Dr. Z's All-Century Team
By Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated
Issue date: August 30, 1999
My alltime NFL team isn't designed to take the field; it's
merely a compilation of my choices for the finest players at
each position. There are multiple listings at some positions
because I simply couldn't choose between players or because
different eras demanded completely different skills. Why the odd
number of roster spots, 41? Well, I had a good round
number -- 40 -- but then I remembered I'd left off the greatest
wedge buster I've ever seen, 254-pound tackle Henry Schmidt. If
this team were designed to take the field, I'd send my 41 guys
out against your 45 and take my chances.
To make my selections, I used a roomful of game programs and
play-by-play charts, the by-product of 56 years of grading and
annotating player performances. How many games? I'd estimate
close to 2,000. By way of the magic of two satellite-dish
outlets and three VCRs, all dutifully pulling their weight on
Sunday afternoons, I've seen well over 100 games in their
entirety in each of the last five years or so. You want to know
how Cleveland's Chuck Noll did against the Giants' Bill
Albright? Leo Nomellini of the 49ers against the Packers'
trapping guards? It's all in the charts.
The Packers were in a state of collapse before Vince Lombardi
arrived in 1959, and their fortunes plummeted after he left in
1969. He was famous for his motivational ploys, but let's not
forget his innovations: the run-to-daylight approach, going deep
on third-and-short. A terrific football mind lurked behind the
emotional fireworks. Bill Walsh is my offensive coordinator. His
passing attack changed the game in the modern era. As for a
defensive coordinator, Bud Carson's cerebral style produced the
most dominating defense I've ever seen: the Steelers' from 1972
You can't select one quarterback to span all eras. In 1978, the
year before Joe Montana came into the league, the rules were
changed to open up the passing game. Receivers couldn't be
bumped once they got five yards downfield, and offensive holding
rules were liberalized. Montana, perfectly suited to Bill
Walsh's offense, is my top quarterback of the last 20 years.
John Unitas, playing in his relentless, teeth-gritting style,
under the old rules (which made things tougher on quarterbacks),
is my No. 1 of the pre-'78 days. Running back was the toughest
position to narrow down. Jim Brown was the perfect combination
of grace, power and speed. He rewrote all NFL rushing records.
Hugh McElhenny, the King, could turn a short pass into a
crazy-legged, broken-field adventure. My pure fullback? Marion
Motley was a rumbling force and the finest pass-blocking back
I've ever seen. But on fourth-and-short there's no player I'd
rather give the ball to than Earl Campbell.
The only player on my squad that I never saw play in the flesh
was Don Hutson. So I spent two days in the Packers' film room.
I'd never forgotten a story told to me by a Green Bay fan who
swore he saw Hutson snatch a ball with one hand--with the palm
turned down. I never saw that play in the films, but what I did
see was remarkable enough to make sure he got on this team.
Hutson had speed and the same hunger for the long ball that
Lance Alworth, my other deep receiver, had, plus the precision
timing of my possession wideout, Raymond Berry, plus the
toughness of my all-around performer, Jerry Rice. Dave Casper
was a converted tackle who blocked like one. No tight end fought
off as much traffic to catch the ball.
Art Shell, John Hannah and Jim Parker were the ultimate power
linemen. Forrest Gregg and Ron Mix were the first of the
light-footed pass blockers. Dwight Stephenson was pure
lightning. Defensively, Reggie White combined power at the point
with a relentless pass rush. Deacon Jones and Rich Jackson,
whose career was cut short by injury, were also nonstop pass
rushers and were sturdy against the run. I couldn't break the
tie among Joe Greene, Bob Lilly and Merlin Olsen. Greene
combined great quickness with power, and Lilly was the most
technically sound. Olsen was the greatest bull-rush tackle ever.
No outside 'backer manhandled tight ends the way Dave Wilcox
did; he was impossible for a tight end to hook. Jack Ham,
blessed with phenomenal instincts, was the finest in coverage.
You can't compare Ham with Lawrence Taylor, though, who had
almost no cover responsibilities but created a new position--the
rush linebacker. Ted Hendricks? An all-around star. In the
middle, Dick Butkus and Willie Lanier were run stuffers supreme
and better in coverage than they got credit for.
Willie Brown and Dick (Night Train) Lane were masters of the
smothering, bump-and-run style, physical corners who liked to
rough up receivers. Jimmy Johnson and Deion Sanders will be
remembered as pure downfield cover guys, so feared that they
often went entire games without being tested deep. Free safety
also encompasses yet another set of techniques. Willie Wood was
a narrow choice over the Cardinals' Larry Wilson as a deep
patroller with tremendous instincts. Cliff Harris is my other
choice because of his killer style. "An obstructionist," Raiders
owner Al Davis calls this type of player. At strong safety Ken
Houston had the perfect combination of range and hitting
ability, and he was uncanny at sniffing out the run.
Pre-1978 rules: John Unitas (Colts, Chargers) 1956-73
Post-1978 rules: Joe Montana (49ers, Chiefs) 1979-94
Tailback: Jim Brown (Browns) 1957-65
Third down: Hugh McElhenny (49ers, Vikings, Giants, Lions) 1952-64
Fullback: Marion Motley (Browns, Steelers) 1946-55
Short yardage: Earl Campbell (Oilers, Saints) 1978-85
Deep: Lance Alworth (Chargers, Cowboys) 1962-72
Deep: Don Hutson (Packers) 1935-45
Possession: Raymond Berry (Colts) 1955-67
All-around: Jerry Rice (49ers) 1985-present
Dave Casper (Raiders, Oilers, Vikings) 1974-84
Power: Art Shell (Raiders) 1968-82
Speed: Forrest Gregg (Packers, Cowboys) 1956, '58-71
Speed: Ron Mix (Chargers, Raiders) 1960-69, '71
John Hannah (Patriots) 1973-85
Jim Parker (Colts) 1957-67
Dwight Stephenson (Dolphins) 1980-87
Power: Reggie White (Eagles, Packers) 1985-98
Rush: Deacon Jones (Rams, Chargers, Redskins) 1961-74
Rush: Rich Jackson (Raiders, Broncos, Browns) 1966-72
Power: Merlin Olsen (Rams) 1962-76
Speed: Joe Greene (Steelers) 1969-81
All-around: Bob Lilly (Cowboys) 1961-74
Strongside: Dave Wilcox (49ers) 1964-74
Weakside: Jack Ham (Steelers) 1971-82
Rush: Lawrence Taylor (Giants) 1981-93
All-around: Ted Hendricks (Colts, Packers, Raiders) 1969-83
Dick Butkus (Bears) 1965-73
Willie Lanier (Chiefs) 1967-77
Open-field: Jimmy Johnson (49ers) 1961-76
Open-field: Deion Sanders (Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys) 1989-present
Bump-and-run: Dick (Night Train) Lane (Rams, Cardinals, Lions) 1952-65
Bump-and-run: Willie Brown (Broncos, Raiders)1963-78
Strong safety: Ken Houston (Oilers, Redskins) 1967-80
Free safety: Cliff Harris (Cowboys) 1970-79
Free safety: Willie Wood (Packers) 1960-71
Kicker: Morten Andersen (Saints, Falcons) 1982-present
Punter: Tommy Davis (49ers) 1959-69
Kick returner: Gale Sayers (Bears) 1965-71
Punt returner: Darrien Gordon (Chargers, Broncos, Raiders) 1993-present
Wedge buster: Henry Schmidt (49ers, Chargers, Bills, Jets) 1959-66
Issue date: August 30, 1999
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