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 A 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 through '77.
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-arid-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 staffers 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