This article is from a writer and historian whose work and opinion I respect quite a lot, Brad Oremland. Brad recently took a hiatus from writing about football (you can read more about it in his most recent column in his archives at Sports Central), but he was gracious enough to bring this great piece of work to me as a challenge to a fun post I made five years ago. The following words are Brad’s, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
I’m in semi-retirement as a football writer and historian. Old habits are like John McClane, though, and Bryan Frye has been gracious enough to offer me this platform, essentially so that I can try to make him look bad.
I recently re-read and admired the all-time pro football roster Bryan constructed following the 2014 season, probably the best such team I’ve ever seen. I became convinced, however, that I could assemble an all-time 53-man roster that would beat his team without duplicating any players. I believe that even making all of my picks after Bryan’s guys are off the board, my team will still be able to win a hypothetical matchup.
I’m relying on two factors to facilitate this improbable victory. One is an unconventional offense that I don’t believe can be defended. I hope you’ll consider the way it’s constructed and find my position persuasive. The other factor is team chemistry. I’ve followed football for much too long not to believe that factors like chemistry, leadership, morale, and momentum play real and sometimes vital roles in game results. My team has a couple of weirdos, but no one who would trample you to get in front of a camera, or who created public drama over his usage. Bryan’s team is full of great players, but also big personalities and egos that need to be stroked. I hope that gives my roster an edge.
Having said that, my approach to this project was very similar to Bryan’s. Like him, I evaluated players in the context of their eras; today’s players are bigger and better-conditioned, but emphasizing that negates the purpose of an “all time” exercise. Like Bryan, I placed a premium on versatility, especially prizing backups who can contribute in multiple ways. And like Bryan, I don’t pretend that all my selections are ironclad or that there weren’t some hard choices. I would love to see questions and alternative suggestions in the comments, but I also hope you’ll explain any disagreements, backing up your assertions about my sanity and/or qualifications. In particular, I hope you’ll read my offensive philosophy before critiquing the selections. This is not a list of the 53 best players in history, or even the 53 best left over after Bryan’s team. It’s a true roster, a team designed to take the field and function as a cohesive unit. With Bryan’s guys off the board — and I encourage you to check out his team if you haven’t already, or if it’s been a while — this is the group I assembled.
Tom Brady — Three time MVP. Three time first-team All-Pro. Fourteen time Pro Bowl selection. According to my preferred statistical rating system, QB-TSP, Brady rates third all-time — without including the postseason, where he holds all-time records for yards, touchdowns, and wins as starting QB, not to mention four Super Bowl MVP Awards. Brady is my starter, rather than any of half a dozen equally qualified contenders, because of his extreme proficiency reading defenses and running a no-huddle offense, which will be valuable for this team’s unorthodox approach.
Joe Montana — Two time MVP. Three time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. I wanted a backup QB with some mobility. Fans forget what a talented runner Montana was, but I will go to my grave trying to remind people how impactful and demoralizing Montana’s running was in Super Bowl XIX. The 49ers won by 22, so I won’t pretend his mobility was the decisive factor, but it kept the Dolphins totally off-balance. Montana had a long, productive career, during which he was regularly regarded as the finest QB in the game. He was smart, accurate, versatile, and extraordinarily cool under pressure. He retired as the all-time leader in passer rating, and he was the greatest quarterback in Super Bowl history.
Dan Marino — One time MVP. Three time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. Great pocket awareness and incredibly quick release made him the best of all time at avoiding sacks. He was perhaps the greatest pure passer of all time: accurate at any range, strong arm, and tremendous touch. He had arguably the greatest single season in history, and he set every career passing record, far out of reach of his contemporaries. One of the great downfield passers of all time, ran a brilliant two-minute drill, and the best ever at avoiding negative yardage.
Marion Motley — Two time AP1. One time Pro Bowler. Paul Zimmerman, in The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, called Marion Motley the greatest player he ever saw. Sean Lahman, in his Pro Football Historical Abstract, found that position persuasive. Championship-winning coach Blanton Collier praised Motley, “He had no equal as a blocker.” Hall of Fame receiver Dante Lavelli credited Motley’s blocking as the key that “built the passing attack for the Browns.” HOF coach Weeb Ewbank complained that Motley “took the romance out of the blitz.” Paul Brown called him “the greatest back I ever had.” A complete summary of Motley’s life and career would fill a book, but the essentials go like this: Motley was a brilliant runner, the greatest blocking fullback in history, and he continued to excel when age and health suggested he should not.
Motley makes this roster as a dual-threat blocker and ball-carrier. He’s most famous as a blocker, but Motley was also a fast, powerful runner. He led the NFL in rushing at age 30 and on two bad knees, and his 5.7 career rushing average is the best of all time. Brown believed that Motley would have been a Hall of Fame linebacker if he had concentrated on defense, and Collier called him “a great, great linebacker.” The Browns used Motley on goal-line defense throughout his career.
John Henry Johnson — Four time Pro Bowler. A punishing ball-carrier and a bone-rattling blocker. There are just six players with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons after age 30, and Johnson is the only one who did it in 14-game seasons. He retired as the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history, but he was also undisputed as the most devastating blocking back of his era. Hall of Fame QB Bobby Layne raved, “A quarterback hits the jackpot when he gets a combination runner-blocker like Johnson.” Historian Bob Carroll concurred, “No back in football history has ever protected the quarterback better.” Johnson was one of the last great ball-carriers who was also an outstanding blocker.
This is the critical position on my offense. I don’t just want running backs who can catch, I need offensive weapons who can punish defenses both as ball-carriers out of the backfield and as receivers lined up outside.
Lenny Moore — Five time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. Moore scored 113 touchdowns. Fifty years after he left the game, that’s still 15th all-time, and it ranked 2nd — behind only Jim Brown — for two decades after his retirement. Moore is the only player in history with at least 40 rushing TDs and at least 40 receiving TDs. He scored on 5.9% of his carries, the highest rate in history for a player with at least 1,000 attempts. He once scored in 18 consecutive games, a record that stood for 40 years. Moore was the most explosive player in football, maybe in the history of football. In his prime, he had the stats of a good running back and an elite wide receiver, combined. In 1958, Moore ranked 2nd in the NFL in receiving yards, averaged 7.3 yards per carry, scored 7 rushing TDs and 7 receiving TDs, and won an NFL Championship. In 1964 he scored 16 rushing touchdowns. Whatever you needed him to do, he could do it.
Bobby Mitchell — One time AP1. Four time Pro Bowler. On a Monday Night Football game in 1987, Bo Jackson solidified his legend by rushing for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 18 carries, including a 91-yard TD showcasing his world-class speed. It was the most rushing yardage by a player with fewer than 20 carries since 1959, when Bobby Mitchell rushed for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 14 carries, including a 90-yard TD showcasing his world-class speed. When Mitchell switched to flanker in 1962, he immediately led the NFL in receiving yards, the second-most ever in a single season. He was even better in ’63; after two seasons as a WR, Mitchell had two of the top three receiving-yardage totals in the history of the league.
At various times in his career, Mitchell led or tied for the league lead in rushing average (1961), receptions (1962), receiving yards (1962 and 1963), receiving touchdowns (1964), kickoff return touchdowns (1962, 1963, 1964), and punt return touchdowns (1958). When Mitchell retired in 1968, he and former teammate Jim Brown were the only players with six seasons of double-digit TDs.
Marshall Faulk — One time MVP. Three time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. Complete player, very fast, with great cutting ability. Not big, but a tough inside runner who could punish tacklers. He was a good pass blocker, he rarely fumbled, and of course, he was an excellent receiver. In 1999, Faulk recorded only the second season in history with 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving, setting a single-season record for yards from scrimmage (2,429). He had good hands and he was a good route-runner, including out of the slot; Faulk could have been a Pro Bowl wide receiver. He caught at least 40 passes every season of his 12-year career, including five seasons with 80 receptions or more, and he is the only running back to lead his team in receptions five times.
Marcus Allen — One time MVP. Two time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. My backup everything. His 123 rush TDs rank 3rd in history; he’s the short-yardage specialist to save wear-and-tear on Moore. He spent time at fullback, blocking for Charles White at USC and Bo Jackson with the Raiders; he’s my number three FB in case Motley and John Henry go down. Allen is one of only four players with at least 5,000 yards as both a rusher and receiver, and he ranks in the all-time top 10 in yards from scrimmage; in a pinch, he could fill the RB/WR role. He also passed for 6 TDs, against just 1 interception; Allen is my emergency QB.1
Dave Casper — Four time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. For this team, I need well-rounded TEs, not specialists. Among the tight ends who were outstanding receivers, Casper was the best blocker, a converted tackle. He had great hands, and was legendary for fighting through defensive traffic and pass interference. Casper retired with 52 receiving TDs, second-most of any TE (behind Jerry Smith, a receiving specialist who was not a good blocker) until Shannon Sharpe 20 years later.
John Mackey — Three time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. When the Pro Football Hall of Fame named its All-Time NFL Team in 1969, it declared Mackey the all-time TE, and that was before his 75-yard TD in Super Bowl V. Coach Don Shula raved, “He was such a powerful, explosive football player, both as a receiver and a blocker. He had great speed [and] as a blocker, he would explode out of his stance and get into the linebacker’s face, and just overwhelm him.” If you’ve never seen Mackey’s legendary run against the Lions, or even if you have, take a minute and watch. The whole defense had a shot at him, but Mackey juked the first guy, powered through half a dozen more, and then simply outran the entire team.
Jason Witten — Two time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Playing at the same time as future Hall of Famers Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Rob Gronkowski — not to mention very good players like Vernon Davis, Greg Olsen, and Jimmy Graham — Witten nonetheless won numerous postseason honors, and his 12,448 career receiving yards rank 2nd all-time among TEs, trailing only Gonzalez. Witten distinguished himself from Gonzalez and Gates as a dedicated and effective blocker — exactly the kind of multi-dimensional TE needed on this team — but don’t sleep on his receiving accomplishments: Witten’s four 1,000-yard seasons are tied (with Gonzalez and Gronkowski) for the most of any TE in history. Gonzalez can’t match Witten’s blocking, and Gronk can’t match his longevity.
Kellen Winslow Sr. — Three time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. After claiming that I need TEs who can block, I’ve got Winslow, who’s obviously on the team for his receiving. But at 6-5, 250, Winslow was no joke. Cornerbacks and safeties couldn’t tackle him, and linebackers couldn’t cover him. Winslow’s size and athleticism helped change the position, and the Epic in Miami provided definitive evidence that no one could question Winslow’s heart. He’s a backup TE on this roster, but he’ll also contribute on special teams.
Calvin Johnson — Three time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. Over his brief but electric career, Johnson set or tied numerous records, including most 200-yard receiving games in a season (3) and career (6). He holds the single-season record for receiving yardage (1,964), as well as the records for back-to-back seasons (3,645) and three consecutive seasons (5,137). I might be willing to argue that Calvin Johnson had the greatest peak of any receiver in the history of this sport. Richard Sherman described the challenge of guarding Johnson: “They tell you he’s 6′ 5″ and runs a 4.3 40. Then you get out there, and he’s faster than you think, quicker than you think. Taller and stronger than you think. You’ll have three or four guys sitting on him in coverage, and [Matthew] Stafford throws it up there, and he makes the play . . . Calvin’s playing ball at a different level from anyone else.”
Paul Warfield — Two time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. My team specifically needs deep threats, and in 2016, I named Warfield the greatest deep threat of all time. He averaged 20.1 yards per reception and 20% of his catches resulted in touchdowns. He played on run-oriented offenses, but overcame his modest statistics to earn first-ballot Hall of Fame induction. An unselfish player whose teams consistently won and who made the most of his opportunities, he’s a great fit for my offense.
Steve Largent — One time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. Set career records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Productive both as a downfield target and a possession receiver, he led the NFL in receiving yards twice and was the first player to catch 100 touchdown passes. Excellent hands, deceptive speed and toughness. Distinguished by his large number of very good seasons, and like Warfield, a first-ballot HOFer.
Lenny Moore was named as a flanker on the All-Time NFL Team in 1969, Bobby Mitchell was an All-Pro wide receiver, Marshall Faulk was a great slot receiver, and Winslow was a matchup nightmare. This team is designed to put one pure receiver on the field for most plays, but if we ever wanted to go four or five wide, we could. Even Bryan’s extraordinary defense wouldn’t relish the idea of covering Megatron, Warfield, Largent, Moore, and Mitchell on the same play. That’s a lot of speed to match.
Art Shell — Two time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Shell was a dominator — Paul Zimmerman, in 2003, called him the greatest power tackle who ever lived — but he was also a college basketball player with surprising agility. Shell was intelligent and studious, attributes which helped him become the first African-American pro football coach in modern history, leading the Raiders to three playoff appearances in six seasons.
Roosevelt Brown — Six time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. Last summer, I named the 1956-63 New York Giants one of the greatest dynasties in pro football history. They went 73-25-4 (.745) and reached the NFL Championship Game six times in eight years. Rosey Brown was All-Pro in each of those eight years, including consensus first-team selections in 1956, ’57, ’58, ’59, and ’61. Brown was the total package, with size but also remarkable speed and quickness. He was the second pure offensive lineman enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (two years after Jim Parker).
Ron Mix — Nine time AP1. Eight time All-Star. A fiercely intelligent player, nicknamed The Intellectual Assassin, he was also one of the quickest and most nimble tackles ever to play. Mix was renowned for his avoidance of penalties. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the skill set for left tackle and right tackle is meaningfully different, but Mix would play RT if Brown for some reason doesn’t adjust well to flipping sides. Mix was also an All-League selection at guard, so he’s my emergency fourth guard if injuries build up. Paul Zimmerman chose Mix as one of three OTs on his All-Century team.
Gene Upshaw — Five time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. I chose Art Shell, rather than Jonathan Ogden, specifically to pair Shell with his linemate Upshaw. Like his longtime teammate, Upshaw was an intelligent player and a respected leader, executive director of the NFLPA following his retirement as a player. Upshaw was big for his era, but better known for his speed. Upshaw is my starting left guard, but he played all three offensive line positions in college, so if needed, he could fill in elsewhere. My favorite Gene Upshaw story: following Super Bowl II, the Packers’ future Hall of Fame DT Henry Jordan reported of the rookie Upshaw, “That kid was in there asking me what he did wrong, and all he did was kick the hell out of me. I kept asking myself, ‘What if he does something right?’ ”
Larry Allen — Six time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. A first-team All-Pro at right guard, left guard, and left tackle. On this team, his primary assignment is right guard, the position he played on the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl team. Allen is the biggest guy on my offense, a 6-3, 325-pound monster who benched 692 pounds. In Allen’s first year as a full-time starter, Emmitt Smith had his best season, Troy Aikman set a personal best for lowest sack percentage, and Dallas won Super Bowl XXX. Allen made a few Pro Bowls on reputation at the end of his career, but he was the dominant guard of his generation.
Dan Fortmann — Six time AP1. Three time Pro Bowler. Danny Fortmann anchored the greatest dynasty in the proud history of the Chicago Bears, from 1936-43. In eight pro seasons, his teams went 69-17-2 (.802) and won three championships. Undersized — he was never listed over 210 pounds — Fortmann nonetheless was a powerful blocker and tackler, a standout on defense as well as offense. He was also highly intelligent, the Bears’ captain his last four seasons, and a surgeon after his playing career. Fortmann was a consensus All-Pro in five of his eight seasons.
Mike Webster — Five time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. I’m pleasantly surprised that Bryan left me Mike Webster. A consensus All-Pro every season from 1978-81, Webster won the NFL’s Strongest Man competition and coordinated Pittsburgh’s famously complex line calls. He was the starting center on the 1980s All-Decade Team and the 1994 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Webster played 17 seasons, made Pro Bowls a decade apart, and appeared in 177 consecutive games. He provides not only excellence but stability in the middle of my line.
Mel Hein — One time MVP. Eight time AP1. Four time Pro Bowler. The best lineman of the Pre-Modern Era, Hein was eight times named the greatest center in the NFL, and league MVP in 1938. Hein played in seven NFL Championship Games, and team owner Wellington Mara called him “the number-one player in the first fifty years of the Giants’ history.” Hein was quick for his size, and a standout linebacker as well as the league’s greatest center. He played all three offensive line positions as an All-American at Washington State, so he could fill in at guard or tackle — or linebacker — if necessary.
Jim Otto — Nine time AP1. Twelve time All-Star. The third Raider on my offensive line, joining Shell and Upshaw. From 1970-74, they played together, all in a row, with Shell at left tackle, Upshaw at left guard, and Otto at center. Otto was an iron man, one of only two players to appear in all 140 regular-season games in the AFL, and equally skilled as a run blocker and pass protector. This team has the luxury of reserving a perennial All-League selection for its emergency third center.
QB: Tom Brady
FB: Marion Motley
OW: Lenny Moore
WR: Calvin Johnson
TE: Dave Casper
TE: John Mackey
T: Art Shell
T: Rosey Brown
G: Gene Upshaw
G: Larry Allen
C: Mike Webster
This is our base offense. That’s right: two tight ends and a fullback. Obviously, this personnel dictates a goal-line defensive package, with only three defensive backs. So imagine the defense’s horror when the huddle breaks with Moore split out as a flanker and Mackey in the slot. Now you’re one-on-one with Megatron and Moore, you have a safety on Mackey and a linebacker on Casper, with no safety help anywhere. If you try to rush the throw, Motley will take the romance out of your blitz, and if you drop everyone into coverage, Brady hands off to the player for whom the draw was created, a fullback who averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a rookie and led the NFL in rushing even after the knee injuries that eventually ended his career.
Of course, if you don’t employ heavy personnel, we’ll line up eight blockers and Moore is going to average seven yards per carry (which isn’t an idle boast, since he really did that in three different seasons). If you play base personnel but stack the box, Brady will mix in deep throws to Calvin Johnson. As great as Bryan’s corners are, there’s no defensive back in history who could reliably shut down Megatron one-on-one. Night Train can’t run with him; Deion can’t match his size; no one can match his vertical. If Johnson or Warfield runs a deep pattern three times in a row, against single coverage, one of them is going to break for 40 yards.
This scheme bears similarity to the record-setting 1950-51 Los Angeles Rams. Those teams didn’t use any tight ends, but they rotated RB/WRs Glenn Davis and Vitamin Smith, lining them up unpredictably as runners in the backfield or as flankers. The ’51 Rams averaged 451 yards per game, the record for 60 years, and still third-best all-time. The 1950 Rams averaged 38.8 points per game, which remains the all-time NFL record.
For a more recent comparison, blend the 1999-2001 Greatest Show on Turf Rams, with Marshall Faulk in his prime, and the 2010-2012 New England Patriots, with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end. All six years rank among the all-time top 20 teams in single-season scoring, and they account for three of the top six in yardage. That Patriots offense seemed like it could do anything. If you played to stop the run, Gronk and Hernandez would run pass routes and embarrass you. But if you played to stop the pass, they would stay in to block and the Pats ground out first downs. It might be the most impressive, demoralizing offense I’ve ever seen.
This team amplifies that dynamic with the versatility of Lenny Moore, a home run hitter as both RB and WR, and Marion Motley, an intimidating ball-carrier and an unstoppable blocker. Take everything about the 2012 Pats that created defensive uncertainty and multiply it by a zillion. It seems to me that this offense combines the best elements of the two-TE Patriots and the record-setting Rams. Trying to defend this offense is a no-win scenario.
If I’m wrong, if there’s something I’m missing that would sabotage the impossibility of defending this lineup, we could play straight up and we’d have a great team: Faulk at RB, Johnson and Warfield and Largent at WR, lots of specialists available and plenty of backups at every position. But I’ve thought about this lineup for a long time, and I don’t think I’m missing anything. If you play to stop the run, you won’t be able to stop the pass. If you play to stop the pass, you won’t be able to stop the run. And if you milquetoast into a non-committal base defense, we’ll pick you apart with a balanced attack you’re never adequately prepared for. Brady’s ability to read defenses, manipulate the no-huddle offense, and take advantage of matchup problems are the cherry on top, but if Montana comes in, imagine the havoc of adding a QB who can run to this dizzying array of playmaking threats. Marino was a masterful vertical passer who’d never put the team in a hole with sacks.
Bryan’s defense is better than mine, so this premise — that I’ve assembled a dynamic and adaptable offense no one can stop — is key to my belief that I’ve created the best team.
As with my offense, this isn’t simply a collection of the greatest available players. It’s a team on which players fill particular roles, and in some cases, I’ve bypassed equally distinguished (or even slightly better) overall players for those who fit my philosophy or satisfy a niche. Bryan’s team has an unimpeachable offensive line, so I chose my defensive front looking for one or both of two qualities in particular. One was athletic excellence, guys who will win their matchups once in a while no matter who’s on the other side, simply because of their freakish physical abilities. Another was pass deflections. If we can’t get to the quarterback, we can at least screw up his passing lanes.
Julius Peppers — Three time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowl selection. Probably the best athlete among great defensive linemen. He’s 6-foot-6½ and almost 300 pounds, but fast and explosive. Peppers officially ranks 4th all-time in sacks and 2nd in both forced fumbles and blocked kicks. He had 10 seasons with double-digit sacks, and two with over 100 interception return yards, a unique accomplishment among pass rushers.
Jason Taylor — Three time AP1. Six time Pro Bowl selection. Scored 9 touchdowns and 3 safeties, including 6 fumble return TDs, the most in history. He was not only opportunistic, but fast and explosive, hard to block. The 2006 Defensive Player of the Year and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, he’s on this team for his well-rounded skill set and knack for big plays. Possibly the best of all time deflecting passes at the line, he holds the record (since 1999) for PD by a player with at least 50 sacks, and he doesn’t just have 50 sacks, he has 140.
Andy Robustelli — Six time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowl selection. Played for the Rams in the early ’50s, and the Giants in the late ’50s and early ’60s. When Robustelli switched teams, the Rams dropped from the best record in the Western Conference to the worst, and the Giants improved from essentially average (6-5-1) to league champs. Robustelli’s teams had a winning record in each of his first 13 seasons, and he appeared in eight NFL title games, winning championships with both the Rams and Giants. Very few players have such a consistent record of success. The film I’ve seen of Robustelli shows an explosive, game-wrecking pass rusher. He retired with the most fumble recoveries in history.
Jared Allen — Four time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. A premier pass rusher who never halfassed playing the run. He is one of only six players since 1982 (when sacks became an official statistic) to lead the NFL in sacks more than once. In 2007, he had 15.5 sacks and 10 pass deflections. The next year, 14.5 sacks and two safeties. The year after that, 14.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. Then 11 sacks and two interceptions, one of them returned for a 36-yard touchdown. The following year, 22 sacks, 0.5 shy of the official record. That’s about as good a five-year run as you could hope for, and his greatness wasn’t limited to those five seasons.
Calais Campbell — One time AP1. Three time Pro Bowl selection. An unorthodox pick, not regarded as a historic player. I disagree. In my 16 seasons (2002-17) selecting an All-Pro team for Sports Central, Campbell was the only defensive player I chose five times,2 twice as a DT and thrice as an end. That’s why Campbell’s underrated: he’s a tweener of sorts, a hybrid who’s spent his career disrupting offenses while posting good-not-great sack numbers. Campbell is a great pass rusher, inside or outside, and consistently among the best in the league deflecting passes at the line. What I value most in a defensive front seven are disruptors, guys who sabotage what the offense wants to do, whether they make the stat sheet or not, and Campbell is a consistent and impactful saboteur. He plays a role that is systematically underrated and underrepresented in the voting for postseason honors, but Campbell is one of the most outstanding defensive players I’ve ever seen. He’s my fifth DE and my sixth DT.
This group is going to swat a huge number of passes at the line.
Randy White — Seven time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowl selection. Incredibly fast and strong, a great interior pass rusher who was 30 when sacks became an official statistic and still posted three seasons of double-digit sacks. White was essentially a consensus All-Pro every year between 1978-85, but he was also distinguished as a postseason player, with four sacks in three Super Bowls and co-MVP honors in Super Bowl XII. He earned five All-Pro selections from Dr. Z, the most of any DT.
Aaron Donald — Four time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. The most dominant and disruptive defensive tackle of the last 30 years, at least. He has made the Pro Bowl and earned All-Pro recognition every season of his career, and he keeps getting better. Donald, Lawrence Taylor, and J.J. Watt are the only players to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Donald ran a sub-4.7 40 at the NFL Combine, which is faster than a 285-pound man has any right to be, and his power is on display every Sunday. He makes an unbelievable number of plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Art Donovan — Four time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. Many people know that Emlen Tunnell was the first primarily defensive player elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1967. One year later, Donovan became the second, and the first defensive lineman. He was one of the first great interior pass rushers, known for splitting double teams. I mentioned at the beginning of this piece wanting to draft good teammates and promote team chemistry. Donovan was one of the most famous good teammates of all time, renowned as a popular player and a morale builder.
John Randle — Six time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowl selection. Officially ninth all-time in sacks (137.5), highest of any defensive tackle. A superior pass rusher with nine seasons of double-digit sacks and a tenth with 9.5. In 1997, he led the NFL in sacks (15.5). Randle was undersized early in his career, and was never a great run defender, but he had a non-stop motor and terrific moves to beat offensive linemen. On my team, Randle will rotate in on the defensive line, primarily in passing situations.
Vince Wilfork — One time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. In writing about the greatest pro football dynasties last summer, I ranked both the 2001-08 New England Patriots and the 2010-17 Patriots among the top ten. The 2001-17 Pats have zero Hall of Famers so far,3 and the only players on New England’s 2004 Super Bowl-winning team and its 2014 Super Bowl-winning team were Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork. Unless you believe that everyone is replaceable, that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are so good it doesn’t matter who else the Patriots have, and they’ll still go 12-4 every year, Wilfork — a five-time Pro Bowler in addition to one of the team’s few constants during a period of unique consistency and excellence — emerges as a critical player. From 2001-18, only Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski appeared in more games for the Patriots.
Furthermore, in Wilfork’s two seasons with the Houston Texans they ranked 3rd and 1st in fewest yards allowed, compared to 16th the year before he arrived and 20th the season after he left. They also won the AFC South in both seasons, against a 13-19 record and no playoff appearances in the seasons immediately before and after they had Wilfork. In his 13-year career, Wilfork started 22 playoff games, including three Super Bowls. He was a five-time (first- or second-team) All-Pro, a remarkable credit to a player whose stats were always constrained by his role. Wilfork played between 325-350 lbs., and particularly excelled at stifling opponents’ running games. He’ll rotate in at DT, but especially in short-yardage situations. Wilfork’s play was sometimes uneven, but at his best, he was borderline unblockable. We have enough depth that Wilfork can stay on the bench when he’s not at his best. I enlisted ten defensive linemen, so my guys can go 100% knowing there are always fresh substitutes available. Players like Wilfork and Randle, and potentially even Calais Campbell, can serve as specialists, playing even more effectively than usual in situations custom-selected for their skills and only when they’re fresh.
In the linebacking corps I wanted, first and foremost, guys who make plays behind the line of scrimmage, who identify openings and exploit them. Second, playmakers, who create and capitalize on opportunities: interceptions, fumble recoveries, etc. Third, cover skills, guys who will clog the middle of the field and who can cover a running back one-on-one. Taken for granted are football instincts and athleticism.
Junior Seau — Six time AP1. Twelve time Pro Bowl selection. A star who could play both inside and outside linebacker, and a legendary conditioning freak who played into his forties. Strength and athleticism were Seau’s trademarks, and fans should remember the unstoppable Seau who was all over the field in the ’90s, not the aging star who was merely good enough to play in the mid ’00s. He was great at shedding blocks and made a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage, which is what I prize most in defensive players.
Ted Hendricks — Four time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowl selection. A 3-4 linebacker, and my team will play a 4-3, but Hendricks wasn’t a pass rush specialist, and his talent transcended formations and teams. Hendricks was a consensus All-Pro with the Colts in 1971, the Packers in 1974, and the Raiders in 1980. He was a playmaker who intercepted 26 passes, gained over 300 yards on INT returns, and unofficially tallied 64 sacks. He recorded 4 safeties and 25 blocked kicks, both records. He was first-team All-Decade in both the ’70s and the ’80s, and played on four Super Bowl-winning teams.
Dave Wilcox — Two time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowl selection. Wilcox’s reputation suffers as much as anyone’s by the primacy awarded to Associated Press All-Pro selections. At least one major organization gave Wilcox higher recognition than AP every season from 1966-70. In 1973, AP was the only major outlet to deny Wilcox first-team All-Pro status. Former Rams QB Roman Gabriel once said that Wilcox “plays outside linebacker like Dick Butkus plays middle linebacker.” Wilcox was regarded as the hardest LB in history to block; every account of his career describes tight ends being unable to block him.
Chuck Howley — Five time AP1. Six time Pro Bowl selection. A terrific athlete who lettered in five sports at West Virginia, blessed with great speed and agility. Excellent cover LB who twice had over 100 yards in interception returns, joining Willie Lanier as the only linebackers ever to do so. Howley was the first defensive player to win Super Bowl MVP, and the only linebacker until Ray Lewis 30 years later.
I’ve chosen four excellent players with distinct skill sets. While Seau and Hendricks will see the most action, Wilcox and Howley can sub in situationally.
Mike Singletary — Seven time AP1. Ten time Pro Bowl selection. Maybe the best tackler I’ve ever seen. Everyone he hit went backwards. Singletary was also famous for his film study, dedication, and intelligence, as good as anyone in history at diagnosing plays before the snap. He was a two-time DPOY (1985 and 1988), consistently among the leading tacklers in the league, and in 1985 he led arguably the greatest defense in history, earning the league’s top defensive honor and contributing two fumble recoveries in Chicago’s Super Bowl XX victory.
Joe Schmidt — Seven time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowl selection. Schmidt stood out in an era of great middle linebackers. Roughly contemporary with Chuck Bednarik, Bill George, and Sam Huff, Schmidt was the most decorated. He played on two championship teams and had a particular knack for generating turnovers. Four times Schmidt had at least 4 takeaways in a season, including 8 fumble recoveries in 1955, the record for a 12-game season. The Lions’ defensive captain when they were a defense-fueled dynasty, Schmidt was named team MVP four times, including the 1957 championship season.
Junior Seau, Mel Hein, Danny Fortmann, and Marion Motley are all available to fill in at MLB if needed.
This secondary features a blend of shutdown corners and ballhawks, and a lineup of dynamic returners that will really make you pay when they pick off a pass. I have great confidence in my offense, but putting the ball in the end zone should never be taken for granted, especially against a defense as talented as Bryan’s, and there’s a lot of offense on my defense.
Charles Woodson — Three time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowl selection. A great ballhawk who intercepted 65 passes, a punishing tackler who forced 33 fumbles and finished his career at strong safety, an effective blitzer who had 20 sacks, and a productive returner after the pick, with 11 INT TDs. Woodson made four consecutive Pro Bowls twice, a decade apart: 1998-2001 and 2008-2011. He’s a starting cornerback on this roster, but he can fill in at safety if needed.
Darrelle Revis — Four time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowl selection. A shutdown corner with modest stats, because opponents rarely threw to his side of the field. He combined smothering coverage with good ball skills and solid tackling, and almost single-handedly made the Jets a great defense. His 2009 season was the best I’ve ever seen from a defensive back. Everyone knows about his excellence in coverage, but Revis also played the run well, took on blockers, and didn’t shy away from contact.
Herb Adderley — Five time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Paul Hornung proclaimed of his five-time champion Packers, “There were only two athletes off that team that would have been in the Hall of Fame on [another team]: Herb Adderley and Forrest Gregg.” Adderley was probably the greatest physical talent on the Lombardi Packers, one of the fastest players in football. He had at least 125 INT return yards five times. He was a shutdown corner, an instinctive ballhawk, a dazzling returner, and a merciless tackler. Over his 12-year career with the Packers and Cowboys, Adderley’s teams won six championships.
Jimmy Johnson — Three time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. Paul Zimmerman’s all-time favorite CB, a downfield cover man who closed everything down, similar to Deion Sanders or Darrelle Revis. Like Sanders, Johnson was a tremendous athlete. The brother of gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson, Jimmy starred in hurdles and long jump at UCLA. Like Revis, he doesn’t have big stats because he was rarely tested, with opponents preferring to throw away from him.
Darrell Green — One time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowl selection. A shutdown corner who took pride in facing the other team’s best receiver, but also a dedicated tackler and, of course, the fastest man in the NFL. Green had 54 career interceptions, and a game-saving pass breakup in the 1987 NFC Championship Game, but his most famous plays are a punt return TD with a broken rib and his tackles of Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson, running both of them down from behind. Green was timed at 4.28 in the 40-yard dash … at age 37. A good teammate and a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner, Green is going to see a lot of time on special teams as part of this roster.
The model safety is a big hitter with top-notch coverage skills. I have four guys like that, plus a fifth who wasn’t famous for his earthquake hits but was a phenomenal ballhawk and might be the greatest punt returner in history.
Larry Wilson — Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowl selection. Today, he’s most famous as the first great practitioner of the safety blitz, but Wilson was also a great pass defender. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1966, and retired with 52, plus he scored seven defensive touchdowns. He had tremendous instincts and excellent coverage skills, and of course, he was a master on the blitz. Wilson’s toughness was legendary; he famously intercepted a pass while playing with both of his hands broken and wrapped in casts. He was the 1966 Defensive Player of the Year, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Emlen Tunnell — Four time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowl selection. Intercepted at least six passes in each of his first 10 seasons, and was nicknamed the Giants’ “Offense on Defense,” with 1,282 INT return yards, a record that stood for 40 years. Often referred to as the first purely defensive player in the HOF, but this is not really true; as almost any account of Tunnell’s career acknowledges, he was a brilliant kick returner. He averaged 26.4 yards per kickoff return, led the league in punt return yardage twice, and scored six return TDs. He could play either safety position, but he’s also my backup returner.
Jack Christiansen — Six time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. A contemporary of Tunnell’s. They were both first-team All-Pro (AP) in 1952, ’55, and ’56. Christiansen had terrific range and great ball instincts; he led the league in interceptions twice, and had at least 8 INTs in a season four times. But even more than Tunnell, he made my roster as a returner. As a rookie, he averaged 19.1 yards per punt return, with 4 TDs — a single-season record (since tied). The next season, Christiansen averaged 21.5 yards per punt return with another 2 TDs. He wasn’t as prolific as modern return specialists because he was putting in a full day on defense, but Christiansen was probably as good a punt returner as anyone who’s ever lived.
Kenny Easley — Three time AP1. Five time Pro Bowl selection. An Ed Reed-type player, a hard-hitting strong safety who went after passes like a ball-hawking free safety. Easley intercepted 32 passes in just 89 career games, an average of 6 per 16 games. Three out of his seven seasons he gained over 100 yards on INT returns. In 2008, Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf declared Easley “the best safety I’ve ever seen.”
Troy Polamalu — Four time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowl selection. In his prime, he was all over the field, a mad blur of energy racing across the picture to blow up the play. He had great ball instincts and intercepted 7 passes in both 2008 and 2010 — a terrific figure for an in-the-box safety — but he also made a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage. His style was frenetic, anticipatory, aggressive. Later in his career, when he’d lost a step, he gave up some plays that way, but in his prime, he shut down and intimidated opposing offenses.
DE: Julius Peppers
DE: Jason Taylor
DT: Randy White
DT: Aaron Donald
LB: Mike Singletary
LB: Junior Seau
LB: Ted Hendricks
CB: Charles Woodson
CB: Darrelle Revis
FS: Larry Wilson
SS: Emlen Tunnell
There’s nothing tricky about my defense, nothing unusual other than the quality of the players. In a way the defensive unit is the opposite of the offense, built around specialized excellence rather than versatility and uncertainty. The starters can do everything, but the bench hosts pass-rushing and run-stuffing DTs, linebackers who penetrate the backfield and linebackers with great coverage skills, rough-and-tumble defensive backs who love to hit and rangy athletes who always go for the ball.
The defensive philosophy is that if we get one tackle behind the line of scrimmage, setting up 2nd-and-13 or 3rd-and-long, we’ve put the opposing team in a predictable situation. In come the specialists, and we expect to shut down the drive off of that one play. There’s no substitute for defenders who make plays in the offensive backfield.
I believe Bryan’s team starts three wide receivers, so Herb Adderley and Jimmy Johnson would see a lot of time as the third cornerback.
Adam Vinatieri — Three time AP1. Three time Pro Bowl selection. It’s chic in the analytics community to bash Vinatieri, but here’s a guy with a 23-year career, great regular-season kicker (3x All-Pro, career records for field goals and points scored), and by far the most accomplished postseason kicker of all time (most FG in a game, season, career; most FG in Super Bowls; multiple SB-winning FGs; most SB wins of any kicker). He has made an unusual number of game-winning kicks, especially in the postseason, and he converted a field goal widely considered the greatest in NFL history. I’m generally pretty narrative-resistant, but if I had to name one player, in any sport, who seemed to actually play better in high-leverage situations, I would choose Vinatieri. He hasn’t just made kicks in big situations — a function of opportunity — he has made his most difficult kicks in the biggest situations. If I needed someone to make a long, last-second field goal with the game on the line, there’s no one I’d rather have than Vinatieri. Come at me, statheads.
Tommy Davis — Two time Pro Bowl selection. His 44.7 gross punting average was second all-time (behind Sammy Baugh, who benefitted from long rolls on quick kicks) for 40 years, and he had excellent hang times. Davis is also my backup kicker. He led the league in field goals one year and went 348/350 on extra points, 99.4% efficiency that still ranks among the all-time top 10, half a century later. He’ll handle kickoff duties on this team.
To put the stats below in historical context, from 1950-2018, an average kickoff return gained 21.67 yards, and one out of 161 was returned for a touchdown (0.6%).
Those figures are historically stable, for the most part, but 1980-93 was a really tough period for KRs. The best period was 2010-12. My returners are mostly from the ’50s and ’60s because special teams were considered important then, and star players returned kicks even if they were offensive or defensive starters. That’s become less and less the case over time, so we can only guess how recent stars would have done as kick returners.
Bobby Mitchell — 102 KR, 2,690 yards, 26.4 average, 5 TD
Herb Adderley — 120 KR, 3,080 yards, 25.7 average, 2 TD
Emlen Tunnell — 46 KR, 1,215 yards, 26.4 average, 1 TD
Mitchell is the top kickoff returner. He’s probably one of the 10 best all-time, and since he’s a backup on offense, I can spare him. I might also try Marshall Faulk as a returner. He was a tremendous open-field runner, and he’s third string on this offense. It seems a waste not to use him.
From 1950-2018, an average punt return gained 8.71 yards, and one out of 93 was returned for a touchdown (1.1%). From 1953-58, the NFL counted fair catches as punt returns, with the result that instead of a historically normal 8.7 average, punt returns averaged 5.9 yards. This affects each of my top three punt returners.
Jack Christiansen — 85 PR, 1,084 yards, 12.8 average, 8 TD
Bobby Mitchell — 69 PR, 699 yards, 10.1 average, 3 TD
Emlen Tunnell — 262 PR, 2,217 yards, 8.5 average, 5 TD
Christiansen is on this team for two reasons:  to provide insurance as the backup backup free safety, and  to return punts. Did you notice 10% of his returns went for touchdowns? If he gets hurt, or Wilson and Tunnell go down to make Christiansen a defensive starter, Bobby Mitchell would be the punt returner. Tunnell is third in line, with Green, Easley, and Faulk as the emergency options.
Marcus Allen. Kellen Winslow. Chuck Howley. Jim Johnson. Darrell Green. Kenny Easley. Julius Peppers and Ted Hendricks are starters, but you can bet they’ll be on the kick-blocking units. So will Campbell and Adderley and Polamalu. I’m not worried at all about my special teams.
QB: Brady / Montana / Marino
FB: Motley / J.H. Johnson / M.Allen
GLB: M.Allen / Faulk / Moore / Motley
OW: Moore / Mitchell / Faulk
WR: C.Johnson / Warfield / Largent / Mitchell / Moore
TE: Mackey / Casper / Witten / Winslow
OT: Brown / Shell / Mix / L.Allen
G: L.Allen / Upshaw / Fortmann / Mix
C: Webster / Hein / Otto / Upshaw
DT: White / Donald / Donovan / Randle / Wilfork / Campbell
DE: Peppers / Taylor / Robustelli / J.Allen / Campbell / Randle
OLB: Seau / Hendricks / Wilcox / Howley
MLB: Singletary / Schmidt / Hein / Seau
CB: Woodson / Revis / Adderley / J.Johnson / Green
FS: Wilson / Tunnell / Christiansen / Woodson
SS: Tunnell / Easley / Polamalu / Woodson
K: Vinatieri / Davis
P: Davis / Howley
KR: Mitchell / Adderley / Tunnell / Faulk
PR: Christiansen / Mitchell / Tunnell / Green
In 1994, the NFL named a 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Bryan drafted 31 of the 48 75th Anniversary players. I have 10. The other seven we left undrafted: QBs Otto Graham and Johnny Unitas, RB O.J. Simpson, MLB Ray Nitschke, K Jan Stenerud, P Ray Guy, and PR Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Bryan has many more than me for two reasons:  he picked first, and  I drafted four years later, when more post-1994 players had established themselves as historically excellent. The voters chose a separate “All-Time Two Way Team” that included — in addition to those who made the standard roster — two of Bryan’s players (Chuck Bednarik and Cal Hubbard) and one of mine (Dan Fortmann).
Similarly, Bryan chose 24 players from Dr. Z’s All-Century Team (1999), compared to my nine. The other eight we left off: Unitas, RBs Hugh McElhenny and Earl Campbell, DE Rich Jackson, safety Cliff Harris, placekicker Morten Andersen, punt returner Darrien Gordon, and wedge buster Henry Schmidt.
I saw in a 2018 comment on his 2015 original article that Bryan’s team now “would feature fewer really old players . . . players have gotten almost incomprehensibly better at individual positions as specialization has taken over.” As best I could determine, here’s how our 53-man rosters break down chronologically, with each player categorized according to the era in which he made the most impact:
Era Bryan Brad Total Percent 1920-1945 ....5 ...2 ....7 ...6.6% 1946-1969 ...16 ..18 ...34 ..32.1% 1970-1994 ...24 ..16 ...40 ..37.7% 1995-2018 ....8 ..17 ...25 ..23.6%
Given that the Pre-Modern (two-way) Era accounts for over 25% of pro football history, I don’t think 6.6% of our rosters is excessive. These are the least specialized players: Sammy Baugh, Bronko Nagurski, Jim Thorpe, Don Hutson, and Cal Hubbard for Bryan; Fortmann and Hein for me. If these are truly all-time teams, we can’t ignore the most outstanding players of pro football’s first 30 years. Baugh, Nagurski, Hutson, and Hein, at least, belong on any list of the greatest all-time players.
It’s possible we did draw a touch too heavily from the early Modern Era — my team in particular, but partly because one of my roster positions (dual-threat fullback) dwindled to extinction during the ’70s and ’80s. That transition was largely in response to rule changes and evolutions in player size, which shouldn’t be relevant to an all-time exercise. The shift wasn’t so much from do-everything FBs to modern FBs as from classic FBs to expanded use of tight ends and extra WRs. If you’re going to use a fullback at all, it might as well be one of the old guys.
My team also trended towards older players because I prioritized downfield receivers, tight ends who can block linebackers, and players who excelled as returners as well as position players. Modern receivers mostly run short and intermediate routes, but that evolution is based mostly on rule changes, not specialization or skill. Tight ends who excel as both blockers and receivers are uncommon now, but that too owes largely to rule changes that have facilitated short passing: tight ends make more impact now by catching passes than they do by blocking; the best TEs are those who are the best receivers. Today’s tight ends, however, are not substantially better receivers, relative to their WR peers, than the top TEs of the ’60s and ’70s. Statistically, they are actually a little worse. The shift away from Pro Bowls RBs and DBs returning kicks is a response to injuries more than to specialization.
Other than returners, all of these roster preferences reflect my team’s unusual offensive strategy, but I’m confident it would translate into any era of the modern game. While my primary wide receivers were chosen partly for their excellence as deep threats, the team has plenty of players who excelled running underneath routes. We’ll spread the field both vertically and horizontally.
I think Bryan and I took about the right number of players from 1970-1994. His total in that era is higher than mine partly because he drafted his team four years earlier, meaning fewer appealing options from 1995-2014 were available to him.
Our teams have relatively few players from the most recent time block because some of the best players are still mid-career. Players who will be regarded as all-time greats 15 years from now haven’t fully established their legacies yet. Julio Jones, Khalil Mack, Patrick Peterson, etc., would be reaches right now — and they would have been more so when Bryan drafted four years ago — but they might be obvious selections once their careers are over. Other than the rare player like J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald, you can’t properly evaluate the career of a guy who might have another decade in the league.
Furthermore (and without speaking for Bryan), I prefer to rate active and recently-retired players conservatively. When I’ve made bold proclamations about ongoing history, I’ve often regretted them later; we all benefit from additional perspective. What if, over the next five seasons, DeAndre Hopkins or Odell Beckham emerges as the most dominant WR of this era? What if Patrick Peterson unexpectedly retires, or Khalil Mack suffers a career-altering injury? They’d still be great players, but probably not top-100-all-time great. Besides, we all know about the best players of today’s game; I like to think fans who choose to read about all-time teams have an interest in history, in learning how players whose names they know, but whose careers they don’t, would fit into this type of roster, and why we chose them. For all those reasons, I’d rather err on the side of honoring older players and taking a wait-and-see approach to most of the current guys.
Paul Brown — Twenty-five years. Seven championships. 109 games over .500 (.672 record). The godfather of modern professional football, with too many innovations to list in this space and the greatest coaching tree in the sport. Brown’s teams went 47-4-3 in the AAFC and won all four league championships. After the merger with the NFL, the Browns made six straight championship appearances, including three NFL titles. One of only six head coaches with at least 200 regular-season wins, he holds the record for most championships of any head coach in the history of the major pro football leagues. Brown, Bill Belichick, George Halas, and Don Shula are the only coaches in history more than 100 games over .500. If anyone can devise a new strategy to attack Bryan’s superb roster or sharpen the one I’ve constructed, it’s Brown.
Joe Gibbs — Sixteen years. Three championships. 60 games over .500 (.621 record). With Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh off the board, this had to be either Sid Gillman or Gibbs. I think Gibbs is a better fit to coordinate our unorthodox, dynamic offense. In the early ’80s, he won with John Riggins and a power running game. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he won with a top-notch passing attack. In the 2000s, he led Washington to playoff appearances with Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, and Todd Collins. I know Gibbs can utilize two tight ends, and I know he’ll take advantage of the weapons on this roster.4
Tom Landry — Twenty-nine years. Two championships. 88 games over .500 (.605 record). Phenomenally successful head coach, whose teams went 20 years in a row without a losing season (1966-85), and joins Belichick as the only head coaches to reach five Super Bowls in 10 years. As a player and assistant coach, Landry helped develop the “Umbrella Defense” that became the basis for today’s 4-3, coaching players like Emlen Tunnell, Andy Robustelli, and Sam Huff. In Dallas, he oversaw the Doomsday Defense(s), featuring stars like Chuck Howley, Randy White, and Bob Lilly. Landry was an innovator; if anyone can figure out a way to
stop contain Bryan’s offense, it’s him.
Special Teams Coordinator
George Allen — Twelve years. No championships. 69 games over .500 (.705 record). Perhaps this is cheating, since Bryan didn’t name a special teams coordinator. Allen never actually served in this role, because he invented it. In 1969, as head coach of the Rams, Allen hired Dick Vermeil to be the first special teams coach in history. When Vermeil got hired away, Allen replaced him with Marv Levy. Those are pretty fantastic choices. Allen was obsessed with special teams success, and now he’ll run mine. This is probably off-limits, but I wouldn’t mind getting him into some defensive meetings, as well.
To better understand the rationale for these choices, it may be helpful to read my 2012 ranking of the best coaches in history. Patriots fans, please note the date before leaving angry comments; at the time, my ranking for Bill Belichick was considered aggressive.
There will be snubs
Like Bryan, I’d like to offer “a non-exhaustive shout out list” of players we both passed over.
It’s pretty remarkable that two guys obsessed with NFL history drafted all-time teams, and neither of us picked Otto Graham or Johnny Unitas. They were great players, and I’d be happy to have either one on my team. I waffled about my backup QBs about a hundred different times, and I’m still uneasy about leaving them off, especially Graham.
Because of my unconventional offensive strategy, I left a lot of great running backs on the board. Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith are the ones I surely would have chosen if the offensive scheme were more conventional. Steve Van Buren was as fine a goal-line back as anyone, and an excellent kick returner. He was hard to pass up, but like Sanders and Smith, not quite the right fit.
Marvin Harrison was the first player in history with four consecutive 1,400-yard receiving seasons. He was an exceptional route-runner, and he was the best I’ve ever seen at the toe-tap on the sideline. A dignified player who eschewed diva antics and spent his whole career with one team, but I felt that vertical threats were a better fit for this roster. Similarly, Antonio Gates is a good enough player to make my roster, but not the right match stylistically.
My next tackles up would have been Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones. Sorry, 2000s. I wasn’t going to pass up Brown or Shell, and Mix was a better fit behind them because he played right tackle and he was an All-League guard.
One of the hardest decisions was at defensive tackle, cutting Dan Hampton, a Hall of Fame DT in an era when that position struggled to gain recognition. Bryan named his team right after Aaron Donald’s rookie year, so I essentially had first shot at Donald. If that’s cheating, I’ll take Hampton back without complaint. Jack Youngblood was the toughest of several tough omissions at DE.
I wrote up a summary on linebacker Brian Urlacher, for his athleticism and coverage skills, and flipped back and forth between him and Schmidt. My defensive alignment is 4-3, so I didn’t draft any pass-rushing OLBs, and all the great pass-rushing LBs got snubbed. If someone comes along and creates a third team to challenge mine and Bryan’s, s/he should probably run a 3-4. There are a lot of big names left out there.
Jack Butler, an early predecessor to Ronnie Lott, was a tough omission. Brian Dawkins was a big hitter and a playmaker; if I had a few more spots, I would have chosen him. I wrote up a summary on Johnny Blood, a wingback from the 1930s whose record for INT return TDs stood for nearly three decades after his retirement, before deciding that he might not be the right fit for my locker room.
I think Morten Andersen was the greatest kicker of all time, but Vinatieri felt like a better fit for this project. Honestly, the difference among good kickers is pretty small, so there are several other directions one could reasonably go here.
If I had one more spot on my roster, I’d go with Pre-Modern tackle Pete Henry, mostly for his special teams contributions. Henry was a giant for his era, 250 pounds in the early ’20s. He was a good blocker, and he could fill in on my offense if necessary, but he was better known as a kicker and punter — he held various kicking records for many years — and especially as a defensive player and punt blocker. He’d be my backup punter, a member of the kick blocking units, and extra depth on both lines. Henry was a charter member of the PFHOF in 1963.
I’m thrilled to have Tom Landry in charge of my defense, but Bryan and I left a lot of great defensive coordinators on the board, including but not limited to: Bill Arnsparger, Bud Carson, Dick LeBeau, and Buddy Ryan. If you aren’t familiar with Arnsparger, I’d encourage you to check out the obituary I wrote for him. He had a pretty extraordinary career.
And of course, I’m envious for everyone Bryan already chose.
From a team-snub standpoint, neither Bryan nor I selected any players primarily associated with the Broncos, Jaguars, or Saints. Our most chosen teams overall were the Colts, Raiders, and Steelers (8 each). Bryan leaned most on the Bears and Steelers (5), Colts and Packers (4), while I somehow chose seven players associated primarily with the Raiders, plus four each from the Colts, Cowboys, 49ers, and Giants. No, I’m not a Raider fan.
Part of the fun of being a football historian is being able to pull a project like this together without drowning in research — and then doing the research anyway. Bryan chose a lot of players I would have taken if they’d been available, but I love the team I’ve assembled: an unstoppable offense and a dynamic, big-play defense that should hold its own against anyone. I selected my team specifically to defeat Bryan’s all-time roster — which isn’t really fair, since Bryan didn’t know he was drafting against anyone — but I’d put it up against any team and like my chances.
- Editor’s note: I wish to bolster Brad’s argument even further by recommending you read my love letter to Allen’s career. ↩
- Jared Allen, Aaron Donald, Ed Reed, Darrelle Revis, and J.J. Watt tied for second (four each). ↩
- According to the standards I used in the article. Ty Law played 54 games for the Patriots between 2001-04, but I required 50% of games in each eight-year period, and Law is 10 games short of qualifying for 2001-08. ↩
- Editor’s note: to know what I think of Gibbs, see what I wrote about him for Matt Waldman’s Team to Defend the Planet project. ↩