Analysis  

 

Lawrence Taylor, Dan Marino among top 20 players of the 1980s

If you're in your later 30s or pushing middle-of-the-road status, then you know the impact Kellen Winslow had on pro football. If not, you've at least seen his son have some big games in the NFL.

Kellen Winslow II's dad was among the myriad standouts considered for this list of the Top 20 Players of the 1980s, which I present in conjunction with NFL Network's "Decades Month." The Jimmy Grahams of the world owe the senior Winslow a debt of gratitude, as he was the first tight end to line up out wide and immediately present a mismatch in the passing game. Unfortunately, like many other superb players from that time -- Dwight Stephenson, Deron Cherry, Mike Haynes and Andre Tippett among them -- Winslow can't be found in these rankings.

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When picking the best players of a particular decade, you must take into account how many seasons said players actually participated in (and performed at a high level during) within that 10-year period. While Winslow had an incredible and lasting impact -- à la Bob Hayes in the 1960s and Mel Blount in the '70s -- he was trumped on this list by players who were as good for longer. Ditto Winslow's quarterback, Dan Fouts, who was far and away the toughest guy to omit. Fouts had incredible campaigns in 1980, '81 and '82 (a strike-shortened season), but he just could not stay healthy from '83 to '87.

Now, let's take a step back into the days of Rick Springfield and 1983 Nissan Pulsars (with aftermarket moonroofs) to examine the best the NFL had to offer in the 1980s. Per the usual, feel free to provide your take: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

OK, let's get to it, starting with a quick look at the first 10 players on our countdown:

20) Tony Dorsett: A truly great player who had three major seasons in the 1970s, which unfortunately don't count in this realm. Still, he posted five 1,000-yard campaigns in the '80s.

19) James Lofton: Just like Fouts, Lofton had a tremendous run early in the decade ... but decreased production and off-field issues marred the receiver as the years progressed.

18) Reggie White: If he had played more than five years in the '80s, or if the Eagles had enjoyed more success with him, he would be ranked much higher. Still, 81 sacks in five years?!

17) Art Monk: Caught 106 balls in 1984, becoming the first NFL receiver to eclipse the century mark. (The feat was accomplished twice in the AFL in the 1960s.) #consistent

16) Randy White: The dominant defensive tackle in the game from 1980 to '85, he earned Pro Bowl honors in each season.

15) Mike Singletary: As the leader of the 1985 and '86 Bears defenses -- a group that absolutely terrorized the league -- Singletary has a case for being in the top 10.

14) Roger Craig: His 1985 season -- in which he recorded 1,000 yards rushing and receiving -- still doesn't get the love it deserves.


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13) Marcus Allen: The 1985 MVP posted great numbers in his first four years, but then the production dropped off, with Al Davis holding him back.

12) John Hannah: Often called the greatest offensive lineman ever, Hannah played six seasons in the 1980s -- making the Pro Bowl in each.

11) Steve Largent: When he retired following the 1989 season, Largent was the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Alright, now it's time to dive in a little deeper with the top 10, as the disparity between some of these players is dental-floss thin, to say the least. More explanation is surely appropriate.

10) Walter Payton: Perhaps the NFL's premier all-around football player, "Sweetness" deserves better than the 10-hole, right? Well, here's the deal: Much of Payton's best work came in the late 1970s, including the 1,852-yard, 16-touchdown effort in '77 -- during a 14-game regular season, by the way. He continued to be a workhorse through the 1986 campaign, but the players ranked higher on this list enjoyed more of their prime during the '80s.

9) Howie Long: Long is one of those players whose heyday fell squarely in this decade. From 1983 to '85, there was no better defensive lineman in the league, period. In an era that included Randy White, Reggie White, Richard Dent, Fred Dean and Mark Gastineau, that's saying something. Long was the principal defensive force on the 1983 Raiders, who demolished the Redskins' record-breaking offense in Super Bowl XVIII.

8) John Elway: Determining Elway's place on this list is tricky. Was he a playmaking quarterback in the 1980s? Maybe the best. Is he the greatest comeback artist ever? He's right there with Roger Staubach. Yet, Elway did struggle often in his first three NFL seasons, throwing more interceptions (52) than touchdown passes (47). Still, Elway won the NFL MVP in 1987, and for good reason: He could single-handedly lift the Broncos to play above their heads. He guided Denver to the Super Bowl in 1986, '87 and '89.

7) Eric Dickerson: Dickerson could be much higher, no doubt. His first two years in the NFL represent the top two-season debut of any player in league history, irrespective of position. In 1983, he burst on the scene with 1,808 rushing yards. Then, as if to flip the proverbial bird at the sophomore slump, he broke the single-season rushing mark with 2,105 yards in '84 -- a record that still stands to this day. By all accounts, he was an unstoppable force. The sole issue with the bespectacled wonder: His contractual issues and public complaints ultimately became a distraction for both the Rams and Colts. That hurts him on this list.

6) Jerry Rice: Rice did not immediately explode into superstardom the way Dickerson did, as dropped passes shaded the promising early stages of what eventually became a Hall of Fame career. But by the end of his rookie season in 1985, Rice was carving teams up. Then in '86, he posted 1,570 yards receiving. In '87, he caught an insane 22 touchdown passes in 12 games. The following season ended with him earning Super Bowl MVP honors, and he closed out the decade with 1,483 yards and 17 touchdowns in '89. Yes, he wasn't in the league for the first half of the '80s, but Rice was the best player in the game by the time 1990 rolled around. Enough said.

5) Anthony Muñoz: Eight first-team All-Pro selections in the decade make Muñoz an easy choice for the top five. That means that eight times in the 1980s, Muñoz was determined to be one of the two best tackles in all of pro football. The two years he missed? His rookie season of 1980 and 1984, when he was merely second-team All-Pro. Not to mention, Muñoz was a front-line starter on two Bengals Super Bowl teams.

4) Dan Marino: Marino played seven seasons in the 1980s, and in three of them, he was named first-team All-Pro. That's an impressive hit rate, being dubbed the absolute best of the best at the game's most important position 43 percent of the time. Oh, and his 1984 campaign might be the most impressive offensive season in NFL history: We're talkin' 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns ... in an era when defensive backs were allowed to play far more aggressively.

3) Ronnie Lott: Lott is widely considered the finest safety to ever play the game, and conveniently for this list, the majority of his career took place in the Cabbage Patch decade. (Had he seen a Cabbage Patch Kid go over the middle, he would have destroyed it.) Lott, who entered the league in 1981, made the Pro Bowl four times as a cornerback ... then four more times as a safety by 1990. The one year he missed out on postseason accolades? 1985, when he played both positions. San Francisco won four Super Bowls in the 1980s, with Lott taking part in each triumph -- something only four other men can say.

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2) Lawrence Taylor: So much has been said about LT that it is difficult to add on -- except it's not. He's one of two defensive players in league history to win The Associated Press NFL MVP award. That honor came in 1986, when Taylor lifted his all-world game to another level with 20.5 sacks as the best player on the Super Bowl champion Giants. Taylor played nine seasons in the '80s, earning AP first-team All-Pro honors in eight of them. His one "disappointing" season? 1987, when he racked up 12 sacks in 12 games and did still earn first-team All-Pro honors from Pro Football Weekly. This guy completely redefined the outside linebacker position and certainly left his mark on the 3-4 defense. Put another way, without Taylor, Jadeveon Clowney never goes No. 1 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.

1) Joe Montana: Montana wins a very close battle with perhaps the greatest defensive player of all time. The reasons? A) Fairly or unfairly, as a quarterback in the era he played, Montana was able to have a larger impact on more games; and B) his performance in big games was superior to Taylor's. Montana threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions over four Super Bowl wins, earning game MVP honors three times. LT, as amazing as he was, can't compete with that little portion of the résumé.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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