|Johnny Unitas was the quintessential field general for the Baltimore Colts.|
After being charged with comprising this list, I wanted to consider a lot of things. I thought it should span various positions and various eras, and, well, as it's my list, I might as well allow for certain biases/influences to take hold.
We're all products of our environment, and I'm not claiming it is The Definitive List, or the best list, but I think it has merit. So with that out of the way, here you go:
1. Johnny Unitas (Photos) -- The ultimate leader. Born clutch. You can't beat his back story (Being discovered on the sandlots of Pittsburgh? Are you kidding me?). Could draw up a play in the dirt, call it in the huddle and execute it perfectly. When he passed away, Sports Illustrated dubbed him "The Greatest," and yes that cover is framed in my office. I grew up in Baltimore, was born in '74 -- the year he retired after one season with the Chargers (unfathomable) -- and nobody else was leading this list. Period.
2. Jim Brown (Photos) -- Do I really have to explain this one? Averaged over five yards per carry, tough as nails, dominant for his entire career. Multi-sport star at Syracuse, social leader and a guy who I got the chills being within five yards of at Browns camp Wednesday.
3. Jim Thorpe (Photos) -- Olympic decathlon goal medal winner was first big name to sign with the NFL. Star halfback was also voted top American athlete for the first half of the 20th century. Later became the league's first president. Could pass, catch, kick and throw as well as anyone in the game.
4. Sammy Baugh (Photos) -- "Slingin' Sammy" could do it all. Helped usher in the forward pass. Led the league in passing, interceptions and punting in 1943. That's multi-tasking, folks. My bias for jack-of-all-trades players is now firmly established (more to come).
5. Deacon Jones (Photos) -- About time for a defensive player (another clue that this list is not entirely scientific). If they kept records for sacks in his time he'd be first by far. A game-changing force and as feared a player as there has ever been.
6. Don Hutson (Photos) -- Considered by many the greatest receiver ever (Jerry Rice isn't in the Hall yet, so he's not eligible for this list). League's top wideout for virtually his entire 11 year career. Played in a "deadball" era, yet in 1942 he caught 71 passes for 1,211 yards and 17 TDs ... in just 11 games ... while picking off seven passes and going 33-for-34 on extra points. He had more receptions than four NFL teams that year (it was only a 10-team league). Statistically, compared to his contemporaries, and if you project over 16-game seasons, he's superior to Rice.
8. Reggie White (Photos) -- It's one thing for a linebacker, allowed to run free in some schemes, to be all over the quarterback. It's another for a lineman to have wreaked as much havoc as this man did. Not the fastest guy, but probably the most physical lineman of all time. Could blow up the play from the interior or the edge. "The Minister" had 124 sacks in 121 games during his time with the Eagles. Let that sink in for a minute.
9. Walter Payton (Photos) -- Growing up in the late 70s/early 80s might have something to do with it, but "Sweetness" was The Man. Those Kangaroos and the headbands? Forget about it. Played on mostly horrible teams (with some inept quarterbacks) and was a one-man gang. I can still see him leaping the pile at the goal line in my head. When The Fridge got that gimme TD in the Super Bowl and not Payton, everyone at my uncle's party was irate. People everywhere, with no connection to the Bears whatsoever, wanted to see him score in that game (it also kept Ditka off this list).
10. Lawrence Taylor (Photos) -- Revolutionized the game. Greatest edge rusher I've ever seen. Lightning fast with an array of moves. Forced coaches like Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs to change their approach to blocking schemes. Dominated games with stunning regularity and the reason why so many left tackles are getting paid monster dollars.
11. Gene Upshaw (Photos) -- I can't sleep on the offensive linemen any longer. They don't get nearly enough credit to begin with. Exceptionally athletic and tough. Won an AFL title in 1967 and was still a force for the Super-Bowl winning Raiders in 1980, starting every game for 14 years. Had his detractors as NFLPA executive director from 1983 until his death in 2008, but I challenge you to find someone who made a greater impact on the game as a player and an executive.
13. John Elway (Photos) -- I'm not going to lie, I hated this dude as a kid. Everyone blamed him for the Colts leaving town, then I become a Charger fan and he breaks my heart for the next 10 years. His ability to rally teams late in games, to win games with his arm and legs, was unreal. Lacked the supporting case Joe Montana had for much of his career and had a way of capturing moments that few have rivaled. Had a rocket of an arm, probably could have played pro baseball had he stuck with it. Still pains me a little to write this, but I have to give him the nod.
15. Dick "Night Train" Lane -- If you haven't seen any of the NFL Films stuff on this cat, by all means find it. He was taking people's heads off. They had to change rules because of him (He liked to , "Hang 'em high"). This was one bad mamba jamba. Find a better story than this -- was raised by a woman who found him in a dumpster as an infant, played one year of junior college ball, spends four years in the military, shows up at LA Rams training camp in 1952 ... and sets an NFL record with 14 interceptions as a rookie.
16. "Mean" Joe Greene (Photos) -- Has to be representation of the Steelers' dynasty on here, to me. He epitomized their toughness, and there is not a red-blooded dude of my generation who can't recall that Coke commercial, and wasn't dying to be that kid who got his jersey.
17. Marion Motley -- The greatest fullback ever. Averaged a staggering 5.7 yards per carry for his career. Punishing blocker, and led league in rushing in 1950. Also played linebacker early in his career.
18. Forrest Gregg -- Has to be a Lombardi Packer on this list, and I'm going with Gregg. An All-Pro caliber tackle and guard, he made that Packers run game go. Played 188 straight games in the trenches. In his book, "Run To Daylight," Vince Lombardi stated: "Forrest Gregg is the finest player I ever coached." Um, that's good enough for me.
19. Ronnie Lott (Photos) -- The complete package at safety. Covered ground and arrived like a thunderclap, hitting incredibly hard. An anchor for several championship defenses and a player who produced at a high level throughout a lengthy career.
20. Kellen Winslow -- My favorite player growing up. Oozed effort. His performance against Miami in the 1981 playoffs is something I will never forget and was as complete an effort, in terms of receiving, blocking, special teams play and sheer determination, as you will find. No way this list was going down without a representative from "Air Coryell" on it, and this is my guy. Would wear his jersey in Patterson Park and catch balls all day long. Almost went with John Mackey -- more Baltimore Colt love –- as my tight end, but I'm going with No. 80 instead.
Again, not saying this is the best list for everyone, but it works for me. Feel free to dissect it and pick me apart. The back-and-forth and debate is what makes these lists so much fun.