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I’m very short on time, so Bryan Frye agreed to help keep the streak alive here by asking me to reproduce his All-Time 53 Man NFL Roster. What follows is a reproduction of his work here on his all-time 53 man roster. Given that I am short on time, maybe you are long on time (is that how time works?), in which case — get ready for a great read.


Sometimes when I am bored, I make football lists or rosters in my head (what is the all-time Steelers team, what is the current all-NFC South team, what is the all-time Hispanic team, etc.). Of all the whimsical thought experiments in which I have engaged, the one with the most decisions and revisions has been my all time 53 man NFL roster (with coaching staff).

The purpose of building an all time 53 man NFL roster is not to simply pluck the best 53 players out of history. If I did that, I’d end up with an unbalanced roster, with as many as seven quarterbacks. Having seven Hall of Fame passers would be nice, but it’s completely unnecessary. The important thing to me is depth, which means I value versatility from the players on the roster. Yes, Jan Stenerud was a great kicker, but why put him on the team when I can have Gino Cappelletti kick, return kickoffs and punts, take handoffs, and catch passes? You get the idea. I will make exceptions for most starters, but I want most of my backups to contribute in more than one area.

Having read the comments sections in some popular sports sites, I feel that it is necessary to make the following disclaimer: Players will be picked, in large part, based on how they performed in their respective eras. Danny Fortmann was one of the great interior offensive linemen of his generation, but it would be insane to posit that he could be plucked out of 1941 and be a star guard today at 6’0” and 210 pounds. That’s smaller than RG3.

I’m probably not going to tell you anything you didn’t already know. Instead, I’m simply going to provide my rationale for building the team that I built. There are millions of NFL fans in the world, and I don’t expect anyone else’s roster to look exactly like mine – and that’s a good thing, I believe. Maybe you’ll agree with a lot of what I have to say; maybe you’ll disagree with everything I have to say. Either way, if we go about it the right way, we can all be enriched by the discussion. Without further ado.



Peyton Manning – Five time MVP. Seven time first team All Pro. Fourteen time Pro Bowl selection. Statistically the greatest quarterback of all time. He has played with stellar offensive teammates and mediocre offensive teammates, and he has thrived with both. He has a reputation as a choker in the playoffs because, like most quarterbacks, his play drops off against better competition (the Montanas and Starrs of the world are the anomalies). With this team around him, I can’t see him choking.

Steve Young – Two time MVP. Three time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. Aside from Manning, no quarterback has ever had as dominant of a statistical run as Young did between 1991 and 1998. Throw in preternatural scrambling ability, and you have possibly the most gifted quarterback ever to play. It seems odd to select two quarterbacks known for coming up short in the playoffs, but I’m an odd guy.


Jim Brown – Three time MVP (which is insane for a running back). Eight time first team All Pro. Nine time Pro Bowler. In his nine seasons in the league, he led the NFL in rushing eight times. He finished his career averaging over 104 yards per game, and he was undoubtedly the most dominant pure runner in football history. Similar to watching prime-LeBron James, Brown was too fast for the bigger players and too strong for the smaller players. His unwillingness to block means he comes off the field on third downs.

Walter Payton – One time MVP. Five time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. If Brown was the most dominant running back of all time, Payton was the most well-rounded. He ran with fury and blocked with power. He was reported as having the best hands on his team (as well as being the best tackler and kicker, for what that’s worth) and played a big role in the passing game before it became the norm for halfbacks. Only the 1982 strike stopped him from posting eleven straight seasons with 1500+ yards from scrimmage.

Gale Sayers – Five time AP1. Four time Pro Bowler. I wanted a scat back on the roster, so it came down to a tossup between Sayers and Barry Sanders. Ultimately, Sayers’ contributions on special teams, as well as his lack of negative runs, won him the spot. Looking at his stats through a modern lens doesn’t do justice to the player. He was viewed by most as the best back in the league for his first five years, and many historians consider him the most talented back in league history. His 30.6 yard kick return average is still a record. We’d have to coach him to secure the ball when he runs, but I doubt that would be much of an issue.


Bronko Nagurski (DL, LB) – Four time AP1. At a time when linemen weighed about 220 pounds, the 226 pound Nagurski completely dominated the game on the ground. Stats from the time are spotty, so turning to hagiography is necessary. He was viewed as a bruising runner and a punishing blocker. He was named to All Pro teams as a running back, defensive lineman, and offensive tackle, making him the only player ever to achieve the feat at three separate positions (not including kicker).

Wide Receiver

Jerry Rice – Ten time AP1. Thirteen time Pro Bowler. The career leader in every important receiving category. Precise route runner with deceptive speed and great hands. His work ethic is legendary and contributed significantly to his ability to play at a high level for nearly two decades. If you only include the numbers he put up during and after his age 30 season, he would still rank ninth in receptions, eleventh in receiving yards, and seventh in receiving touchdowns.

Don Hutson (DB) – Eight time AP1. Four time Pro Bowler. Led the NFL in receptions a record eight times and in yards a record six times. He essentially invented the wide receiver position as it exists today. When he retired he had more than double the catches, yards, and touchdowns of the next closest receiver. He was also second all-time in interceptions at the time he retired. It would be dishonest not to note that he played in a barely integrated league and had his best statistical seasons when many starters were overseas fighting in WW2.

Lance Alworth – One time AFL MVP. Six time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. If Rice and Hutson are my two all-around receivers, Alworth is the first of my two deep threats. Playing in the 1960s (albeit against AFL defenses), Bambi produced seven straight thousand yard seasons, including one 1600+ effort. He may have the best statistical peak of any wide receiver in league history.

Randy Moss – Four time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. Had a reputation for taking plays off, but when he wanted to he could completely take over a game. His blazing speed made even the best pursuit angles all but useless. There have been twelve seasons in which a wide receiver caught 17 or more touchdown passes. Moss accounts for three of them, including his record 23 TD season. With the emergence of several big, fast receivers lately, we tend to forget that Moss was hands-down more dominant than any current wide out.

Raymond Berry – Three time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. This begins the possession receiver section of the team. It may seem like a curious choice, given Berry’s relative dearth of gaudy stats, but few receivers commanded the same level of respect from their peers. He only broke a thousand yards once and ten touchdowns twice, but he could catch anything and achieved incredible separation on routes. His timing with Johnny Unitas was legendary, and he is generally credited with inventing the timing route.

Michael Irvin – One time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. Dallas was not a pass-happy team in the 90s, and Irvin’s stats are evidence of that. However, no one who saw him play could honestly deny his greatness. He was among the greatest ever at fighting for the ball, which made him a viable deep threat in addition to his possession receiving ability. Emmitt Smith vultured copious touchdowns from him, so he only scored ten once, and he finished his career with a paltry 65 scores. However, many of Smith’s one yard scoring plunges were made possible by incredible plays from Irvin.

Tight End

Rob Gronkowski – Two time AP1. Three time Pro Bowler. There are several Hall of Fame tight ends who have put up more impressive career numbers, but Gronk – despite only starting 54 career games – has already entered the top ten in touchdowns among all tight ends. He is the best offensive player in football when healthy, and he is one of the few active players to make the squad.

Mike Ditka – Two time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. The first truly great tight end in league history, Ditka changed the way the position was played. Who knows what kind of gaudy stats he may have put up if had had gone to play for the AFL’s Oilers, who drafted him in 1961, instead of the Bears. As it is, he still scored 12 touchdowns as a rookie and finished his career with 43 receiving scores. Possibly more than any other receiver in history, the stats alone don’t tell the whole story of his greatness.

Tony Gonzalez – Six time AP1. Fourteen time Pro Bowler. The most statistically dominant tight end of all time, he brought a new form of athleticism to the game – one which he used to dominate defenses. He played with remarkable consistency for over fifteen years, despite not having a true receiving threat to draw coverage away until he got to Atlanta (in his 13th season).


Anthony Muñoz – Nine time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. In case you missed it, in his 13 year career, he was named the best tackle in the NFL nine times! He blended incredible strength with nimble feet, all but neutralizing the man lining up across from him on any given play. He is considered by many to be the greatest offensive lineman of all time.

Forrest Gregg (G) – Seven time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The best of Vince Lombardi’s stable of incredible linemen, Gregg earned All Pro nods at both tackle (6 times) and guard (once). In addition to the five titles he won in Green Bay, he won another with Dallas, making him one of just three players to ever win six NFL championships. Lombardi, who coached his share of Hall of Fame players, called Gregg the best player he ever coached.

Cal Hubbard (DL) – Four time AP1. Hubbard weighed in over 250 pounds in an era when 200 pound linemen were the standard. He was arguably the most powerful blocker of his era, and he was named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team. On the other side of the ball, he just happened to be one of the top defensive tackles in the league too. He’ll back up our starting tackles on both sides of the ball.


John Hannah – Seven time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. He has been referred to as the greatest lineman of all time, and he is never ranked outside the top three by any respectable football analyst. He was a ferocious blocker at the point of attack, and, despite his stature, he was fast and agile. His athletic prowess made him a terror at the second level for linebackers and defensive backs. One of the first true maulers in the modern era.

Jim Parker (T) – Eight time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Was named to four All Pro teams at both guard and tackle, so he and Gregg can switch back and forth if the coach is feeling squirrelly. He protected Johnny Unitas’ blindside; grainy footage shows this behemoth neutralizing pass rushers. This was in an era when linemen had to block defenders with their elbows.

Bruce Matthews (T, C) – Seven time AP1. Fourteen time Pro Bowler. Not dominant enough to start at guard or center, but good enough at both positions to make All Pro teams at each. He made his first and last All Pro teams twelve years apart, his last at the age of 39, which is amazing. He was dominant at all three positions on the interior line, but he started and excelled at all five line positions.


Dwight Stephenson – Four time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. I think of him as the Gale Sayers of offensive linemen (with Tony Boselli as the runner up). His career was brief, but it was clear when he played that he was the class of his position. Dan Marino’s quick release undoubtedly played a huge role, but Stephenson was also instrumental in the Dolphins allowing the fewest sacks in the league for a record six consecutive seasons.

Chuck Bednarik (LB) – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Concrete Charlie was the NFL’s last 60 minute man, starting at center and middle linebacker. Was so dominant on offense that he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy as a lineman (a rare feat). On defense, his monster hits literally changed the scope of some opponents’ careers (see Gifford, Frank). Bednarik will provide depth on both side of the ball.



Reggie White (DT) – Eight time AP1. Thirteen time Pro Bowler. Possibly the most dominant defensive lineman of all time. He gained at least eight sacks in each of his first fourteen years in the NFL before recording only 5.5 in his final season (at 39 years old). This includes a remarkable 21 sacks in twelve games in the strike shortened 1987 season. During his time with the Eagles, he took down passers 124 times in 121 games, a rate that we’ve yet to see matched over such a long period of time. White also shares the Super Bowl record for sacks (3) with Darnell Dockett.

Deacon Jones – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Jones played before sacks were officially recorded, which is a shame since he is the man credited with inventing the term. So devastating was his head slap maneuver that the NFL had to institute rules to disallow it. That didn’t slow him down, as he is credited with 173.5 sacks by John Turney’s unofficial list.

Bruce Smith (DT) – Eight time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Smith is the all-time leader in sacks, a remarkable feat considering the amount of time he spent playing end in a 3-4 scheme. Even if you think his Washington years artificially inflate his career totals, you can’t deny the dominance of thirteen double digit sack seasons. Smith also picked up 1075 tackles in his career, a total uncommon for his position.

Gino Marchetti – Seven time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Marchetti played so long ago that Turney doesn’t even have sack data for him, but some historians have estimated that he may have totaled as many as thirty sacks in a single season. He was hailed as the greatest end of all time by the Pro Football Hall of Fame (in 1972), and offensive innovator Sid Gillman once quipped that attempting to run a play to his side of the field is a waste of a down.

J.J. Watt (DT) – Three time AP1. Three time Pro Bowler. He’s only played four seasons so far, but three of those have been among the greatest by any defensive player in history. At 25 he is already the best player at any position in football. We often take for granted the brilliance of once in a lifetime players when we see them in person, so I beg you to cherish the time you get to spend watching him play. If you want details, go read Pro Football Focus. Just know that he may go down as the greatest defensive player ever to live.


Alan Page – One time MVP. Six time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The first of only two defenders ever to earn the league MVP award, Page was a force of nature on the interior line. Undersized even for his era, he made up for it with speed, strength, and brains. The Turney sack list credits him with 148.5 sacks as a DT. He was the best player on one of the greatest sustained defenses in NFL history, and he did it all while studying for law school in his spare time (I’d say that worked out pretty well too).

Joe Greene – Five time AP1. Ten time Pro Bowler. On a dynasty full of Hall of Famers and near-Hall of Famers, Greene was the greatest of them all. Most historians agree that his play allowed Lambert, Ham, and Blount to reach the levels they did. He simply used his brute strength to overpower even the best opponents (Mick Tingelhoff’s failures against Greene were one of the biggest things keeping him from Canton for so long).

Bob Lilly – Seven time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. He certainly didn’t look like a man who could throw Pro Bowl guards out of his way and chase down running backs from behind, but Lilly could do that and more. I have him in a four-way tie as the greatest defensive tackle of all time. Despite sometimes being triple teamed, Lilly was able to use his instincts and uncanny agility to wreck offensive game plans.

Merlin Olsen – Five time AP1. Fourteen time Pro Bowler. Olsen was not flashy, but his ability to command at least one extra blocker allowed teammate Deacon Jones to feast on quarterbacks. A man of remarkable power, he was able to effectively nullify the opposing rushing attack. His fourteen Pro Bowls (back when they meant something) is still a record.

Outside Linebacker

Lawrence Taylor – One time MVP. Eight time AP1. Ten time Pro Bowler. Taylor was the second and last defensive player to earn the NFL MVP award. He specialized in destroying quarterbacks, and his aggressive pass rushing revolutionized the way the linebacker position was played. He was so unblockable that he forced Joe Gibbs (who had the unfortunate luck to face LT and Reggie White twice apiece each year) to invent new offensive formations and schemes to counteract him. He wasn’t asked to cover very often, but when he was his speed and fluidity allowed him to stay in stride with the best tight ends and backs of the day.

Bobby Bell (DE, G) – Six time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. When people discuss Bo Jackson, Calvin Johnson, and Jim Brown as athletic marvels, I always wonder why they don’t add Bell to the conversation. He is one of the most versatile athletes in football history. He was an all-state quarterback in high school before going on to become one of the few college offensive linemen ever named a Heisman finalist. He played a hybrid DE-OLB in Hank Stram’s innovative defense and excelled rushing the passer, dropping in coverage, and stuffing the run. He was a vital part of a unit that helped legitimize the AFL, and he may be the most underrated player ever.

Derrick Brooks – Five time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Possibly the greatest cover linebacker of all time, he was (in my opinion) the best player on the best pass defense in history. While he could cover like a safety, he could also stuff the run better than almost anyone of his generation outside of Ray Lewis. When Michael Vick took the league by storm, the Bucs were the only team that consistently stifled the talented runner. Brooks was the biggest part of that.

Jack Ham – Six time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Ham’s incredible instincts allowed him to diagnose plays better than almost any other linebacker ever to play. He was sound against the run but really made his mark as the league’s first great cover linebacker. In fact, he may challenge Brooks as the top cover backer of all time.

Inside Linebacker

Ray Lewis – Seven time AP1. Thirteen time Pro Bowler. Lewis’ ability to make plays sideline to sideline in unrivaled in football history. While many linebackers rack up high tackle totals by happenstance, Lewis earned his tackles from a combination of uncanny play recognition, great block shedding ability, and a killer instinct. Throw in tremendous skills in coverage and a decent blitz repertoire, and you’re left with maybe the best middle linebacker ever.

Dick Butkus – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. A punishing tackler whose reckless style took years off his career. He is perhaps the most feared man ever to patrol the middle of the field. On top of bone jarring hits, Butkus was particularly adept at stripping ball carriers. His limitations in coverage keep him from starting, but he is the number one backup and also starts when we run a 3-4 scheme.

Willie Lanier – Three time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Because the media is weird and slightly racist, Lanier was often referred to as the black Dick Butkus. Given Lanier’s otherworldly ability, it would have been fair to call Butkus the white Willie Lanier. His biggest claim to fame was using the crown of his helmet to punish those he tackled.

Jack Lambert – Six time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. Lambert was more than just an intimidating face (although the pre-play look he gave QBs is legendary). He was a pivotal player on one of the greatest defensive dynasties in the game’s history. Like his partner Jack Ham, Lambert excelled in pass coverage as the prototype MLB in what is now called the Tampa 2 defense.


Night Train Lane – Three time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. The first of two cornerbacks who inspired rules changes because of their aggressive play, the Night Train is generally considered the greatest cornerback in NFL history. Some may argue his aggressive style wouldn’t work in today’s game, but the rule changes that were designed to slow him down didn’t do the trick; I think he could manage to adapt. He was more than just a feared tackler, as his 14 interceptions in his twelve game rookie season are still a record.

Deion Sanders (WR) – Six time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. In 1996, Sanders started eight games at wide receiver for the Cowboys and was on pace for 72 receptions for 950 yards. Not out of this world, but pretty good for a guy who happened to be the best cornerback in the league at the time. Sanders is perhaps the greatest pure cover corner ever to play, blending world class speed with underrated strength. His tackling left many wanting, but I have a roster full of other guys who can do that. Prime Time just needs to shut down receivers and return picks for touchdowns. He will also share kick return responsibilities with Sayers, Woodson, Haynes, and Wood.

Mel Blount – Two time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. Another player whose rough style prompted the league to change to more passing-friendly rules. He was excellent in run support, as all corners had to be in his day, and he was among the best ever in coverage. Despite rule changes that limited his strengths, he still made several Pro Bowls and an All Pro first team afterwards. At 6’3”, he often towered over receivers and used his rare strength to overpower them.

Rod Woodson (S) – Six time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Perhaps the greatest zone coverage cornerback in football history (a strength that served him well when he switched to safety), Woodson also excelled in man coverage and run support. He was a dangerous returner, which also translated well to interceptions. He returned his 71 picks for nearly 1500 yards and a record twelve touchdowns.

Mike Haynes – Two time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. A standout player for both the Patriots and Raiders, Haynes is viewed by some as the best all-around corner of all time. His ability to play both man and zone coverage, as well as provide run support, earned him that distinction (there’s a reason that, even in his prime, Nnamdi Asomugha was still compared to Haynes). In addition to shutting down receivers, Haynes was also a stellar kick and punt returner.

Willie Brown – Five time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The first in a long line of great Raiders cornerbacks, he is a member of both the AFL All Time Team (with the Broncos and Raiders) and the NFL 1970s team. A college linebacker, he wasn’t afraid to lay the lumber on anyone with the ball. With his superior strength and aggressive style, he was an early influence on the way bump and run coverage was played.

Free Safety

Ronnie Lott (CB) – Six time AP1. Ten time Pro Bowler. Known as one of the hardest hitting safeties of all time, Lott’s brutal hits could change the way offenses played (ask Ickey Woods and Mark Bavaro). He wasn’t just an enforcer; he made four Pro Bowls and an All Pro first team as a cover corner before ever switching to safety.  Lott adds to the beautiful controlled chaos that is our secondary.

Ed Reed – Five time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The exemplary ball hawk of the modern era, Reed seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. He combined preternatural instincts with remarkable speed and agility to make quarterbacks think twice about throwing deep. Once the ball was in his hands, he was always looking to make a big play. He was usually successful, gaining a record 1590 yards on interception returns and throwing in seven scores for good measure.

Willie Wood – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. One of the cornerstones of Lombardi’s championship teams, Wood patrolled the deep field better than anyone else in his era. A safety with the versatility to cover like a corner gives this defense many schematic options. His ability as a punt returner is a bonus.

Strong Safety

Ken Houston – Two time AP1. Twelve time Pro Bowler. The final starter in my unfairly talented secondary, Houston was a massive safety with a nose for the ball and nearly unparalleled ability to score after turnovers. His five return touchdowns in 1971 (four interceptions, one fumble) were a single season record until Devin Hester reached six in 2006.

Jim Thorpe (RB, K, P) – One time AP1. Thorpe’s athletic prime was nearly a decade before the American Professional Football Association (later named the National Football League) was founded, so he was an aging star by the time the NFL proper even existed. Regardless, he earned an All Pro nod at tailback at the age of 36. Prior to the foundation of the NFL (in 1920), Thorpe led the Canton Bulldogs to three titles in four years (1916-17, 1919). He was a feared runner and kick returner, and he is said to have demoralized defenders with his blocking. He was such a talented defensive back that the college award for secondary player of the year bears his name. He was an accomplished kicker and punter as well. Perhaps his most important contribution to the NFL was the fact that his mere presence lent the young league some needed credibility. It is hard to separate the man from the apotheosis of the man, and I’m okay with that in Thorpe’s case. His athletic accomplishments speak for themselves, and his election as the NFL’s first president speaks to the respect he had among other players.



Lou Groza (T, DL) – Four time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. There’s a reason the college award for kicking is named the Lou Groza Award. Groza led the NFL in field goal rate five times, and his era adjusted accuracy is among the best ever. He also happened to be a stud left tackle, protecting Otto Graham and clearing lanes for both Marion Motley and Jim Brown. He was a solid defensive lineman as well and will serve as great depth in the area. Fun fact: Groza starred in thirteen title games in his long career.


Sammy Baugh (QB, DB) – Four time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. He may not have been the most efficient QB of his era (Sid Luckman was), but the workload he took on changed the way quarterbacks contributed to their teams. Adjusted for era, he is the most accurate passer in history, which led to him leading the league in passer rating a record six times (tied with Steve Young). He even retired as the all-time touchdown leader. At his retirement, he ranked fifth all time in defensive interceptions. His talent in the secondary will give the team great depth. His 51.4 yards per punt in 1940 is still an NFL record (the caveat is that teams used to punt on third down in order to win the field position battle, and he benefited from a lot of long rolls).

Kick and Punt Returners

Gale Sayers, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Mike Haynes, Willie Wood, and Jim Thorpe. Sayers will be the primary returner, but if you want to kick away from him you’ll have to kick it to some of the greatest return men the game has known. I’d recommend just kicking that bad boy out of bounds.

Special Teamers

With Payton, Nagurski, and Bednarik lending their efforts to blocking and covering on special teams, our offense is well represented. It is our defense, however, that will field the bulk of our cover units. Starters and backups alike will rotate in and out of service. My only concrete rule: Sanders will not be tackling anyone, and Bell will always play on the front line on kickoff returns.


Head Coach

Vince Lombardi – Ten years. Five championships. 62 games over .500 (.738 record). He turned a one win team into a perennial powerhouse, winning a championship in half the years he coached. Lombardi’s most famous contribution to Xs and Os is his use of the power sweep to run roughshod over defenses. However, long before Mike Shanahan got famous for his blocking schemes, Lombardi used similar schemes and actually wrote a book the detailed zone blocking (the posthumous Vince Lombardi on Football). He was the consummate team builder who both led and loved his players, and his desire to feature minority players as leaders was far ahead of its time. There’s a reason Super Bowl champions hold up the Lombardi Trophy.

Offensive Coordinator

Bill Walsh – Ten years. Three championships. 33 games over .500 (.609 record). The term West Coast Offense may have been pejorative, but it is now the most common offense in professional football. Walsh revolutionized offensive football with his focus on stretching the field both horizontally and vertically with safe, well timed routes. However, he also laid the foundation for the 49ers dynasty by creating a defense that allowed fewer than 300 points every season from 1981-1997. Rather than labeling him an offensive genius, I think it’s safe to simply call him a football genius. His treatise on coaching (and really leadership in general), Finding the Winning Edge, has been described as the Bible for football coaches and even one of the greatest leadership books ever written.

Defensive Coordinator

Bill Belichick – Twenty years. Four championships. 102 games over .500 (.659 record). His innovative hybrid defenses and astute game planning have earned him six rings as either a coordinator or head coach. His game plans as a coordinator under Bill Parcells consistently stifled Joe Montana in the playoffs and neutralized the K-Gun offense in the Super Bowl. His defense also stopped both the Greatest Show on Turf and early career Peyton Manning. When rule changed made winning with defense harder to accomplish, he focused on offense and led the only team ever to surpass 500 points four times. In the history of football, there are three coaching game plans that ended up in the Hall of Fame. Two of those, over a decade apart, belong to Belichick.

There will be snubs

In putting together my roster, I had to make some cuts that really hurt me to execute. I will use this space to give a non-exhaustive shout out list.

The most difficult decision I faced was choosing between Berry and Kellen Winslow Sr. as my final receiver. Winslow was probably a more dominant player and could provide better blocking, but I ultimately went with the man who retired as the all time leader in both receptions and receiving yards.

Ted Hendricks is one of the most cerebral linebackers ever to play, and he may have been the best kick blocker in football history. It pains me to leave him off the team.

Barry Sanders may be the greatest pure scat back of all time; Marshall Faulk may be the greatest receiving back of all time; Eric Dickerson may be the second best pure runner of all time – I am sad to be without them.

Emmitt Smith was never flashy, but he was possibly the greatest ever at taking what the defense gave him; with an offensive line like this, that is a valuable skill. I lament his exclusion from the team.

Joe Montana is my personal favorite quarterback and was the perfect trigger man to execute Bill Walsh’s offense. He is one of the few passers in history whose numbers actually improved in the playoffs. I think cutting him hurt the most.

Every great offensive lineman ever. From early stars like Mel Hein to current greats like Joe Thomas. They already barely get the credit they deserve. I’m sorry to all of you.

Doug Atkins was one of the most feared defensive linemen in the league’s history. At 6’8” and 275 pounds in the 1950s, he dwarfed opposing linemen. Legend has it that tackles refused to hold him because they were afraid to make him mad. I wish I had more room on the team for this behemoth.

Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey effectively neutralized an entire side of the football field, all while usually tracking number one receivers. The fact that a shutdown corner can even exist in today’s pass friendly era is incredible. The fact that these two were able to do it consistently for several years tells me they belong in the discussion with the all-time greats.

Tom Landry’s defensive schemes changed the landscape of pro football and became the norm for most teams in the league. Joe Gibbs’ ability to create offensive game plans to maximize the effectiveness of relative average-to-good players is one of the more underrated coaching narratives in history. Paul Brown revolutionized nearly every aspect of running a football team – from scouting and drafting to Xs and Os (he invented the QB draw, sort of) – and his influence is palpable in today’s game. It was difficult to leave off any of these innovative minds.

  • Since I wrote this, Watt, Gronkowski, and Belichick have another season under their belts. Also, two more people have joined Reggie White and Darnell Dockett in the Super Bowl three sack club: Kony Ealy and Grady Jarrett. Technically, Willie Davis had three, and L.C. Greenwood had four, but those weren’t “official.”

  • sacramento gold miners

    Good stuff, and I would find a way to add Steve Tasker to the special teams unit. I don’t have any issues with Steve Young’s postseason play, two of his losses as a starter were against that Dallas juggernaut in the early 90s. Young got Dallas later in the 1994 playoffs.

    • I considered Tasker for a split second but didn’t think he’d contribute enough elsewhere.

  • Chase was right, this was a great read.

    Personally I would have gone Sanders over Sayers. The special teams argument makes sense, but it should be noted that Sanders almost certainly would have been a great return man in the NFL given the opportunity. I have an old issue of Sporting News from 1987 naming the college All-Americans, and the kick returner is Barry Sanders, sophomore, Oklahoma St. He didn’t start at running back that season because he was sitting behind Thurman Thomas. (Then as a junior he ran for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns!) How random is it that OK St. had two Hall of Fame RBs on their roster at one time?

    • Since writing this, I’ve changed my mind about Sayers and Sanders. Normally when I can’t decide between two players, I just go with the older one. However, adding Sanders would mean I have my top three RBs, and I have so many good returners that Sayers is superfluous.

    • Oh and I don’t know nearly enough about college football to know how common it is to roster two PFHOF RBs.

  • Any particular reason behind Tom Brady not even getting an honorable mention? Steve Young vs. Tom Brady is an argument that I’d side with Brady on, actually.

    • When I wrote this, I wasn’t as high on Brady as I am now. I also wanted at least one mobile QB, so that made Young an obvious choice to me, beating out pre-injury Joe Montana. That leaves the pocket passer role up for grabs, between Manning, Marino, Unitas, and Brady. I went with the one I thought was the most consistently excellent. However, upon further reflection, I may do things differently. I’d prefer a guy like Manning/Marino/Favre/Rodgers/Elway if I had average teammates, but I think Brady/Montana might be the better pick to guide a loaded team.

      • WR

        But isn’t Peyton the one who’s played with loaded teams? Look at all the talent he’s had around him on offense, you can’t tell me guys like Harrison, Wayne, D Thomas, Decker, Sanders, Clark, and Garcon are average. Brady’s defenses usually do better by points, but by metrics like DVOA and adjusted net yards per attempt allowed, do no better than Manning’s defenses.

        I’m tired of hearing about how Manning has had to make do with average teammates. It’s a myth that should have been put to bed years ago. It’s guys like Fouts and Brees who have consistently had to carry terrible defenses, not Manning and Marino.

        • Richie

          In Marino’s 16 seasons (I’m not counting ’93), his teams had negative DSRS 9 times and positive DSRS 7 times.

          The defense was below average every season from 1986-1996, except 1990, which had a +4.2 in the midst of so many bad defenses. Probably thanks to one of John Offerdahl’s rare complete seasons.

          Which QB’s have had worse defensive support?

          • WR

            I ran the numbers. In the seasons between 83-99, the Dolphins average rank in fewest points allowed was 14.8, pretty much league-average, and 7 of those teams were in the top 12. Brees has had an average rank in his 16 seasons of 20.9, with 3 in the top 12. Fouts had an average rank of 20.3, 1 top 12 defense in 12 seasons with at least 224 pass attempts. Points allowed is far from perfect, but it appears to confirm what I said. I’m not saying that Marino never had bad defenses. But the idea that he always had bad defenses is clearly overblown, and he was also playing for Shula, who I think has a case to be considered the best coach in NFL history.

            • Four Touchdowns

              WR, just curious since this is a primarily a stats site — if you take out wins and championships, what is the case for Brady being better than Manning, Rodgers, Marino, etc.?

              Not trying to debate you, I just am curious to see what argument there is outside of those two things, which many here regard as coach and team achievements as much as QB achievements.

              • WR

                First, Bryan, thanks for such a detailed response. I don’t have time to go through everything you said, but to respond to what Four Touchdowns has asked about. I do agree that based purely on statistics, Manning does better. Let’s look at Manning, Brady, Marino, and Montana by adjusted net yards per attempt+, which is adjusted for league average and era. 100 represents league average, so a figure of 120 represents performance 20% above league average for the given time period.

                Montana is at 121 anypa+ in 5704 drop backs, Manning 120 in 9683 drop backs, Marino 119 in 8628 drop backs, and Brady 118 in 8641 drop backs. So in terms or value per game and per play, they’re all very close. But it’s true that Manning beats Brady both in rate stats and volume. And if you’re analysis ends there, I won’t disagree that Manning has the statistical advantage.

                But don’t we want to put those numbers into context? Montana had much better supporting casts than Marino, and we should probably make an adjustment for that. By the same token, when discussing Brady v. Manning, there are several factors that help Brady’s case. First, let me say that Brady has probably had better coaching and defenses than Manning, though I believe the margins for those things are much smaller between the two than many people think. But those are certainly advantages for Brady, and help to explain why the New England QB has won more games.

                So which categories help Brady’s case? First, Manning played nearly 49% of his career games in a domed or retractable roof stadium. Brady has played just 8% of his games in a dome or retroroof stadium. So if we accept that domes help passing stats, this is clearly a huge advantage for Manning statistically.

                Next, opponents. The numbers provided by Football Outsiders for DVOA and DYAR show that Brady has generally faced tougher defenses than Manning, particularly over the period of 2004-2015. One illustration of this is that in 2013, when Peyton threw 55 TD passes, just 15 of them came against defenses that ranked above league average by DVOA. That was an extreme case, but if you look at the schedule adjustment for Brady’s teams over the time period I mentioned, and compare it to the one for Manning, it’s not remotely close.

                Finally, supporting cast. It’s a difficult thing to quantify, but it’s clear that Manning has had better offenses around him for the two players’ entire careers. Things are a bit closer since 2007, but let’s not forget that for all the talk about how valuable Moss is, Brady only got to play with him for a little more than 2 seasons. And while Gronk is amazing, he keeps getting hurt, and has missed a bunch of time since late in the 2011 season. Manning has played with a bunch of star receivers, in both Indy and Denver, and guys like Decker and Garcon have been very successful with other teams, so you can’t say it was all because of the guy who was throwing them the ball. Manning’s had more skill position talent over the years, and I don’t think it’s close.

                So when you put all these factors together, it’s clear that looking at career rate and volume stats isn’t enough. Maybe it’s not enough to get Brady ahead of Manning overall, but even if it isn’t, it’s clearly enough to get him incredibly close. And if you factor in postseason success, that’s going to help Brady as well. I agree that we shouldn’t overemphasize the playoffs, but let’s not forget that Brady has now played more than 2 seasons worth of postseason games. I don’t see how you can hope to draw a full picture of his career by pretending that none of those contests took place.

                There’s a good article that was posted 2 years ago on fivethirtyeight that talks about some of these factors, and is based on the formula Chase devised for rating quarterbacks.


                It shows that since he hit his peak in 2004, Brady has outperformed every other QB over an equivalent stretch of time. He does well by this particular metric, because it factors in weather effects and strength of schedule. And these numbers don’t even include Brady’s last 2 seasons. Perhaps this particular stat is overestimating the value of the factors that help Brady’s case. But there’s enough here to convince me that there isn’t a significant gap between Manning and Brady in terms of career value.

                • Four Touchdowns

                  WR, thanks for such a detailed and thorough response. It’s nice to finally find a place online where I can have these conversations without things degenerating into tedious name calling.

                  Before I respond to your message, I just want to say up front that I’m a “tiers” guy with QBs and feel that unique rosters, in-game situations, coaches, systems, supporting casts, etc. make determining the better QB among the very elite basically impossible and ultimately pointless. So I don’t feel Manning is definitively better than Brady or vice versa.

                  And while more helpful than rings or wins in that they’re solely focused on offensive efficiency, I don’t consider stats to be a definitive way of figuring out the best among the very elite — in my book, they are also team stats as you need linemen for blocking and receivers for catching.

                  While subjective, I’d consider film study based evaluation to be the best way of determining a QB’s quality — PFF grading and Cian Fahey’s stats are the gold standards in my mind, though admittedly flawed. Sadly, full career numbers for both Brady and Manning don’t exist at this point.

                  Irrelevant to the conversation but I just wanted to let you know where I’m coming from.

                  The dome piece of it doesn’t really jibe with me because three of Manning’s best statistical seasons came outdoors in Denver — his Broncos averages beat out his Colts numbers in passer rating, ANY/A, TD percentage, INT, percentage, etc. — and this is with a weakened arm and his abysmal 2015 season dragging his Denver averages down.

                  I find the defenses piece you mention very interesting. Has anyone ever done a study on how Brady and Manning have done against the same defenses in the same seasons? If not, I might look at it, I find the idea interesting.

                  As I mentioned in another post, I do think it’s very fair to bring up Manning’s superior WR talent (just as it’s fair to bring up Belichick and Brady’s defenses), though I must wonder why Brady’s WRs are seen as so mediocre — they get open on time, they catch the ball and then gain YAC (from 2009 through 2016, 49.6% of Brady’s yards come from YAC while 44.5% of Manning’s yards came from YAC, so Brady is at least getting more help in that category).

                  That said, it’s interesting that Brady doesn’t have top-notch WRs since Belichick controls the roster. It’s as if Bill doesn’t want to depend on Brady’s arm to win them championships.

                  But beyond WRs, I also think it might be a question of system — Peyton’s Tom Moore offense is from the Air Coryell system while I’ve read that Brady’s Ekhardt-Perkins offense relies more on West Coast passing concepts. This alone could explain a lot of the discrepancy in offensive production (also interesting because the two systems produced the 80s stats king in Dan Marino and multi-SB winner in Joe Montana), as one is designed to attack the field vertically and is therefore more reliant on elite WRs while the other attacks the field horizontally and can be effective with lesser talent at the position.

                  As noted above, playing in different systems is a reason why I don’t feel it’s possible to determine the actual best player among the elite guys and the above illustrates why. In fact, it’s interesting to note that Manning’s offensive production reached new heights in Denver after he was able to combine his Tom Moore system with the Patriots concepts Adam Gase brought to the table. It makes me wonder what a fully healthy Manning could have done in that kind of a system.

                • garymrosen

                  “Montana had much better supporting casts than Marino”

                  How good was Montana’s “supporting cast” for his first two Super Bowl wins before Rice joined the team?

                  • WR

                    Montana played for very strong teams throughout his time in San Francisco. In 1981, the 49ers had the 2nd ranked defense in points and yards allowed, and the pass defense was particularly strong. San Fran had a a +23 turnover differential. The offense was 7th in points, and while Montana himself was very good, he had a couple of really good WRs in Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon.

                    The 84 49ers have been overshadowed by the 85 Bears and the later San Francisco teams, but I think they’re one of the best teams of all time. That team was 2nd to Miami in offense, with the number one defense in points allowed. Montana was great, of course, but the team around him was very strong. The top receivers were Clark, Solomon, and Roger Craig. The offense was extremely balanced, finishing 2nd in both net yards per pass attempt and yards per rush attempt. Wendell Tyler and Craig were the leading rushers on the team.

                    And of course, Bill Walsh was an amazing coach. He’ll never be able to match the longevity of guys like Halas, Shula, and Belichick. But he took over a team that was little short of a laughingstock, and quickly turned it into one of the great teams in NFL history. None of this is meant to be a knock on Montana. He was clearly the single most valuable player on those teams, like Brady is for the Patriots. But there’s no way to deny that Montana typically played with great defenses, and a bunch of Pro Bowl teammates on offense.

                    • garymrosen

                      “he had a couple of really good WRs in Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon.”

                      Dwight Clark – 2 career Pro Bowls. Fred Solomon – 0 career Pro Bowls. Not saying they weren’t good, but do you think Montana benefited more from them than vice-versa?

                      One way of getting an idea of how good a team is by the total of career Pro Bowl appearances of the starters. For example the 1978 Steelers’ defense had 47 career Pro Bowls. The 1993 Cowboys’ offense had 46 career Pro Bowls, 40 outside QB Aikman. The 1981 49ers’ offense had 11 career Pro Bowls outside of Montana. They had a running back by committee of nobodies and Randy Cross was the only interior OL on the first 2 Super Bowl winners with as many as 3 career Pro Bowls.

                      I have been a 49ers fan since before the Walsh/Montana glory days and of course I don’t mean to belittle the many fine players who made important contributions to the 49ers’ great success in the 1980s. However I don’t think that the 49ers had a roster consistently studded with perennial Pro Bowlers and all-time greats to nearly the extent of the previous two “decade” teams, the 60s’ Packers and 70s’ Steelers. They had a lot of very good players accompanied by the brilliant Hall of Famers Montana, Lott and later Rice.

                    • garymrosen

                      “But he [Walsh] took over a team that was little short of a laughingstock, and quickly turned it into one of the great teams in NFL history.”

                      Montana took over for good as 49ers starting QB with four games left in the 1980 season. At that point the 49ers record going back to the 1977 season was 13-45, still a better percentage than Walsh’s career 6-22. The 49ers then won 18 of their next 23 games including the Super Bowl. Of course Walsh was a great coach, deservedly in the Hall of Fame, who set the stage for nearly two decades of 49ers success. However it is not easy to separate Walsh’s success from Montana’s.

                    • WR

                      I’ve made 2 declarations that you have disagreed with
                      1. The 1980s 49ers were very talented on both sides of the ball
                      2. Walsh was a great coach who quickly turned that team from losers into Super Bowl winners

                      I wasn’t really aware that those positions were controversial. I think you may be underestimating the degree to which the 49ers turnaround was fueled by the improvement of their defense, and also the advantage that team gained from playing in the pre-salary cap era. So once they acquired star players, it was much easier for SF to hold onto them than it is for teams today.

                      You’ve clearly seen more of those teams than I have, so you’re in a position to know. Montana’s great. I have him right behind Brady as the best QB ever. But it seems pretty clear to me that he was successful with teams that had a lot of talent around him on offense, and also had great defenses and a great coach.

                    • garymrosen

                      As for declaration 1, I disagree with it insofar as the 1981 team is concerned, not necessarily the 1984 team. Though I would point out also that Wendell Tyler appeared in exactly 1 Pro Bowl, in 1984. Again my question is did Montana’s career benefit more from Tyler or vice-versa? In regard to 2, I don’t disagree with the statement but I do disagree with the insinuation – which may be oversensitivity on my part – that Montana was a creature of Walsh.

                      If I seem overly defensive of Montana, it is because for years I have heard people implicitly belittle his accomplishments by pointing out what great teams/coaching he had. Yet I never heard that said about John Unitas who was (deservedly) the consensus GOAT at QB prior to Montana even though he played alongside 5 other Hall of Famers (Parker, Moore, Berry, Marchetti and Donovan) as well as a 6th HOF quality player, Gene Lipscomb, who will never make it into Canton. And his coach was the winning coach in arguably the two most memorable championship games in pro football history with two different teams in two different leagues. Of course no QB, or any other player, wins 4 Super Bowls without a heap of talent and good coaching alongside him. It is just my impression that this gets brought up more often with Montana. I certainly agree that the dramatic improvement in defense was one of the keys to the 49ers rise from bottom to top in the early 80s. But I will also quote Tom Landry following the famous NFCCG – “It’s got to be the quarterback, there is nothing else there”.

                      I will also comment on your quote, “.. the advantage that team gained from playing in the pre-salary cap era. So once they acquired star players, it was much easier for SF to hold onto them than it is for teams today.” I think this is partially true but not a full picture. Most of the key talent from the glory days was drafted – Montana, Lott, Rice, Clark, Craig, most of the OL and later on Haley. The best player they got from FA was Fred Dean who was there for the first two SB wins. I do agree that Eddie D’s money enabled them to consistently plug holes with good-but-not-great players like Tyler, Mike Walter and Matt Millen and this definitely helped the team. Finally I would note that only a handful of players on the 88-89 teams played on the first two Super Bowl winners. In particular the OL was entirely rebuilt. This was camouflaged by the continuity of Montana and Lott as the faces of the offense and defense respectively and once again is a tribute to their brilliance as well as Walsh’s for orchestrating this transition. It may also be a partial explanation for the playoff failures 85-87.

                    • WR

                      I think we’re on the same page. I’m a Patriots fan, and I’ve heard countless similar arguments made against Tom Brady’s success over the years, and I agree that Montana has often suffered the same treatment. I have Brady and Montana as the top 2 quarterbacks in pro football history, and they’re 1 and 1a for me, I don’t really care which order you put them in. Like Montana, Brady succeeded early in his career on teams with strong defenses, but unimpressive talent around him on offense. There are a lot of very interesting parallels between their respective careers, and they have a lot of the same strengths and (relative) weaknesses.

                      Both Montana and Brady had great coaches, but I would submit that each of them was the single most valuable player on dominant teams.

                    • garymrosen

                      Agreed with nearly everything. It is definitely a strong point on behalf of Brady that he has not typically had stellar offensive talent around him. Though it is interesting that he could not win the Super Bowl with Randy Moss on the team. However I would blame Moss, not Brady. I wouldn’t put Moss as the all-star on a Pop Warner team but that’s another story. Brady’s remarkable durability is another point in his favor. But Montana though more fragile was a competitive QB in his late 30s with KC despite the erosion of his physical skills, in a conference with 4 other HOF QBs (Elway, Marino, Kelly and Moon) all except Moon much closer to their prime.

        • I don’t recall saying Manning had inferior teammates. If you can show me where I did, I will gladly concede that I did. I don’t make these observations from stats. I communicate through stats because it is easy, but they’re just a biproduct of the play on the field. From watching games, I believe certain QBs have styles that are more conducive to playing with better or worse teammates. I may be wrong about some or many of them, but that’s just the conclusion I have reached.

          I’m sorry you’re tired of hearing about x, y, and z, but you didn’t hear that from me.

          • WR

            What is the basis for your claim that Manning, Favre, Marino, etc. would be more successful with average teammates than Brady and Montana? It sounds like a totally subjective take, particularly when you factor in that when the guys you listed were on winning teams, their teammates were a lot better than average. The 96 packers, for example, led the league in both points scored and fewest points allowed.

            It’s your team. You can make whichever choices you like. I’d just like to see some actual evidence pointing to your conclusion, if it’s going to be the basis for picking one guy over another. If you’re not claiming that Manning has played with average teammates, how did you arrive at the conclusion that he would be more likely to succeed in that situation? If you’re taking Manning because you just like him better than the other guys, or because you want to subtract credit from Montana and Brady (but not from Peyton and Young) for supporting cast, fine. But just admit that you are doing so.

            • I’m not subtracting credit from anyone. I believe Manning is a better player than Brady. Not because of coaching, or teammates, or whatever stuff Scott Kacsmar brings up. Because I watched them both play and never felt Brady was better. And I don’t like Manning; he gets on my nerves. Montana is my favorite QB of all time, so this isn’t about playing favorites.

              I told you my feeling was a subjective one based on watching games, so saying it’s subjective is hardly calling me out. It’s subjective, and, subjectively, in my subjective opinion, I think a more risk averse style is better for a stacked team. Making the right decision and taking what you’re given, like Brady did better than probably anyone in history, is optimal (in my subjective opinion) for a good team. Taking risks that may backfire completely is (in my subjectively subjective opinion) better for bad teams.

              • That was a little on the nose. I should be better than that. Sorry.

                • WR

                  “That was a little on the nose. I should be better than that. Sorry.”

                  What does “on the nose” mean?

                  • I typed “subjective” way too many times. It was childish and inappropriate, and I apologize for that.

              • WR

                I appreciate that you can admit your view is subjective. What is strange to me is that we’ve seen Brady succeed with weak offensive supporting casts and also with weak defenses, and yet Manning has never really had a weak supporting cast on offense. So your conclusion that Manning would do better with a weak supporting cast isn’t based on any real substance.

                Your take on Brady’s career is incomplete. He had very good downfield numbers in years like 2004, 2007, and 2016, so the idea that he always employs a risk-averse style is false, though I agree that he or Montana are the best at executing that type of offense. Had Brady gotten to play with the likes of Harrison, Wayne, Thomas, etc. as often as Manning did, I have no doubt he would have better air yards numbers.

                Your case for Manning amounts to “he’s better than Brady and Montana because I say so”. That’s fine, it’s your opinion. But if you’re going to pick a team like this on that kind of basis, you should expect that people like me will come along and critique your selections. I’ve always suspected that the reason people still rate Manning higher is because of draft position. I know some people will never be able to get past the fact that Montana and Brady were low draft picks, but that’s a poor basis upon which to evaluate players. If your take is not based on draft position, and it’s based on a subjective “eye test”, then I guess we’ll just have to disagree.

                • It never occurred to me to rate Manning higher due to draft position. I know some fantasy analysts use that to make rookie projections, but I don’t play or really care sbout fantasy football.

                  I ranked Brady second all time in the recent WOC. I think he’s a terrific player, and I find myself respecting his game more and more over time. We disagree about him and Manning, and that’s fine. I doubt either of us is so weak minded that a dissenting opinion would damage our psyche.

                  • WR

                    I’m happy to just disagree. What I see as the difference between our respective positions, is that my view is based on objective factors like statistics, context, and postseason performance. Your view is based on a subjective impression gleamed from watching games, and I think my basis is fundamentally more reliable than superficial impressions.

                    If you asked me why I rate Brady ahead of Manning, I would cite their career statistics, along with factors like dome effects, supporting casts, and strength of opposing defenses that I believe help Brady’s case. You wouldn’t have to agree with me, but there’s a lot more there than just an eye test gleamed from watching them on TV.

                    • Do you happen to know of a quality study on weather effects? I’ve never seen anything I’ve considered particularly thorough or substantive.

                    • The main reason I didn’t use stats to explain my case is that you can find about 300 comments or articles on this site alone doing the same thing. I don’t feel the need to rehash the same talking points ad nauseam. Further, I am wary to use stats and call my argument objective when the interpretation of the stats is almost always a subjective one. I think anyone who claims to have an objective view based on stats is fooling himself (or herself, in case one of the three female FP readers sees this).

                      When looking at the stats of Manning and Brady without context, Manning’s are significantly better. That is, unless your opinion of interception rate is much higher than mine. In that case, maybe Manning’s stats are only much better rather than significantly better. Either way, you’d have to really twist the raw stats to make Manning not look better. And that is because the raw stats by themselves don’t tell us much.

                      We can use advanced metrics, such as ANY/A or TAY/P. Or we can use metrics that are actually advanced, such as EPA/P, VOA/YAR, or Raw QBR. Cumulatively, those all rate Manning higher, even after the 2015 disaster. Raw QBR is obviously incomplete because it doesn’t include anything prior to 2006, and both players produced a fair amount of value in that period.

                      We can take it a step further to adjust for opponents faced. We can glean objective data to show the approximate level of each individual defense a QB faced. After that, we are left to using subjective interpretations of how much that actually matters. It’s easy to do something like SRS or Chase’s RANY/A to measure, but I’ve never seen a study that shows the actual impact of a great defense on a QB’s performance (similarly, I haven’t seen a study showing the impact of a great QB on a defense’s performance). We just go from what we perceive to be common sense, even though we have little proof this is the way to go.

                      DVOA is a pretty good stat for this, and both players are exceptional there. They’ve combined for 18 seasons over 30%, which is incredible. Manning has 11 to Brady’s 7. Manning also happens to have 12 of the top 20, 9 of the top 15, 7 of the top 10, and 3 of the top 5 seasons between the two of them. By Total QBR, they have combined for 20 seasons in the data set and produced 17 seasons over 70, which is awesome. Despite two of his best statistical seasons left out of the range, Manning has 8 of those, 8 of the top 15, 5 of the top 10, and 3 of the top 5 between the two of them. They also both have one injury season in that range, and Manning has one horrible season in that range. Brady has no horrible seasons in that range. Using those two subjective interpretations of objective numbers, Manning still comes out on top.

                      Then we come to dome effects. I believe that domes are more friendly for QBs, and I believe that bad weather is worse for them. However, I have no idea to what extent, and I have never seen a study that I thought was robust enough to come close to answering the question. Most of what I have seen comes down to “cold weather is really bad for players who normally play in domes, but it may actually help the performance of players who are acclimated to it” and “home teams are always at an advantage, but that advantage is magnified in extreme weather.” This comes from the Burke studies and the Zipperman study. Unfortunately, none of these studies gets rid of enough confounding variables for me to call them authoritative. As an aside, I have heard theories that really bad precipitation helps offenses because bad footing favors those who act rather than react. it sounds nice and makes sense, but I have no proof that it is actually true.

                      Finally, we come to supporting cast, however you want to define that. Does defense and coaching count in the equation? I guess it depends on what you’re trying to argue. De-tangling this cluster is probably the holy grail stat of sites like this or FO (aside from whatever stat makes them millionaires, of course). I think it’s pretty obvious both QBs produced better stats when they had better offensive teammates. However, I have yet to see anyone use stats to effectively show who is most responsible for statistical production. It’s easy to look at a team whose top WR gained 890 receiving yards and say “well the QB didn’t have any help.” It’s just as easy to look at that scenario and say “well look who his QB was.” One, both, or neither of these is correct. Similarly, you could look at a team with three 1000+ yard/10+ touchdown receivers and say “look at the help the QB had.” You could also say “yea, well look who their QB was.”

                      I have no idea how one would statistically show whether the chicken or the egg came first, and I don’t have the hubris to pretend I do. For the same reason, I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence Marvin Harrison didn’t have a great statistical profile until Peyton Manning became a good quarterback or if Manning had a lot to do with that. Harrison didn’t play much with anyone else, and his first two seasons looked like a lot of great WRs’ first two seasons. They looked rather a lot like Reggie Wayne’s second and third season, statistically. For Wayne, he had a down year on a terrible team and then rebounded with Luck, a QB many consider to be very good. Then he got old and did what old players do. Garcon had a very good season in 2013, surrounded by a bunch of seasons in Washington that resembled his latter three seasons in Indianapolis. I have no idea how good he was in 2009 relative 2011, 2013, or 2015, and I won’t pretend to. Demaryius Thomas hasn’t looked great without Manning, but his alternatives include a checked-out Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Brock Osweiler, and Trevor Siemian. I don’t think it’s fair to compare pre-Manning DT with Manning DT. Aside from having awful QBs, he also may not have been very good in his first two seasons; many WRs aren’t. You could say similar things about Decker.

                      That is a lot of uncertainty, even in what is perceived to be objective facts. With so much undiscovered, very little of what we think we know is actually objective. We are free to disagree on how to rate a player based on whatever criteria we choose, but I’m not going to feign some sort of epistemic knowledge that doesn’t even exist.

                • Richie

                  I never thought about the draft position angle. There may be something to it.

                  But for me, the reason I always have a tough time rating Brady as highly as guys like Manning, Marino, Rodgers and others is style.

                  My perception of Brady is lots of short passes. Little curl routes to Wes Welker. Manning and others seemed to have a lot more “big arm” type of throws that are more spectacular. Brady seems to kill you with a thousand paper cuts. It’s obviously been very effective for him. But it makes it difficult to be “wowed” by him.

                  • WR

                    You’re ignoring a couple of things

                    1. Brady has had several seasons with impressive downfield passing numbers.
                    2. The cases where he hasn’t done that have been cases where he was throwing to unimpressive receivers, or guys like Welker, Amendola, etc.

                    The reason the Patriots often employ a short passing style is not because Brady can’t throw downfield, because he can. It’s because building a receiving corps around little slot receivers and TEs is a lot cheaper than relying on talented receivers like Moss, Julio Jones, or Calvin Johnson. Those guys are expensive.

                    Rodgers has had a couple of seasons were his air yards numbers were weak, but that doesn’t convince me that he lost the ability to throw deep, and then suddenly regained it later. It’s a product of the supporting cast. Luckily for Manning, he’s always played for teams that had guys who could get downfield.

                    • Richie

                      No, I’m not ignoring those things. I’m telling you the reason why it’s hard for me to accept the idea of Brady being the best QB ever. Because when I watch him, he doesn’t look like the best QB ever.

                      I understand that that the record does not back up my perception. I am telling you why I have that perception.

                    • Adam

                      “Because when I watch him, he doesn’t look like the best QB ever.”

                      This is one reason I struggle with the idea of Brady being the best ever. I’ve never watched him and thought, “He’s the only QB who could make that play,” or “He’s the only QB who could’ve pulled that game out.” Brady is among the most intelligent and fundamentally sound QB’s to ever play, but it rarely feels like he’s doing special things on the field. He’s the football equivalent of Tim Duncan, who some consider the greatest power forward of all-time, but never looked the part. Is this fair to either player? Maybe not. But I do think playing style and aesthetics can tell us something, even if only a little.

                    • WR

                      “I’m obviously a hardcore stats guy, but numbers and team accomplishments don’t tell us everything.”

                      Can you see, Adam, how the case you just made against Brady doesn’t discuss numbers or accomplishments at all? If your argument against a player is that he just doesn’t look the part, then there’s no point in continuing a discussion, because the burden you’ve set in order to be convinced is impossible to overcome, if it’s not based on data.

                      Brady has done plenty of special things in his career, but if your argument is that he just doesn’t look the part, then all of that goes out the window. It’s a foolproof standard that, precisely because it’s not based on any data, can never be overcome. I’ve never bought the Brady-Duncan comparison, but I was surprised when I looked it up how strong Duncan’s career numbers are. Clearly he’s not Jordan or LeBron, but he never played that way. No one’s saying Duncan is the best overall, but I’m sure he’s top 10, and the numbers he has don’t dissuade me from believing that.

                      It’s disappointing that someone who has repeatedly argued in the past that we should rate players based on their statistics, is presenting an unfalsifiable argument that is not based on numbers at all.

                    • Four Touchdowns

                      It’s interesting that people like to tout Manning’s better WRs as a case for Brady. Yes, if Brady had Harrison, Wayne, Demaryius, etc. he would have better numbers.

                      But by the same logic, couldn’t you also say that if Manning had Belichick and the Patriots’ organization, he’d have more championships? I just saw on FiveThirtyEight that from 2001 – 2016, the Patriots’ defenses have allowed the third fewest points over that time period. That probably helps win games and titles. Bill Belichick might be a better coach than say, Jim Caldwell or John Fox.

                      Doesn’t it also show that when Belichick builds his rosters, he doesn’t think, “I need weapons for Tom so he can win us games, I’m gonna build the whole team around him. We’re gonna ride his arm to another title.”

                      That’s not even to say Manning is better than Brady — it’s just to say that you can’t play the “take away this guy and that guy” without having it apply to your own guy. And to me, the whole exercise just underlines how important the supporting casts are in any QB’s success.

              • garymrosen

                “my feeling was a subjective one based on watching games”

                If we’re going with “subjective” and not stats, there are non-statistical attributes in a quarterback that some people think have a high correlation to success, such as leadership, composure under pressure and rarely making a dumb mistake. Quarterbacks who I feel have shown these to a great degree include Montana, Brady, Unitas and Staubach.

                • All attributes in a quarterback are non-statistical ones. Stats are just a byproduct of performance and, sometimes, aren’t even indicative of a QB’s actual level of play.

    • JoeS

      I would certainly take Montana or Brady over Manning. I’m not Brady’s greatest fan (I’d like to see how he would have done with the rule book in the 70s and 80s when he could be LEGALLY battered and bruised and his WRs had to fight off blocks up until the ball was in the air), but, he wiped the floor with Manning head to head. You have to give him that edge.

  • WR

    Bryan, do you feel any differently about Gronkowski after the Patriots continued to put up big numbers, and won the Super Bowl, without him? Because I’m no longer quite as high on him as I was before the 2016 season. All-Time First team tight end seems a little generous to me, considering how often he’s out injured.

    • It sucks that the guy can’t stay healthy, but I still think he’s the best ever to do it when healthy. I’m not one to hold teammates against someone, generally, so I don’t dock him for the Pats being successful both before and after him (or betwixt, for that matter). I can’t think of another TE who I’d replace him with, who isn’t already named. Winslow and Sharpe were excellent receivers, but neither could block nearly at Gronk’s level. And, like I said in the beginning, the name of the game is versatility. If I were to drop Gronk, I’d probably replace him with another WR instead of a TE. That Calvin Johnson guy was pretty decent, I’m told.

      • Trepur

        Gronk is the best TE of all time when he’s healthy, but the fact that he’s been injured so much shows that he’s a large injury risk and I think that has to be taken into account when building a team.

        • Good thing I have two other Rushmore TEs on the roster.

          • sacramento gold miners

            Gronk’s had three huge seasons, and done well in the playoffs, but Kellen Winslow did it longer in a slightly less pass friendly era. I haven’t seen Gronk have a great postseason game when the outcome was in doubt, like Winslow’s 1981 classic at Miami.

            • I know all about Winslow’s legendary exploits. But, having watched most of Gronk’s games and several of Winslow’s games, I’m not convinced he was a better receiver than Gronk. Throw in Gronk’s blocking, and it’s an easy choice for me.

      • Loftur Kristjánsson

        I heard a great view of Gronkowski’s career recently. He is the best TE ever but he won’t end up having the best career. I think it is fair to say that he won’t end up holding any of the major TE records when he retires (or be close for that matter) but when he is healthy and on the field there is nobody better

  • Four Touchdowns

    Great roster, loved reading that! Thanks!

    • Thanks, Al. One thing I like about these silly posts is that you could make a team without duplicating a single one of my picks, and it could still be an incredible squad. An offense of Unitas, Brady, Sanders, Campbell, Faulk, Motley, Megatron, TO, Warfield, Fitzgerald, Harrison, Largent, Winslow, Sharpe, Mackey, Jones, Shell, Mix, Allen, McDaniel, Upshaw, Otto, and Hein would be pretty scary.

  • JoeS

    I understand the Gronk inclusion, but, when putting together an actual ‘roster’ doesn’t durability play some factor? Sure, his numbers are flashy, but, RIGHT NOW, I’d still have rather had someone like Jason Witten as my TE since he’s missed all of one game in his entire career, still puts up fantastic numbers AND is a terrific blocker (which almost everybody seems to forget when evaluating TE’s). Would Witten make my all-time team? Probably not, but, he’s a better current TE than Gronk.

    • If I could only include one TE, then I’d worry about Gronkowski’s health. However, given the fact that two other Rushmore TEs are on the team, the impact of an inevitable Gronk injury is significantly mitigated. I would much, much rather have Gronk, as both a receiver and a blocker, than Witten. For me, it isn’t particularly close. Witten is a dependable receiver and a decent blocker (calling him terrific is overselling his ability). Gronk is an all-time great receiver and an actual terrific blocker. When making this team (granted, this was written almost two years ago), eight or nine names popped in my head, and none was Jason Witten.

      • JoeS

        First, Witten will end up in the Hall of Fame, so for him not to be in the discussion is a bit odd (there are only EIGHT of them thus far). Second, I never said Witten had more talent than Gronk, just that when you consider durability, I’d rather have him on my team over the past decade (and I think most GMs would agree; perhaps even Belichik would as well).

        • Richie

          Witten is an above average player who has played a long time and been very durable. He was never a game-changer.

          Gronk is a game-changing player. Unfortunately, he gets hurt often and misses a lot of games.

          Gronk has far more impact on the outcome of games than Witten ever did.

          • JoeS

            I agree to an extent – although your last line is patently untrue. Witten has impacted the ‘outcome of games’ more than Gronk, if no other reason that he is been ON the field and not in the treatment room. And, to call a future Hall of Famer merely ‘above average’ is absurd.

            And, Bryan F. – Again, I never said this applies to an All-Time Fantasy team. Just that most GM’s would have rather had Witten on THEIR roster than Gronk for the last decade. (or even the Full 7 years of Gronk’s career)

            • I think I misinterpreted the intent of your original comment, given that it didn’t seem to match the nature of the article itself. I could see many, if not most, opting to take the security and dependability of Witten over the sometimes-out-of-order preternatural ability of Gronk. I wouldn’t, but that’s more a philosophical difference than me thinking anyone else is wrong or that I’m right. I doubt we can know with certainty what is the right or wrong answer to a question like that.

        • Witten didn’t pop up in my head because Gronk, Ditka, Gonzo, Mackey, Newsome, Winslow, Casper, Christensen, and Sharpe (maybe Gates too) all struck me as being better, and in many cases significantly so. Witten will make the HOF, but he’s more Charlie Joiner than Michael Irvin.

          I imagine many would take Witten over Gronk over a decade. However, in fairy tale land where Ditka and Gonzo are already rostered, Witten’s durability isn’t as valuable. I’d rather have Gronk playing TE1 and getting injured than have ol’ steady Witten playing TE3 and wasting his durability on the bench.