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.
Reggie White was an absolute no-brainer. To be perfectly frank, he might be the greatest defensive lineman ever. White was the first marquee acquisition in the modern incarnation of free agency, which was instituted in 1993. No. 92 made waves in the league as a rookie in 1985 -- although he actually wore No. 91 in his debut season -- logging 13 sacks on a team devoid of impact players. Oh, and did I mention that came after he had already played an 18-game schedule in the USFL earlier that spring? White's career really took off with the arrival of Buddy Ryan in 1986. And it didn't hurt that the Eagles developed the best defensive talent in the NFL as the decade wore on. Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur took full advantage of White's immense talent, often moving him inside to exploit matchups. In six years with the Packers, White racked up 68.5 sacks, won a Super Bowl and made the Pro Bowl every year, despite being in his 30s. Overall, the "Minister of Defense" recorded 198 sacks, adding another dimension to his game by being an instinctive leader. What a player.
Here's an unofficial stat to pack away in the football brain: Over one two-year span, Jones racked up 50 sacks (FIFTY -- as in 5-0). Although sacks were not officially recorded then, teams logged them generally as "quarterback traps." It was actually Jones who coined the term "sack." During that 1967-68 run, he was probably the most prolific sack artist ever. Teams played just 14 games in those days, and yet Jones averaged 25 sacks over two campaigns. He did so with speed, quick hands and his patented head slap. A five-time first-team All-Pro, Jones made his last Pro Bowl in his 12th year, as a member of the Chargers. That said, his name will always be associated with the Los Angeles Rams and destroying quarterbacks.
Competition at defensive end:Bruce Smith came to mind. Because he played so long, and the last five years of his career were considered average, people forget what a disruptive force Smith was in his prime. He is, after all, the NFL's career sack king, with 200 to his name. Still it took him 279 games (over 19 seasons) to achieve that, whereas Jones unofficially recorded 194.5 in 191 games. Sacks aren't everything, but they are still a big part of pro football. Gino Marchetti certainly merited consideration, as he was probably the best defensive end of the first 50 years of the league, as well as the best Colts defender on the championship teams of 1958 and '59. But when you consider everything -- from playing at an All-Pro level for over a decade to helping the team achieve great success -- White and defensive tackle Bob Lilly make the strongest cases for the title of greatest defensive lineman ever.
Truly a giant of the game -- or, at least, he should be. Memories of Lilly's complete and utter dominance were still prevalent in the 1990s, but fans aren't as excited about defensive tackles these days, what with the rising recognition of the quarterback sack -- and, inherently, edge rushers. To give you an idea of the kind of respect Lilly commanded, consider that legendary 49ers head coach Bill Walsh ranked him as the third-best player he ever saw, behind only Joe Montana and Jim Brown. The incredibly agile Lilly made the All-Decade Team for the 1960s and 1970s. Back in 1999, he ranked 10th on The Sporting News' top 100 players of all time, a list that crowned him as the greatest defensive lineman ever. An 11-time Pro Bowler and seven-time first-team All-Pro, Lilly never missed a regular-season game in his 14-year career. What made him better than any man to play the position was a confluence of quickness, football instincts and pride. He hated losing, and he played with a composure and intelligence that allowed him to break apart plays before they ever got going. Known as "Mr. Cowboy," Lilly is still the greatest Dallas player of all time -- over The Triplets, over Tony Dorsett and even over Roger Staubach.
The most famous of all the 1970s Steelers didn't take long to become the team's best player. Despite the fact that Pittsburgh went just 1-13 in Greene's rookie season of 1969, he infused some attitude among his peers and earned first-team All-Pro honors. By the time the Steelers won their first division title ever in 1972, Greene was a 26-year-old team leader. Over the first seven years of his career, he was absolutely dominant, commanding double teams and creating gaps for teammates to attack. He was named Defensive Player of the Year twice (1972 and '74), quite a feat for a defensive tackle. Injuries and age prevented Greene from being the best in the biz in the late '70s, but he still finished with 10 Pro Bowl selections and five first-team All-Pro nods.
Competition at defensive tackle: There was plenty. Merlin Olsen combined with Deacon Jones on the Rams to form the most lethal DT-DE combo ever. Olsen was named to a record 14 Pro Bowls in the process. Ernie Stautner is linked to both guys listed above: He was the greatest Steeler of all time before Greene came around, while he coached Lilly in Dallas for nine seasons. Alan Page won the NFL MVP in 1971 -- what are the chances of a defensive tackle taking home such renowned hardware in today's game? This year, Warren Sapp joins the Hall. The Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 made life miserable for offenses in the late '90s, and he had the longevity to post 10 sacks in his 12th year in the league. Randy White's relentless pursuit was legendary, helping him net seven first-team All-Pro selections over 14 NFL seasons. Still, the career résumés of Lilly and Greene trump all.