RUNNING BACK: Which 12 Hall of Famers make the final cut?
How do you choose between Red Grange and Barry Sanders? Or Dutch Clark and Marshall Faulk?
That was the struggle -- repeated over and over again, at every position -- for the blue-ribbon panel chosen to select the NFL's All-Time Team. The mandate was to select a prescribed number of the best players at each position, and the 10 best coaches, spanning the entire first 100 years of professional football. I was a member of the 26-person panel that selected the team over several months in mid-2018. Because there is no separate team for those who played in the earliest days of the league, comparing players across eras and styles of play -- making sure to include those original players and guarding against recency bias -- was unquestionably the most difficult element of the assignment.
Selecting Jim Brown was the easiest.
Brown was one of the 12 running backs chosen to the team -- one of only two to be unanimous (Walter Payton was the other) -- and he is still regarded by some as the best player ever, in large part because you could envision him being dominant at any point in the game's history. He led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons with a blend of power, speed and balance. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, also a member of the panel, said on the NFL Network program announcing the running back class that Brown could have played in any era, and at any position.
Brown was on the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and he will probably be on the 125th Anniversary Team, too. But the list unveiled Friday night for the 100th year might reflect the last years of running backs being the dominant players on their teams. Six of the 12 backs on this 100th-year team were on the 75th, but given how de-emphasized the position is for most teams now, it's fair to wonder how many RBs playing today -- or RBs who will enter the league in the next few years -- will generate enough production to nudge any of the greats off the list.
The six who remained on the list from the 75th edition: Brown, Payton, Marion Motley, Gale Sayers (who was on the 75th team as a running back and a kick returner), O.J. Simpson and Steve Van Buren. Bronko Nagurski is the only running back from the 75th team to not also land on the 100th team.
Interestingly, some players who were eligible to be named to the 75th-year team, but who did not make the cut then, were selected in the 100th season. Among them is Dutch Clark, one of the Golden Era players who was studied by a subcommittee of the blue-ribbon panel that was co-chaired by Belichick and John Madden. The subcommittee was created to ensure that fair consideration was given to players who played both offense and defense but who, because they played so early in the NFL's history, are not as well-known as modern era players. Clark's credentials make him a worthy member, even compared to the most prolific players who came after him. He made this list as a running back, but on the all-decade team of the 1930s, he was honored as a quarterback. He was a charter member of both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He was a three-time NFL scoring champion and named all-NFL in six of seven seasons. He was also a kicker. He led the Detroit Lions to the championship in 1935.
Lenny Moore, whose career ended in 1967, was an early dual-threat running back in the era of pounding rushers, rushing for 63 touchdowns and catching 48 touchdown passes. He remains the only player in NFL history with at least 40 touchdowns rushing and receiving. Starting in late October of 1963, he scored a touchdown in 18 consecutive games.
Even Earl Campbell, who started his NFL career by winning three straight rushing titles and three straight Offensive Player of the Year awards, did not make the 75th Anniversary Team, but did get a place on the 100th list.
That leaves just three slots for newer players, and it is hard to argue with the selections. Emmitt Smith is the NFL's all-time leading rusher, a four-time rushing champion and the linchpin of the Dallas Cowboys' three championship teams of the 1990s. Eric Dickerson's 2,105-yard rushing campaign in 1984 remains the single-season record and he retired as the second-leading rushing in history. And Barry Sanders, who played just 10 electrifying seasons and left everybody wanting more, was the Offensive Player of the Year twice, led the NFL in rushing four times and had a record 14 straight 100-yard games as part of his 2,053-yard 1997 season.
Leaving Marshall Faulk off the list was the toughest call for me. He was a three-time Offensive Player of the Year, a league Most Valuable Player, the first player in history to have 2,000 scrimmage yards in four straight seasons and, nearly 15 years after his final season, he is still seventh in total touchdowns. And, of course, he was a member of "The Greatest Show on Turf."
Still, with the edict to choose a team representative of the entire sweep of NFL history, there were simply not enough spots to get everyone on. Even now, 15 months after filling out the final ballot, I don't know who I would remove to get Faulk on the team. Perhaps, with the benefit of more time and history, the group that selects the next all-time team will view all the candidates differently.
No matter how many more all-time teams are chosen, though, it's likely the first two coaches named will be on the list ...
HEAD COACH: Two stand out above the rest
By the end of this process, 10 coaches will be named to the NFL's All-Time Team. The first two honorees? Well, they're no-brainers.
Paul Brown founded and coached the Cleveland Browns and played a role in founding the Cincinnati Bengals. His teams won seven league championships and he is maybe the most influential coach in history, credited with many coaching innovations still in use today, from using film to scout opponents to the development of the practice squad. He is revered by, among others, Bill Belichick, who was also named to the all-time team Friday night. Belichick has won six Super Bowls -- and counting -- as the head coach of the New England Patriots, and won two others as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. He has complete control over the Patriots, and their consistent excellence during the salary cap and free agency era make him the greatest coach in history.