Vikings, Washington
4 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Year in, year out, Krause manned the last line of defense for his teams with aplomb. He never had a down year, when healthy, and his eight seasons with at least six interceptions are a testament to his steady excellence. After all was said and done, Krause had intercepted a stunning 81 passes – a record that has stood since 1979. With regulatory changes making it easier than ever to pass without suffering turnovers, Krause’s record may never fall. Though he never won a title, he played well in four Super Bowl losses, and his interception of Len Dawson in Super Bowl IV was one of the few bright spots in a Minnesota loss.
Ken Houston (1967-1980)
Washington, Houston Oilers
7 First Team All Pros (1 AFL/6 NFL); 5 Second Team All Pros (1 AFL/4 NFL); 12 Pro Bowls (2 AFL/10 NFL); 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award
With twelve Pro Bowl selections, Ken Houston earned a trip to the NFL’s all star game more than any other player in the history of the position. He had solid speed and a long, tall frame that enabled him to make plays on the ball that many safeties could not. Once he got his hands on a pass (which he did 49 times), his elusiveness made him a serious threat to score. Houston returned nine of his interceptions for touchdowns, and he added three more touchdowns off of returns from a punt, a fumble recovery, and a blocked field goal. An integral fixture on his defenses, Houston was named team MVP four times – once with the Oilers and thrice with Washington.
Ronnie Lott (1981-1994)
San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders, New York Jets
8 First Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award; 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award
Lott is generally regarded as the greatest safety ever to play. History has remembered him for his ability to lay devastating hits on unfortunate offensive players, but it should be noted that Lott made four Pro Bowls and two all pro teams as a cornerback before moving to safety. A testament to his coverage skills, Lott intercepted 63 passes in the regular season and a record 9 passes in the playoffs. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest, but he had incredible instincts that allowed him to maintain man coverage as a corner or deep zone coverage as a free safety. Despite his lack of size, he was one of the most feared hitters in history, and he had the ability to demoralize ball-carriers in run support. He used his terrific leverage and quick twitch ability to uncoil like a mamba striking at its prey, and this ability came in handy as Lott superbly defended near the line of scrimmage in nickel packages. His arrival in San Francisco changed the outlook of the team, as he led arguably the most underrated defensive dynasty in history on his way to four Super Bowl titles.94
Kenny Easley (1981-1987)
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Easley is among the great athletes ever to play the safety position. Tall and sinewy, he possessed the speed to run with receivers and the length to play the ball, and he had the raw power to stop running backs the way a car windshield stops a bug on the interstate. One doesn’t earn the nickname The Enforcer by merely taking opponents to the ground with form tackles. It seems uncommon for a hard-hitting run support safety to double as a ball hawk, but Easley had a knack for forcing turnovers. In his five seasons before injury, he had 26 interceptions and ten fumble recoveries. That includes a league-leading ten picks in his 1984 defensive player of the year campaign. Easley’s incandescent career was cut short by injury, but he was arguably the best safety in the league at his peak.
Brian Dawkins (1996-2011)
Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos
5 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Among recent safeties, it seems everyone must be compared to Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Like Polamalu, Dawkins created mayhem near the line of scrimmage– he ranks 3rd among defensive backs in sacks since 1982 and 2nd in forced fumbles since 1993, as far back as each statistic officially goes– though he wasn’t the instinctual freelancer. Like Reed, Dawkins was also excellent as a deep coverage safety, though he lacked the preternatural range. He had the strengths of both players without the one special attribute that landed them on so many highlight reels, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he wasn’t their equal. He anchored one of the most underrated defenses in recent memory– an Eagles team that won 59 games from 2000 to 2004, making four conference championship games with an average rank in points allowed of 3.4– and then hung around long enough to be named All Pro in Denver at age 36 on the strength of his play rather than his reputation.
Ed Reed (2002-2013)
Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Houston Texans
7 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Ed Reed is undoubtedly the greatest pure free safety in history, with unmatched range and uncanny instincts. His incredible closing speed allowed him to bait quarterbacks into throwing his way, only to see the savvy defender snatch the ball away a the last moment. His nose for the ball saw him lead the league in picks three times and record a total of 64 interceptions in the most passer-friendly era in NFL history.95 The consummate playmaker, Reed became offense on defense with the ball in his hands, returning seven interceptions and two fumbles for touchdowns. He also scored four times via punt return and blocked punt return. The daring Reed wasn’t content to settle for a touchback; he set an NFL record with a 106 yard interception return in 2004 and then broke his own record with a 107 yard return in 2008.96 Feared and respected, Reed’s reputation was such that opposing quarterbacks made sure to note the whereabouts of number 20 before every snap.
Troy Polamalu (2003-2014)
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 4 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
During his brilliant career, Troy Polamalu dazzled fans and players alike with his berserk style and otherworldly athleticism. He was a playmaker who could anticipate snap counts to make leaping stops behind the line of scrimmage, knife through traffic to neutralize a running back, destroy short passing patterns, or play the ball deep. Polamalu played with reckless abandon, freelances, and took the kind of chances coaches only allow the best players to take. Occasionally, his risks would backfire, but often they resulted in the sort of game-changing plays that earned him defensive player of the year selections in 2005 and 2010.
Hall of Fame Coaches
There are two primary reasons coaches become legends: they won or they influenced. Some coaches are known for winning championships. Others are famous for their innovations. A few have the distinction of falling in both categories. How we perceive head coaches often depends not just on what they did but how they did what they did. Don Coryell is rightly regarded as one of the league’s greatest offensive minds – but he didn’t win enough. Marty Schottenheimer is one of just seven coaches with more than 200 wins – but he never won a championship. George Seifert won two Super Bowls, both in dominating fashion – but he inherited a steamroller of a team. Jimmy Johnson took over a team in the doldrums, won two Super Bowls, and laid the foundation for his successor to win another – but he didn’t coach for long enough. Because of the sometimes arbitrary qualifications we expect coaches to meet, or because we unconsciously have the unrealistic expectation of every good coach to be the next Paul Brown in order to meet the definition of greatness, it can be difficult for any but the best and brightest to stand out. The GridFe Hall of Fame voting committee did our best to weigh all the information available to us in order to recognize the most deserving coaches. Ultimately, we inducted twelve into the inaugural class.97
George Halas (1920-1967)
Decatur Staleys/Chicago Bears
318-148-31 Record; 6 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 5 GridFe Genius Awards
Papa Bear was the founder and principle owner of the Chicago Bears (erstwhile Decatur Staleys) and was their head coach for 40 seasons and over 500 games.98 His squads won NFL championships in four different decades, with his first and last titles coming 42 years apart. In the days before the league cared about parity, Halas’s Monsters of the Midway experienced sustained dominance, with six titles, three more title losses, and 34 winning seasons and rosters stacked with the legends of yesteryear. He presided over dominant defenses and innovative offenses. In particular, his work with Clark Shaughnessey to bring the potent T Formation offense to the NFL marked a sea change in the way teams viewed quarterbacks. Halas introduced the offense in style in a 73-0 trouncing of Washington in the 1940 title game. His legacy includes a coaching tree with successful head coaches George Allen, Dick Vermeil, and Marv Levy, as well as offensive mastermind Ted Marchibroda.
Paul Brown (1946-1975)
Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
213-104-9 Record; 7 Title Wins (4 AAFC/3 NFL); 4 Title Losses; 10 GridFe Genius Awards (4 AAFC/6 NFL)
It is not an overstatement to call Paul Brown the most innovative coach of all time, or to say he had more influence on modern football than any other individual. He pioneered scouting and testing players for baseline athleticism and football acumen, reintegrated professional football before Jackie Robinson played his first Major League Baseball game, took control of play calling responsibility away from the quarterback, integrated classroom film study into practices, and installed an embryonic version of the West Coast Offense that is part of every playbook in the modern NFL. In his 17 years in Cleveland, the Browns fielded 14 top five scoring offenses and 17 top five scoring defenses. He later went on to lead the expansion Cincinnati Bengals to respectability, despite the lack of championship success he found in Cleveland. Through his coaching tree of Bill Walsh, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Weeb Ewbank, Bill Belichick, and Tony Dungy (to name but a few), Brown’s influence lives on.
Vince Lombardi (1959-1969)
Green Bay Packers, Washington
96-34-6 Record; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
Lombardi took over a moribund Green Bay franchise and immediately transformed it into a winner. In just nine seasons with the Packers, he guided the team to five triumphs in six championship games, including the first two Super Bowls. Even though he stepped into his role for a downtrodden Green Bay team and a lackluster Washington squad, he never coached a team to a losing record. The coach was famous for the Lombardi Sweep, an effective toss play subsequently romanticized in popular media, but he was far more than that. Despite his love of the running game, the success of his teams was predicated on efficient passing and stout defense, with a power rushing component to control the tempo of the game. Adept at finding talent in his role as a general manager, Lombardi stacked his rosters with legendary players and found roles for them to succeed.99
Tom Landry (1960-1988)
250-162-6 Record; 2 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
The man in the funny hat coached the New York Giants defense to six consecutive top five finishes before getting his shot as the head coach of the upstart Dallas Cowboys. Landry’s expansion squad started slowly, posting five straight losing seasons, but ownership was patient with the promising coach. That patience paid off, as Landry led the team to twenty straight winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances, and two Super Bowl wins. Under Landry, Dallas won more games than any other team in the 1970s, and it had much to do with the coach who had complete control over the product on the field. Landry’s wizardry included honing the flex defense and multiple offense in order to field incredible units, seemingly regardless of which players were plugged in. He was ahead of his time in the regular use of the shotgun formation to keep star passer Roger Staubach upright.100 His coaching tree includes successful head coaches Mike Ditka and Dan Reeves.101
Sid Gillman (1955-1974)
Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers
122-99-7 Record; 1 Title Win (AFL); 5 Title Losses (4 AFL/1 NFL); 1 GridFe Genius Award
Gillman isn’t as well-known to modern fans, but he was a true giant in the profession. He was an offensive innovator who was an outspoken proponent of attacking defenses with the pass. “The big play comes from the pass,” he’d say, and he designed offenses that would lead his Southern California teams to six championship appearances, including one win. Gillman was also ahead of his time with his focus on strength and conditioning training, and his work with Alvin Roy changed the landscape of professional football permanently. The AFL was a league full of personalities, and Gillman may have been the most influential of them all. He wasn’t just a passing guru; he was a talented organizational strategist. Similar to the way Paul Brown changed the game, Gillman’s attention to detail at the training, scouting, practicing, and gameplanning levels forced both his AFL contemporaries and the established NFL to adapt. Many legendary coaches have impressive coaching trees. Gillman has a forest that includes Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Don Coryell, Chuck Noll, George Allen, Al Davis, and John Madden.
Don Shula (1963-1995)
Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Colts
328-156-6 Record; 2 Title Wins; 5 Title Losses; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
Don Shula had a reputation as a man who could take any group of players and turn them into contenders. As rival coach Bum Phillips once said of Shula, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n,” meaning he could beat your team with his players or his team with your players. His career record suggest that may not have been hyperbole. He won more games than any coach in history. In his 33 years as a head coach, he only had a losing record twice, he failed to break .500 just six times, and he won at least ten games 20 times.102 Shula guided a perennially strong team in Baltimore before taking over a fledgling Miami team. In both locations, he was able to build squads that were able to dominate opponents with a backup quarterback seeing significant action, including the 1972 Dolphins who remain the NFL’s only perfect team. Among Shula’s proteges are defensive genius Bill Arnsparger, offensive innovator Ray Perkins, and, more distantly, Marty Schottenheimer.
Hank Stram (1960-1977)
Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints
131-97-10 Record; 2 Title Wins (1 AFL/1 NFL); 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Genius Awards (AFL)
As the head coach of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs (former Dallas Texans), Stram built the most consistently spectacular team of the decade and helped bring respectability to the upstart league. His work as an innovator cannot be understated. On offense, he pioneered the moving pocket to take advantage of quarterback Len Dawson‘s mobility and provide him with a better look at passing lanes. He also made frequent use of two tight end sets that augmented blocking power while maintaining the threat of the pass. On defense, Stram’s odd front hybrid schemes gave offensive lines nightmares and set the tone for the defenses of the 1970s. He used massive Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp to dominate the interior line while Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier had their way with blockers at the next level, and the secondary feasted on what was left. Those defenses famously derailed the offense of the juggernaut Vikings in Super Bowl IV, helped further legitimize the AFL, and set the blueprint for future roster construction. As a team builder, Stram actively sought out players from small schools and HBCUs to gain a competitive advantage over the establishment.
John Madden (1969-1978)
103-32-7 Record; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Genius Award
The vibrant coach Madden only coached for ten years, but he averaged a remarkable 7.1 games over .500 per season on his way to becoming to youngest coach ever to win 100 games. He presided over one of the most unique and individualistic rosters in history, and his ability to coach with an open mind and let the players be themselves and emphasize their strengths seemed to give his Raiders a rare advantage. Madden led his team to a Super Bowl victory in 1976 and conference championship games in six other seasons. His .759 regular season winning percentage is the top mark among any coach with 100 or more career victories.103 His coaching record isn’t all that got him into the GridFe Hall of Fame. He became the influential voice of Monday Night Football, easily relating complex concepts in a palatable format to the general viewing audience. Later, he brought the NFL into people’s homes and reached a new generation of fans with his influential Madden video game franchise. Few in modern history have done as much for the popularity of the sport.
Chuck Noll (1969-1991)
193-148-1 Record; 4 Title Wins; 2 GridFe Genius Awards
Prior to Noll’s arrival, the Steelers were at the bottom of the barrel, with only a handful of winning seasons in the previous quarter century. With his incredible ability to find talent through the draft, he turned the franchise around within four years and eventually created a dynasty. Noll became the first coach with four Super Bowl wins, and he did it by building a dynamic team with an imposing defense and a versatile offense. The Steel Curtain was the driving force of Pittsburgh’s success and was a major factor in all four title runs. Offensively, Noll won championship gold first with a run-oriented attack that didn’t put too much pressure on young quarterback Terry Bradshaw, before winning more gold with a dangerous passing attack once Bradshaw matured as a passer. His work with Bud Carson on Cover 2 defense was vital and showed that having linebackers who are strong in coverage was the way of the future. Noll’s former safety Tony Dungy gleaned knowledge from the scheme and worked with Monte Kiffin to cater it to modern offenses as the repackaged Tampa 2 that dominated the early 2000s.
Bill Walsh (1979-1988)
San Francisco 49ers
92-59-1 Record; 3 Title Wins; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
Walsh inherited a perennial loser and built the foundations of a team that won at least ten games in all but three seasons from 1981 to 2002, including five Super Bowls. He built the San Francisco dynasty on the foundations of offensive innovation and defensive supremacy, with attention to minutia an essential aspect of both. After taking a few years for his schematic and management contributions to take hold, the 49ers became a perennial contender. They ranked in the top ten in points scored from 1981-1998, as well as total yardage from 1982-1996. San Francisco also happened to rank in the top ten in points allowed in all but one season (1993) from 1983-1997. Walsh did not just build a revolutionary offense; he built a juggernaut from top to bottom. His West Coast Offense expanded significantly on Paul Brown‘s concepts, especially after being paired with cerebral passer Virgil Carter after the shocking loss of Greg Cook. He began the WCO in earnest to make the best use of Carter’s combination of a strong mind and weak arm. Walsh took the offense to another level with Ken Anderson, and perfected it with Joe Montana.104 His disciples include George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Denny Green, Mike Shanahan, Andy Reid, and Sam Wyche.
Joe Gibbs (1981-1992, 2004-2007)
154-94-0 Record; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
The mild-mannered Gibbs was among the greatest ever at adapting to his personnel. He took a group of mostly unheralded offensive linemen and transformed them into The Hogs, a dominant unit that were the foundation of teams that won three Super Bowls.105 Gibbs didn’t just win three titles, he won three titles with three different starting quarterbacks with different skill sets. His ability to both lead and teach was vital for this achievement, and his steady demeanor was a calming force for his teams that won the Super Bowl during the only two strike-shortened seasons in NFL history. Under Don Coryell, Gibbs had a significant hand in developing the famed Air Coryell offense, and he is credited with creating the trips formation. With a brilliant tactical mind and presence that both gave and commanded respect, it’s no wonder Gibbs guided his teams to the promised land in seasons when the winds were coldest.
Bill Belichick (1991-present)
New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns
250-118-0 Record; 5 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 5 GridFe Genius Awards
A hero to some and a hoodie-clad evil genius to others, Belichick is probably the best game planner in history, with the ability to exploit any inefficiency or rule book ambiguity and turn it into an edge for his team. Perhaps the most notable examples of his ability to game plan came in Super Bowls over a decade apart, once as defensive coordinator of the Giants and once as head coach of the Patriots. Facing the powerful K-Gun offense, Belichick knew throwing off Jim Kelly was the key to victory and instructed his defense to all but ignore legendary back Thurman Thomas. Against the high powered Greatest Show on Turf Rams, Belichick figured containing Marshall Faulk was paramount, and his Bull’s Eye plan worked to perfection. He is the only coach to win five Super Bowls, as well as the only coach to appear in eight Super Bowls. Part of his genius is his adaptability, as he fields amorphous teams that can’t be defined by a single identity, year after year. He runs schemes that play to the strengths of his personnel rather than trying to field a team full of talented square pegs. Belichick exercises total control over every aspect of his team. perhaps because of this, members of his coaching tree never come close to reaching his success.106 While they have learned his tactics, they can’t take his creative and flexible mind with them when they leave.
GridFe Hall of Fame Table
If you don’t want the hagiography and just want to know who is in the GridFe Hall of Fame, this is the section for you. The table below contains every member, as well as their positions, first and last years (includes coordinator positions for coaches), and induction class.
|Norm Van Brocklin||QB||1949||1960||2018|
|Steve Van Buren||RB||1944||1951||2018|
|Night Train Lane||CB||1952||1965||2018|
- Moving forward, the committee will also include potentate of prognostication Thomas McDermott. ↩
- As Adam Harstad puts it, we have a “complete and utter lack of bylaws. Voters want to elect one person a year? Fine. 80 people a year? Fine. Every long snapper ever? Fine. Fans? Fine. Want to elect a guy before his career is over? Fine. Before his career started? Fine. Former presidents? Fine. Change their mind and want to remove someone from the Hall? Fine. Want to enshrine individual games or individual plays? Fine. Want to officially declare guys anti-Hall of Famers who will never in a million years get in? Fine. Provided enough voters can be convinced of the worthiness of an idea, no barriers exist to that idea’s implementation. (Or rather, the only barrier to implementation is the process of convincing enough voters in the first place.)
Basically, the entire list of bylaws consists of:
1. Whatever five voters say, is.
2. The only rule that is not subject to revision is rule #2. ↩
- I considered bringing Willie Lanier, one of the finest linebackers in history, to the table. Ultimately, I decided to argue on behalf of only those with four votes. ↩
- From Statistically Speaking: Baugh made six Pro Bowl squads during his career, but that number requires an explanation. Pro Bowl selections include the original NFL All Star Game, which ran from 1938 to 1942 and featured a team of all stars against the league champions. Had the game existed in 1937, Baugh would have made it for being on the title-winning team. His 1942 selection was technically for being a member of the league champion, but he likely would have made the squad as an all star otherwise, given that he was named first or second team all NFL by several publications.
From 1943 to 1949, there was no All Star Game or Pro Bowl, so Baugh could not have possibly earned a nod in those years. That includes two of the great QB seasons in history and two other seasons in which he earned all NFL first team honors from major outlets. Add those four, plus the missing All Star Game from 1937, to the Pro Bowls Baugh actually made, and ends with eleven for his career. Of course, this also counts his lifetime achievement selection for his poor 1951 season, but that sort of thing happens all the time. ↩
- Those figures stand as the second and third best marks in history. ↩
- Only Fran Tarkenton has held either record for a longer period of time. ↩
- Note that this happened in an era when teams routinely punted on third down with no returner to flip field position. ↩
- The Pro Bowl didn’t exist for the entirety of Van Buren’s prime. The game was reinstated in 1950, when the prolific rusher was 30 years old and on his last legs. However, he was a first team All Pro selection every year from 1944-1949, and he would have been a fairly obvious Pro Bowler. ↩
- Van Buren was also excellent in the postseason. In Philadelphia’s two championship wins, he had 98 and 196 yards. ↩
- As noted with Baugh, the Pro Bowl/All Star Game didn’t exist until 1938, nor did it exist from 1943 to 1949. That means Hutson would not have been able to earn a Pro Bowl nod in six of his eleven years in the league. As a rookie, he ranked sixth in receptions, third in receiving yards (first in yards per game), and first in touchdown catches. He was a second team All Pro according to the NFL and UPI. He probably would have earned a nod if the game existed. In 1936, he led the NFL in catches, yards, yards per catch, yards per game, and touchdowns. He would have been an obvious Pro Bowler. In 1937, he ranked first in catches and touchdowns, and he was second in yards. Again, obvious Pro Bowl selection. In 1938, he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, despite leading the NFL in yards and touchdowns (so maybe it isn’t that obvious). From 1943-1945, Hutson was a first team All Pro selection and an obvious Pro Bowl choice. If we credit him for those missing Pro Bowls, he ends up with an all star selection in ten of his eleven seasons. ↩
- Perhaps unbelievably, only twenty quarterbacks received votes. Chiefs hero Len Dawson was the only one who didn’t receive the requisite votes. This does not include Pioneer inductee Sammy Baugh, who didn’t go through the same process as modern players. ↩
- The Pro Bowl didn’t exist when Graham played in the AAFC, but his play was worthy of the Pro Bowl all ten years of his career. ↩
- He was on pace for 5124 yards. Oh, he also led the NFL in yards per game for five consecutive seasons and six times total. ↩
- Early in his career, Montana was a dynamic athlete. However, severe back injuries took that facet of his game away from him. He did win two MVP awards under two head coaches afterwards, so make of that what you will. ↩
- This was after the retirement of Dwight Stephenson, perhaps the most dominant center of all time. ↩
- His rapport with his top receivers has reached mythic status. From 1999-2014 (Manning’s prime), his number one receiver averaged 102 catches, 1416 yards, and 11 touchdowns per 16 games. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Marion Motley*, Joe Perry*, Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson, Ollie Matson*, Tony Dorsett*, Curtis Martin (asterisk denotes players for whom I voted). ↩
- Prior to injury, he averaged an incredible 33 yards per return. ↩
- The total has since been surpassed, but it has only ever been topped by runners in the 16-game schedule era. Simpson’s 143.1 yards per game are a full ten yards higher than the next highest season average. ↩
- That’s equivalent to 2563 yards and 26 touchdowns in a 16 game schedule. ↩
- The Whizzer White and Bart Starr awards are similar, but they are not awarded by media. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Elroy Hirsch, Pete Pihos*, Bobby Mitchell*, Don Maynard*, Charley Taylor, Fred Biletnikoff, James Lofton, and Calvin Johnson. ↩
- To put that in perspective, current best receiver in the league Antonio Brown has had four such seasons despite playing in the most passing-friendly environment in league history. From 1964-68, Alworth averaged 74 receptions, 1495 yards, and 13 touchdowns per 16 games. This doesn’t even count his first great season, in which he had 61 catches for 1205 yards and 11 scores in 14 games. ↩
- Of the four men with a higher average, Flipper Anderson has the most receptions, with 267. That’s a mere 62.5% of Warfield’s career total. ↩
- He holds a 224 catch lead over second place Tony Gonzalez, a 6961 receiving yard lead over TO, a 41 receiving touchdown lead over Moss, and 1961 scrimmage yard and 33 total touchdown lead over Emmitt Smith. ↩
- He averaged at least 18.1 yards per catch in four of his first five seasons. The lone year he didn’t was the one in which he broke the single season record for receiving touchdowns. ↩
- Rice caught 1000 passes for 13546 yards and 102 touchdowns after turning thirty. He tacked on 39 rushes for 336 yards and 6 scores, for good measure. ↩
- If this paragraph sounds so much better than the others, it’s because the venerable Adam Harstad wrote it. Thanks be to Adam. ↩
- As Harstad once said: “More than any great receiver in history, Owens has demonstrated an ability to excel any time, in any place, at any age, in any scheme, with any teammates.” ↩
- In those four games, he had 30 catches for 546 yards and 7 touchdowns. ↩
- Others receiving votes: John Mackey*, Jackie Smith, and Dave Casper* ↩
- Pete Retzlaff gained 1190 yards in 1965, and Jackie Smith gained 1205 in 1967. No other tight end topped 1000 till Kellen Winslow in the expanded schedule of 1980. Jerry Smith scored 12 touchdowns in 1967, and no one else at the position matched that mark until Todd Christensen in 1983. ↩
- From 1980-84, Winslow had a per-16 game average of 94 catches, 1240 yards, and 9 touchdowns. ↩
- Thanks to Adam Harstad for contributing this lovely blurb on Gates. ↩
- Only Jerry Rice (17) and Gonzalez (15) have more such seasons. ↩
- Only Randy Moss and Jerry Rice have more. ↩
- His 12 playoff receiving touchdowns are five more than second place Casper and Vernon Davis. In fact, only Jerry Rice has more receiving touchdowns in the postseason. He also leads the position in postseason catches and yards. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Mike McCormack, Bob St. Clair, Rayfield Wright*, Jim Tyrer, Dan Dierdorf*, Jackie Slater*, Joe Jacoby, and Gary Zimmerman* ↩
- Again, there was no Pro Bowl for Groza’s first four seasons. ↩
- He caught four during his career. ↩
- From 2002-05, the Chiefs ranked 1, 1, 2, and 6 in points and 4, 2, 1 and 1 in yards. They were hampered by a defense that never ranked better than 16 in points allowed or 25 in yards allowed. ↩
- From 2001-05, Alexander averaged 1501 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. ↩
- He held defenders without a sack in 130 of his 167 career games. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Stan Jones*, Dick Stanfel*, Gene Hickerson*, Billy Shaw*, Joe DeLamielleure*, Russ Grimm*, Steve Hutchinson ↩
- Note that the 1948 San Francisco 49ers gained an absurd 3663 rushing yards in the AAFC. This record may last forever. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Frank Gatski, Mick Tingelhoff*, Jim Langer*, Kevin Mawae* ↩
- The “do-dad,” as Lombardi called it in his posthumous book, is the precursor to today’s more complicated zone blocking schemes. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Andy Robustelli*, Doug Atkins*, Claude Humphrey, Lee Roy Selmon*, Howie Long*, Dan Hampton, Chris Doleman*, Julius Peppers ↩
- The Pro Bowl didn’t exist during his time in the AAFC, which makes his total look much lower than it should. ↩
- During Ford’s eight seasons in Cleveland, the Browns ranked first in points allowed six times and ranked second in points allowed twice. The team also ranked in the top two in total yardage allowed seven times. ↩
- To this day, the only player with more sacks in a Super Bowl is L.C. Greenwood, who had four sacks in Super Bowl X. ↩
- With just 173.5 sacks in 191 games, he averaged 0.91 per game. Reggie White reached that mark in his 197th game, while Bruce Smith took 221 games. ↩
- 130 with the Vikings and 3 with the Seahawks. ↩
- He ranked fifth for a long time, but he recently dropped a spot when Julius Peppers passed him in 2017. ↩
- That’s far more than any active player. The active leader, Julius Peppers, is 45.5 shy of Smith. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Arnie Weinmeister*, Art Donovan, Ernie Stautner*, Henry Jordan*, Curley Culp*, John Randle, Bryant Young*, Pat Williams ↩
- Here, I’m referring to the fourth Fearsome Foursome, with Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier, and Lamar Lundy. This is not to be confused with the Giants, Chargers, or Lions defensive lines that also picked up the nickname. ↩
- His 148.5 sacks are good enough for eighth on the career list and are 13 ahead of the next highest DT, John Randle. No other player who played primarily on the interior line comes close. ↩
- Or one of four, depending on how you treat the 1958 and 1960 awards that seem to confuse the AP itself. It’s either Page and Lawrence Taylor, or it’s Page, Taylor, Gino Marchetti, and Joe Schmidt. ↩
- Many sources incorrectly report that Greene earned a first team All Pro nod as a rookie in 1969. This did not happen. The first team tackles that year were Olsen and Lilly. ↩
- And 11.5 more in the playoffs. ↩
- He is one of five total, and the only one who was not an edge rusher. The others are Lawrence Taylor in 1982, Reggie White in 1987, Michael Strahan in 2001, and Jason Taylor in 2006. Of them, only Jason Taylor‘s Dolphins (6-10) were more than one game under .500. ↩
- He ran a 4.69 40 yard dash at roughly 300 pounds. ↩
- In the modern game, the importance of coverage is now much, much more important than run stuffing. I suspect future voting for modern players will reflect evolving expectations. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Willie Lanier*, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis*. I did not vote for Randy Gradishar this year, but after watching extensive footage of him since then, I will absolutely be banging the table for him next time. ↩
- In the days when that actually mattered a great deal. ↩
- That includes an interception in 1961, two fumble recoveries in 1962, and a sack in the first Super Bowl. ↩
- The 1985 Bears won their playoff games 21-0, 24-0, and 46-10. ↩
- This is an oversimplification to make a point. Wilcox was fine in coverage. Joyner was unreal against the run. Miller is excellent against the run and can hold his own in coverage. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Chuck Howley, Kevin Greene*, Von Miller ↩
- Thank you to Adam Harstad for this blurb on Seau and the following one on Brooks. ↩
- Brooks holds the records for interception return yards (530) and touchdowns (6) among outside linebackers. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Mel Renfro* ↩
- Including an NFL single-game record four interceptions against the Jets in 1964. ↩
- He also returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns, and he even spent time as Detroit’s punter in the 1967 and 1969 seasons. ↩
- This made him an asset in run support and helped him recover 22 fumbles in his career. ↩
- In the early 1980s, he competed for acclaim with guys like Louis Wright and Everson Walls. By the late 80s, it was Frank Minnifield, Hanford Dixon, and Albert Lewis. By the 1990s, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, and Aeneas Williams had taken over. ↩
- To this day, he ranks second all time in non-offensive touchdowns with 19. Only Devin Hester has more. ↩
- The team averaged 5.6 wins per season, never winning more than 9 in a given year. That year, they suffered a blowout loss in the divisional round. ↩
- He finished his career with the Rams and earned a few more postseason honors, but his ability to earn accolades at his position while playing for a moribund franchise is rare and incredible. ↩
- Williams holds the record for combined regular season and postseason defensive touchdowns, with 14. ↩
- Playoffs and regular season combined. ↩
- He surpassed 50 tackles in 13 different seasons. ↩
- He is tied for the most regular season defensive touchdowns in history, with 13. ↩
- Bailey allowed 28 successful plays, deflected 11 passes, and intercepted 10 more (several of those coming on plays where he wasn’t the cornerback in coverage). ↩
- Since play-by-play became standardized in 1994, Bailey joins Ronde Barber, Charles Tillman, and Antoine Winfield as the only cornerbacks to top 60 tackles in eight different seasons. (Bailey had 73 in his phenomenal 2006 campaign, which ranked 5th behind Barber, Winfield, Antrel Rolle, and the late Darrent Williams, who was the player teams threw at when they were avoiding Champ Bailey.) ↩
- His 15 seasons at cornerback are second all-time only to Darrell Green’s 20. His 12 pro bowls at the position are three more than anyone else in history. No one accumulated more career AV at the cornerback position. ↩
- Drew Brees called Bailey’s area of the field a “no-throw zone”. Steve Smith praised his versatility, saying “If I lined up as a running back, he lined up as a linebacker. If I parked my car in the parking lot, he was the parking attendant. Champ Bailey lined up everywhere.” ↩
- Additional note: thanks to Adam Harstad for his rich blurb on Bailey. ↩
- Off the strength of his coverage, the Jets fielded the top defense in the league without a strong pass rush or particularly deep talent in the secondary. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Darren Woodson ↩
- He first broke the career interceptions in 1952, and he pushed it so far that his place atop the career leaderboard lasted for 27 years. ↩
- Estimated by John Turney, sack historian extraordinaire and legend in the esoteric NFL research community. ↩
- During Lott’s time in San Francisco, the team fielded a top ten scoring defense in nine out of ten seasons. The lone blip was the fluky 1982 strike season that saw all parts of the 49ers take several steps back. ↩
- Reed is also tied for the career postseason interceptions record, intercepting 9 balls in just 15 games. ↩
- Fittingly, his courage was rewarded by being named the defensive player of the year by a major publication in both seasons. ↩
- Others receiving votes: George Allen, Bill Parcells ↩
- He also played from 1920 to 1928 and had the NFL record for the longest fumble return (98 yards) until 1972. ↩
- His coaching tree is rather sparse, with Forrest Gregg and Dick LeBeau serving as its most notable members. ↩
- Also notable was his use of a back next to Staubach in order to maintain the threat of the run. ↩
- Also of note, as a defensive back, Landry had eight interceptions in three different seasons, and thrice led the league in punting yardage as a punter. ↩
- Not including the strike-shortened 1982 season in which he went 7-2. ↩
- He falls behind Lombardi if postseason games are included, and he falls behind Guy Chamberlin if the threshold is lowered to 80 victories. ↩
- The WCO was novel and complex. During the tumultuous 1987 season, tasked with overseeing a squad of replacement players with little preparation time, Walsh simplified the game by running the antediluvian wishbone offense in a blowout victory over the Giants. ↩
- This line was dominant despite having to play Lawrence Taylor, Randy White, and, later, Reggie White twice apiece each season. ↩
- In the NFL. Outside the NFL, Nick Saban has been about as successful as a coach can be in college football. ↩