It’s official: Jerry Rice is the greatest player in NFL history. So says a so-called blue ribbon panel of football writers and historians — in the interests of full disclosure, I was one of the panelists– and fans who voted on the NFL Network poll.
Jim Brown, my personal choice for the best ever, was voted No. 2 by the panel and No. 9 by the fans. Rounding out the top tem, as chosen by the panels were Lawrence Taylor (3 and 12 respectively), Joe Montana (4, 2), Walter Payton (5,3), Johnny Unitas (6.14), Reggie White (7.11), Peyton Manning (8,5), Don Hutson (9, 0), and Dick Butkus (10,18).
That Don Hutson, the legendary Green Bay packers receiver of the 1930s and 1940s got no votes at all from the fans underlines part of the problem with a poll of this kind: the memory span of the fans. Vince Lombardi’s Packers of the 1960s played in six championship games and won five titles, but none of Lombardi’s Hall of Famers makes the list until Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke at No. 67. But short memories can’t just be attributed to the fans: they chose Bart Starr, the only quarterback in the last half century to win five championship, at No. 36, but the panel only placed him at No. 51.
On the whole, though. I’d have to agree with most of the rankings. We were given no criteria for the voting except how good we thought the players were, and my own personal guideline was: if I could clone a guy ten times, would that team beat any other cloned team? By that criteria, I think that Jim Brown would be a perfect No. 1 and ’49ers cornerback Ronnie Lott No. 2 (He finished 11 and 17). The fans, by the way, voted Barry Sanders as the fourth best player of all time and the third best running back behind Jim Brown and Walter Payton. O.J. Simpson got a 40th place from the panel and 44th from the fans.
My only real gripe with the poll is that no one else voted for Tim Brown, who is fourth on the all-time list for receptions. He has 1,094 catches; Rice has 1,549. But Brown didn’t get to play with Hall of fame quarterback. Give Brown a decade with Joe Montana and Steve Young and give Jerry Rice the guys who threw to Tim Brown, and I think there’s a very good possibility that Brown finished third on the all-time list. And in addition, Brown was a terrific punt returner and downfield blocker.
Who do you think should have been ranked higher or lower?