Pinnacle of the Position?
An Argument for the NFL’s Greatest Offense
These choices are difficult to make because football has changed so much over the years. When looking at statistics, it’s all about context. For instance, some will question my selection as the best quarterback of all time in comparison to today’s quarterbacks or the quarterbacks of a more recent era. That is not the right way to judge these players — you must judge them in the comparison to their contemporaries.
Cleveland Browns (1946-1955)
Runner-up: Joe Montana
In that respect, here is why Otto Graham is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Many favor for such a distinction. While some will quickly point out that Montana’s numbers are better, let’s compare how they relate to their Hall of Fame contemporaries versus a sixteen-game average: Remember, part of the reason that quarterbacks of today put up such big numbers is because old-timers like Otto Graham showed that you can be successful when the forward pass is a major part of your offense.
As you can see, Graham is better in comparison to his contemporaries than Montana is in comparison to his contemporaries. While Graham leads every major passing category, Montana does not. While Joe Cool was the best overall quarterback of his era, he was not the best in every respect. Steve Young had a higher completion percentage, fewer interceptions and a higher quarterback rating. Marino had more passing yards and touchdowns. Montana was not head and shoulders above the rest of his contemporaries like Graham was.
The reason that the quarterbacks of Montana’s era have better numbers than those in Graham’s era is not necessarily that they were better quarterbacks but rather has to do with the way the game was played in each era. When Graham played, the passing game was not emphasized as much as it is today. This is evident in the disparity in pass attempts between the two groups. Because of this, a higher percentage of the passes they threw were in obvious passing situations, like third and long, where the defense was prepared for the pass. While quarterbacks of both eras had to deal with those situations, quarterbacks of the more recent era threw more passes on first and second down, when the defense isn’t focused completely on stopping the pass. That is a big advantage where statistics are concerned.
Another advantage for the quarterbacks of Montana’s era were the rule changes of 1978. There were two changes that year; both were designed to boost the passing game. One of the changes made it so that offensive linemen could extend their arms and open their hands when pass blocking. This was obviously very helpful as it is hard to complete a pass from your backside. The second change restricted the defenders’ ability to contact a receiver after five yards. This was also very helpful as it is easier for a receiver to run his route and get open if he is not being held.
Graham was a seven-time first team All-Pro and a three-time UPI NFL MVP. In the four years he and the Browns were in the AAFC, they won the league championship every year. In the six years Graham played after the Browns moved to the NFL, he led Cleveland to the NFL Championship game all six years and won the title times. Graham is the all-time leader in yards per pass attempt, and his record as a starter in the NFL was 57-13-1 (.810).
The Rest of the Offense
Cleveland Browns (1957-65)
Jim Brown is the pretty clear choice for me. Some people say Barry Sanders, but while Barry had home run potential, he had too many negative runs. Jim Brown’s runs might not have been as pretty but they were more productive. Although officially listed as a fullback, I have Brown as the lone back because he was always his team’s feature back. In 1999, Sporting News ranked him as the greatest football player of all time. Brown played nine seasons in the NFL. In his career, he led the league in rushing yards eight times and in rushing touchdowns five times. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler and an eight-time first team All-Pro. Jim Brown dominated and is the best RB of all-time.
Runner-up: Barry Sanders
Green Bay Packers (1935-45)
While Hutson may not have gaudy numbers when compared to today’s players, his numbers compared to others of his time are unreal. Let’s take his best year, 1942. He had 74 receptions. While that may not sound that groundbreaking, consider that Pop Ivey was second in the NFL in receptions with 27. Hutson had more than twice as many receptions as the man who finished second. Hutson had 1,211 receiving yards. Ray McLean finished second with 571 yards, less than half of Hutson’s total. Hutson had 17 receiving touchdowns. Ray McLean finished second with 8 receiving touchdowns. Hutson once again more than doubled the runner up. Hutson led the NFL in receptions eight times, in receiving yards seven times, and in receiving touchdowns nine times. He was also first-team All-Pro nine times.
WR: Jerry Rice
San Francisco 49ers (1985-2000)
Oakland Raiders (2001-04)
Seattle Seahawks (2004)
Although I don’t have Rice as the best receiver of all-time, I don’t deny his greatness. It was close between Rice and Hutson, but I gave the nod to Hutson for basically inventing the position and for being so far ahead of his contemporaries. Rice led the NFL in receptions twice, in receiving yards six times, and in receiving touchdowns six times. At the age of 40 in the 2002 season, he had over 1,200 receiving yards. He was a thirteen-time Pro Bowler and a ten-time All-Pro. He is the all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and all-purpose touchdowns.
WR: Lance Alworth
San Diego Chargers (1962-70)
Dallas Cowboys (1971-72)
This was a very difficult decision. I had to decide between Alworth, Marvin Harrison, and Randy Moss. While Moss and Harrison has had slightly better numbers, I ended up going with Alworth because of he was better in comparison to his contemporaries than Harrison and Moss have been to theirs. Alworth may be the best deep threat of all-time. He averaged 18.9 yards per reception over his career, including the 1965 season where he averaged 23.2 yards per reception. Alworth led the league in receptions three times, in receiving yards three times, and in receiving touchdowns three times. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a six-time first-team All-Pro.
Runners-up: Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss
TE: Mike Ditka
Chicago Bears (1961-66)
Philadelphia Eagles (1967-68)
Dallas Cowboys (1969-72)
This was a tough one. I considered three players: Ditka, Kellen Winslow, and John Mackey. While Winslow is the best receiver, I’m going to go with Ditka as my starter and Mackey as my runner-up. Why? Blocking. This team already has enough receiving threats, so I put extra emphasis on blocking here. I have Ditka barely edging out Mackey because theyíre about equal offensively and I regard Ditka as the better blocker. Ditka was a 5-time Pro-Bowler and a 2-time All-Pro. He helped lead his teams to 2 NFL Championships.
Runner-up: John Mackey
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