The Pro Football Hall of Fame is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. To commemorate this milestone, NFL Media historian Elliot Harrison is picking his Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Team. Selecting from the pool of more than 200 players voted into Canton, Ohio, there are sure to be disagreements. Hit up Elliot at @Harrison_NFL to share your opinion.
When it comes to weighing the necessary qualifications for someone to be considered the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Montana gets a check mark in every box. Yes, his teams won often in the postseason, but it was how he played in those January affairs that made him special ... Super special. In four Super Bowls -- all wins -- Montana completed 68 percent of his passes and logged 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions. His passer rating was 100 or better in all of them. You can make the case that Montana is the best money player of all time. Montana was named to eight Pro Bowls and finished his career with a staggering record of 117-47.
Competition at quarterback: Johnny Unitas came to mind. All Otto Graham did was win, playing in 10 championship games in 10 years. Roger Staubach and John Elway might be the two most competitively great quarterbacks ever (both were hell on wheels when their teams were behind). Dan Marino could outplay anyone on his best day. And everyone forgets Sid Luckman. At the end of the day, intangibles push Montana over the top: overcoming a debilitating back injury in 1986 to lead San Francisco to the playoffs, then missing nearly two full seasons with an elbow injury only to resurface in the AFC and guide the Chiefs to the conference title game in 1993.
Toughest cut: Johnny Unitas.
Brown is the best football player ever to lace 'em up. Fans get tired of hearing that, thinking Brown played too long ago. But when someone leads the NFL in rushing during eight of his nine years in the league, is named Rookie of the Year, nabs three NFL MVPs, earns a Pro Bowl nod every season, wins an NFL championship and is considered the top player in pro football in his last season ... well, folks, you have the greatest player in league history. His career average of 5.22 yards per carry is the highest among players with at least 1,000 carries. Brown is the only player to average more than 100 rushing yards per game for his career.
When the discussion of "best all-around player" is raised, "Sweetness" comes up pretty quickly. Team leader, prolific running back, solid blocker, slick pass catcher, terror on the halfback option and durable as the day is long -- yeah, that's a good start in describing No. 34's game. Payton surpassed Brown as the league's all-time leading rusher in 1984, holding the title until Emmitt Smith passed him in 2002. Despite playing on some mediocre Bears clubs, Payton led the NFC in rushing every year from 1976 to 1980, before the days of Coach Ditka, McMahon and Singletary in Chicago. The seemingly indestructible Payton missed one game -- during his rookie season -- over a 13-year career, despite being one of the most physical runners ever. Incredible.
Competition at running back: Brown didn't have any; he is the greatest player ever. Payton, however, had some company here. Barry Sanders, like Brown, was elite throughout his entire NFL career. What held Sanders back were poor performances in the postseason, when he faced some of the league's best defenses. Eric Dickerson and Tony Dorsett were remarkable players. Ditto Earl Campbell. Emmitt Smith, as hard as it is to believe, probably doesn't get enough respect for being the game's all-time leading rusher. Though he was not as flashy as Sanders, Smith ramped his game up two notches against the best teams in the league -- more so than any back in history. Steve Van Buren, the premier player in the NFL in the late 1940s, has almost been completely forgotten by fans.
Considered by many -- including NFL Network, back in 2010 -- to be the NFL's greatest player, Rice is a no-brainer for inclusion on this list. The all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns was so dominant that it's almost hard to wrap your brain around his numbers. Rice racked up over 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns in January football. That's plain ridiculous. Rice earned three rings with the 49ers and played in another Super Bowl with the Raiders. This guy posted his last 1,000-yard campaign at age 40. Yes, 40. That's unreal -- a 40-year-old man getting that much separation from 20-something defensive backs.
Don Hutson and Sammy Baugh went back and forth as the two best players in football from the mid-1930s to the mid-'40s. It was an odd, unique era of pro football. Many of the league's premium players served in World War II, and the invisible color line wasn't broken until 1946. (Black players did play in the 1920s and early '30s, before the game gained traction as a big business.) So in a league lacking its usual talent, Hutson literally dominated games. Dominated. In 1942, Hutson led the NFL with 74 catches. The next closest dude had 27. He averaged over 100 yards per game that season, in an era when most quarterbacks didn't even throw for 100 yards per game. Most importantly, even in the seasons that weren't marked by WWII absences (1935-1941, 1945), Hutson finished first, second or third in receiving in yards (and he was in third only once -- in his rookie season).
Competition at wide receiver: Rice's totals of 22,895 yards and 197 receiving touchdowns (as well as 10 rushing touchdowns, for good measure) made him an automatic selection. That said, Lance Alworth was probably the AFL's greatest player, and it was extremely painful to leave him off in favor of Hutson. In 1965, Alworth put up 1,602 yards in 14 games. As the first receiver to master the art of attacking the football at its highest point, "Bambi" was unstoppable. Raymond Berry is the greatest possession receiver in the Hall. Steve Largent merited strong consideration and, incidentally, broke Hutson's 44-year-old record for career touchdown receptions in 1989 (a mark that Rice, of course, blew past). James Lofton, an illustrious Packer like Hutson, was the league's top wideout when the passing game took off in the 1980s. There are so many great players at this position, including some of the older Hall of Famers like Tom Fears, Fred Biletnikoff and Paul Warfield.
Toughest cut: Lance Alworth (the toughest cut on this entire team).
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL