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Unpopular Opinions

Why Bears legend Walter Payton is greatest NFL player of all time

Listen, I don't try to live my life as a contrarian. That's not true -- I kind of do. I spend a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I have a two-hour commute that allows me to hear a lot of the sports world's most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it's best to take a look at the other side.

In this space, I articulate positions that are the opposite of what most people think -- unpopular opinions, if you will -- and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong. Below, I explain my pick for the greatest NFL player ever.

Walter Payton is the best. I know that's not really an unpopular opinion by any stretch. In fact, it might be the most popular opinion I've ever stated. But here's my thing. The running backs for the NFL All-Time Team will be revealed on Friday night (8 p.m. ET on NFL Network), and if Walter Payton is not given his proper due, I will riot. And you might be thinking to yourself, "that's fair, Rank, but everyone knows he's easily one of the best running backs ever!" And you're absolutely right about that, dear reader. But that is not what I'm saying.

Here's what I am saying: Walter Payton is the best player in NFL history, regardless of position.

Now, your response will likely be "OK, boomer" as you move on to spam me with clown emojis on Twitter. Which is fine. I sort of expect this when I advocate for a player who was pre-Madden. The point being, most of you didn't see him play. I barely saw him play. But Walter Payton is an iconic figure, admiration for whom is passed down from generation to generation in the greater Chicagoland area even to this day. My grandparents and parents were there to watch many of the great Bears running backs from the past, including Gale Sayers, Bronko Naguski and Red Grange; but there was nobody like Payton. And I'll let you know right now that this isn't some sort of sentimentality vote, either. He earned all the praise that he was given.

Payton was the fourth overall selection of the 1975 NFL Draft. He was picked after some guys named Steve Bartkowski, Ken Huff and, well, I suppose Randy White was pretty good. He's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, after all. But still, nice one, guys. I would say I wonder how it feels to pass up the best player in NFL history in the draft for a guard or mid-card quarterback. But then I remembered that the Bears drafted Mitchell Trubisky over Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, so I know exactly how it feels.

Anyhow, it took just over one season for Payton to show people he would be, at minimum, one of the most dominant running backs of his era. He was the kind of player with a combination of speed and power that hadn't been seen in the NFL until his arrival, save for maybe those old, grainy videos of Jim Brown. Payton could do it all. He could run. He could block. He could catch. He could even throw the ball, as evidenced by his eight career touchdown passes. I've often joked that the three best Bears quarterbacks of my lifetime are Jim McMahon, Jay Cutler and Payton on the halfback option. (And if you want to know who the fourth is, I'll say ABRG -- Anybody But Rex Grossman.) Dude was even the team's emergency punter.

Payton led the NFL in rushing in 1977, with 1,852 yards. That included the game against the Minnesota Vikings in which he rushed for 275 yards with a 104-degree temperature, meaning Michael Jordan doesn't even have the best fever game in Chicago sports history. I should point out that the 1977 season featured a 14-game schedule. Payton averaged 132.3 rushing yards per game and was voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

Payton was one of the most durable and reliable running backs in the league over his 13 seasons. He started every game he played in from 1976 through 1987. He consistently notched more than 300 attempts per season. I mean, dude carried the ball 321 times and finished with 1,715 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns in 1986 when he was 32 years old. I know all of you who play fantasy football would kill for a guy to have this kind of production. And he was a punishing running back who delivered hits and never took the easy way out.

And what you also might not realize, given how players go from franchise to franchise in the modern NFL, is that he did it all for the same, miserable team. Yes, the Bears were dreadful for most of his career. Sure, he willed them to the playoffs during his MVP season in 1977. But the team finished .500 or worse in seven of his first nine seasons. This all took place before the NFL adopted its modern free agency system. It wasn't like there was some sort of quick fix or chance to bring in some additional firepower to the Bears offense. He was it. He was the only offensive weapon on that team for years. Defenses schemed and loaded the box against him. They still couldn't stop him.

When he finally won the Super Bowl in the 1985 season, it felt like a lifetime achievement award they give out at the Oscars. A nod for a job well done. Of course, Mike Ditka didn't get him that Super Bowl touchdown, which would have been a fitting touch. But maybe it was more symbolic for him not to get one. One last slight in a career of slights that he had to overcome.

But there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest. I mean, hell, the NFL's most prestigious award -- the Man of the Year -- is named after him.

I know, you've already cobbled a list in your mind of players who might be better. But let's break this down.

The great Jim Brown began his career on a Cleveland Browns team that had been and would continue to be a title contender. And some of Brown's best years came in the 1960s, when the NFL's talent pool was diluted with so many players going to the AFL.

Jerry Rice was amazing. As were his primary quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Heck, Jeff Garcia would be considered one of the best Bears quarterbacks ever. But Rice was a receiver, and he didn't have to throw himself into the line of scrimmage more than 300 times a year. And was he really a better pass catcher than Walter? I'm not ready to say that. (Did I just go too far?)

Lawrence Taylor was great. As is Tom Brady. Both benefited from playing for Bill Belichick, who is the greatest coach of all time.

Anybody else you want to throw into the mix? Because I could do this all day.

I think the ultimate sign of respect for Payton came from Brown himself. Franco Harris was on the verge of breaking Brown's all-time rushing mark. Now mind you, Harris had played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were the best team of the 1970s and one that had a Hall of Fame quarterback (which Walter never had). Harris played on a team that was always winning, which meant they were running out the clock at the end of games (the Bears weren't doing that). Well, I should say that Harris was a Steeler until he tried to extend his career with the Seattle Seahawks in 1984 to get that record. (Spoiler: He didn't.)

But I'm veering from the point.

When Harris came close to breaking Brown's rushing record, the Browns great threatened to come out of retirement. Sports Illustrated even did a cover piece on it. Brown was not a fan of Harris' approach and rushing style (namely, his willingness to run out of bounds).

Brown didn't make any such threats when it was ultimately Payton who broke his record in '84. Which tells you all you need to know. At least that is what my dad told me. But if Payton was good enough for Jim Brown, that's good enough for me. Case closed. Walter Payton is the best player in NFL history.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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