On Wednesday, I crowned the single greatest player in the history of each AFC franchise. Today I continue with the NFC installment, which predictably presented similar dilemmas.
After agonizing over who deserves top-dog status for AFC teams like the Chargers -- I ended up rolling with Lance Alworth over LaDainian Tomlinson -- I found myself mired in parallel struggles on the NFC side, especially when it came to the Falcons, Packers and Buccaneers. I mean, an undertaking like this -- feting the best of the very best -- is a relatively impossible exercise, right? So keep in mind that, when it comes to many of the decisions below, I'm obviously splitting hairs.
That said, I'm sure many of you have strong opinions on such matters, and I'd love to hear 'em: @HarrisonNFL is the dropbox.
OK, enough of the bookkeeping stuff. It's time to coronate the greatest player ever for each member of the NFC, starting with the NFL's oldest franchise ...
When you think of Fitzgerald's career, you probably begin to ponder hard-luck athletes across sports. Of course, that's really the story with every great player in Cardinals history -- there just haven't been enough winning seasons to go around. That said, the first thought that comes to my mind is Fitzgerald's performance in the 2008 postseason: 30 catches for 546 yards and seven touchdowns! Another Larry, Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson, was the toughest competition here.
We're only in the 2-hole and we're already having trouble with the lineup. Tommy Nobis was the organization's first elite-level player. Claude Humphrey will be enshrined in Canton this August, thanks to a brilliant decade in Atlanta. But the choice here is Kenn, despite his relative obscurity to much of the football world. A 17-year starter at left tackle, Kenn was named to five Pro Bowl teams and twice earned first-team All-Pro honors. His former teammate (and my current colleague) Jamie Dukes summed it up nicely: "He is among the 10 best tackles to ever play." Yes, Kenn held his own against the very best, including Lawrence Taylor.
Peppers is the choice for one of the league's younger franchises. The reason: He was considered the best at his position for several seasons. There probably isn't another Carolina Panther you can say that about. (Sorry, Steve Smith.) From 2004 to '06, there was no better defensive end at all phases of the position. Also, he was an integral part of a Panthers team that nearly took down the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Peppers is a Hall of Famer, no doubt.
Talk about a team rich in tradition and history. This truly is one of the NFL's cornerstone franchises, making this selection all the more difficult. Payton, who once had the most rushing and receiving yards ever among NFL running backs, had to beat out Red Grange, Gale Sayers and Bronko Nagurski at his own position. And then there was that Dick Butkus guy -- kind of a notable name, eh? "Sweetness" led the NFC in rushing every year from 1976 to 1980 and eclipsed 1,000 yards 10 times.
I'd love to tell you I debated this pick ... but typing Bob Lilly's name took all of about five seconds. He is arguably the greatest defensive tackle ever, and was one of the premier players of the 1960s. This guy was so good that he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's All-Decade Team for both the 1960s and '70s -- first team. Even among all the legendary Cowboys, Lilly stands out. He is the only Dallas player to be named first-team All-Pro seven times.
Guessing you weren't anticipating Scott Mitchell here, eh? Sanders is a relatively easy choice, as he might be the most spectacular player with a ball in his hands the game has ever known. He certainly was the most elusive. Among his 10 stellar seasons, two in particular stand out. ... In 1994, Sanders rushed for 1,883 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. And then he outdid himself in 1997, totaling 2,053 ground yards at an eye-popping 6.1 yards a pop. Some consider Sanders the best running back in NFL history. Dutch Clark deserves mention, but ultimately falls short.
Like the Bears, the Packers boast a history that is exceedingly rich in tradition, championships and, of course, stars. Not picking guys like Brett Favre, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and Forrest Gregg, among others, was extremely difficult. Yet, Hutson might be the greatest wide receiver this side of Jerry Rice. Some people question the level of competition Hutson faced during the World War II era, but the bottom line is that he absolutely destroyed every other receiver's numbers in his era. Hutson quit pro football with 99 touchdown catches. No one else even had 30 at the time of his retirement.
If you pore over the pages of the NFL encyclopedia -- or, more realistically, cruise around ProFootballReference.com -- you might find that it's a tad bit difficult to find a defensive player who earned the AP's NFL MVP honor. In fact, there have been just two: Lawrence Taylor (arguably the premier defensive player in the history of the NFL) and Page. This guy was that dominant. He could knife through blocking schemes and make hay seemingly before the play even started. Page performed at the highest level over 11 full seasons in Minnesota, making the Pro Bowl in nine of those years. We'll see where Adrian Peterson falls in NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2014," but for this list, he just hasn't had a long enough tenure (yet).
Larry Fitzgerald is not the only current player to make this prestigious list. After eight highly productive seasons in which he has been the maestro of an explosive offense that has lifted this franchise to new heights, Brees has earned this honor. He led the Saints to their first NFC Championship Game berth in his first year with the club and brought home the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy three years later. Along the way, he's accounted for half of the NFL's eight 5,000-yard seasons. I love me some Rickey Jackson, but old No. 57 will have to step aside. And perhaps apologies to Willie Roaf are in order, but Brees' arrival completely changed this franchise.
Easy choice. Among all of the gifted players who've suited up for Big Blue over the past 89 years, no one was better than LT. Taylor had incredible strength and football IQ, but most importantly, he possessed a ridiculous motor that few in league history could match. He accumulated plenty of sacks, of course -- see: the 20.5 recorded in his MVP season of 1986 -- but his incredible desire made running away from him a risky proposition, as Taylor often would chase those plays down from the back side.
When it comes to defensive linemen, this is the big dog on the block. In NFL history, there hasn't been a better player up front. White could play outside or inside, and he was a master at getting after the quarterback. He legitimately took over games, which says something for a D-lineman. While many remember White for his days in Green Bay, it was during his eight years in Philadelphia that he forged his reputation as the best in the game. White was THE disruptive force on some fantastic defensive teams -- particularly the 1991 Eagles, who yielded just 150.8 passing yards per game. He was first-team All-Pro in six of his eight Philly campaigns.
Come on; Jerry Rice is the G.O.A.T. Joe Montana topped my list of all-time quarterbacks, and deservedly so. Unfortunately for Joe Cool -- at least, in terms of placement on this list -- Rice was the best player of a generation. As the NFL's all-time leader in catches, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, Rice certainly has the accolades to nab this honor. Throw in the fact he won three Super Bowls, setting a receiving record in one of them, and it's hard to touch the guy.
While contemporary chatter about the Seahawks centers on defense and the quarterback, the Legion of Boom and Russell Wilson have a looooong way to go to catch up with the best pass-catcher in team history. Largent was a model of consistency. He was not only the first All-Pro in Seattle, but he played 14 seasons at a high level. When Largent retired, he was the all-time NFL leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdown receptions. Walter Jones and Cortez Kennedy give Largent a run for his money, but no dice.
The most famous pass rusher to ever step on a football field influenced the premier players for decades to come, guys like Reggie White and Bruce Smith. Everyone knew who Deacon Jones was, mainly because of his various moves, starting with the now-illegal head slap. Jones coined the term "sack," fitting for quite possibly the most proficient sack artist in league history. Jones and Merlin Olsen were the main cogs of the famed "Fearsome Foursome," and both guys were included on the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. From 1964 to '69, Jones was the best defensive player in football.
He could play in coverage. He could play the run. He could lead. Simply put, Brooks was a complete NFL linebacker, the prototype at the position. Hey, it's not easy taking Brooks over Warren Sapp and John Lynch -- that's the triumvirate that delivered a Lombardi Trophy to Tampa Bay. The key for Brooks: This is the only team he ever played for, and he did so at a high level over 14 seasons. During that time, he made 11 Pro Bowls and tied former Cowboys great Chuck Howley for most pick-sixes by a linebacker (with six). Lee Roy Selmon was the franchise's top player for a long time, but he can't match Brooks' hardware.
The premier player of the NFL's first 50 years, Sammy Baugh is still the greatest Redskin of them all, 62 years after taking his last snap. He led Washington to titles in 1937 and 1942, establishing himself as the most prolific passer of the era. "Slingin' Sammy" also pulled off a rare triple crown in 1943, leading the NFL in completion percentage, punting and interceptions made (he was a two-way player). Heck, he could still give Shane Lechler a run for his money as the best punter ever. Baugh spent 16 seasons in a Washington uniform, retiring as the league leader in most of the major passing categories. His 51.4 punting average in 1940 is still a record.